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In the Shadows

Sex offenders reconcile their crimes with their lives

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The first few installments of the Dateline NBC series "To Catch a Predator," captivated Dave.

He sat at home and watched as dozens of men, enticed by television producers posing on the Internet as young girls and boys, were caught on camera trying to act out their child-sex fantasies.

"The first couple of shows were eye opening and informative," Dave said. "Now it just shocks."

The nationally televised show is the latest pop-culture offering to cash in on the wretchedness of sex crimes and our nation's simultaneous discomfort and titillation with sexuality. With one high-profile sex abuse case after another, a constantly shifting set of laws on the books and a one-sided debate in which those who pander to "stranger danger" set the agenda, a balanced look at sex crime is increasingly stifled.

And Dave, a convicted sex offender who spoke to BW on condition of anonymity, is in the crosshairs of this ever-growing national obsession with sexual predation.

"I'm constantly concerned that someone is going to come up to me and say, 'I saw you, you're a sex offender,'" Dave said. "I don't want to be identified by the worst thing I ever did in my life."

By most any moral or legal standard, including his own, Dave's crime is indefensible: In 1995 and 1996, over the course of six to eight months, he touched his then-14-year-old stepdaughter in an inappropriate way on more than a dozen occasions. Dave had been a father to the girl since she was in kindergarten and had a young baby with the girl's mother, now his ex-wife.

The abuse stopped, but took several years to come to light. In 2001, Dave pleaded guilty to one count of sex abuse of a minor under 16. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison but only ordered to serve six months of work release. He then returned to society facing 15 years of court-ordered supervision.

Dave's case is not atypical of sex crimes in Idaho, or the nation.

From July 2005 to July 2006, 469 child sex-abuse cases were filed in Idaho, according to an annual report prepared for the state Attorney General's Office. Of those cases, 54 percent of the victims were between the ages of 12 and 15, 88 percent of the victims were female, and while only 3 percent of cases involved a stepparent, more than 65 percent of the victims were abused by a known and often trusted adult figure.

But behind the statistics and the shock these cases engender in the public, lies a complex web of psychological factors, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse and shame. It's a web that Dave has deeply explored through a local sex offender counseling program during the first five years of his probation.

"I learned about the difference between intimacy and sex," he says. "How I viewed sex ... in an unhealthy way. It also helped me to identify how I came to abuse."

Dave "groomed" his stepdaughter into an abusive relationship, he said. He says he thought of her as a 20-year-old woman, not a little girl.

Many guys have these types of thoughts, says David Ferguson, a counselor who works with sex offenders. But healthy men do not act on them.

Ferguson runs group therapy sessions for SANE Solutions, a Boise and Nampa treatment center for sex offenders and sex crime victims. (SANE used to stand for Sexual Abuse Now Ended, but the group no longer uses it as an acronym.)

Dave has participated in the program since his conviction and still attends group sessions on a regular basis. In the first phase of treatment, he had to share a detailed sexual history. Members of therapy groups discuss every sexual encounter they have ever had, trying to get to the root of their errant behavior.

In the second phase of treatment, offenders write letters to their victims and produce a video that both apologizes and empathizes with the victim, accepting full blame for the crime, Dave said.

"If you are going to be in a relationship, you need to spend some time working on relationship skills," said Ferguson.

SANE staff work closely with probation and parole officers to monitor every little detail of offenders' lives.

Sex offenders in the program are not allowed any intimate contact for six months after meeting a potential partner and they must discuss their crimes with their partners by the third date. Many offenders have drug and alcohol problems and are treated for that as well.

They are not free to move about as they please. Parolees and probationers sign a form stating that they will avoid movie theaters, Bogus Basin, concerts, the Firebird Speedway, First Thursday, Boondocks and 30 other venues, including church, without explicit permission from a parole officer.

Dave logs any incidental contact he has with sexual material or kids, from a brief glimpse of skin on HBO to happening upon a young boy in a Wal-Mart restroom, and reports that to his probation officer.

Offenders fill out monthly reports detailing their masturbation practices and deviant thoughts. They need permission to travel.

"Every moment of our lives is dictated by the desire not to re-offend," Dave wrote in a recent essay.

The desire to avoid tempting situations and control sexual thought is cultivated by counselors like Ferguson.

Ferguson went back to school for a counseling degree late in life, after a 30-year career as a meat inspector. He briefly considered drug and alcohol counseling but found the low success rate depressing. With sex offenders, he feels like he is making a difference.

Probation and parole officers, and increasingly the courts, agree that treatment generally works.

"The worrisome thing, and where we see a lot of recidivism, is where we have people without treatment," said Chris Colson, senior probation and parole officer for the Idaho Department of Corrections. "I've seen people remarry, I've seen people that have been successful in their careers."

Colson said the public perception is that sex offenders will always be on a street corner looking for another victim. But in many cases, after years of treatment and supervision, they may be better people than anyone imagined.

"It's good to see that we can return someone to the community a little bit safer than we got them," Colson said.

Moscelene Sunderland, victim advocate on the Idaho Department of Corrections Sexual Offender Classification Board, agrees that the majority of sex offenders, with proper treatment and supervision, can improve. But they are never risk-free. She said they are like alcoholics in that they must always stay focused on their recovery.

"I do not believe that sex offenders automatically have a right to their privacy that a regular citizen has," Sunderland said.

While media attention has been focused on the most heinous crimes, and politicians continue to beef up sex-offender regulations, people who work in treatment and law enforcement in Idaho have quietly discussed better ways of reforming offenders.

Ferguson speaks very frankly about sex and the lines between sex and criminality, something politicians, attorneys and academics are often reticent to do for fear of appearing soft on crime.

Society's reaction to the murderous pedophiles on the front pages is, "a hysterical right brain reaction to this behavior," Ferguson said. "We need to emphasize that what we see in the paper is an anomaly."

A majority of sex offenders out there are like Dave; undergoing serious treatment, registering with the sheriff and following the rules. Meanwhile, the people who fail to register or who "top out," serving their sentences to the end, thereby avoiding parole and court-ordered treatment, slip through the cracks.

Late last year BW ran a story about a Boise State student who was concerned about the number of sex offenders working or studying on campus (BW, News, "Naming Names," December 20, 2006). The Student Senate was considering posting their pictures in the student union. Dave read the story and began to speak out about his experience in treatment.

"People need to understand that there are different levels and severities of a crime," Dave said.

Sunderland said she does not advocate marking sex offenders' homes, but that there is reason for caution. "I don't think you should take it lightly," Sunderland said. "I am always cautious. I don't advocate putting a big X in the front yard, but I would definitely educate my children that this person lives there and you can't go in that home."

Congress partially acknowledged that all sex offenses are not created equal late last year, in passing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named after the son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh. Adam was abducted and beheaded in 1981. The act attempts to standardize states' sex crime provisions, by establishing a national sex offender registry, declaring new mandatory sentencing for some sex crimes and helping states crack down on online sexual exploitation of children.

The act also sets up a three-tiered system for classifying sex offenders that states will have to comply with by 2010. But it is not the same classification system that Dave or Ferguson wants, nor is it in line with what the Idaho Governor's Criminal Justice Commission, a group of elected and state officials that advises the governor, has been discussing.

Congress wants the states to put sex offenders in one of three groups based on type of conviction. Many people in the treatment community and some state officials have instead been looking at classifying people by their likelihood to re-offend.

"We were looking at and probably still will look at a tiered system that's based on risk," said Deputy Attorney General Steve Bywater, a member of the commission.

Sunderland agrees that some changes are in store for Idaho's sex-offender laws. She also prefers that Idaho adopt a tiered classification system based on likelihood to re-offend. She said basing classification on convictions, as in the Adam Walsh act, is a political solution and less costly, but does not protect the community because many of the crimes are pled down.

Idaho now has two classifications: Violent sexual predators, or VSPs, who are subject to enhanced supervision upon release, and everyone else.

"What happens is sex offenders all get painted with the same brush," Ferguson said. He has been working, independently of SANE, on a package of reforms to Idaho's sex-offender laws.

Among the reforms is a new version of the sex-offender registry, which started in 1993 in Idaho and was expanded in 1998 to give greater public access.

Dave's record on the Idaho State Police Web site, shows a color mug shot, his eyes slightly wet. Next to the picture is his date of birth and address, the offense "SEX ABUSE OF CHLD U/16 YRS," and the county and date of conviction.

Ada County also has him listed, but the conviction details do not appear.

"There's an assumption out there that everyone that's on the registry is on supervision," said Ferguson. "Wrong."

Ferguson wants more details on the registry including level of supervision, age of the victim, convictions listed in plain English and whether or not the offender is in treatment.

"I think it would be helpful to people, to help them make determination about the people who live around him," he said.

A charge such as sex abuse of a child can mean anything from soliciting to touching a sensitive body part to fondling, but does not include intercourse. Dave declined to specify how far his abuses went. Lewd and lascivious conduct, the most common sex offence, spans fondling to forced anal sex.

Ferguson would also like to see supervised registration: Any sex offender required to register would be subject to some type of law-enforcement oversight. This would add to the supervision of offenders who finish their sentences and could perhaps, based on a psychological evaluation and the tiered system, reduce supervision of low-risk offenders.

Bywater said Idaho will have to comply with Adam Walsh in the coming years, but may still be able to set up its own parallel classification system. The Criminal Justice Commission has also looked at civil commitment (holding high risk offenders beyond their sentences), lifetime probation and parole and better tracking of registered offenders.

There was no significant sex offender legislation this year at the Legislature, but next year could bring a substantial debate.

"The Adam Walsh Act requires us to comply to keep certain funding," said Sen. Denton Darrington of Declo, chairman of the Judiciary and Rules Committee. "We're going to comply next year." Darrington said that he will not entertain a named bill, as in the "Adam Walsh" act. The Walsh act contains sections named after a dozen other kids who have been more recently abducted or abused.

Darrington is still bitter about Cassie's Law, a teen dating-violence measure passed in 2002 because Cassie's mother, who lobbied relentlessly for the bill, was later convicted of drug and kidnapping charges.

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly has been promoting Jessica's Law--which creates minimum sentences for "child predators"--on his show, criticizing Idaho for not adopting it. Darrington says Idaho has most of the same guidelines, just not by that name.

Last year Idaho passed minimum sentencing guidelines for repeat sex offenders, removed the statute of limitation on sex crimes, made sex offenses an aggravating circumstance for capital punishment, barred sex offenders away from schools, increased fees for sex offenders and exempted teenagers who have sex with other teens from registering as sex offenders.

Darrington said that public sentiment about the nature of sex crimes can affect reality.

"The perceptions out there sometimes drive legislation," he said.

Bywater agreed that some cases are so horrendous that the public outcry can drive policy, but he also urged caution.

"I think it is an area where legislators and lawmakers have to be careful, make sure they are actually doing something effective and not being swayed by a particularly horrible case that is in the public eye at the time," he said.

Ferguson urges balance in sex-crime laws as well.

"We as a society make a big issue of sexual issues," he said. "We have a lot of laws that are not appropriate for this day and age." For example fornication, or sex outside of marriage, is illegal here. The law calls for a $300 fine or six months in prison.

In Canada, there are many fewer pedophiles because the age of consensual sex is 14, rather than 18 (adults are barred from sex with youngsters with whom they have some relationship of trust or dependency).

And even in Boise, where a map on the sex-offender registry shows felons residing in every neighborhood, the majority are so designated for relatively benign acts, Ferguson said.

For many years, statistics have shown that 85 percent of sex offenders are situational offenders--they deviate only under certain conditions: depression, influence of drugs and alcohol or in a moment of stupidity, Ferguson said. Situational offenders commit only 15 percent of sex crimes, he added.

The other 15 percent of offenders are the ones we should worry about--preferential offenders--the pedophiles and hebephiles (sex abusers who target teens), Ferguson said.

"These are scary people. If you don't see anything wrong with your behavior, you can't change it," he said.

Dave falls mainly into the situational category. He was using drugs and alcohol at the time, only had one victim and has embraced treatment.

In the years following his abuse of his stepdaughter, the stress in the house was palpable. The two fought all the time, until she told a friend what had happened. The friend went home and told her mother and it was passed to a school resource officer, according to Dave's account.

The day he got the call from the officer was a huge relief. His secret was out.

After several years of treatment, and after his victim turned 18, they reconciled with the help of a counselor.

"I don't think of her as my victim but I do think about her as the daughter whose trust I abused," he said.

Dave's victim was unavailable for interview for this story. She now has two children of her own and spending time with them is one of Dave's only social outlets, aside from spending time with his biological daughter, now 12.

The rest of his time is spent working, riding his motorcycle and staying home alone, afraid to face his neighbors. Afraid that people perusing the sex-offender registry will recognize him and call him out.

"Who I am now is a much, much better person than before," Dave said. "Certainly the process has changed me for the better."

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