One of a parent’s greatest fears is that a son or daughter will be sexually abused. That fear is not irrational. If a child breaks his or her leg falling off a bicycle, full recovery is expected. But if that child has been the victim of a sexual predator, the scars will be carried well into adulthood, if not forever.
The parents may not learn of the abuse for decades. The victim may repress the memory. Either way, it is likely to impact the child’s development.
Given these grave consequences, the response — in Maine and nationally — has been well-intentioned but largely ineffective. Rather than debating sex offender residency restrictions or placing sex offender names and addresses in an online database and calling it “tough on crime,” policymakers need to put more emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation.
Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown in his recent autobiography disclosed that he had been molested as child while attending a Christian camp. The disclosure prompted official scrutiny of the camp, which led to its closure.
Sen. Brown telling his story was brave and probably therapeutic. It speaks to the devastating and long-lasting impacts of this heinous crime. It also gives parents an opportunity to speak to their children about this threat. They must convey, in age-appropriate terms, that trusted clergy, teachers, camp counselors, uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents might want to do the unthinkable. And they must give children the words and actions to respond to such a threat.
By overwhelming odds, a child is far more likely to be sexually abused by someone known to the child and parents than by a random stranger. National TV news programs give more than ample coverage to abductions, but they are rare.
If we know the horrors of sexual abuse and the irretrievable theft of innocence it represents, and we wish to protect our children from it, we must use analysis and reason, aided by solid research, to arrive at the best defense and response.
Putting sex offender names on websites or making them live certain distances from parks and schools does little to reduce the odds of further crimes against children. Creating a system that differentiates offenders who are truly dangerous from those who had an underage girlfriend would be a start. Some states already are doing this, and it is required by a federal law aimed at reducing sexual violence against children.
Maine also is under pressure from the state supreme court to improve its registration system. In 2007, the court raised significant questions about the state’s sex offender registry. The court was especially concerned about changes made in recent years to require Internet posting of personal information about offenders, to restrict where offenders can live and to require fingerprinting every 90 days for offenders convicted since 1982.
The changes have made the law significantly more punitive and intrusive, changing the nature of the sanctions from civil penalties to a retroactive increase in criminal penalties. The justices suggested that this retroactive increase violates the Maine Constitution.
There are no easy answers for the tragedy of child sexual abuse, which is why any simple fix should be set aside for the hard and costly work that actually makes a difference.