Jessica, Sarah, Megan, Amie. Each name represents a victim of child sexual abuse and law named after that victim. Sex offender registries, residency restrictions, community notifications–”all put into place by grieving communities desperate to prevent these tragedies from happening again.
According to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, 30 states have enacted restrictions on where convicted sex offenders can live, typically restricting them from residing within 500 to 2,000 feet of places where children frequent. But while those laws may be well-intentioned, they may not be particularly effective, experts say.
“People assume that sex offending is a crime of proximity. That is not correct. It’s a crime of relationship,” said Margie Slagle, an attorney who specializes in the child sexual abuse issue at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.
Instead, Slagle said, more attention should be paid to two strategies that work: education and treatment.
“We need to provide treatment for sex offenders, the appropriate treatment to assure they don’t reoffend,” she said. “And we need to educate parents so they know what to look for.”
Some states, like Indiana, have made headway in dealing with sex offenders. The Indiana Sex Offender Management and Monitoring Program was launched in 1999 with significant results. Adam Deming, the program’s executive director, said it uses a three-step approach to help treat sex offenders: risk assessment, treatment and community supervision.
“The biggest myth out there is that sex offenders cannot be treated successfully, and that all sex offenders are likely to go on to commit new sex crimes,” Deming said.
Sex offenders who go through the program are evaluated by a professional, who assesses them for recidivism risks and directs them toward the best treatment options. They then participate in group therapy, which helps them identify what Deming calls “cognitive distortions”–”ways of thinking that may lead sex offenders to justify their abuse.
Once offenders are deemed eligible for parole, Deming and his team help them find stable housing that meets Indiana’s 1,000-foot residency restrictions and also assist in their continued recovery.
“We want them living with another healthy person, rather than living with someone who has behavior that will likely lead them back into a life of crime,” Deming said.
Once offenders are living in the community, they are required to continue therapy and undergo regular polygraph tests. The program also makes sure that the people they come in contact with–”parole officers, counselors, employers–”are aware of the best ways to help them keep from reoffending.
All this concentrated treatment and monitoring has paid off. Deming said a study of released sex offenders in Indiana showed a 1.7 percent recidivism rate for sexual crimes, compared with 3 percent to 8 percent in other states. Despite the program’s success, only a handful of states require treatment or provide services for sex offenders.
“A few states offer community treatment, but very few states have the continuum of services that span across the entire spectrum of prison to community,” Deming said.
Even in times of meager state budgets, when funding programs for sexual offenders may not be particularly popular, Deming said programs like his are an important investment.
“The primary mission of our program is public safety and reducing the occurrence of sexual violence in the community,” he said. “This program is vital toward fulfilling that mission.”
But just focusing on convicted sex offenders won’t end child sexual abuse, Slagle said. Parents especially need to be educated on how to prevent their child from being a victim and to spot the signs of an abuser.
Slagle said the “stranger danger” concept of child sexual abuse is largely false. Most children are abused by someone they or their family know, she said. Even in cases where an abuser snatches a child from a playground or school, residency restrictions may fail to prevent it.
“Just because he can’t live by the school doesn’t mean he can’t drive by the school and snatch that child,” Slagle said. “Those particular individuals tend to offend a mile away from their home.”
Slagle points to studies in several states that show residency restrictions for sex offenders do nothing to prevent crimes. A 2007 study by the Colorado Department of Corrections showed no evidence that residency restrictions prevent repeat sex crimes. In a similar study in Minnesota, researchers concluded that none of the 224 sex offenders who were convicted of a repeat crime would have been prevented by such restrictions.
But providing funds to programs like Darkness to Light, a sexual abuse education program, could help keep children safe. Studies on Darkness to Light have proven its effectiveness in helping parents identify the patterns of child sexual abuse. Slagle said understanding the way sexual abuse happens has even changed how she parents her own children.
“My son used to take guitar lessons, and I used to drop my son off at a church for lessons and leave him with a perfect stranger,” Slagle said. “Just because he teaches at a church is meaningless. Sometimes, we, as parents, don’t realize we are putting our children at risk.”
Slagle understands that child sexual abuse is every parent’s nightmare but hopes that future legislative action and funding won’t just be a reaction–”but follow what research has shown is effective.
“If we invested in programs that are proven to work,” she said, “we could significantly reduce child sexual assault.”