How Many Dead Children Are Needed to End the Rhetoric?
by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in New York Daily News, August 12, 1994
Megan Kanka was 7 years old when she died. Jesse Timmendequas, a twice–convicted sex offender, has been charged with rape and murder. When the child was first reported missing, Timmendequas volunteered to sketch posters with the child's likeness. It was the neighborly thing to do—Timmendequas lived right across the street.
As usual, the public gets the facts about a recently released sexual predator about the same time the autopsy is performed on his victim. Yes, child molesters were in the neighborhood—not just passing through as they stalked their prey, but living there, openly. Another predator released on an unsuspecting society. Another dead child. Another desperate search for solace and solutions.
As public outrage builds, politicians remain calm—they know (from long experience) that the public is easily appeased by naming (still another) hollow law after (still another) dead child. Remember the "Little Lisa" law? If you don't, I rest my case. And if you do, tell me what impact it has had on child abuse. The law, named after Lisa Steinberg, attacked bogus adoptions rather than the child abuse that led to her death.
Absent the cash–oiled machinery of a special–interest group, no politician ever feels that much pressure to actually perform. There is one exception to this rule: When the media adopt a cause, the cries for change echo immediately throughout the back rooms where politics is actually practiced. Soon, there will be "action." Let no citizen sleep easy at this prospect. A new law requiring "community notification" of the release of a previously incarcerated child rapist will provide plenty of "anti–crime" publicity for politicians. But although such a law is overdue, its passage should not fool us into believing that we have de–fanged the beast.
No matter what voodoo statistics are employed, it's beyond dispute that previously convicted sex offenders constitute a significant risk to children. [pdf 596 KB]
Even if their recidivism rate was less than 50 percent—a claim only the most deluded would make—there is no question but that a previously convicted child rapist is a ticking bomb. All that is in question is the target.
Even the most rabid retailers of "rehabilitation"—and make no mistake, sex offender "treatment" is the growth industry of the '90s—no longer claim they can "cure" sex offenders, especially those who target children.
Today, the claim is that, with proper treatment, the behavior of some of the offenders will change. Do they know which offenders will change their behavior? Well, not exactly. The way they find out is to release them and see what happens. No community should be forced into becoming a testing laboratory for the assessment of sex–offender "treatment."
The real problem with "treatment" for sex offenders is that they like what they do. Psycho–babble aside, the motive for sexual assault is sexual assault. So sex offenders don't volunteer for treatment unless it will avoid prison or shorten their sentence (which it often does), and they don't continue "treatment" a minute longer than the law requires. An offender can "max out" his sentence and be released without the annoyance of a parole officer to monitor his conduct.
Without supervision of the released offenders, notice to the community is likely to produce a few isolated demonstrations ... and no change. What is the "community," anyway? Where does the "notice" get posted? Will we tie up our already over–burdened courts with claims that such "notice" laws discriminate against released felons?
The National Child Protection Act of 1993, better known as the "Oprah Bill," provides for a national registry of all those convicted of crimes against children. But while that law, properly utilized, will guard against the highly stylized stalking of pedophiles who use employment or volunteer activity as cover, it will have no effect on the anonymous predator living in a dense urban environment who pounces without warning.
It's not only politicians who fear the media. Prosecutors do, too, especially those prosecutors who are politicians in disguise. How many rapists are allowed to plead guilty to "burglary"? How many child molesters are allowed to plead to "endangering the welfare of a child"? How many predatory pedophiles are allowed to serve their sentences for dozens of separate crimes concurrently?
If the media continue to abdicate its responsibility and cover only the high–profile cases or those which actually go to trial, if the media continue to ignore plea bargaining, if the media continue to report so–called "conviction rates" and print a district attorney's press releases without any investigation of their own, we will continue to have a system where a prosecutor can give away the courthouse and claim it as a "victory."
It's all well and good to say Timmendequas maxed out (completed his sentence) to explain why no parole officer was involved. But the truth can be found in the length of his original sentence. Any time you see a sex offender plead guilty, beware—they don't call them plea bargains for nothing.
The death of Megan Kanka demands two fundamental changes in the way we deal with sex offenders:
We must begin to attack the enemy at both ends of the continuum. Sexual psychopaths are not born to their evil—we make our own monsters, and we build our own beasts. If there is one compelling theme in the backgrounds of sex predators, it is early, chronic, intense child abuse. The connection between today's abused child and tomorrow's predator is ignored at our peril. Child protective services are the front line of the war against predators, but still we continue to send the troops out with inadequate training, supervision and support.
We can no longer tolerate empty rhetoric—the stakes are too high. Child protection is crime prevention. We cannot have one without the other.
The only rational response is two–pronged: a massive, focused, properly funded child protective effort aimed at saving abused children before some grow up to prey upon us. And whenever individuals demonstrate by their conduct that they are sexually dangerous to children, our response must be incarceration for a lengthy period, followed by surveillance upon release. Close surveillance.
If Megan Kanka's death is to have meaning, so must any political response be meaningful. Politicians are counting on the public's anger to subside ... until the next child's death. Yes, we need surveillance of sex offenders, but we also need surveillance of politicians. This is not a parochial issue. It's not about neighborhoods, it's about our future. What good is a "community notification" law if there is no "community"? Take a few minutes tonight. Look up the names and addresses of your political representatives. Then sit down and write them a letter. Tell them you want an increase in the child protection budget. Together with enhanced penalties for sex predators, together with lifetime surveillance when they are released. And, on Election Day, remember their names.
If our community accepts another media–genic "solution" to the horror of dangerous sex predators targeting our children, we have only ourselves to blame.
© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
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