Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why are abused children not interesting enough?

Some of you may have read this story already, but if not, here's the summary: Last month in Dayton, Texas, 11 children were found to be living in deplorable conditions after a CPS visit. The children ranged in age from 5 months to 11 years, and some were found restrained to their beds. There were also several adults living in the home, none of whom seemed to think the arrangement was inappropriate. Doesn't sound familiar? Let me help you. CHILDREN FOUND TIED UP IN SEX OFFENDER'S HOME!!! Now it rings a bell, right?

When I first read this story yesterday, I was immediately suspicious, as the article I read made no mention of the sex offender being a suspect or having been arrested. So why was his criminal background in the headline? Furthermore, the article provided his name, but not the names of any of the other adults living in the home. It also included his charge, which was sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl.

After five minutes of "research", I had discovered the following:
  • The man was 19 or 20 years old at the time of his conviction, and there was no mention of force or coercion in the description of his crime. 
  • The man DID NOT own the house. He is the son of the caretaker of the house. 
  • He is NOT a suspect.
According to Google, there are 370 reports with this headline, which appears to have originated from the Associated Press. Many of the articles I read were exactly the same, word for word. Very few headlines don't contain some sort of mention of "sex offender", and most of them insinuate the home is his.

If this is not sensationalist reporting at its best, I don't know what is. No one is interested, of course - I've yet to receive a SINGLE response from any of the papers I contacted about it. I'm just amazed that I seem to be one of the few outraged by this. It's far from the first time an article like this has been published and it certainly won't be the last, but it doesn't cease to infuriate me. Not just from the perspective of someone fighting for sex crime legislation reform, but also from a human decency point of view. Why is it that the horrific conditions these children were living in are not enough on their own to make a decent headline? Are we that jaded that this has become uninteresting? Whatever the reason, arbitrarily throwing in the term "sex offender" to a title is doing a disservice to TRUE victims and instances of sex crime.

Whomever hurt these children, based on the information we're provided with, needs some help - no question there. They will hopefully be prosecuted and sentenced fairly for their actions. But unlike the registrant who is probably kicking himself for choosing to live in this house, once their sentence is up - it's up. They can easily pack up and move to some other place, and probably won't have much difficulty doing the same thing, if they are so inclined. The registrant whose criminal background is now a national headline cannot. Even if he had no part or knowledge in the treatment of those children, his name is in every paper across the country - and no one cares.

While snide people may say, "why should we care about a sex offender?" it's not just about the man's right to live a normal life, 15 years after his crime. It is the fact that we are apparently more interested in shaming someone with a certain label than we are in determining who is actually responsible. It is a sad day when exploiting children to punish sex offenders is an acceptable practice.

In the same vein as what I mentioned above, consider the message of the graphic below:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When living in your car is the best option

G and I moved north to Madison, NY in August 2010. It was a somewhat harried move that was the result of uncertainty surrounding G's employment. He was working as the only mechanic at a shop run by an aging Vietnam war veteran who was slowly losing his faculties. G was overworked and taken advantage of by the man, who was in serious debt to parts manufacturers and the government for back taxes. He had a habit of taking on far more work than the shop was capable of, and not billing any of the customers. G was terrified that the shop would close down without warning and he would be left without an income, leaving him unable to pay for housing, which would eventually lead to him being forced back to jail. Because he is a sex offender, he is required to have a legal address - without one, he is considered "non-compliant" and in violation of the law.

G had a friend he had met in a facility in upstate New York that was specifically for juvenile and young adult sex offenders. He and his family shared a property that consisted of a house, several acres and a pole barn that had been crudely renovated to have running water, electricity and heat. It was in the pole barn - which was essentially one large room - that G's friend, his two parents, and their four dogs lived. In the house lived the older brother, his wife, and three children. The story I was told at the time was that the older brother owned the property and there were issues between him and the parents, which was why they were paying rent to live in the pole barn. They were eventually planning to relocate to Tennessee.

After a few weeks of conversing back and forth, G and his friend, S, had worked out an arrangement: in exchange for reduced rent, G would do part-time mechanic work for S's brother, J, who owned the property. J was also fairly certain he knew of a local company that was looking for mechanics and wouldn't have an issue with G's past. S's parents would be moved out of the pole barn by the beginning of August, and S let us have the only bedroom. The promise of steady work and cheap rent was all we needed to make our decision - on August 20, 2010, I worked my last day as an executive assistant and office manager at a construction company in Westchester, loaded up my Saab convertible as much as I could, and made the five hour drive to Madison.

The first couple of weeks sharing a pole barn with G and his friend S were good - fun, even. S worked the overnight shift at a donut factory and G and I had great fun staying up until 3 AM just to play silly pranks on him when he walked in the door after work. The three of us drove around aimlessly in G's lifted Chevy, exploring the area and looking for places to go four-wheeling. It was a long summer and remained warm until late October, which meant my '72 Nova became the primary mode of transportation for hitting the drive-through or late-night alcohol runs. For a little while, it seemed like the three of us had been given the opportunity to re-live the years of our young lives we had lost: G and S to prison, and me to mental illness and an abusive husband.

Sadly, the fun was short-lived. Quickly, money issues arose between S and myself - I had spent several hundred dollars on groceries for the three of us, and not only was I never paid back, but personal items of mine were used. Suddenly, the cost of certain utilities became our responsibility, even though that wasn't part of the original plan. S accused us of "throwing him out" of the bedroom. J was refusing to pay G for work he had done weeks earlier, and money became extremely tight. Then, S decided to invite a fourth person to move in to the already crowded pole barn, without asking us, and without charging her rent. It was a girl he had met at the donut factory 3 days earlier.

Things rapidly went from awkward to exceedingly uncomfortable. In part of an attempt to communicate his anger with us for using the bedroom, S moved his queen-size bed into the kitchen. Any time G or I wanted to cook dinner, go to the bathroom, or do anything outside the bedroom, we had to walk past S and his girlfriend in bed. Sometimes, S would leave the house and his girlfriend would stay in bed for the entire day, watching videos on Youtube. When she did get out of bed, it was only to be locked in the bathroom for hours. She spoke very little English and rarely acknowledged our presence. G and I began spending every second in our bedroom, even opting to go to the bathroom outside at night rather than to risk "walking in" on S and his girlfriend. I bought a lock to put on our bedroom door and kept everything of value in there. I had a very bad feeling about the circumstances, but we didn't have the money to go anywhere else. G had a good relationship with the boss at his other part-time job, but it wasn't enough money to cover everything we needed. We desperately needed the money J refused to pay.

One night G and I were laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep. All of a sudden we heard - and felt - doors opening and slamming on the wall directly on the other side of where our heads were. We could hear three distinct male voices and footsteps. Part of the pole barn was still a garage, but the room on the other side of our bedroom was a gun locker. J had an extensive collection of weapons and had been in trouble before for possessing and firing assault rifles. It was J, S, and someone else raiding the gun locker, and they were not trying to be quiet about it.

Immediately, I ran over to the door that opened into that part of the garage and locked it. We continued to listen, trying to make out their conversation. After a few minutes we heard, "I'd love to shoot that asshole and his bitch." Then more rifling around, and then, "but this would only bruise him up...this would kill him." The three of them then shut the gun locker and exited the garage, but only to walk around the other side of the pole barn and enter through the front door. G and I quietly moved over to the bedroom door and tried to figure out what they were doing. This time, they didn't speak at all. They just walked around the kitchen, racking their shotguns. After a few minutes, they shut the lights off, and it sounded like they walked out.

I was trying to pretend I hadn't just heard what I heard - G, on the other hand, had morphed into survival mode. I asked him if he thought we should leave, half-seriously, hoping he would tell me not to worry about it. Instead, he replied, "put this on," he said, handing me one of his black sweatshirts. "When you get outside, get on your stomach and stay low. Get in the Blazer and put it in neutral. I'll be right behind you, and I'll push the car down the driveway. Cut the wheel to the left when we get to the road and I'll hop in."

He said all of this calmly, as if he had done it many times before, and began gathering things from around the room and putting them into a bag. He barely even looked at me as he continued, "we'll need to stop somewhere and get some simple carbs, in case we need to stay awake." I stood watching him for most of the time, amazed at his calm methodology and terrified out of my mind that when we opened the door, they would be waiting. After a few minutes, he had gathered a small survival pack and it was time to head out the door. I was practically in tears.

It felt like it took hours for me to cross that driveway, and I can't recall another time in my life when I felt so much terror for more than a few brief seconds. I slid into the driver's seat as G came around the side of the car and began to push. As we reached the end of the driveway, I slid over as he hopped in - and floored it. I asked him where he was going and he wasn't sure. We didn't know the area well and especially not at night. About an hour later, after stopping at a 24 hour grocery store and purchasing some candy ("simple carbs"), we pulled onto a sparsely populated side road that had a generous shoulder, shut the car off and attempted to fall asleep. Even though the seats folded down, it was less than amenable. Regardless, we woke up in the morning alive and unbothered, albeit very cold and stiff.

Neither of us wanted to go back to J's. In fact, I was so scared, I did not even want to go back and get our things - which included two lizards and the majority of both our possessions. But aside from that, we did not even have a place to PUT said things - nor were we well financially equipped to afford one. In the midst of deciding how to figure out our housing situation, we were also left to deal with the immediate situation on hand - where to sleep. I wasn't going to spend another night with my head against a gun locker, but I also didn't want to wake up on the side of the road and barely able to walk, either. And so, an incredible concept was born: could the futon mattress we were using as a bed fit in the back of my car? Once we found out that it did - to the inch, and that the plastic moulding in the back of the car was a suspiciously perfect location for the alarm clock - living in the car took on a whole different meaning.

Now that my life wasn't in immediate danger, I recalled that there was a Park 'n Ride off of Route 20 several miles from J's property. At night, it was abandoned, empty, and surprisingly quiet. We backed the Blazer up as far underneath the treeline as possible and enjoyed a surprisingly comfortable stay - that is, until the night we were rudely awoken by a policeman shining his flashlight into the window. Upon opening the door, he asked us if either of us had a criminal record, and G was forced to reveal he was a sex offender. Then he asked us if we had any weapons (there was a bread knife in the driver's door pocket I had grabbed just in case), and then he told us that we had to leave.

After he left and we were on the road, we realized we had no idea where we were going. At a loss, I pulled onto the Thruway. I didn't even know which direction we were going, just that there had to be somewhere for us to stay where we wouldn't be noticed. I kept thinking about all the stories and movies that talk about people living in cars. How do they do it without getting tickets and asked to leave? This is a quandary that clearly, not many people have to actually think through in their lives. And then, it was there: the bright, welcoming lights of the Oneida Service Area off the Thruway East.

As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed the "No Overnight Parking" sign. At this point, however, we had no choice. G's boss at his part-time job would have let us stay with him, but the law said we can't, since he had young children. We couldn't afford a hotel, and neither of us felt safe at J's. We were both scared of retribution if we got the police involved, so this seemed like the best option. We pulled into the furthest parking space, hung sweatshirts over the windows from the drycleaning hooks in the car to block out the lights, and did our best to let the sounds of semis pulling on and off throughout the night act as the ocean waves or crickets had in earlier times.

With the futon mattress setup we had, our sleeping arrangements were surprisingly comfortable. It wasn't cramped, and the late summer kept the temperature above 40 most nights. We used old fast-food cups for toilets overnight, rather than walking across the parking lot, and brushed our teeth in the rest-stop bathrooms. In the morning, we paid our .10 toll at the Westmoreland exit, and I dropped him off at work. Then I drove to Utica, where my job was, and picked him up when I was done, around 7 PM. We would share a McDonald's dinner in the car and go to sleep.

During the day I would look for apartments, and soon, I found one we could afford. Unfortunately, it wasn't ready yet and wouldn't be until the middle of October. I emptied out the last of my dwindling savings to pay for the security deposit and first and last month's rent, and there was little we could do at that point but wait. It became harder and harder to do so with each day - one morning, I stopped by our bedroom to gather some things, and found that our room had been broken into, our clothes strewn all over the room. A few days later, I got a frantic call from G that during the day, J had entered our room, taken down the door that led to the garage, and put up a wall. On other occasions when we stopped by to feed the lizards or get a change of clothes, things would be missing - a tool of G's, the lease to our new apartment, etc. On the day we were able to move in to the apartment, we moved EVERYTHING - it required several trips back and forth. When we got back for the second load, the electricity was shut off. When we got back for the third load, the entire building smelled like gas. At that moment, I became aware of the fact that I would gladly live in my car as long as I needed if it meant I didn't have to spend another second at the hands of this psycho.

The apartment we moved into wasn't much better - it was so cold, you could feel the wind blowing through the windows. The largest heater in the house, an electric baseboard heater in the living room, nearly sparked a fire when it blew a fuse and then ceased to work. Our bedroom was the size of a closet and our landlord was a scumbag. Still, it was safe, and our neighbors on the other side of the wall weren't harboring fantasies of murdering us. Neither of us ever feel 100% safe anywhere, but it was a step up from before.

G and I survived the brutal winter in that apartment and the weeks in my car for one reason: strength. Alright, maybe some others: devotion, determination, and love. There are few people in the world I can think of who would happily live in a car with me at the Oneida Service Area for two weeks; G is one of them. And not only was he happy, he made me happy as well. Those weeks kept me extremely close to the most important things in my life and away from much else, as living in a small confined space will do. Having survived that experience with G and everything else that happened before and since then strengthens what I already know: he is the only one I want to share the rest of my life with, and I would do all of it again if it was the only way to get where we are now. No law or threat is enough to keep me from the person I love, and now that I've lived through it, there's nothing they can throw at us that won't make my love and resolve even stronger.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hurting some kids to protect other kids is protecting no one.

In the wake of Virginia's TWENTY-ONE TO ZERO decision to require children who have been convicted of "sex crimes" to register as sex offenders - and face the same devastating restrictions and public scrutiny as someone who has committed a violent, forcible sexual act - I am reaching a new level of appreciation for some people's capacity for ignorance.

Of course, this ruling is mainly a result of Virginia's decision to become compliant with the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law that threatens states with drastic funding cuts if they refuse. Thankfully, my home state of New York found the costs to implement the measures to comply with the AWA far outweighed the amount of funding that would be lost, and rejected it. But this does nothing to help the child offenders of Virginia, or the various other states that do and may eventually support the AWA.

I have made it clear in the past that I do not support sex crime of any kind, and again, want to assert that I do not support or condone them. However, the definition of "sex crime" has become so watered down and all inclusive that this term does not necessarily describe a violent or sexual crime against a child, a woman, or even a crime that is sexually motivated; it does not mean that the perpetrator is an adult. Thanks to laws such as this one, "sex crime" can also mean consensual adolescent behavior. A "sex offender" is nearly as likely to be a teenager as they are to be an adult.

Teenagers being forced to register as sex offenders has gained some attention over the past few years. Some people seem willing to accept that teenagers exchanging nude photos and engaging in sexual behavior is not equal to a sex crime; others still cling to widely varying ages of consent throughout the country as though they are gospel. But did you know that you don't have to be a teenager to be accused or charged? In early January, two 10-year-old special needs boys were charged with sexually assaulting an 8-year-old special needs student in Texas. Think that's bad? In California, a six-year-old boy was accused of sexually assaulting a classmate during a game of tag when he "brushed against his groin".

Even in the case of a teenager or child who does something unusual or even forcible, we are still talking about children, not adults. Opposition to the bill in VA and others like it beg lawmakers to heed the numerous studies that have shown extremely low recidivism rates for child offenders - even lower than adult sex offenders, whose re-offense rates are lower than every other crime except murder. Mental health experts explain to lawmakers that the brains of children continue to develop after they've committed their "crime", as they have not yet reached adulthood. It's ironic - we can accept the fact that children are not adults when it comes to punishing child molestation, child pornography and statutory rape - but not when the children are also the offenders. Why?

The National Alliance of Mental Illness asserts that millions of children in our country suffer from a mental illness, and that half of all lifetime disorders begin by age 14. This list, populated by American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, gives us a very general idea of the types of disorders considered mental illnesses. Take a look at the list, and I bet you will know a child - whether it's yours, someone else's, or one that you've heard about - who has one of these mental illnesses. Should these children be treated as though they are adults, too? Should their names be on a list, accessible by "concerned parents" who would don't want their children around someone who isn't perfect or "normal"? Perhaps there should be a list of all children who have a physical disorder, disability or disease in case some parents don't want their kids to play together. Or, heck, why not a list of all children who have a criminal past? Have used drugs? Have set things on fire? Shoplifted? After all, considering sex offender recidivism is lower than other criminal acts, that seems to be the path we are headed on. And it's all in the name of protecting children.

I know that most people reading this aren't the ones who support laws like the one that passed in Virginia, and will understand that the sentences above are sarcastic. Of you, I ask: tell one person you think might believe those lists are a good idea why they aren't. Ask them if their child has ever made a mistake, and if they value their right to discipline and teach and react as they see fit. Do whatever you can to show them how harmful this narrow thinking is. The public holds the key to a world where children truly can be children and they and their parents both can feel safe doing so.