Wednesday, May 30, 2012

All families matter, even those of sex offenders

As the fiancee of a registered sex offender, the New York Times article "Public-Place Laws Tighten Rein on Sex Offenders" was difficult to read. (As an advocate, it was nothing new.) As frustrated as I am with New York's justice system, I am thankful that at least as of today, it's still legal for my loved one and I to go to the beach, hike around the lake and take our dogs to a park if we feel like it.

Still, there's something really sad about realizing that, in some parts of the country, my family, small as it may be, is legally NOT ALLOWED to go to the beach. The man I love more than anything in the world will be ARRESTED and put in JAIL for walking onto a pier. And there are people out there who truly, honestly believe that it will somehow protect children. Thinking this way is not something I do often nor is it something I recommend, but unfortunately it is an inescapable consequence of the political climate we live in today.

Today I don't have any pandering politician to shame, or a blatant myth to correct, or a county sheriff to berate. Today, I just want to acknowledge the sadness and the loss that is experienced by every last loved one of a registered sex offender in this country. There's no getting around it and there's no immediate solution. Some days are overwhelmingly more difficult than others, and some are so bad you might rather not wake up. They will pass. But lay silent and scared forever, and we risk allowing the walls to close in completely. It is for that reason that we must find the balance between being able to function on a daily basis and standing up for our family's right to exist.

Don't let the fear overcome you. OWN it!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I love Pit Bulls, too - but I DON'T support the animal abuse registry.

I have a special place in my heart for the misunderstood underdog. It's kind of my thing. So it should come as no surprise that for as far back as I can remember, and long before I took on the cause I fight now, I've defended Pit Bulls. Often the target of disproportionate media focus on the "worst of the worst", ill-informed legislation, and widespread public ignorance (hmm...sound familiar?) Pit Bulls are arguably the sex offenders of the dog world.

When I was 13, my family adopted a shelter dog that, to the best of our knowledge, was a Rhodesian Ridgeback/Pit Bull mix, perhaps with something else thrown in. Cleo herself is now 13, and her life is full of examples, anecdotes and personal experiences that Pit Bulls unfairly get a "bad rap".

Since moving to central New York, I've become more than just a Pit Bull lover. I was fortunate to meet two other amazing young women who have devoted their lives to rescuing Pit Bulls (Response-A-Bull Rescue), some from extremely disturbing situations. I've fostered several dogs for them, helped them care for the rescue dogs, and listened to some stories of deliberate human cruelty that never fail to make me question my hope that most people are truly good. I own four Pitties myself (well, one is a Cane Corso mix, and all of whom are laying at my feet as I type this) and each one of them has had a difficult start to life - all due to human ignorance and greed.

So how could I as a true dog lover - especially a connoisseur of easily the most exploited, abused, misunderstood breed in America - not support a registry that would humiliate, punish, and shame people who hurt them?

First, let me make it clear that if someone asked me this question ten or even five years ago, I would have supported it whole-heartedly. The pang in my heart I feel when I hear about someone running a dog-fighting ring, using their dog as a breeding machine, or abandoning a dog in a desolate or dangerous place would have been all that was needed to convince me it was a good idea. But, that was long before I had a front row seat to the ineffectiveness and lack of preventative measures our current list, the sex offender registry, offers. It was also before I was at the forefront of what it's like to actually see, feel, and touch a dog who has known nothing but hardship and pain. It was certainly before I truly understood the sacrifices that rescuers make to give abandoned dogs a chance at life, and a good one at that.

Am I against animal abuse? Of course, in every shape and form. For that very reason I encourage other animal lovers to reconsider their support for an animal abuse registry. Like the sex offender registry, it will not provide us the tools to reduce or prevent abuse, because it is ignorant of the source. We KNOW why abuse happens - overpopulation, indiscriminate/irresponsible breeding, lack of education and awareness among the general public. We CAN pass laws that encourage spaying/neutering. We CAN pass laws that aim to significantly reform the standards for puppy mills and large breeding operations, and raise awareness about how cruel these practices are. We CAN educate the general public about the proper way to treat animals and provide incentives for doing so. There are laws in many parts of this country that ban Pit Bulls and other supposedly "dangerous" breeds, even though they are based largely on myth. How can we expect an animal abuse registry to achieve anything at all, when there is still legislation as well as mindsets that directly contribute to the very reasons that abuse occurs?

In my ideal world, the resources that would have been usurped by maintaining an animal abuse registry would go towards helping the animals that still desperately need our assistance, not serving our own need to "send a message" or avenge the abused. Let's face it; avenging the innocent does not help them. Caring for them, feeding them, housing them, and giving our time to and money to them helps more than anything else ever could. If you want to help animals, support your local rescue. Be a foster owner. Adopt a shelter dog. Spay and neuter your pets. Let your "dangerous breed" be the example that proves those myths wrong. Lobby for laws that will eat at the root of the problem, not put a blanket over it so we don't have to look at it.

Spanky, before (5 months old, found as a stray with severe demodex mange)

Spanky, after (with Summer, dumped at a kill shelter while still lactating)

Schuster, rescued with his littermates when the breeder couldn't sell them.

Cleo, doing her "poor starving dog" routine

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to use sex offender registry: Part 1

I've created this entry for two reasons: parents want to keep their children safe, and no one can say that decoding the online sex offender registry is easy. Aside from being structurally confusing and often misleading, pertinent information regarding sex crime in general and basic safety precautions are usually hidden on a separate page if they are included at all. I think we can all agree that crime prevention and community safety is of utmost importance, so read on and feel free to ask any questions if you are still confused. (This is part one of a two-part series; part two will discuss how to decode media reports and law enforcement statements about sex offenders.)

Note: most individual online state registries differ from each other significantly in the way they are organized. I will be using the New York registry structure as my example here, but the information can be applied to any state with a bit of detective work.

#1, and most important: The public registry was never intended to be "the" solution to child safety and should not be treated as such. 96% of sex crimes in New York state are committed by people who are not on the registry, and therefore, will not be listed. 90-97% of sex crimes against children are perpetrated by family members and trusted acquaintances and occur in the home, not by strangers or abductions. Finally, the recidivism rates for registered sex offenders are extremely low (New York calculated 3.5% in 2007). Keep these things in mind, use the registry with caution, and read on.
Why does this matter? Your child is far more likely to be abused by someone you know, who is not on the registry. Keep your eyes open and teach your kids about sexual abuse.

#2. Consider the offender's age at the time of the offense
The age of the victim at the time of the offense is always provided. However, no state registry provides the age of the offender. Risa Sugarman, director of NY's Office of Sex Offender Management, repeatedly declined to comment about the reasoning behind portraying juveniles as adults to the general public. So, take things into your own hands. Find the offender's Date of Birth to determine their current age. Then look at the Date of Conviction to find out when the offender was sentenced. Sex crime trials/sentencing often take much longer than other types of crimes, and specifically, sex crimes are sometimes not reported until several years afterwards, and in the case of ongoing abuse, the age of the victim at the onset of the abuse will be what is listed. You won't be able to determine an exact age - but you can get a general idea.
Why does this matter? Children who victimize other children are extremely unlikely to ever re-offend. Many child offenders are simply instances of consensual sex with younger teens. Juvenile offenders pose little to no risk to children.

#3. Check the "relationship" between the victim and offender.
New York's registry usually indicates whether the victim and offender knew each other, towards the bottom of the page on the left side. It does not provide relationship details (husband-wife, sister-brother, friend, etc.) but even so, this is a very important factor and will be classified as "stranger" or "non-stranger."
Note: this only applies in instances of contact crimes.
Why does this matter? A person who has abused a family or acquaintance has a drastically reduced probability to re-offend than a person who has victimized a stranger.

#4. Get past the horrific-sounding charges and learn what they actually mean.
It would be impossible to list all of the possible charges here and explain their exact definitions, but certain key words can help make it a bit clearer. The terms "child" or "minor" (indecent liberties with a child, sexual assault of a minor child, lewd conduct with a child, etc.) means anyone under the age of legal consent, regardless if the acts were consensual. This is another situation when determining the age of the offender at the time is extremely important in understanding the nature of the crime. Furthermore, certain adjectives sometimes incorrectly allude to the use of force or violence. In some states, the term "aggravated" is applied automatically if the victim was a minor, even if no force was used. The terms "sexual battery", "sexual assault", and "sexual abuse" have been used to describe consensual acts between teenagers.
Why does this matter? Realizing not everyone on the registry is a violent criminal will help you remain focused on being alert and aware. 

#5. There's a family behind that mug shot. 
It's easy to think of people on the registry as creepy, anti-social transients without loved ones. Some of them are. But the majority of registrants are trying to rebuild their lives and are doing so with the assistance of their families, children, and other support systems. In New York state, the offender's home address, employment address, and vehicle information is provided publicly. But it won't tell you that there's a family living at that home address, there's a small business owner running that business, or that one of the vehicles actually belongs to a teen driver or a stay-at-home mom.  
Why does this matter? Misinterpretation of the registry could harm a family not unlike your own.

If you would like to learn more about the facts behind sex crime, sex offenders, or the public registry, please get in touch with me, or visit my library of sex crime research.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Another non-sex offender abduction...and no outrage

Before I get to the post, I want to thank each and every person who donated between yesterday and today. Your support means more than I can express to me, and we have raised more than enough to purchase the system we need. And everyone who is like me, who can barely afford to put food on the table...please know that your emotional support is just as inspiring and appreciated. Knowing that I am working to help caring, compassionate people like yourselves is sometimes what gets me through the day!

Now, today like many of you I read about the arrest of Antolin Garcia-Torres, for the murder of missing Californa teenager Sierra LaMar. She went missing over a month ago while walking to her bus-stop. As usual, local law enforcement was quick to assure us that they were "doing all they could" and "taking all the possible precautions" checking with all the registered sex offenders, of course.

One of the first things we learned about Sierra was that her father was a registered sex offender. Amidst the flurry of news outlets that picked up on the information, somewhere buried at the bottom of most articles was the fact that despite his status, her father was not a suspect. We weren't told what kind of girl Sierra was, what she liked to do or if she had any plans for the future. She was defined by two things: her father's criminal history, and another opportunity for law enforcement and the media to feign interest in finding her as safely and as quickly as possible, by ignoring the most likely circumstances and wasting valuable time keeping up public appearances.

Despite the desperate reporting we often hear - "compliance checks", "sex offender roundups" and "crackdowns", sex offenders "on the run" - the hysteria is almost entirely unfounded. A small number of particularly heinous but unusual cases over the last 2 decades have almost exclusively formed the public opinion that all sex offenders are murdering child rapists who cannot control their lust for innocent little kids. A 2011 CSOM study indicated that only 3% of the general public correctly believes the recidivism rates for sex offenders are "less than 25%". Not surprisingly, 74% of the general public admitted that the knowledge they have about sex offenders comes from the news media.

When I heard about the arrest of Mr. Garcia-Torres, I could hardly wait to see if he was a registrant...and of course, he was not. As I read about his previous violent criminal charges, the story started to sound eerily familiar. Then I remembered the horrifying case of 9-year-old Aliahna Lemmon, an Indiana girl who was beaten, murdered and dismembered by her mother's boyfriend in December 2011. For the days leading up to the arrest, law enforcement actively questioned the 15 sex offenders who lived in the same trailer park, and were very quick to ensure the country that they had been very actively monitoring the sex offenders prior to her disappearance. Is there anything else to do in a missing persons case?

Michael Plumadore, a neighbor and family friend, was eventually arrested and confessed to the brutal killing. He was not a registered sex offender - although he did have previous convictions for fraud and physical assault. In fact, he had an open arrest warrant from the state of Florida for assaulting a police officer. Yet in all the time he lived in the trailer park with 15 sex offenders, not once did the police realize (or care?) that Mr. Plumadore was a wanted violent felon. Apparently, monitoring the activities of people who have long since served their sentences was more of a priority than preventing possible crimes. Indeed, they paid a serious price - an innocent child, the supposed justification for sex offender hysteria - lost her life. But who cares?

The media certainly didn't. For months following her death, all we heard about were "sex offender clusters" and outrage as to why Aliahna's mother moved her daughters to an area "teaming with sex offenders". No one cared that not one of the registrants had harmed her, much less dismembered her and confessed to her murder. The name Michael Plumadore had been long forgotten. We heard the words "justice" and "innocent little angel" and "tragedy", but no one cared enough to get beyond the convenient blame-game and do something about it. We didn't hear from the local law enforcement or even "outraged" lawmakers pledging to "protect children". No - Aliahna's legacy was a couple of months of material for desperate journalists, and then it was gone. Does anyone even remember her?

I don't expect the media, or lawmakers for that matter, to change their tactics anytime soon. It's in their nature to leech off of whatever they can to make the most possible profit. But the public knows better. The public - which is all of us - mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and communities - should demand better. A true safety advocate continues on in the face of dissent, realizing our loved ones deserve more than just rhetoric and comforting yet ineffective laws. Do you?

Do you remember Aliahna Lemmon? Shame on the media, the public and law enforcement for exploiting the death of Aliahna Lemmon

Monday, May 21, 2012

I need your help

Hi all.

This is something that I am not comfortable doing. I know that many of my readers are struggling themselves - financially, emotionally, and probably both. Standing by the person you love, and your beliefs, often comes with a high price. That is why I maintain this blog, and do whatever I possibly can to shed light on the destruction of our families.

We had a disturbing experience over the weekend and learned some things we were not previously aware of, in terms of what some neighbors are doing to put our safety and stability in jeopardy. We are genuinely concerned for our welfare and have been advised by police to install a home surveillance system.

I researched and found the least expensive yet functional system, which is about $300. If there is anyone who is willing and able to donate even a small amount, it would be incredibly appreciated. We are continuing to work on raising our own money however possible, and please understand that we do not expect or assume anyone to help. It will help me to continue doing the things I do knowing that we have at least some semblance of protection. If there is anything at all I can do to help you out, I hope you will not hesitate to ask. Thank you, everyone, for your continued support.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

New York State Senate: Protecting Children Since Never

The New York State Senate passed a package of eight bills last week, claiming they "prevent sexual abuse". The bills are now in the House, awaiting votes. If passed, they will have a significant impact on our lives. One of the bills proposes making Level 2 sex offenders subject to the same community notification requirements as Level 3s. This means that, just after celebrating the one-year anniversary of purchasing our first home in an attempt to gain some desperately needed stability, the local police would go around door to door handing out flyers. On them would be a picture of my fiancee, our home address and vehicle information, and a description of his charge. The police would "alert" all of our neighbors to be aware of him and then walk away. And the Senate pats themselves on the back as God knows what kind of community hysteria ensues, and our already constant fear is elevated to levels previously unknown.

 Of course, our lives are certainly not the only ones that stand to be altered. Nearly hundreds of thousands of families in New York State will be suffering the consequences as well. After all, the Level 2 notification is just one of the eight bills. Below, see my summary of the problems with each bill in the package:

1.       Bill S.356 “would designate anyone convicted of committing or attempting to commit sex offenses against children aged ten years or less a Level 3 offender”
Problem: This means that juvenile offenders who commit crimes against other children will be automatically designated as Level 3. I would be embarrassed to be a resident of any state that subjects children to the lifelong humiliation of being publicly registered. Furthermore, research and experts have testified that juvenile offenders have extremely low recidivism rates.1 Ironically, we consider children to be victims, incapable of understanding or consenting to sexual activity – but when they are the perpetrators, somehow that becomes false?

2.       Bill S.487 “would help address the high recidivism rates among convicted sex offenders”
Problem: This statement is FALSE, FALSE, FALSE. Recidivism rates for convicted sex offenders are the LOWEST of all crimes except murder, and this has been consistently documented since long before the public registry existed. A 2012 study from CT found a 2.7% re-offense rates.2 A 2007 study from New York found that just 3.5% of registrants commit new sex crimes3.

3.       Bill S.597A “prohibits sex offenders from obtaining licenses and certification to become real estate appraisers… the bill would prevent a scenario where convicted offenders would be in a position to be alone in an empty house or building with someone vulnerable to attack.”
Problem: Again, this statement is based on the myth that sex offenders have high re-offense rates. 95% of sex crimes committed by people who have no prior conviction for one, and therefore aren’t on the registry4. Therefore, this bill ignores the high majority of sex crime victims. Furthermore, restricting a registrant’s ability to find gainful employment contributes to significant instability. Without an income, and unable to afford housing, the chances of re-offense increase.5 If the registrant has a family to support, this negatively impacts all of them as well as costs taxpayers if the family is forced to use public assistance. 

4.       Bill S.1544 “makes it a class D felony, punishable by up to 7 years in prison, for sex offenders who fail to register according to SORA”
Problem: There are nearly 35,000 registrants in New York state alone and the smaller municipalities that are in charge of registering local registrants are severely over-burdened.  When my fiancĂ©e went to have his 3-year picture taken, he provided the appropriate party with our new address. They refused to take it and said he needed to leave, call back and make a separate appointment for this. When he followed their instructions, each time he called they were “too busy” to set up an appointment. It then became his fault when they were unavailable within the 10-day timeframe, and he was charged with felony failure to register. We spent $3,000 in legal fees to avoid prison. Had he been forced to go to jail for this, I would have lost our house, all our possessions and any ability to survive. It would not have helped his victim or kept anyone safe. It would have destroyed our lives. It is not acceptable to send someone to jail based on someone else’s inability to perform their job.

5.       Bill S.1542 “makes it a felony for certain sex offenders who fail to register or report a change of address”
Problem: Again, this does not take into account how over-burdened local municipalities are. The number of registrants has exploded since SORA, and this puts even more pressure on over-worked public employees. Furthermore, as illustrated above, it creates criminals by making it very difficult to avoid felony FTR charges…and subsequently, more inmates for whom taxpayers have to pay to incarcerate.
6.       Bill S.512A “makes the same identifying information pertaining to Level 2 sex offenders that is available to the general public through the state’s sex offender registry website available to law enforcement for dissemination/community notification purposes”
Problem: The low re-offense rates for sex offenders combined with prevalence of crimes committed by first-time offenders make community notification a poor attempt at preventing sex crimes. A NY-based study by Dr. Jeffrey Sandler found that the registry and notification has had no impact on sex crime rates whatsoever.6 Disseminating personal information to the public puts the children and family members of registrants in direct danger, and makes them easy targets for vigilantes7.

7.       Bill S.1522 “requires sex offenders to disclose whether their residence is within ½ mile to an elementary or secondary school.”
Problem: This bill is based on the false belief that all sex offenders are dangerous to children, when in fact, the majority of sex offenders don’t have child victims8. Proximity to schools and other areas that children gather is irrelevant, as most children are abused in their homes or in other private places behind closed doors9. Studies have also shown that restricting where sex offenders can live not only fails to prevent sex crimes, but makes it more difficult for them to find housing and can lead to higher populations of homeless registrants. Homeless registrants have higher re-offense rates than registrants who have stable housing and access to family/support networks10. Similar restrictions have also prevented mothers and fathers who are registrants from bringing their children to school or attending school functions with them. Children of registrants in areas like this are often singled out and targeted by other peers and even adults.

As usual, the root of the problem with virtually every piece of proposed legislation is its exclusivity and total ignorance of facts. How can a bill possibly be about "prevention" when it only targets 5% of those who commit sex crimes in the first place? Our legislators, and especially the public, do not seem to comprehend that all that "tough" legislation, public shaming and vitriol hatred of society doesn't begin to touch the people we really should be protecting our children from.

Our society loves high-profile atrocities, yet consistently fails to see that we're failing at protecting ourselves or anyone else from the big bad predators who inspired Megan's Law, Jessica's Law, and other laws named for horribly violated children. Why? Because by projecting that image onto 750,000 registrants in this country and treating them accordingly, they slip through the cracks while we are left to sort out the bloated mess we created.

Inevitably, many will jump on the politically-motivated bandwagon of "child safety" and pledge their undying support to methods that punish, destroy and harm - all the while claiming it's in the name of kids. Practical people will do their kids a whole lot more good by taking that passion and addressing public policy makers - and asking why they've been lied to.

1. “Juveniles who commit sex crimes against minors”, US Dept of Justice, 2009.

2. “Sex Offender Recidivism in Connecticut”, Connecticut DOC, 2012.

3. “Sex offender populations, recidivism and actuarial assessment”, New York Div. of Probation and Correctional Alternatives, 2007.

4, 6. “A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law”, Dr. Jeffrey Sandler PhD, 2008.

5. “The Efficacy of County-Level Sex Offender Residence Restrictions in New York”, Dr. Kelly Socia PhD, 2011.

7. “Collateral Damage: Family members of registered sex offenders”, Dr. Jill Levensen PhD, 2005.