Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Filling In The Gaps Of "Untouchable"

Say What?

In case you have not yet heard, the documentary Untouchable is screening with the MSP International Film Festival. Last night's showing was sold out, and audience members asked a number of great questions of the panel composed of director David Feige, child advocate Patty Wetterling, and local legal powerhouse Eric Janus. However, the film does not cover the entire issue- only a few small facets of it, like sex offender registration, sex offender notification, and residency restrictions.

And just how do you cover a nationwide hodgepodge of laws that were originally designed to protect children, and have since become a quagmire of punitive nonsense? The laws that apply in one state are different in another, civil commitment is left untouched, and only the briefest mention of International Megan's Law is made. In the interest of brevity, and in sparking a conversation about this topic nationwide, the director chose to limit the scope of the documentary (and its length, since we have "shorter and shorter attention spans" these days).

Untouchable In A Nutshell

If you have not yet seen the film (and you should, whether you are already allied in the fight to protect children or not, because you might get to meet Patty Wetterling as I did last night), let me summarize it (spoiler alert!).  Bearing in mind that I am abbreviating a 104-minute movie into two paragraphs, the movie starts out discussing the victimization of Lauren Book, daughter of Ron Book, at the hands of their nanny Waldina. Following this revelation, Ron Book pursues and passes many different laws that have wide-ranging and unpredictable effects on sex offenders. While Lauren Book champions Lauren's Kids, sex offenders are getting more and more fed up with how the laws are impacting them and their families.

The movie is peppered with facts and studies, and you learn (as you have seen many times on this blog) that recidivism is very, very low. You also learn what the basis is for many of these laws in terms of facts: Nothing. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that sex offender registration and other laws are constitutional because the recidivism rate for sex offenders is "frightening and high", which as it turns out comes from a single unsupported line in a 1986 Psychology Today article from someone with no research background. While it may be difficult to feel bad for sex offenders, the movie reveals that many of the laws that were originally intended to keep children safe have instead become a quagmire of draconian and punitive nonsense that has little to no impact on new sex crime.

More Information About Civil Rights, Laws, And Civil Commitment

By far the best place to find more information about sex offender laws, civil commitment, and current court cases is the National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws. If you want to lose yourself in finding out more information, or wish to advocate against the laws that are failing to protect our children, you can find a ton of great information at NARSOL.

There is also, as was mentioned in the film, Women Against Registry. They cover the issue of how these laws impact the relatives of sex offenders. They are very similar to NARSOL in many respects, but they focus on the damage that sex offender laws have caused to completely innocent people: The mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, and families of sex offenders.

Questions Asked And Answered

The questions asked by the audience were appropriately varied on a range of topics:
  • How many children are harmed by family vs friends vs strangers? What are the proportions?
    • Patty Wetterling and Eric Janus pointed out that strangers account for less than 10% of cases, Patty mentioned that 2% of non-family child abductions are perpetrated by strangers. Both stated that stranger danger is not working.
  • What is the realistic recidivism rate for sex offenders with underreporting in mind? 
    • Eric Janus pointed out that recidivism is a very small part of violent crimes and most violent crimes are committed by first-time offenders, not those with prior records. Patty Wetterling pointed out that what we are doing in looking at recidivism is not working, and Eric Janus closed by saying that underreporting would likely inflate recidivism rates by 25-30%. Many of the recidivism rates mentioned in the movie were 2-4%.
  • Are there any states on a remarkably different path from the national norm in punishing sex offenders?
    • Short answer: No, most states are still focusing on punishment.
    • David Feige pointed out that each state handles the issue differently, and that each state carries over whatever restrictions were more punitive so that someone could not move to a different state to ease the restrictions placed on them. Both Eric Janus and David Feige pointed out that there is a nationwide "hodgepodge of laws and restrictions," and that mandatory reporting does not help because people are afraid of being turned into the police. 
    • David Feige mentioned Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany, which promises confidential help without reporting to the police, and that the project is seeing great success. 
  • How many offenders are victims of child sexual abuse? (asked by a psychologist)
    • Eric Janus said not the majority and that the studies vary, and Patty Wetterling said that the thought of being considered an offender in the making keeps male victims of child sexual abuse from disclosing their abuse. They speculated on the problems that mandatory reporting causes, and that the fear of being considered a risk to children scares many victims, as was hinted at in the film.
  • How did Patty Wetterling's advocacy evolve to be defensive of sex offenders?
    • Over time, and by meeting sex offenders and seeing people in varying situations that were not the original intent of the laws she helped create. She used the word "hijacked" as she did in the movie to refer to how the registry has evolved to become punitive. She emphasized that the point was to create an investigative tool for law enforcement, not a public list. 
  • How do you short circuit the focus of being tough and punitive on crime?
    • David Feige suggested that laws be evidence and fact based, focusing on the fact that risk is a part of life. He admitted that nuanced arguments are harder to make than simple ones, because people buy the simple arguments more readily. 
    • Eric Janus suggested storytelling and humanizing people to get people to empathize, while changing the question to "How can we prevent this from happening?"
    • Patty Wetterling suggested early interventions like comprehensive sexual education and treatment over punishment, and by starting the focus on one demographic, like juvenile sex offenders, so that people can see the complexity of one single group of sex offenders. 
  • Did the evolution of Lauren Book's views on the issue happen during the movie? Did Ron and Lauren Book see the film, and what did they think?
    • To the first question, no. To the second, yes, they saw the movie and were very enthusiastic, save for the comedian at the beginning of the film. David Feige pointed out that they were less enthusiastic after seeing the reaction of the screenings since its release. 
  • How did all sex offenders get thrown into one pot?
    • David Feige very quickly said something to the effect of "bad politicians and badly written laws", and Patty Wetterling pointed to the media, which reports about "sex offenders" rather than differentiating the nuanced information that is valuable.
  • Does Ron Book regret his threatening to kill Waldina?
    • No, he does not, though David Feige speculated that he may rethink his threat to kill Waldina when she gets out of prison in 2025. 

Two Questions Left Partially Answered

One of the answers to the question about the proportion of abusers (first bullet point above) indicated that stranger sexual abuse is very, very rare. Patty cited the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in saying that only 2% of non-family abductions are perpetrated by strangers, but admitted she did not know that specific statistic. That answer is incomplete. The exact figure is that around 4-5% of child sex abuse cases are perpetrated by strangers, while around 5% remains unknown, and the remaining 90% breaks down into 30% family, 60% friends of the family. The overarching point that was made in the film, which you have heard me mention time and time again, is that abuse is not perpetrated by monsters, but by people we know, trust, and care about.

The answer to the question about how many offenders are victims was: It depends. We have no idea what proportion of victims go on to become abusers (certainly a very small minority at most), but we do know from these studies what percentage of abusers have been victims. Eric Janus said a variety of studies have mixed results. While that is true, there are two sets of studies that have been done: Studies that use polygraph, and studies that do not.  Studies that use polygraph generally find between 30-40% of abusers have been victimized, and studies that do not use polygraph generally find between 50-60% of abusers have been victimized.

How You Can Get Involved

One of the points David Feige made was that there is little information available from him and the film's website on how to get involved. His purpose in making the film was more to start the conversation around this hard and complex topic. He and the film make the case that sex offenders are not being treated fairly by these laws.

I take a different approach, and I can tell you why you need to get involved: The longer these laws are in effect, the more victims we have. We must form fact-based policies so that we can stop sexual violence before it happens. How do you get involved in making that happen?

I propose three areas you can get involved:
  1. Contact legislators and city leaders: Email with a phone call to follow-up works well, mailing, emailing, and calling works very, very well. Be respectful.
  2. Become an advocate: Learn the facts by heart, and speak up whenever you get the chance. Contact journalists and reporters, write editorials, comment online, etc. 
  3. Donate money: No one wants to fund research into helping pedophiles (those with an attraction to children, not those who have already hurt them) or helping sex offenders, but that research is badly needed. 
WAR and NARSOL both have opportunities for you to get involved, and there are many victim advocacy groups that take a fact-based primary prevention approach. The biggest thing you can do is be a voice, and tell people what you think. 

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