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Tougher Sex-Crime Laws Spark Right-to-Know Flap

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By all accounts, T. Kevin Dotson had begun to turn his life around. Paroled from prison four years ago after serving time for molesting his daughter, Dotson had remarried, started attending church and moved into a nice apartment in an Atlanta suburb. But when the 37-year-old housing subcontractor reported to work one afternoon last month, his boss told him he was fired.

In a case similar to a recent South Pasadena incident, a radio talk-show host had read Dotson’s name and address over the air, along with those of 21 other men on parole in Fulton County for sex crimes. Dotson’s life changed in that instant. He insists he is reformed, but he had been revealed to unsuspecting friends and neighbors as a monster.

Similar unveilings are going on across the country, as all 50 states move to adopt laws requiring that communities be notified when convicted sex offenders move in. The disclosures have led to firings, assaults and other forms of harassment against the parolees and ex-convicts.

Fueled by fear and frustration with the rising tide of sex crimes committed against children, a fed-up nation is lashing out with laws and punitive measures. But are children any safer as a result? Or do the new laws merely create the illusion of greater safety while satisfying the public’s appetite for revenge?

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“I think people have a right to know” when sex offenders move into their neighborhoods, said Ida Ballasiotes, a Washington state lawmaker whose daughter was slain in 1988 by a work-release inmate who previously had assaulted two women.

But sex-abuse experts say that the wave of legislation and unrestrained scorn may be doing more harm than good, driving sex offenders underground, away from treatment, and creating psychological pressures that make relapses more likely.

“We’re putting more kids at risk,” charged Pamela D. Schultz, a communication professor at Alfred University in New York who is conducting a prison study on child molesters.

She and other researchers also point out that while the laws are designed to protect society from predators who seek out children in the community, research shows that 90% of child abusers are family members and friends of their victims. Even proponents of the tougher measures acknowledge that they don’t begin to address the more widespread problem.

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The new laws have been motivated by the heinous nature of a number of highly publicized crimes against children--such as the 1993 murder in California of Polly Klaas--some of which were committed by repeat offenders. Faced with growing pressure to do something, politicians are enacting tougher laws, establishing longer prison sentences and setting up procedures to inform the public when sex offenders, especially child molesters, are released from prison.

The national law requiring states to adopt community-notification measures was dubbed Megan’s Law, the name New Jersey gave its statute after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old, was raped and killed, allegedly by a paroled child molester who was living across the street.

Eighteen states now require law enforcement officials to notify neighbors when a released sex offender settles in their community, and a number of other states require limited notification, according to the National Victim Center, an organization that promotes victims’ rights.

In compliance with a federal law passed in 1994, all 50 states now require sexually violent predators and people convicted of certain crimes against minors to register with law enforcement authorities where they live. All but 17 states allow some public access to registration information.

“I don’t want these people living in my state or my community,” said Mitch Skandalakis of Atlanta, the chairman of the Fulton County Commission. He refers to child molesters as “animals” and “monsters” who do not deserve a second chance.

“I’ve talked to lots of people in law enforcement, and they all say the same thing: They cannot rehabilitate these people,” he said.

Georgia law requires sheriffs to maintain lists of paroled sex offenders, but Skandalakis says the public should have greater access to the information. That was why he began last month to release the names and addresses of locally paroled molesters to anyone who asked him for the list. That was how Dotson’s name became public knowledge.

Even critics of the get-tough stance toward sex offenders say the public has every reason to be concerned. America is in the throes of an epidemic of sex crimes against children, experts say. Some studies suggest that as many as 1 in 5 children are considered at risk of being sexually abused before their 18th birthday, said Robert Freeman-Longo, director of the Safer Society Press in Vermont and founder of the Assn. for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

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In surveys of abuse victims 12 and older, teenagers report the highest per capita rates of rape and sexual assault, according to a study released this month by the U.S. Department of Justice. And an estimated 12% of imprisoned rapists and 45% of people serving time for other sexual assaults said their victims were 12 or younger.

Even more alarming is the potential for the crime to grow exponentially because of the so-called Dracula syndrome: A large percentage of offenders were themselves molested during childhood.

As an influential 1988 Justice Department monograph noted: “Patterned child molesters frequently have tragically high numbers of victims, often numbering several hundred. If even a small percentage of the victims later become offenders, the rate of growth of this crime would be staggering.”

But Freeman-Longo said recently enacted laws don’t begin to deal with underlying problems and have little chance of stemming the tide.

While studies of the effects of treatment so far are inconclusive--and even treatment advocates acknowledge that some offenders are beyond help--some surveys show that treatment of child sex offenders has had impressive success in reducing recidivism.

The danger, say advocates of treatment, is that in today’s climate, with state legislatures facing the dilemma of whether to build more prisons or preserve and expand treatment programs, treatment will suffer. Also, they argue, the threat of harsher and longer punishment will cause offenders who want to be helped to remain invisible.

Arguing that child sex abuse should be considered a public health issue rather than a criminal justice problem, Freeman-Longo said: “If you were a sex offender and you knew that going to a health clinic to seek help would result in your being turned in and reported to the authorities, that it would result in public notification of your whereabouts [after your release from prison] and that it probably would result in your being castrated, would you have any interest in getting help? I wouldn’t.”

While the new wave of legislation is patterned after New Jersey’s law, which was enacted in 1995, that state modeled its measure after much broader legislation that has been in effect in Washington state since 1990.

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“Ours was the original Megan’s Law,” state Rep. Ballasiotes said.

Washington’s Community Protection Act not only allows authorities to notify the community of the presence of a sex offender but also requires sex offenders to register with the sheriff of the county in which they reside within 24 hours of their release from incarceration. It also increases sentences for sex offenders and allows the state to keep sexually violent “predators” in confinement indefinitely.

That last provision, which also has been adopted by California and six other states, is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A 1995 study conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy at Evergreen State College found that the legislation has had little effect on recidivism, although offenders were arrested for new crimes more quickly when the community was notified of their presence.

Supporters of the law say this means the law is working. Offenders are being caught sooner because the community is more vigilant.

On the other hand, one of the country’s most notorious acts of vigilantism directed against a child molester occurred in Washington state after the law was passed. Joseph Gallardo, who had just been released from prison for the first-degree statutory rape of a 10-year-old girl, fled the state after his house was burned down in 1993 and communities protested his presence.

Similar, but less extreme, acts have occurred elsewhere, including in Southern California, where a sex offender in Placentia lost his job and his home was picketed last month and where another convicted child rapist, in South Pasadena, was hospitalized because of the “pressure” he faced after a local church gave out his address.

Ballasiotes said the number of acts of vigilantism in her state has been reduced in recent years because authorities have taken more care to prepare communities for the release of a sex offender in their midst.

Washington’s laws were passed after several highly publicized sex crimes in the state. Ballasiotes and Helen Harlow, the mother of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy who was brutally assaulted in 1989, served on a task force appointed by the governor to study what measures should be taken. The Community Protection Act was formulated and passed in six months, said Ballasiotes, who was elected to the state Legislature in 1992.

In her view, pedophilia is like alcoholism: There is no cure.

Freeman-Longo, the Vermont sex-abuse therapist who runs organizations there that combat the crime, agrees with the comparison. That is why he says victims should be treated.

While a prevalent notion among many people involved in law enforcement and corrections is that sexual offenders cannot be rehabilitated, some studies have shown impressive results from certain types of therapy in reducing relapses. The treatment of sexual offenses is a still-developing field, however, and results are inconclusive. Some studies have shown a recidivism rate of treated sex offenders at 15% or less; when offenders are left untreated, some researchers put recidivism as high as 80%.

Sex-abuse experts across the country fear, though, that with the current mood, there is little patience for treatment programs.

Vermont is experimenting with a program that tries to induce sex offenders to seek treatment. Offenders or their family members call a hotline and speak anonymously with counselors.

“Of 120 calls to the help line in 15 months, one-third of the calls were from abusers,” said Fran Henry of the Massachusetts organization Stop It Now, who is involved with the Vermont project. “Another one-third are from their family members and friends. Our first call to the hotline was: ‘Hello, my name is Joe. I’m a child molester.’ ”

She said the response shows that many sex offenders want to be helped.

Freeman-Longo also lauds scattered programs that seek to identify children younger than 5 who exhibit either early signs of future sexual dysfunction or symptoms that they are abuse victims. Through early intervention, researchers hope to prevent the children from becoming abusers.

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.


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