Panel advises against sex offender ordinance11/20/08

Experts say education helps keep kids safe

Nov. 20, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A panel of experts agreed that ordinances that restrict where sex offenders can live are ineffective and instead emphasized education as the best way to protect children from predators.

That advice came during a forum titled “How to Keep Our Children Safe” held Nov. 13 at Williston Central School. The event grew out of a proposal by Selectboard member Chris Roy to consider restricting where convicted child abusers can live.

The forum featured a panel of four experts on the topic: Robin Castle of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont; Sally Borden, executive director for the KidSafe Collaborative; Cathleen Wilson, executive director for the Women’s Rape Crisis Center; and Chris Ford, a counselor at Williston Central School.

Each made an opening statement and then took questions from the small audience of about a dozen people, including four of the town’s five Selectboard members.

Jim McCullough, who represents Williston in the Vermont House, asked the panel what it thought about residency restrictions.

Panelists said there is no research that shows such rules — typically ordinances that forbid sex offenders from living close to schools and other places children frequent — are effective.

Borden said residency rules tend to drive sex offenders underground, away from family support and treatment.

“That might in fact do the opposite of what we are trying to do, which is protect children,” she said.

Roy, who has three children, noted that Barre has already enacted an ordinance barring sex offenders from living near schools and childcare facilities. With Burlington also considering an ordinance, might Williston need similar rules lest it become a refuge for sex offenders?

Panelists said that me-too approach is flawed because it further marginalizes sex offenders to the fringes of society. Borden said judges can impose restrictions based on the specific circumstances of a given case, a much more effective method of keeping kids safe than a one-size-fits-all ordinance.

Instead, panelists emphasized education, both for adults and children, as the best way to prevent abuse.

Ford said kids should know the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexuality and good and bad touches.

“Messages to ‘just say no’ don’t work,” Ford said. “It’s hard to say no to adults and to those that are perceived of having power over an individual.”

Castle said children should be taught the correct names for body parts and told that they can refuse physical contact — even with adults who intend no harm.

“You have to back them up,” she said. “So if they don’t want to give Aunt Mary a kiss, that’s OK.”

Borden said adults should know the signs of sexual abuse.

“Educating ourselves as adults is even more important because children may feel uncomfortable or yucky about what has happened,” she said.

Sudden behavioral changes may indicate abuse, Castle said. Children may become withdrawn or aggressive or behave like a much younger child.

“Reactions to abuse are as different as children are,” she said. “But as adults we should be looking for anything troubling.

Selectboard member Ted Kenney, who has two daughters, ages 4 and 6, said he was worried about recent cases in which the abuser threatened to kill anyone the children told about the abuse. He wondered how to broach such scary subjects.

Ford said age-appropriate information can be shared with even the youngest child. For example, kids can be taught that surprises are good but secrets are not — and touching should never be a secret.

The forum was held the day after the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report outlining a 34-point plan for improving how the state handles child abuse. The committee was convened in the wake of the slaying of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett. Her uncle, Michael Jacques, has been indicted on charges of murder and sexual assault in the case.

The report echoed what panelists said: residency restrictions are ineffective and perhaps counterproductive. It instead recommended that the Vermont League of Cities and Towns work with local communities on education efforts.

“I think part of the reason why is that because the reality is that in so many of the cases the perpetrator is known to the victim,” said Wilson. “Residency restrictions are sort of based on the principle of stranger danger, and we know that is not really the reality of sexual violence.”

Roy said in an interview Monday that he hopes the town continues to explore ways to protect children so the forum doesn’t end up being a one-shot effort.

He said panelists convinced him that residency restrictions are a bad idea. He said their informed opinions were even more credible because their concerns centered on children.

“There are people who clearly don’t have a soft spot in their hearts for sexual predators,” Roy said.


Sex abuse facts


* In all, 322 children in Vermont were sexually abused in 2007. That represents a 58 percent drop from 1990.

* Many abusers are themselves young, with 43 percent of perpetrators under age 20.

* Most victims are young or very young children. Eighteen percent of child sex abuse victims are 5 years old or younger; 43 percent were 6-13 years old.

* Sexual abuse cases account for 38 percent of all child abuse cases.

Source: Vermont Department of Children and Families