American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Dealing with Sex Offenders-How to Repair and Rebuild
Deborah Ingraham, an activist for restorative justice, is an advisor to Prevent Child Abuse of New Jersey. The following is testimony she delivered before the Criminal Justice Committee, MA State legislature, March 15, on a bill to establish an updated registry, lifetime parole, and possibility of lifetime civil commitment for sex offenders. The bill has been voted out favorably by the joint committee, but is likely to be challenged. This issue, variously framed, will undoubtedly be debated, nationwide, in coming months.
I'm Debbie Ingraham, and I'm an activist for Restorative Justice. I'm also a former litigant who filed an unsuccessful civil suit against a family member for incest, and a former victim advocate.
I bring a 30-year personal perspective of "real life" experiences that come from living with the effects of sexual abuse. I believe that the safety of today's children depends on our ability to fully utilize all the information that we have (not just the politically correct) in a way that includes both victim needs and community safety. In developing legislation that is in the best interest of children, we must go beyond today's anger and revenge, and look at child sexual abuse within the full context of a child victim's life and future relationships. We must also look at it from a prevention perspective.
The legislation before us reminds me of myself when I first became aware of the prevalence and the effects of sexual abuse. As a New Jersey resident, I am well aware of Megan's Law, and initially I was certain that child protection and victim empowerment would be achieved solely through strong and punitive messages to sex offenders about confinement and community notification. I was wrong. I now know that if we want to successfully protect children, and include the needs and desires of all victims of sex abuse, we must also understand why people offend, and how they gain and maintain control of offending behaviors.
I support the containment of offenders who are a danger to children. I support community notification, if and only if it has been developed with input from recovering sex offenders and people who treat sex offender, if it recognizes proportionality, if it is not limited to punishment, if it respects the privacy of victims and their families, if it encourages abusers to seek effective treatment, and if it educates the public about offender issues. Notification that does not include these factors encourages a spirit of revenge and vigilantism, and frightens rather than protects the public.
I oppose this legislation. It tries to solve problems without utilizing important information about the person who created the problem in the first place and the people who can help prevent future abuse-the recovering sex offender and the sex offender treatment community respectively. Although I believe that "Pedophilia Cannot Be Legislated or Punished Away," I also recognize that punishment and litigation surely follow behavior that is deemed by law to be criminal. Punishment that includes public shaming and demonizing may feel good today, but it is short-sighted, and too simplistic for a very complex problem. Over time, I realized that there would be an unanticipated ripple effect from the success stories that address sexual abuse through punishment only. The ripple effect is, that when we stigmatize today's sex offenders, we make it more difficult for other offenders to admit to wrong doing and accept responsibility.
I have a personal understanding of victim needs that will never be met by punishment only of the offender. I am peaceful and free today not because I filed a law suit, became a victim advocate, or tried to change laws-but because I talked with a twice convicted sex offender, Wayne Bowers, and with clinicians who treat sex offenders. If the Kansas civil commitment law had been in effect in 1989, Wayne would have been a likely candidate. He would not have had access to the treatment he received at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Sexual Disorders Clinic under Dr. Fred Berlin. This treatment allowed him to get control of his life. He then went on to educate the public by modeling changed behavior as a result of effective treatment. His public example encourages other sex offenders to seek treatment, and that contributes to the creation of safer communities. In this case, a civil commitment law would have deprived me of one of the most valuable healing experiences of my life.
I found peace when I was able to pose questions to Wayne, and get honest and open answers-with no excuses made-about why someone sexually abuses a child, why they repeat the behavior, why they don't stop, why they don't apologize, and why they can hurt a child sometimes, and be kind at other times. I learned that it is treatment of sex offenders, not punishment, that will bring validation, victim empathy, apology, and restitution to victims. I learned that "my" side of the story was not the only side of the story; and most important, that my experiences with a sex offender did not make a complete picture. I realized that I needed to make peace with the demon, not be a warrior for causes. I needed to understand that the demon was not a person, the demon was behaviors. All the punishment in the world would not bring me the kind of peace and freedom that I found from getting the answers to those questions.
This legislation fails to address three important areas that pertain to prevention, intervention, and victim empowerment. It fails to recognize that if the threat and length of confinement are not proportionate to the offense, and if community notification includes public embarrassment only and does not include offender support, these will discourage others from seeking help in order to stop offending behaviors; and will discourage others who are on the edge of offending from asking for the help they need in order to not cross legal lines. It fails to take into consideration that family members and friends are often the first to become aware of child abuse. As we encourage others to confront their family members and friends who might also be child abusers, we must be sure that notification laws are ones that encourage them to act on behalf of an abused child, by reporting their loved one or friend. Would these laws encourage you to report a loved one of yours who is also a child abuser? If we create climates that discourage offenders from admitting wrong doing, we will also be denying victims who want the opportunity to confront offenders, express anger, be validated, and work toward restoration, the opportunity to do so.
This legislation fails to recognize adults like me who were victimized as children, and have come full circle from anger, silence, and shame, to now having a desire to repair and re-build rather than divide and conquer. I do not wish to impose my journey on others, but nor do I wish to have my journey hindered or left out of the discussions. This legislation does not create a place for me and others like me to pass on meaningful information that we've gained from very long and personal journeys, in a way that might make another victim's journey a little easier, or protect a child from harm.
In the spirit of finding healing solutions and recognizing the needs of all victims, I encourage everyone in this room to do as I have done-talk with a recovering sex offender and a clinician who treats offenders and attend a group meeting of recovering sex offenders. Perhaps it is better said by the following: Truth is not to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction (Bakhtin).