“Does a guy who committed a sex offense have no place to live for the rest of his life? What should he do now?”
This question, taken from an e-mail I recently received, was just one of the many challenges community leaders are grappling with nowadays as awareness about child safety is (thankfully) growing. Here are some others:
* Should registered offenders be permitted to enter synagogues? And if so, under what conditions?
* What about people who pled guilty to child abuse charges, but were not given the status of sex offenders as part of their plea deal?
* Is it ethical for people to “chase” offenders away from their neighborhood by making things very uncomfortable for them? Isn’t this just passing the problem along, often to unsuspecting communities?
These issues need to be addressed and we would be well served by having respectful discussions of these highly charged topics in our public squares.
I would like to address the “What should he do now?” matter, as this question is often posed to those of us who advocate for abuse victims and who use social media to warn parents of the danger offenders pose to their children.
Worded differently: If a (suffering) family member or close friend of a registered sex offender, who was recently released from jail after serving his time, came to you for advice on how to guide this individual as he reenters society, what would you tell him?
In our time-honored practice of answering a question with a question, permit me to ask: What do you thing the best course of action would be for drivers who are pulled over by a traffic cop for speeding?
I imagine you advise them to:
* Forget their own frustration and think about the mindset of the officer who has a heightened level of anxiety when approaching their automobile. Be mindful that any moves they make to reduce that tension level will help diffuse things and increase the likelihood that they will get off with a warning or a less painful consequence.
* Pull over to a safe place. If they stop in a spot with limited visibility or right at the edge of traffic, the officer will be exposed to a greater level of danger exiting the squad car. Pulling over well into the shoulder of the road sends a clear message to the officer that this will, in all likelihood, be an easy road stop.
* Don’t make any sudden moves, and be sure to show both hands. They shouldn’t even think of reaching for a wallet in the glove compartment, for that will certainly have the officer very worried that they are reaching for a weapon. Elbows on the steering wheel with both hands raised and fingers open is the way to go.
This is the picture I paint to the loved ones of sex offenders:
* Help your relative or friend understand the fears his presence will generate and explain to him that the quality of his life moving forward will directly depend on how well he can lower the anxiety level of the parents who are terrified of what his presence means for the safety of their kids.
* See that he goes for ongoing therapy with credentialed mental health professionals who specialize in this field. Many sex offenders have a total disconnect and genuinely believe they haven’t harmed their victims. As a high-level corrections officer at a maximum-security prison that houses serial sex offenders once told me, “I supervise 580 innocent people.”
* See that he stays far away from children. In New York State, registered sex offenders are forbidden to live within 1,000 feet of a school. Find him a place to live where there are few if any children. There are neighborhoods like that – usually places that were popular for young couples 40-50 years ago. Encourage him to daven/pray at home or at a senior facility even if the local synagogue doesn’t ban him from attending.
* “Show your hands.” Take a bold step and accompany him to a meeting with local rabbis and educators. Let them set up rules of engagement with him – and do your very best to see to it that he follows them.
These are just general suggestions, and I encourage mental health professionals and experts who with this issue to share their ideas for best practices with the public at large.
Over the past decade or so we’ve made great progress in child safety education and in raising awareness about the danger of child abuse. Respectful, public discussion about establishing norms and boundaries for sex offenders reentering our communities will be an additional step forward in our efforts to keep our children and grandchildren safe and secure.