To a community of loving families, fear is understandably the ruling factor, but we need a fact-based understanding of the issue rather than allow panic to rule the conversation. The research data available to date, indicates that the prevailing belief that “once a sexual offender, always a sexual offender” is not true in the case of adolescents. Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of The Center for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University and her colleagues conducted a survey of first-time sexual offenders which found that upwards of 90% adolescent offenders do not re-offend. A Justice Department report (2009) on adolescent offenders analyzed data from 29 states and found that contrary to popular belief, 85% to 95% of these juvenile offenders are not re-arrested for the same category of crime. Dr. Letourneau explained that the expansion of sexual offender laws to include children and adolescents is based on the assumption that adolescent offenders cannot be reformed, but subsequent research has shown this assumption to be false. Understanding, evaluating and punishing any crime involves many considerations, including the age of the perpetrator, the frequency of the crime, whether the offender sought help, expressed remorse, provided restitution, asked for forgiveness, ever committed the offence again or his likelihood of reoffending.
The problem of sexual abuse has existed in the shadows for so long; many have suffered in silence. What should be our response? The crime of sexual molestation, no less than other crimes, calls for thoughtful consideration. How do we give justice to the victims without perpetrating injustice at the same time? Every situation is not the same category and not every perpetrator is beyond redemption. Each story is unique and this is my story.
My son was 19 years old when he committed this crime. Now, almost 15 years later, despite being ostracized, shunned, and losing everything, he is still trying to be a contributing member of our society. Should he have that chance? Former-President Obama expressed the question well in an article in the Harvard Law Review: “How we treat those who have made mistakes speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values – about our dedication to fairness, equality, and justice, and about how to protect our families and communities from harm, heal after loss and trauma, and life back up those among us who have earned a chance at redemption.”
Does my son deserve a chance at redemption?
As you read, you may be thinking that punishment is justified, and I cannot disagree. But, think for a moment – this could happen to you and your family. You could suddenly be forced to acknowledge that a child who you love has done something terrible. You will have to deal with police, courts, therapists and overwhelming financial pressure – most of all, with the emotional torture of knowing what happened. There are many kinds of prisons. I am very grateful that my son is not incarcerated in jail. Instead, he is confined in the prison of community condemnation, from which there seems to be no release and no statute of limitations. And he is not alone; my husband, my other children, and myself are confined along with him. Our sense of banishment from a community where we have lived a lifetime and the terrible repercussions we and our children have experienced is devastatingly painful.
For parents whose lives are devoted to raising and protecting their children it is understandable that there is fear and the imperative to protect the innocent. Perhaps, you, reader, may not be willing to hear another side of the problem. But, I ask you to consider that being human means being flawed – there is no way out of being vulnerable, and many in our communities are hurting because of the harsh judgment of others. I have put forward another perspective of this painful situation that is now being grappled with by a community – that of the young perpetrator and his family. It is a serious issue, with no easy answers and only because I find myself trapped in this situation have I been forced to delve deeply into it with all its terrible implications and repercussions. I hope that by reading about this ordeal that has engulfed two unsuspecting families you will be able to consider the topic from a more informed position and a deeper understanding.