Sunday, December 16, 2007

Looking at the little picture can result in wrongful judgments.

I promised to expound on my comment about looking at the big picture, when I talked about playing God. I had an e-mail from a friend commenting on a recent blog post. She said, "Your new note on your own divinity, or lack of it, delighted me. Just think what a different world this would be--and what an entirely more positive, productive situation we'd be in--if each of us understood, and operated as though, we are not God!"

That pretty well sums up what I meant in my comments about playing God; about the big versus the little picture. In our humanity, it is not possible to see the "Big Picture" or to know and understand the extent of the far reaching consequences of our words, our actions, or lack thereof, or the words, deeds, and misdeeds of others. The best we can do is to stop thinking we know, behaving as if we understand, and making laws and judgment based on our narrow views and what we as individuals and a society feel sure is right.

Every morning as I start the day, I decode a cryptogram, as my thought for the day. The one this morning is fitting for this discussion, I think. "Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called." (John Stuart Mill 1806-1873) Yet our society, and many other societies in the world are set up to crush individuality. Every faction, religion, institution, and government seem to believe conformity is preferable to individuality, and rules are made for all to follow. People are persecuted, and innocent victims destroyed in the name of righteousness and protection from perceived evil.

"The perfect society" in my limited way of thinking, would be a transparent one where everyone knew what everyone else was doing, communication was open and inclusive of all, and no one tried to control anyone else. Of course this is not a perfect society and some regulations are needed. I realize that. But let me expound on one small example, out of a myriad, where I think that our obsession to regulate has gone too far. Injustice to some is bound to occur when laws rise out of fear and generalizations.

The generalized belief, stemming from the proven reality of a few, has resulted in severely limiting freedom for a lifetime of those who've served time for their crime. I am speaking of convicted sex offenders. "All sex offenders are incurable," is a widely held belief, even though statistics disprove it. You must be wondering why I should care. Let me assure you that the safety of children against sexual predators is of utmost importance to me. Anyone who knows me well will attest that I will do everything in my power to make sure children are never left alone with anyone who has the slightest chance of being a molester. Years ago, when I felt an alleged (never tried nor convicted) perpetrator of sexual abuse was trying to gain unsupervised access to my grandchildren, I did everything in my power to keep it from happening, although it wasn't easy to do. If there is the slightest suspicion that a person poses a danger to a child, the child's safety comes first.

On the flip side, however, I've seen how the present laws inequitably affect those who have been convicted and have served time for sex offenses. Here's why.

1. Sex offenders, which make up from 3% to 11% of the prison population, are the only felons who have to register their physical address within three days of moving. They are the only ones who, in many states, face restrictions on where they can live based on the proximity of children. They cannot go to the beach, a park,  or anywhere children could be present. Not even convicted killers or drug pushers have similar requirements that I've been able to find.

2. Many who've been convicted of sex crimes were not guilty. I have a friend who was falsely accused of molesting an ex-girlfriend's daughter merely because the girlfriend wanted to get even with him for ending the relationship. He served his time and moved to another state, being careful to register his new address when he moved. But it's never over for him, or any other person with a record for a sex-related crime. He was never notified of a change in the law from requiring change of address registration within 3 days rather than the former 10 days. So, when he moved again from one rented house to another, he thought he still had time to register. He was arrested, jailed, and now faces more prison time for this infraction.

I know of two cases in which the alleged child molester ended his life, after being accused and on trial. One shot himself, one stepped in front of a train. In one case the accusers admitted that the man had never touched them. They only said he did because they were mad at him for not allowing them to go out one night.

I read of a school teacher in his early twenties who had a brief consensual affair with a 16-year-old student. He served prison time for statutory rape. He is remorseful about his mistake, but is now happily married and the father of two young children. But the laws do not allow him to take his children to a park, won't allow him to visit their schools or day care in the future. Is this really protecting anyone?

3. Many studies have been done to examine the recidivism of convicted sex offenders. Results of the several I've read range from 3.3% to 10%. Does that sound like "once a sex offender, always a sex offender?

4. Most sex crimes, especially those against children are never reported, so there are far more child molesters walking free than there are known offenders who must have their place of residence publicly reported.

5. These laws, as they are designed, do not protect a child from the most prevalent type of sex offender, which is someone a child knows and trusts, most commonly a relative, close friend or a socially respected adult.

6. Though there are sex-offenders who may never be cured, most are remorseful for their crime. I, who puts children's rights for a safe and healthy environment above all else, will do all I can to see that my grandchildren are never left alone with a person who has been either alleged or convicted of a sex crime. (I have both a friend and a relative in this category. I trust them both.) I take this precaution for two reasons. One is to protect the child. The other is to protect the registered sex-offender from danger of false accusations and suspicions. They walk a very fine line, living in fear that if they make one misstep or omission of a requirement, they'll be back in prison.

Much more could be done in our prison systems to educate and counsel the inmates, thereby decreasing repeat offenses. Such programs would go much farther in making our world a safer place. 

Well, I guess I went off on a tangent and gave more than I promised to discuss, but it all relates to our tendency to make critical judgments based on generalizations,  fear, and narrow views derived from partial facts, i.e. from looking at the little picture.  


Mary Cunningham said...

Very thoughtful post. I'm in agreement with you. When are we going to stop playing God and start living the way God intended?

On your sexual preditors comment, you only have to stop in my county, Douglas Co., GA to see how inequitable the laws are. A 17-year-old honor student and promising athlete was convicted of having oral sex with a minor and sentenced to 10 years in prison! Even though it's my understanding that the girl and her family testified for the defense that it was consentual. The archaic Georgia laws over-ruled common sense. The Georgia Supreme court finally overturned the sentence and the, now, 21-year-old is home after serving 2 years and pretty much de-railing his future. Fortunately, the law has been changed. I'm not saying the defendant was not without blame. He made some bad decisions but we need to separate the true preditors from those simply "caught in an out-dated court system."

Janet Grace Riehl said...

In a way, you are not off-tangent. You are in the business of publishing and writing books for children. What happens in the world of children and in the world that affects children has to be part of your concern. I imagine there are books out now for children that teach them what to do to protect their bodies, are their not? I've been in the presence of parent-child conversations that for today are quite normal, but would have been radical back in the times I was growing up...when the idea that a child had a right to the space around her body was unheard of. Write on, I say.


Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Dear Mary,
Thanks for your supporting story. I've heard of similar situations; a teen was caught in sexually compromising situations with a girlfriend. The age difference may be only a year or two and the maturity level pretty much the same at a time when hormones tend to over ride common sense. Yet the boy may spend the rest of his life paying for his crime because he is lumped in the same category, "sex offender" as a serial rapist or a pedophile. I know that at least some states have a 3 tier system categorizing registered sex offenders based on the likelihood that they will reoffend. The average citizen probably is unaware of this tier system, however, for it seems that the prevailing belief is that "once a sex offender, always a sex offender."

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Hi Janet R.
Thanks for connecting this concern of mine to my writing. You are right that, like the books I write, it stems from my compassion for children. It's true there are books available to help parent protect their children by teaching them to love and respect and protect their bodies; to let them know that it is safe to tell of any improper advances. But as the article from Human Rights News,, explained, the current laws may only give parents a false sense of safety. A very small percentage, though of course the highest profile cases, are committed be the predatory strangers these laws are designed to protect kids from.
As editor of a newsletter/forum for adult survivors of childhood abuse, I have heard the stories to a lot of men and women who suffered sexual abuse as a child. None were assaulted by a stranger. In every case it was a close relative or some one the family trusted, including clergy, teachers, coaches, or family friend.

I grew up in the time you speak of when conversations about our bodies, let alone sex, was unthinkable. I was also taught unquestioning respect for the authority of adults. This made me a prime target for the assault of a hired man who lived and worked on our ranch, joined our family circle for meals and evenings listening to favorite radio programs. Wow, this dates me, doesn't it. The point is, had the current laws been enacted back then, they would have done nothing to protect me. Like most of the pedophiles out there, even today, this guy had never been reported.

These laws do little to protect children. Parents must take this responsibility. The best tools are education and the development of the child's self-esteem. Predators know how to choose the victim who is too timid to expose them.