Sunday morning at 10 found me slicing the tomatoes and arranging the cheese platter. My husband was setting up the chairs. At 11, the doorbell rang. And so began my very first sex offender brunch.
What exactly is that? It's a brunch where I invited my friends in the press to meet my friends on the sex offender registry — Josh Gravens, 28, and Galen Baughman, 31. I'll tell you their crimes in a sec, but first let me explain why this issue interests me.
As founder of the book, blog and movement called "Free-Range Kids," I am always trying to figure out, as the subtitle of my book says, "how to raise safe, self-reliant children without going nuts with worry."
I like programs that actually help kids avoid abuse, such as those that teach them the three R's: recognize (that no one can touch where your bathing suit covers), resist (kick, scream, run) and report (tell me if anyone is making you uncomfortable, and I promise I won't be angry with you).
The three R's make kids safer and take away an abuser's biggest asset — a child's silence.
What I learned through my research, though, is that one thing not making kids safer is the public sex offender registry. Study after study shows two things. First, "stranger danger" is a myth; the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know.
Second, in New York state, where I live, as elsewhere, there's been no difference in the number of sex offense arrests before and after implementing the public sex offender registry. Yet it is very scary to send your kids outside once you see a red dot locating a sex offender on your neighborhood map.
The problem is that the registry is cluttered with people who don't actually pose a threat to children. So though it's easy to think "dot equals monster," many registrants are teens who had sex with other teens, people who urinated in public, men who visited prostitutes, etc.
A study by the Georgia Sexual Offender Registration Review Board, for instance, found that of the 17,000 people on the state's registry, just over 100 were "predators" compelled to prey on kids. But of course, all 17,000 dots look alike.
Which brings me to my brunch.
Through my research, I'd met Josh and Galen.
Josh is a Texan who was visiting New York last week. At age 12, he played doctor with his sister. His sister told their mom; their mom called a counseling center to ask what to do; the counselor was a "mandated reporter"; and Josh ended up in juvenile prison for 3 1/2 years. His "therapy" there consisted of sickening things such as acting out sex acts for the therapist. Josh was still a virgin!
Ever since he got out, he has been on the registry, even though his sister has long forgiven him. I wanted my guests to meet him.
I wanted them to meet Galen, too. When Galen was a 19-year-old opera student in Indiana, he met a young man, 14, at a friend's family party. They started emailing. When the 14-year-old's mom found out her son was writing to a gay teen, she took his computer to the local district attorney, who gave it to a cop.
The cop continued the online conversation, pretending to be the 14-year-old. He asked Galen to send him gay teen porn, and when Galen complied, he was arrested for distributing child pornography. On Galen's personal computer, cops found evidence that he'd had a sexual encounter (once) with a different 14-year-old. The emails showed it was consensual, but this still constitutes rape.
He went to prison for nine years.
They told their stories to my reporter friends as we ate our brunch. Then we all went our separate ways, filled with carrot cake to die for and a new skepticism about just whom we label a "sex offender."
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.