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Sexual crimes: No easy answers

See also: Couey's life path mostly a dead end
4-24-2005 Florida:

Everyone agrees something must be done, but solutions are confounded by the complexity of the problem.

From rural Hillsborough and Citrus counties to the polished corridors of Tallahassee, the furor over sex offenders crescendoed last week as legislators passed new laws and parents kept a more watchful eye over their children.

The killings of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde have brought a moment of introspection for all of Florida.

Amid the soul searching, experts caution that men such as John Couey, accused of molesting and killing Jessica, make up a tiny fraction of sexual offenders.

The real truth of sex offenders is quieter, more insidious: Thousands of men violating their own children, their neighbor's prepubescent boys, the teenage daughters of relatives and friends.

The prevailing wisdom among experts is that a sex offender cannot be cured. He can only decide to stop.

Armies of professionals have spent careers trying to help sex offenders through treatments employing everything from red fox urine to penile plethysmographs, a device to measure arousal.

The fact remains that as many as 55 percent of offenders will abuse again, experts say.

What, then, to do with Florida's 35,000 registered sexual offenders?

* * *

The problem is inscrutably complex, and frightening.

Some experts talk of a breed of men so predatory and dangerous that they cannot be treated and should spend their lives in prison.

But jail cells alone won't fix the problem.

"There's an unlimited supply" of sex offenders, said Robert Longo, a South Carolina therapist who co-founded the national Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "For every one we catch, there's two more cropping up behind the bushes."

Offenders come in myriad varieties - from child molesters to rapists to 19-year-olds who date younger teens. A one-size-fits-all policy won't work.

Experts advocate a multifaceted approach: finding the worst offenders and wrapping the toughest laws around them. Strictly monitoring the offenders who leave prison. Finding those who can be treated and helping them.

With the right tools, some offenders can be rehabilitated, they say.

In therapists' offices across Florida, group counseling for offenders unfolds every week. The shock treatment popular in the 1970s has been replaced with cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing a man's thinking.

Offenders young and old pay $25 every week for two to five years and talk about what they did.

They also learn arousal management.

A counselor might have a molester come up with a few sentences about why he is attracted to young boys, then repeat it for hours until it seems utterly boring. Another method is to have an offender think about a sex offense, then about something unpleasant, like eating roaches, said psychologist Ted Shaw, co-author of the 1989 book The Child Molester and owner of a company that treats 800 sex offenders on probation in Florida.

Research shows therapy may help, but not by large margins.

One study indicated that those who receive treatment re-offend at a rate of 10 percent over four to five years, compared with 17 percent of untreated offenders, said R. Karl Hanson, senior research officer with Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.

What's more, no one knows which methods work best.

"We don't know what about treatment is most important," Hanson said.

There are no guarantees, even with therapy.

"It's a choice. It's not something people are compelled to do," Hanson said. "So as with any human behavior, it is never predicted with complete accuracy."

* * *

The state has tried to isolate its worst offenders, such as Todd Gray.

Inside a tall, gray locker at the head of his bed, the 48-year-old Gray keeps school books with titles such as Taking the Lead and Introduction to Business. One day, he hopes to get a business degree.

But what he has really been learning the past four years is how to stop raping women.

He lives behind rolls of razor wire at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, home to 475 of the state's worst sexual offenders.

In concrete block buildings built during World War II, the two-time rapist has written a sex offense autobiography. He has told groups of other sex offenders how one night in 1989 he had been out drinking and smoking marijuana in Vero Beach and he was going to commit a burglary. He broke into a woman's house, she woke up, then he raped her.

Gray has participated in group sessions with names such as "stress and relaxation" and "victim empathy." He has thought of his most deviant fantasies while smelling red fox urine and ammonia. He has been wired up to a penile plethysmograph, a device with a thin metal band that measures his arousal at various stimuli.

"I figured I'm here, so I might as well take advantage of what they have to offer," said Gray, who wore black shorts and a shirt imprinted with palm trees during an interview last year. "See if I can't maybe come out of here a better person."

Under a law passed in 1998, the state can involuntarily commit sexually violent prisoners for treatment after their prison sentences end. The law was named after Jimmy Ryce, a 9-year-old boy from Miami-Dade County who was killed by a child molester in 1995.

But the program is expensive - and not smashingly successful.

It costs about $47,000 a year for each patient, and only 167 of the 475 patients are actually receiving treatment. Most of the others refuse to participate. No one has successfully completed the program and been released.

The situation is similar at Atascadero State Hospital in California, home to about 600 of the state's most dangerous sexual offenders, 75 percent of whom decline treatment.

"Most have lifetimes of deviant illegal behavior," said psychiatrist Gabrielle Paladino. "Many have told us that they will continue if they ever get released. Some have said they're just hopping mad that their behavior has been interrupted."

Some experts question spending the money.

"Just put them in prison," Longo says, "and don't worry about treating them."

But that won't work for everyone, either.

* * *

Many people who need and want help don't get it.

One example: John Couey.

He requested mental health assistance for nearly three decades. He told police in 1991 that he had a problem but had not received help to "control his sexual attraction for young children."

Now, judges routinely order sex offender counseling after prison. But many offenders have slipped through.

Both Couey and David Onstott, accused of murdering 13-year-old Sarah Lunde, were convicted of prior sex offenses. Neither has received treatment.

"There's a lot of people who are running around out there from years past who haven't been touched by treatment," said Bob Whitford, a Tampa psychotherapist who treats sex offenders.

Florida used to have limited sex offender programs in its state prisons. Inmates could be sent to three hospitals until 1989, though the waiting list was long. Former Gov. Bob Martinez cut funding for the programs, however, and now the prisons offer no specific sex offender treatment.

Many counselors think the prison programs should be revived.

Through treatment, someone like Couey would have raised red flags, therapists say.

"These are people who, if properly handled, would have been seen as just what they were - dangerous people," Whitford said.

"That's one of the problems. These people are not handled very well in the courts. They're not handled very well when released from prison. Professionals like me don't get the chance to do risk assessment on them."

Whitford thinks that if he had had a chance to treat Couey, he would have foreseen the trouble.

"I've been doing this too long," he said. "His history cries out."

* * *

Sen. Nancy Argenziano had been glued to the television for days, hoping for any word about Jessica Lunsford.

Then, on March 19, she received a telephone call from Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy. He told her the body of the 9-year-old girl was found buried outside the mobile home where her accused murderer had been living.

"It was devastating to know that Jessie wasn't coming home to us," Argenziano said.

She took the murder personally, and immediately started working on the only available solution - legislation.

"I'm her senator," the Dunnellon Republican said. "I feel like I owe her something."

She knew her first instinct - lock up all sex offenders forever - was irrational. But other lawmakers felt it, too.

Their attempts "to do something" underscored the conundrum of dealing with the complex world of sexual offenders. Their suggestions ranged from chemical castration to surgically implanted Global Positioning System monitors.

The emotional reaction worried Senate President Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican.

As the father of an 8-year-old girl, Lee said he was as moved as anyone by Jessica's death.

"I don't need a lesson from anybody about how important this is," Lee said. "I want to make sure we don't overreact and knee-jerk when there's a problem out there that is crying out for a solution."

For more than a month, Lee's office has been flooded with messages from people begging him for tougher legislation against sex criminals. But Lee said he wanted to make sure the hard-core sexual offenders get punished, not the 18-year-old boy who is dating a 15-year-old girl.

"If you elevate sex crimes against minors and you apply those penalties to minors who are approaching adulthood, you set up a whole series of unintended consequences," he said.

Lee said he was particularly distressed by some of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Sarah Lunde. The 13-year-old Ruskin girl was left alone by her mother and older brother the night she was abducted and killed.

"The parents have to bear some responsibility," Lee said. "I'm not a prude, and I understand all families don't manage their responsibilities the same way, but a 13-year-old girl ought not to be left alone at night. And you can't pass a law fixing that."

As lawmakers debated, Argenziano began talks with Lee, law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Their brainstorming session eventually became the Jessica Lunsford Act, which requires anyone convicted of molesting a child under 12 serve a sentence of 25 years to life. If the offender is released, he or she must wear an electronic monitoring device for life.

No bill is perfect, Argenziano said. But it's a start.

"I think there will always be this kind of deviant in the world. My first concern is to get them all off the street," she said. "Even though we called it the Jessica Lunsford Act, it's for every child, girl or boy, who has been sexually molested."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to

Some methods used in treatment and management of sex offenders

BOREDOM TAPES: A behavioral technique where the sex offender listens to his darkest fantasies on tape over and over, in hopes it results in his getting bored with the fantasy and no longer being drawn to it.

AVERSIVE CONDITIONING: A behavioral technique designed to reduce deviant sexual arousal by exposing the offender to something that arouses him while introducing an unpleasant sensation or smell, such a fox urine or ammonia.

COVERT SENSITIZATION: A behavioral technique in which a deviant fantasy is paired with unpleasant images or thoughts, creating an aversion to the inappropriate sexual behavior. The technique is also used for alcoholism, stealing and overeating.

COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING: A treatment technique in which the sex offender is made aware of distorted thinking that supports offending and is encouraged to change those thoughts through confrontion and rebuttal.

Source: Center for Sex Offender Management ..Source..(Checked on 3-11-2011) St. Petersberg Times by JAMIE THOMPSON, LEONORA LAPETER

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