Yesterday’s disclosures in open court were disturbing and difficult to hear, even for those of us who have been involved in sex offender treatment, assessment, management, and research for many years. We at ATSA are very sad and would like to express our support and condolences to Patty Wetterling and her family. While this may provide some degree of closure, it is what we all feared and hoped we’d never have to confront. We continue to be amazed by the strength and composure of Patty and her family. Their courage through all of this has been amazing and the responses to the revelations in open court should be a model for all of us as we continue our work, committed to the prevention of sexual abuse and sexual violence.
Michael H. Miner, Ph.D., L.P.
Executive Director, ATSA
Op-Ed from Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D. ATSA Past-President
On September 6, 2016, the nation finally learned the truth of the kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder of Jacob Wetterling at the hands of Danny Heinrich. Upon hearing the harrowing details, we wept, knowing that Jacob’s final moments were filled with fear, pain, and pleading. Learning that the man who killed Jacob had previously kidnapped and assaulted another boy, Jared Scheleri. We raged, knowing that for 27 years Heinrich enjoyed a freedom he did not deserve and, we hope, will never again possess.
Heinrich committed these atrocities in 1989, when U.S. child sexual abuse rates were at their highest. Since that time, these rates have fallen by about half. Those of us who have spent our careers studying child sexual abuse cannot pinpoint the precise reasons for the reduction, but they likely include increased awareness of child sexual abuse and the harm it causes, as well as increased sentence durations for convicted offenders.
As a nation, we respond to child sexual abuse reactively, with policies that are triggered only after a child has been harmed. Many of these policies are predicated on particularly heinous offenses. Indeed, it was Heinrich’s abduction of Jacob that helped spur sex offender registration and public notification policies. Unfortunately, cases that are the “worst of the worst” are also the “rarest of the rare” and laws based on them tend to fail. Such is the case for sex offender registration and notification, which research has shown largely fails to improve community safety. The same can be said for sex offender residence restrictions.
Even if these policies were effective in reducing re-offending, they do nothing to protect children from first-time offenders, which are the vast majority of perpetrators. The erroneous belief that all sex offenders are the same – that anyone who even considers sexually abusing a child is a potential Danny Heinrich – has led us to structure our responses around detection, punishment, and surveillance of known perpetrators. We put almost no resources into primary prevention efforts. Our failure to see child sexual abuse for what it is – a preventable public health problem as well as a criminal justice problem – ensures that children will continue to experience abuse.
We need to recognize that, like every other form of violence, child sexual abuse is an avoidable tragedy. We need to ensure that real resources are directed to the thoughtful development, rigorous evaluation, and broad dissemination of effective prevention programs, particularly those that target perpetration. Several of us in this field have been working on such programs, one of which targets young adolescents with clear messaging that it is both harmful and illegal to involve younger children in sexual behaviors. Another will provide help and guidance for adolescents who find themselves with an attraction to prepubescent children. Still other programs target parents and educators to help them promote the healthy sexual development of children. There are many other ways to prevent the child sexual abuse – these programs are only the tip of the iceberg.
We are fortunate to live and raise our children in a time when rates of child sexual abuse are at their lowest. We should take this opportunity to work even harder to eliminate child sexual abuse altogether. This will require adopting a public health approach that includes perpetrator prevention efforts.
In the end, what do we most want? We want Jacob back. Failing that, we want Heinrich punished. But imagine how our world would look if instead of waiting for offenders to get caught, we developed effective programs to ensure that people don’t become offenders in the first place. That is the promise of public health. That is where our policy makers and the rest of us who want to end child sexual abuse should now invest our efforts and our resources.
Elizabeth J. Letourneau, Ph.D.