Signs not answer to sexual assault


The passage of the recent ordinance requiring sex offenders to place a sign in their yard has generated quite a furor over how unfair this ordinance is to the offender and his or her family.

I’m not a big supporter of the ordinance. I believe there are victims in this community who will be forced to continue to live with their abuser because their non-offending family members believe it would cause too much shame. If they were stifling an outcry before the sign ordinance, there’s no way they will cooperate with prosecution now.  

The biggest benefit to be gained from this ordinance is that it will raise community awareness. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to actually see many signs pop up because the majority of listed offenders are exempted under the grandfather clause, unless they move to a new residence. It will likely discourage listed persons from moving into the city. And that’s not bad. 

I have published the complete list of Gonzales County sex offenders just prior to Halloween each year to try to make the public aware of who these known offenders are, and where they live. Halloween is the one time of year that parents consider letting down their guard a bit and allowing youngsters access to adults that they wouldn’t ordinarily visit. Therefore, I think it’s imperative to make parents aware of where the known offenders are.

But just because they’re on the list doesn’t mean they are a pedophile that’s likely to attack your child. It means they are someone that the court decided should be barred from contact with children based on a past serious mistake. I won’t be shocked to see some of the listed offenders subjected to terroristic threats or assault if they comply with the sign ordinance. Depending on what your experience with this social epidemic, it might be a justifiable punishment for prior bad behavior.

Most of the comments we received from opponents to the ordinance are not looking at relevant facts.

I became an expert at child sexual assault while it was still a secret no one discussed, so my knowledge of the topic comes from much more than a few Internet searches, or one or two cases. More recently, I helped to organize a child advocacy center similar to Norma’s House in East Texas.  All that is in addition to the scores of criminal cases I’ve covered as a reporter.

There are some popular myths that complicate matters for families and agencies left to pick up the pieces after an assault occurs.

One is the stranger danger myth. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that 14 percent of child sexual assaults in the U.S. that come to the attention of law enforcement involve perpetrators that the child did not already know. Applying that percentage to Gonzales data, three local incidents may fit the stranger danger scenario.

Someone within the child’s social network — either someone well known to the family, or someone within the household — is the abuser of 60 percent of victims.

So a sign will have no effect on a majority of cases. They are already coming and going from the home despite the fact they are a known sex offender.

The second most common myth is that most people listed are included because of a prior consensual relationship with someone slightly younger, but yet too young to give consent. None of the cases that involve Gonzales County residents on the list fit that characterization.

The largest barrier to prosecuting sex offenders is not detecting them, it is getting non-offending family members and the victims themselves to support efforts to punish the offender. Few of us would like to sit in a room of strangers and describe our sexual activity with a husband or wife — imagine what the experience is like for a child victim.

By now, some of you are asking yourselves, why would a family member who knows a child is being abused not cooperate with having the abuser arrested? And most people assume the apprehension about reporting the crime is due to poverty, lack of education or some cultural beliefs.

That’s because most of the public subscribes to the myth that child sexual assault typically occurs in families at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.  Just like any other crime category, offenders with fewer economic resources are just more likely to get caught.

That image you have in your head of a mother of a victim who struggles to feed her family being hesitant to report doesn’t represent the majority of victims. Imagine how hesitant she would be if the offender earns six figures or more.

In those cases, non-offending family members attempt to address the problem without involving law enforcement. That usually results in more victims.

Many of the opponents of the ordinance that left comments on our website claimed they had family members listed for “Romeo and Juliet” offenses. That’s a euphemism for cases that involve a consensual relationship between someone who is legally a child and someone who is older.

In Texas, if the two parties are within two years of the same age, it’s a defense to prosecution. Most prosecutors will not pursue them.

Of the 65 sex offenders on the Gonzales County list, none of the cases they are charged with fit that Romeo and Juliet situation.

The closest age difference in a Gonzales County case was 22 and 16. Most adults I polled would have a difficult time allowing their 16-year-old daughter to be involved with anyone who had already left high school. So whatever the specific circumstances, those relationships are problematic.

Some cases may involve aggressive initiation by the teen, according to the National Center for Crime Victims but that’s something all adults are expected to be mature enough to avoid.  Yes, 20-somethings. That means ask for ID if you have any doubt at all.

The DPS Sex Offender Database lists 65 offenders with Gonzales County addresses. Only four of the victims in those cases were 18 or older. Four were male, 56 were female. Bear in mind that several offenders had more than one victim.

In two cases, there was no victim information provided.

Seven incidents involved a victim who was 16 or 17.

Fourteen victims were 10 or younger. Another 11 were age 11 or 12, 10 victims were 13 years old.  Do the math — that’s 35 child victims in our county that are 13 or younger.

Somehow, requiring a sign just doesn’t seem like it’s going to do much to keep our children safe.