Vol 2, No 12       


child

Child Sexual Abuse
Becoming
Part of the
Solution

with Laura Ahearn, MSW
Parents for Megan's Law

by Celeste Adams
 
 
Megan's Law is a federal statute outlining the circumstances under which sexual offenders may be required to register with local law enforcement, and the circumstances under which law enforcement must inform the community of the presence of registered individuals. The whole of this law may be read at ojp.usdoj.gov/vawo/laws/megan.htm.

Your state legislature will likely have its own subset of Megan's Law, outlining local enforcement within the guidelines of the federal statute.

Please be aware that it may be illegal for nongovernmental parties to disseminate information released under Megan's Law, and that individuals may be prosecuted for harassing people registered under this law. Notification of a sexual offender in one's neighborhood or community is solely for the protection of one's immediate family.


Adams: Why did you form Parents for Megan's Law?

Ahearn: As a certified social worker, I was attempting to access information on Megan's Law for adults who had been abused and for mental health professionals. I made a phone call to gather information from local law enforcement and was treated as though I were a hysterical, raving lunatic. I discovered that there was information available under the law, but that there were major problems in accessing that information.

I searched the rest of the country in order to find out what was wrong with our local version of Megan's Law, in my own state. In doing this, I made a lot of very good contacts with people who were involved in implementing policies and laws to protect their communities. As a result, I inadvertently became an expert on community rights as it relates to Megan's Law.

This experience evolved to become Parents for Megan's Law, a resource and support center for child and sexual abuse.

Our mission is the prevention of child and sexual abuse. We are focused on advocacy, education policy, support services, and counseling for children who have been sexually abused. Also, we are trying to become part of the solution in preventing the victimization in the first place.

Adams: What changes would you like to see take place in Megan's Law?

Ahearn: A comprehensive approach needs to be taken. There needs to be stiffer sentencing for those who commit crimes against children and mandatory treatment programs for sex offenders who have committed crimes against children. It is also important to have an educational component for the public. They need to know how to access information under Megan's Law and how to really prevent child and sexual abuse.

A civil commitment law would assure that when a predatory offender has been released from prison or treatment, the state would have the right (16 states already do this) to submit that offender to civil process to determine whether he or she still needs to be confined for treatment. Under this commitment law, sexual offenders would not be released until it was determined that they were no longer a significant risk to the community.

Adams: What kind of educational programs do you offer in your organization?

Ahearn: We do a lot of preventive education in schools and community organizations, with different programs for parents and caregivers, and age-appropriate programs for children preschool through twelfth grade. We empower children with tools to prevent sexual victimization, especially from people who are known to them, since children are most often vulnerable to abuse after they have established a trusting relationship with someone. That accounts for 90 percent of all sexual abuse.

Our adult education program helps parents and caregivers learn how to prevent sexual abuse in the first place, and how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse after it has happened.

We help parents to become clear about their responsibilities. They learn that allowing other people to take on some of their parental roles creates blurred boundaries and allows the predator to prey upon a family.

We teach families about healthy boundaries within relationships. We help them recognize the signs that something inappropriate might be happening in a relationship.

Adams: What role does your organization play in cases where the abuse has already happened?

Ahearn: We provide family support and advocacy. This is very important, because once sexual abuse has happened and been made public, the child and the family may find themselves in a system that is quite frightening. These families are traumatized because their child was victimized, and then they are forced to navigate through a system that isn't necessarily set up for their child.

We're just starting a court-school education program for kids who may have to go to court. It's a three-step program to help demystify the court experience and help them understand their own role and everyone else's role in the courtroom. We don't discuss testimony, we just help them learn what a court process is.

We also offer policy and legislative support services. We offer help when a child has been victimized and a family comes to us and says that a particular loophole in the law is still allowing this offender access to their child. We try to help their voice be heard in an appropriate way.

Adams: How do you respond to people who think that children are making up stories of being sexually abused?

Ahearn: That kind of idea helps to perpetuate the victimization of children. Children need to be believed. According to the FBI, most allegations of sexual victimization are true.

It deeply offends me when a person doesn't believe children. Most of the time when we are trying to advocate for a child it is because that child's voice is not being heard. That's very sad, because it is only when a child's voice is heard that action takes place.

Childhood sexual abuse is a crime that has been shrouded in secrecy.

Adams: Why do you think this secrecy persists?

Ahearn: For so many reasons. Families don't want their children to be revictimized, so they don't talk about what happened. They may want to try to get the laws changed, but can't be effective at doing this because they're paralyzed by their own feelings of not wanting to publicize the abuse that took place. Also, many parents feel personally responsible for the crimes that took place against their children.

The victimization of children is perpetuated in this system, and defense attorneys use the feelings of embarrassment and shame for their own benefit.

Adams: How do you help children overcome the trauma of sexual abuse?

Ahearn: One thing we do is sand-play therapy. It develops a relationship with a counselor. With time, the conflict is played out in the sandbox. The sooner a child comes in after victimization, the more success the therapist will have with the child.

Sexual victimization may leave scars, but it's the services that are provided that will determine the shape of the scar and its potential for healing.

Adams: What happens to children who have been victimized and haven't gone through therapy or taken other approaches to heal from sexual abuse?

Ahearn: As adults, people are often aware that something is not right. They know something has happened, but they don't always understand that the trauma has actually shaped their life. It is important that people find someone to talk to.

More needs to be done for post-traumatic stress disorder and the physiological changes associated with that. In his book Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society, Bessel van der Kolk, MD,[1] has found important differences in the processing of memory in those who have been traumatized versus those who have not. Trauma has both a psychological and physiological affect.

Adams: What is your feeling about the reports of sexual abuse that are coming out against priests in the Catholic Church?

Ahearn: As I said earlier, I think the victimization of children has been shrouded in secrecy. I believe that the culture of the Catholic Church, by adding to such shrouding, has added to the victimization of children.

After reading some of the statements that are coming out of the Roman Catholic Bishop's Conference, I think we are beginning to see for the first time that the bishops are taking responsibility for these crimes, and not just reassigning those who have committed them.

I think that the victims who have come forward have been very brave, because there's a stigma to being victimized. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has tried to integrate those people who are committing sex crimes.

Victimization happens to one in four girls and one in seven boys. Professionals struggle with that number seven, thinking that it is actually higher, but that boys have more trouble disclosing instances of sexual abuse.

Traditionally, people have thought of sexual abuse as happening only to girls. That's unfortunate, because boys have been victimized just as much, if not more. Both sets of victimization statistics are horrendous.

Adams: Can you put all this in an historical context? How long has the sexual victimization of children been going on?

Ahearn: I think that the victimization of children has gone on for centuries. Megan's Law helps us confront this problem because law enforcement must notify every kind of community, whether it's affluent or not, of its sex offenders.

Also, it's important to realize that sex offenders are not the guys hanging out in the back of the kids' park. They don't have a particular ethnicity or income level. They are often people we have trusted and respected. Sometimes they are respectable members or pillars of the community.

Adams: How would you like the media to report cases of sexual abuse? Would you like them to offer educational tips?

Ahearn: When we talk to the media, we always talk about educating the community. Educational information needs to be offered in the media to help people deal with the horrendous crimes that are being committed.

We also have to make an investment by educating our children. We're willing to educate our children about AIDS and about health, and we talk about abduction prevention in school. Why don't we talk about preventing sexual abuse? That investment hasn't been made yet.

I think that with everything that has gone on with Megan's Law and with the Catholic Church, people are going to start looking at ways to solve these problems. This is what we've been screaming about for the past five years.

Adams: What makes someone become a juvenile or an adult sexual offender?

Ahearn: There are several different reasons why juveniles offend. These include experimentation, and degraded violence with sex, and it happens for different reasons: boredom, parties, joking around.

According to the FBI, there are two different kinds of adult molesters: situational, and preferential. Preferentials are those people like pedophiles who prefer sexual contact with children. Situationals are those who molest children because the children just happen to be there.

Why adults molest children seems to be unique to each individual.

We've found that just because a person has been molested doesn't mean that they adopt this behavior themselves, but there is generally a pattern of some kind of abuse in the life of people who are molesting children. It might be physical or sexual abuse.

If you want to look at the core of the problem, it probably starts with an abusive environment that the molester endured as a child.

Sex offenders generally start molesting children at the age of fourteen. It's a silent epidemic. Juveniles are committing twenty percent of all rapes in this nation, and up to fifty percent of all child molestations.

We want people to understand this. When people leave their child at an unlicensed childcare center or in somebody's home, there may be a juvenile boy in that home who likes to take the kids into the basement and experiment. That's called sexual abuse. Families who leave their children in these unlicensed environments don't understand that this could be happening.

We hear many stories about children left at unlicensed places who are molested by 17-year-old boys. That's often where sexual abuse is happening. It happens where children have established trusting relationships. We hear horrible cases of sodomy under the guise of sexual experimentation.

People need to be aware of the red flags. It's a red flag when someone wants to spend more time with your child than with you. That goes for juvenile or adult offenders.

Adams: Can sexual offenders be cured of their desire to molest children?

Ahearn: Treatment for sex offenders is in its infancy. So at this point, that answer can't be given. We won't know for another 25 years, because the accumulation of information has really only started with the 1994 registration laws.

When offenders are in treatment, the number of sex crimes committed are statistically less, but this reduction may be the result of increased, specialized supervision. We don't know that it's a result of the treatment itself.

Every state is required to have sex offender registration. If they were required to have registration and treatment, we could look at this situation more comprehensively, but that's not what happens. There are different programs out there, but no one knows which are the most effective.

Adams: How does sexual abuse in this country compare to what's happening around the world?

Ahearn: I know they're pretty outraged in the UK about the level of abuse that exists. There's a big push in the UK to put into place a sex offender notification law. There was a girl who was missing, Sarah Payne,[2] who was later found murdered, and the person who did it turned out to be a convicted sex offender.

In Africa, there's been a lot of media attention to sex crimes committed against children. There's a notion there that if you have sexual intercourse with a child it will cure you of AIDS!

Adams: That's unbelievably sad.

Ahearn: I know. Many African kids have AIDS because they've been raped. Lately, I've gotten a lot of calls from Africa with respect to my new book, Megan's Law Nationwide and The Apple of My Eye Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Program. I'd be willing to go to Africa and help if someone were to provide a plane ticket. But we don't have those kinds of funds in our organization.

I'd like to help in anyway I could.

Adams: How can people be taught that they can't abuse children?

Ahearn: People need to understand the deep damage they are causing by violating children. A child is not somebody's tool for exploitation. A child needs to be loved, nurtured, and protected — not violated.

The lack of empathy and understanding for the damage that is being created gives offenders the green light to molest.

When children's voices are heard appropriately, then people are willing to take action. So in order to protect children, there needs to be a coordinated effort to have the voice of the child heard by those in law-making positions.

The sexual victimization of children has traditionally been the silent epidemic. Now, because of what is going on in the Catholic Church, we have the opportunity to see how prevalent it is.

It's time to take action and do something about it, and not just say how horrible it is. Let's look at the problem proactively and fix it.

Megan's Law Nationwide and The Apple Of My Eye Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Program© were developed by Laura A. Ahearn, MSW, founder and executive director of Parents For Megan's Law, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of childhood sexual abuse.

Ahearn is an internationally recognized authority on the subject of childhood sexual abuse prevention and the management of Megan's Law on a community level. Her organization provides an historical overview of Megan's Law and sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States, and gives communities specific answers on how to deal with and effectively manage notifications. It also provides information on who to contact in each state to access details on registered sex offenders.

Laura Ahearn's newly released book, Megan's Law Nationwide and The Apple of My Eye Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention Program, provides an in-depth discussion of childhood sexual abuse prevention. All proceeds from the book are donated to Parents for Megan's Law.

For prevention tips on protecting children from sexual abuse, go to ParentsForMegansLaw.com.

This interview was conducted on June 14, 2002. Laura Ahearn may be reached by phone at 631-689-2672, email StopSexualAbuse@aol.com.


Footnotes:

  1. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, published by Guilford Press, May 1996. See traumacenter.org/traumatic_stress.html.


  2. The Payne family has called for the introduction in the UK of "Sarah's law," a similar statute to Megan's Law in the USA.







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