Michael's Story of Neighborhood Action

I have an interesting tale to tell about how I brought my work home earlier this year. My next door neighbor told me she had learned from another neighbor there was a Level 2 and a Level 3 sex offender living in the neighborhood. In Washington, the registration and community notification system uses a three-level system, using an actuarial risk assessment measure. The lowest risk offenders, according to this instrument, are Level 1’s. The highest risks are Level 3’s. Seattle Police had printed up flyers about these two men and given them to the block watch captain. Since both of these offenders had molested kids, the block watch captain distributed them to neighbors on his block that had children.

Confused and upset

My next door neighbor knew about my work, in part, because she too is a therapist. Many years ago she had worked with two families where I had treated an incest offender. She told me other neighbors were confused and upset about the prospect of having high risk child molesters living in their neighborhood. She’d wondered if I would be willing to help out.

I talked with several of the neighbors by phone and we scheduled a Saturday morning meeting in the living room of a house across the street from where these two offenders lived. In the meantime, I had left many phone messages with the community corrections officer (that’s what we call probation officers in this state) of the one man who was still under supervision with the Department of Corrections. It is my impression the probation officer didn’t quite know what to do with my telephone request. When I was finally able to reach her and explain my role, she agreed to pass my name and phone number on to the man she supervised.
Neighbors having that uncomfortable conversation with each other…

At the Saturday morning meeting of the neighbors, the only specific information I had about the two offenders was the information on the Seattle Police Department flier. I learned one fellow had convictions in 1981 and again in 1991 for molesting boys. The other man had been convicted of molesting two girls. He also had some property and assault convictions. They had both participated in and completed the inpatient (prison based) sex offender treatment program and the follow-up, community based program operated by the state Department of Corrections. So, I was able to tell my neighbors what that meant, what these two men should have learned and what they should be doing if they were following through on the sorts of risk reduction strategies they had been encouraged to implement.

This meeting of the neighbors felt like a pretty constructive affair. People were able to discuss and compare their initial fears when they heard the news that two relatively high risk child molesters were living in their neighborhood. Everyone reported they felt better for having the opportunity to learn some more about these two men, to put the information in some context and to be able to share their experiences with their neighbors.

Moving beyond denial and anger…

After the meeting I was told that one of the most helpful things about the discussion was how I introduced myself and began the meeting. I explained I had been working in the field of evaluating and treating sex offenders for over 20 years and had seen some significant changes in the way that people responded to news of child molestation. I remember when the standard response was denial: he’s a nice man and couldn’t have done such a thing. Or, if he did, I’m sure it was an aberration and something that would not be repeated. Denial also occurs by believing that such problems could not happen in this family, in this neighborhood, or in this church community.

I then noted that in recent years, there has been a very different public atmosphere around matters of sex offending and child abuse. The current reaction seems to be to get up in arms, become angry at sex offenders and anyone who would allow them to be in the community, and sometimes employ mob-like tactics to drive them out of town. I think these two disparate responses have something in common. Thinking about and talking about sexual deviancy and child abuse are profoundly uncomfortable, unpleasant topics. We are tempted to try to find some way to put it out of our mind. We search for a way to deal with it so that it is not hanging around in our consciousness, causing us distress. Both denial and anger are ways of forestalling the discussion and dismissing the issue. Then we don’t have to think about this uncomfortable topic.

I told my neighbors we were doing something very different. Here we were, sitting around thinking about and talking about a profoundly uncomfortable subject. I applauded them for their willingness to do so and I said I thought it was probably a more constructive approach in the long run. However, it does require some fortitude.

Neighbors having that uncomfortable conversation with offenders…

My next door neighbor (the other therapist) then raised the issue of how to talk to one’s children about child molesters in the neighborhood. She pointed out that this was an awkward thing to do, even for someone who had talked to many (other people’s) children about this. And she noted it would be easier to have this discussion if it was not the first time the child had talked with his or her parent about sex or safety.

After this meeting with the neighbors, the block watch captain marched across the street to the home where the two offenders lived and knocked on the door. He knew the owner of the house, an older man who had been living in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. The block watch captain talked to the men in the home, told them about the recent neighborhood meeting and the police department notification, and said we had hoped there would be an opportunity for a meeting that would include them.

One of the two men phoned me, his probation officer having given him my number, as I had requested. We had a conversation and the following day I went over to meet with him, the other offender and the others who lived in the house. Initially they were very concerned for their safety. They had just learned that there had been a community notification and fliers distributed in the neighborhood with information about them, including their photographs. I told them who I was and the kind of work I did. I also told them about the atmosphere of the neighborhood meeting. One of the neighbors had said she hoped she would be able to feel comfortable waving hello to these two men, as opposed to fearing them and averting her eyes when their paths crossed.

The two offenders had relatively encouraging stories to tell. It was my impression they had learned a good deal and benefited from their participation in specialized treatment. They understood and accepted their need to limit access to children. They both said they were willing to go to some lengths to avoid reoffense. The one fellow, the one who had two convictions, talked about what he regarded as the most important lessons he had learned in treatment. He talked about how he had long believed that he had not done any harm to his victims. They had appeared to be cooperative, they had not suffered any physical injuries, and the offenses all took place within the context of what he saw as a caring relationship. He said in treatment he had met other men who talked about their own childhood victimization. One of his therapists in the prison-based program was a former director of a rape relief agency. He learned, to his horror he said, that he had likely caused significant emotional damage to his victims. He talked about this with a great deal of emotion and in a way that struck me as genuine.

With this information, I again talked to the neighbors and we decided that we’d like to have the meeting we had discussed, to include the two offenders and their housemates. Finding a location turned out to be surprisingly easy. The older man, in whose the house these two offenders lived, suggested a nearby church. This church’s community room is used for the neighborhood voting precinct. The church’s pastor was very accommodating and eager to help. He pointed out that his church hosted 12-step groups and saw this as another way in which the church could connect with its surrounding community.

What happened at the meeting…

The following Saturday morning we met in the church’s community room. The minister hosted and provided coffee. Some of the neighbors brought snacks. We had a very constructive two-hour meeting. The two offenders talked about their histories, including their offenses. They talked about what they were doing to prevent reoffense. They encouraged the neighbors to say something, to them or the authorities, if something seemed out of line. They opened themselves up to questions from the neighbors. By the end, the neighbors were asking what they could do to help these men succeed. After all, someone said, if these men succeeded, including not reoffending, that would be a success for everyone. The two offenders said they had gotten more encouragement from this meeting than they could have imagined. In fact, they talked of having some sleepless nights after learning about the initial neighborhood meeting which had occurred without their knowledge.

Both men talked about difficulties they’d had getting and keeping jobs. One man had a recent interview that looked encouraging. He was going to be working, it appeared, for a check cashing business. The other man talked about having been trained to work with computers while in prison. He hoped to complete a Microsoft certification course in the near future and to perhaps operate his own small computer business. At the end of the meeting, a couple of neighbors talked to this man about his doing some work on their home computers. This was after it was understood that any contact these men had with children would only be under situations that were supervised by people who knew about their offense histories.

Replacing fear with confidence…

This situation seems to have turned out about as well as anyone could have hoped. Fear and mistrust on all sides was replaced by sharing of information, agreement about appropriate safety measures, and a positive experience talking about and resolving some very difficult, anxiety-provoking subjects. This was made somewhat easier by the fact that these two men had participated in and apparently gained substantial benefit from a good treatment program and follow up services. And they appeared pretty committed to doing what they could and should do to reduce the likelihood of future offenses.

It certainly helped to have a certified sex offender treatment provider living in the neighborhood. I had immediate street credibility among the neighbors. I was one of them. I was not somebody who was trying to convince them to accept, into their midst, two scary, dangerous guys. But most important, this succeeded because all concerned were able to overcome their initial fears and talk about some very difficult subjects.

This is, after all, what good treatment is about. It is difficult to talk about sexual deviancy. It is embarrassing and scary. Offenders and their families, neighbors and friends would all rather think about something else. Good treatment involves helping people think constructively about this subject. So, apparently, does effective transition to the community and neighborhood support.

I’m not saying this was an amazing occurrence or a great triumph. But I’m pretty sure it was a good thing. And it would be a good thing if it could happen more often.

Michael O'Connell, Ph.D.
Mill Creek, WA