I have previously published a couple of posts about Lenore Skenazy, who started the “Free-Range Kids” movement. The first of these posts describes how Lenore got started; the second of these posts is one journalist’s take on whether “Free-Range” parenting is even possible in this day and age.
We are all protective of our children, but many of us overestimate the danger of the world we have brought them into. In the 27 years that Jacob Wetterling has been missing, we have passed numerous laws which reflect this heightened sense of danger. Now that Jacob’s remains have been found just last week, Lenore has written a reflective and balanced post on her website. I share it with you here.
Jacob Wetterling, Found at Last: R.I.P.
by Lenore Skenazy, Free Range Kids
September 3, 2016
The remains of Jacob Wetterling have been found in Minnesota. Jacob was abducted in 1989 at age 11 in a case that scared, scarred and deeply saddened people around the globe. As his mother Patty texted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday: “Our hearts are broken. We have no words.”
The Star-Tribune explained that:
“Jacob was snatched off his bike, half a mile from his home, by a masked man with a gun on a dark October night. Danny Heinrich, a suspect first questioned shortly after Jacob’s disappearance and now in federal custody on child pornography charges, gave investigators the information that led to the boy’s hidden grave.”
The paper added that the authorities did not give much more information about why Heinrich, who has been in federal custody almost a year, seemingly suddenly decided to confess the whereabouts of the body.
Maybe we will learn more, maybe not. What hurts most is that whatever ray of hope the parents might have held onto is gone. It is painful to even imagine that light going dark.
It is painful in a more intellectual sense to contemplate the effect that Jacob’s unspeakable fate had on American families. Not only did it grip us with dread, but that dread—and anger—directly paved the way to sex offender registry. As Jennifer Bleyer explained in this extraordinary article in City Pages about Jacob’s mother, Patty, in 2013:
“[T]he Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act…was part of a landmark violent crime bill in 1994 that required law enforcement in every state to maintain registries of convicted sex offenders and track where they lived after being released from prison.”
Two years later, Megan’s Law mandated making the registry public. As Bleyer notes:
“Virtually all the major laws regarding sex offenders have been passed in the wake of grisly, high profile crimes against kids and, like Megan’s Law, they bear victims’ names as somber memorials. The laws tend to fuel the impression that sex offenders are a uniform class of creepy strangers lurking in the shadows who are bound to attack children over and over again.”
That’s what Patty Wetterling used to believe about sex offenders, too. Yet over the course of two decades immersed in the issue, she found her assumptions slowly chipped away. Contrary to the widely held fear of predator strangers, she learned that abductions like Jacob’s are extremely rare, and that 90% of sexual offenses against children are committed by family members or acquaintances. While sex offenders are stereotyped as incurable serial abusers, a 2002 Bureau of Justice study found that they in fact have distinctly low recidivism rate of just 5.3% for other sex crimes within three years of being released from prison.
Though the term “sex offender” itself seems to reflexively imply child rapist, a broadening number of so-called victimless crimes are forcing people onto the rolls.
On this sad night, I won’t get into all the reasons the public sex offender registry hasn’t made us safer and yet has ruined countless lives in the process. You can read the Bleyer piece to see how Patty Wetterling herself has come to question this legacy of her son’s disappearance. And she’s not alone. Just a few days ago the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Michigan declared that many of the registry’s ever-increasing requirements are unconstitutional. It is terrible how bad crimes make bad law.
But the real point tonight is that one young man did not get to live out his days. His family has lived without him for 27 years, and they have just learned they must live without him forever.
We pass laws because we wish there was a way to ease this sadness. It’s an impulse we can all understand, even if we regret the laws that it inspired.
Lenore Skenazy is an American blogger, columnist, author, and reality show host. A mother who lives in Queens with her husband and two sons, her controversial decision to let her then-9-year-old son take the New York City Subway home alone became a national story and prompted massive media attention. She was dubbed, “America’s Worst Mom.” In response, Skenazy founded the book, blog, and movement “Free-Range Kids,” with the aim of “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”
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