Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sorry to say, but the majority of our sexual predators - who are boyfriends, uncles, aunts, teachers, fathers, mothers, grand fathers - would never make the sex offenders' list. They are busy roaming our communities with impunity

'No' to public sex offender registry

Tribune Features Editor

The investigation into the death of 11-year-old Marco Archer, believed to have been sexually abused before he was murdered, triggered widespread calls for a sex offender's registry in the Bahamas.

I am currently taking bets on how long the public outcry will last. The chorus is building right now, but this choir has little stamina, so by the time November rolls around, I bet the sex offender registry will be old news. That is the Bahamian way: To tackle our problems by blowing hot air for a short period of time and then complaining when they fail to be resolved.

I have a cause worth a long term investment by the Bahamian people, but it is not for a sex offender's registry. I believe the call for a Bahamian registry is not rooted in sound thinking. Bahamians are looking desperately for a quick sense of security, no matter how false. The fact of the matter is: there are many more sex offenders roaming these streets than there are behind bars in Fox Hill prison.

Add to the Fox Hill count, those accused offenders being processed through the court system and those convicted offenders having served their time and the scale is still tipped in the favour of those who never get caught and are never prosecuted. Sorry to say, but the majority of our sexual predators - who are boyfriends, uncles, aunts, teachers, fathers, mothers, grand fathers - would never make the sex offenders' list. They are busy roaming our communities with impunity.

And the same people who are outraged provide them with a cloak of protection.

Over 500 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2010, and the prison has less than 100 sex offenders. Plus it is well known that sexual assault is the most under reported crime. So what kind of security exactly, but a false sense of security, would a register provide?

People say they would know not to let their children play outside if they knew that a sex offender lived down the road. That is a sorry reason. We have already lost that culture and it has nothing to do with sex offenders. The most tangible impact of a public registry would be the enabling of vigilante justice, which would serve no productive purpose but to feed the egos of Bahamians.

Here is a cause worth a long term investment by the Bahamian people.

Join an established organization working in the trenches to protect our children and change public attitudes towards sexual violence and be a part of their proactive workforce. There are so many existing social programmes that could be more effective in their interventions with children if more of these outraged Bahamians gave their time, energy and resources to the actual work. There is a serious need for foot soldiers in the trenches working one-on-one with established social programmes trying to create deep-rooted change.

The Crisis Centre had a night of Hope and Healing last week. This annual event was organized long before the dust settled on little Marco's body. It ended up falling in the midst of this great tragedy and still, how many people turned out? The usual committed few. And to think I heard shameful comments last week from Bahamians trying to throw Dr Sandra Dean-Patterson under the bus, director of the Bahamas Crisis Centre.

"Where is Dr. Sandra Patterson or you only speak for females? Come on when something happen to female you are on every radio network," said the person. Not only is the comment inaccurate, because Dr Patterson and the Crisis Centre represent man, woman and child, and this false gender division is based on a myth, but it is also insulting. Dr Patterson and her team are not some-time advocates, who show their faces in the heat of passion.

Every day Dr Patterson works a full-time shift as a government paid mental health worker and then she goes to the Crisis Centre to pull another full time shift as a volunteer counsellor. She does this along with the other professional volunteers in addition to finding time for their legislative advocacy, community outreach and public training.

If the Crisis Centre, a private non-profit organization, is not visible enough for the liking of some, perhaps they should pass by and ask to see their annual budget. There is only so much visibility you can achieve with pennies in the bank. Do they expect the Crisis Centre to advertise on promissory notes? Perhaps they should pass by the average event and see the number of volunteers or participants. There is only so much exposure you can achieve with few hands to carry the message. And despite all of this, the very few committed and consistent volunteers have achieved mammoth accomplishments over the years on behalf of the Bahamian people.

So just to settle that criticism, Bahamians should think more carefully before they draw a name like Dr Patterson or the Crisis Centre to direct their ire towards. The reality is there are advocates who have been working day and night to end sexual violence in the Bahamas and to protect child and adult, male and female victims of sexually based crimes for many.

They do not wait on something tragic to happen to be reactionary and feign outrage. They do not spend the precious time and energy they have shouting from the pulpits about what they do. They dedicate their personal talents and resources to doing the work that everyone else is too busy talking about to do: running the 24-hour hotline; providing free counselling to all victims of abuse and people in need and other mental health services; providing training for law enforcement officers and social workers; outreach in the schools based on their anti-bullying peace campaign and their healthy relationships campaign; organizing conferences and other activities. They work every single day at their advocacy and they are starved for support. Men and women like them are who I align myself with and theirs are the causes I champion. Not the fly-by-night, jump-on-the-bandwagon advocates who feign outrage over the latest crime. As the old people say, empty-barrels make the most noise.

So instead of splitting hairs over the sex offender's registry, here are some of the things I suggest we channel energy towards in a consistent and concerted manner.

More prompt response to missing children. One child advocate told me she thought it was ridiculous, the "nonchalant" attitude of police officers when it comes to missing children. She proposes that the response time for "taking it serious" be reduced to two to three hours, coming from the current speed time of two to three days. In the United States there is the AMBER Alert system. In Jamaica there is the Ananda Alert system, both named after missing children. They are nationwide systems designed to ensure the speedy and safe recovery of missing children, particularly in the case of abducted or kidnapped children.

What system is there to speak of in the Bahamas?

Sexual Abuse Prevention Policies. In 2007 the Crisis Centre hosted a regional conference to end sexual violence. During the conference, the US-based child advocacy non-profit Darkness to Light held a sexual abuse prevention training programme. The programme Stewards of Children educates adults "to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, and motivates them to courageous action." It encourages private and public institutions to enact policies around seven action steps: learning the facts about child abuse; minimizing opportunity for child abuse to occur; talking about child abuse to foster a culture of openness and disclosure; staying alert to be able to recognize warning signs; making a plan to know where to go, who to call and how to react; acting on suspicious behaviour to ensure accountability and getting involved with advocacy organizations and programmes. There are many policies and initiatives we should adopt learning from the Stewards of Children approach.

Mental health programmes for sex offenders. Sources tell me that sex offenders in prison receive virtual no mental health treatment, despite the fact that they get short sentences and almost always are released back into the society. Sexual offenders are notorious repeat offenders and need thorough and structured intervention before re-entry into society. The Bahamian society provides none of these things. Only a short period of rest in an all expense paid hotel courtesy of the public. Unless we are going to lock sex offenders up for life, we need to invest in the best professionals to work with them while incarcerated. And professionals will tell you that it takes "a special kind of person", who is highly trained, to be able to treat a sex offender. Few of those people exist in the Bahamas. Is it worth the expense? If these people are going to be roaming our streets, certainly.

A parole system for sex offenders. The Bahamas needs a parole system to monitor sex offenders released from prison and ensure public safety. In this light, there of course should be a sex offender's registry, but it should be a safety management tool for law enforcement and social workers, not a vigilante enabler for the public.

An enhanced probation programme. No offence to the hard working probation officers, but my sources tell me that the Probation Department is a joke. Understaffed, underfunded and under motivated.

The hundreds of people assigned to the handful of probation officers in the Department of Corrections cannot possibly fulfil their purpose with any success.

These initiatives along with harsher penalties for sex offenders and people who commit child abuse and better detection and prosecution rates would go further than any sex offender registry. So I encourage Bahamians to get out of the habit of being outraged in the heat of the moment and then fizzling out when it is time to work. I encourage Bahamians to get out of the habit of advocating for the quick and convenient action with a nice-sounding name, and instead advocate for long term measures that get to the root of things.

October 03, 2011

tribune242 editorial Insight