Hello, My Name is Pervert

Therapist Phil Taylor counsels rapists, child molesters, and exhibitionists. He believes giving these men their dignity and a safe environment for treatment can help keep them from offending again--a position often at odds with Texas probation officers.

One after another, they drift into the cramped Dallas offices of counselor Phil Taylor--a half dozen of America's Most Unwanted, registered sex offenders all. Reeking of strong coffee, summer sweat, and stale cigarettes, they have come this Saturday morning seeking group therapy for the same reason they do every Saturday morning: because they are forced to.

They are the moral equivalent of lepers--or at least that's how we treat them. We order them to register with the police so we can know their whereabouts at all times. We post their photographs on the Internet so we can protect our children from them. We don't care if their civil rights are trampled upon--we want them kept out of our parks, our malls, our lives. We use words to describe them that incite outrage and fear: molesters, perverts, predators, sick fucks. Their crimes seem unfathomable, their sins unforgivable, the damage they cause permanent. Yet they have been granted probation or parole, and as a condition, they are getting help for having helped themselves to the most vulnerable among us.

One of them is Eddie, the 400-pound dean of the group who talks the talk of sex-offender therapy as though he were schooled in it. He is edging toward the end of his 10-year probated sentence. He is terrified that his probation officer is going "to jack" with him during his final six weeks. If his probation is revoked and he goes to the pen--a grossly obese child molester--he knows he's a dead man.

"I molested my stepdaughter about 18 years ago. She was 4 years old at the time," he confesses, aware of its therapeutic value. "Did oral sex on her. Had her do oral sex on me. Exposed her to pornographic materials. Exposed myself to her. Fondled her."

Then there is Rusty, a gimme cap concealing his fiery red hair and freckled forehead. He comes across as the boy-next-door: kind, friendly, open...maybe a little too open. "I exposed myself to girls in my car as I drove by," he says. "I was convicted of three counts of indecency with a child."

There is Billy, who sees himself as different from the others. Yes, he dropped his swimming trunks while standing on the diving board, flashing nearly everyone at his apartment-complex pool. But he was out-of-his-head drunk, too shitfaced to notice the 12-year-old girl who noticed him first. He remains perpetually angry about the deal he got. His lawyer didn't tell him what it meant to be a sex offender. That was something he had to find out for himself.

"My name is Cain," announces a late arrival. "I am here on two counts of rape of an adult female. I did eight years the first stint. Got out, and did another eight years the second."

Taylor, who conducts the group with Shari Scott, looks puzzled. "Why did you say your name was Cain?"

"Like in the Bible, Cain was the wandering child," he says, alluding to the way he has drifted between jobs and relationships. "Cain murdered his brother, and he was marked for the rest of his life. I feel like I am marked for the rest of my life."

"So that means you are not welcome anywhere?"

"Pretty much."

Taylor turns to Walter, the newest group member, freshly released from the pen just three months ago. It's his turn to work, and Taylor asks him to describe a typical day in which he offended--without evading responsibility or blame.

Walter takes a deep breath and a long pause. Choosing the right words is an obsession with him--one of many. "It generally began with a thought. My mind would play with the thought, entertain it, roll it around."

"What kind of thought?" asks Taylor, pulling slightly on his salt-and-pepper beard.

"That I want to expose. That I want the rush. But I couldn't just expose myself to anybody. It had to be an attractive female. And then the opportunity had to be there."

"Some days, do you have to work hard for the opportunity and it doesn't happen?"

"That's right. And I would head home after hours of cruising and have tremendous feelings of self-recrimination, tremendous feelings of, 'How can you be so fucking stupid?'"

"It was stupid, but it was also pleasurable," adds Taylor.

"It was a conflict," Walter says. "My deal was to see how far I could go. What I am working on here is the thrill, the adrenaline rush." The library was his favorite place to expose, he admits. He would hide behind a book or a magazine, walk up to his victim--child or adult--and position himself in such a way that they could see him, or not. That way he could blame them for looking, not himself for exposing.  

Taylor is quick to jump in. Did he see how he was shifting blame, letting himself off the hook?

"I would tell myself I'm not really hurting anyone. Never once in my entire history did I ever have verbal or physical contact with any of my victims."

"So where's the harm?" says Scott.

"That is part of the rationalization," Walter nods.

This is good, figures Taylor; Walter is getting it. "The dynamic is to rationalize, to minimize, to say nobody got hurt, so what's the big deal? But someone did get hurt, and you guys have got to realize that your abuse affected someone big-time. Rationalizing is the way every human being deals with their conscience."

All eyes are focused on Taylor as he speaks. His voice is mellifluous, soothing to the point of being meditative. Nevertheless, the men hear him when he calls them on their bullshit; they hear him when he calls their behavior risky; they hear him when he calls them human beings.

At least someone is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When it comes to sex offenders--particularly those who molest children--it's hard to be rational, much less humane. Something deeply visceral, almost primitive, shapes our beliefs. Sex offenders are perceived as both insatiable and incurable, repeating their depraved behavior countless times with as many children. We think they are so manipulative that they would do anything to gain the confidence of their prey, so secretive that they can go undetected by the legal system for years. Since they are destined to re-offend, they must be severely punished. Since we refuse to lock them up forever, when they get released, they must be identified, monitored, and isolated from the rest of us. Registration, community notification, onerous conditions of probation or parole that keep them on a short leash--that's the way to keep us safe.

But what if we are wrong?

What good is notification if the real danger to our children doesn't come from those we don't know but those we do: stepfathers and uncles and friends of the family? What if notification might increase the risk that sex offenders will offend again by relegating them to the margins of society, with no place to live and no chance at meaningful employment or relationships? What if zealous probation officers and conditions of probation or parole--no contact with minors, no pornography, routine polygraphs--make their living conditions so abnormal that there is no way they can ever live normal lives?

Judges and parole boards require sex offenders to attend counseling. Some treatment providers--many favored by the probation department--are more concerned with public safety than with mental health. Polygraphs, threats, and questionable behavior-modification techniques are used to enforce compliance with probationary conditions. Disclosures made during the course of treatment, even those of considerable therapeutic value, may be used against the sex offender in court.

Phil Taylor takes a more therapeutic approach, and as a result he does not have most-favored-therapist status with the Dallas County Probation Department. He deals with issues common to all sex offenders--low self-esteem, lack of victim empathy, a heightened sense of entitlement, highly impulsive behavior. "My therapy aims at enabling these guys to draw reasonable lessons from their offenses, which will put them in a position to make them less likely to repeat them," Taylor explains.

Clearly a small percentage of men--classic pedophiles--should be forbidden from ever being around children. There are many sex offenders, however, whose reprehensible behavior can be managed. Empirical studies suggest that the chance most convicted sex offenders will commit another sex offense is surprisingly small, particularly after treatment.

But the issue generates such blind emotion that few people can reasonably sift through the data. Instead they can't get past the threshold question: Would you want one of these guys moving next door to your family?

Notification, registration--none of that would have stopped Eddie from molesting his victim. She was the 4-year-old stepdaughter he never wanted, which, oddly enough, was the way his parents felt about him. Eddie says he felt unloved by his mother, not good enough for his father--feelings that led to low self-esteem, depression, and serious weight gain. The only thing that made him feel better about himself was sex and lots of it. In cheap motels and mall parking lots, with men as well as women, swapping on double dates at the drive-in, sex was his body's own Prozac.

Now in his late 30s, Eddie hasn't told his story in a while, but since acknowledging your problem is essential to group therapy, he has no problem being forthcoming.

At 21, he inherited Emily when he married her mom, who was also overweight and a drunk. She loved sex as much as he did--loved the bar scene even more. Eddie lost his job, depleted his savings, and maxed out his credit cards, but she kept drinking through it all. To save money, he became head babysitter, and he resented it. But rather than direct his anger toward his wife, he directed it toward her child.  

Because he was bored, he watched porno movies and masturbated to them while Emily watched. One day he was sitting in the bathroom, and he called for Emily to join him. "I had her perform oral sex on me," Eddie recalls. About a week later, he made her do the same thing again while he rubbed his hands between her legs.

Eddie's problem was with his wife, but in his twisted way of thinking, he felt entitled to get payback from her daughter.

"When these passive guys reach the point of saying, 'fuck it,' they quickly get to what we call destructive entitlement: 'I have been treated shitty for so long, I am entitled to treat other people any damn way I please,'" Taylor explains.

Eddie threatened Emily, telling her that if she told her mother their little secret, her mother would make her live somewhere else. "I didn't see it as being very harmful to her. I thought she was young enough that she wouldn't remember any of it."

Emily did remember. Three years later, she made some reference to "what Daddy made me do." If his wife was concerned, she didn't show it. She left Emily with Eddie that night and attended an AA meeting.

Eddie and his wife remained married for five stormy years and two more daughters. But after his wife caught him with another woman, he used the opportunity to leave.

Two years after their divorce, criminal allegations of sexual abuse surfaced concerning Emily as well as one of his biological daughters. Eddie saw this as a vindictive attempt to extort more child support from him, and he denies the second charge to this day. His lawyer, however, convinced him not to contest either charge since his plea bargain included the same 10-year probated sentence for both. It was 1990, and the heat hadn't been turned up on sex offenders. There was no notification, no registration, no extraordinary conditions other than attending counseling. The judge even hinted that he might let Eddie off probation early.

Rusty can relate: "When I plea bargained mine, nobody had ever heard of registration. Now I register every three months for the rest of my life. That's almost like double jeopardy."

This is one topic that really pisses off Billy. After he received probation for exposing himself at a swimming pool, he was told he would only have to register as a sex offender during his probation. But Billy's temper got him into trouble when he threatened his ex-business partner for cheating him out of a job. The judge revoked his probation and sent him to the pen for five years. The law would change, Billy made parole, and even though he passed a polygraph that validated his claim that he had no intent to sexually arouse anyone at the pool, "I still have to register once a year. I have just as many stipulations as the rest of you guys."

Billy's anger concerns Taylor. "You're in one of those ambiguous situations where you say to yourself, 'I am not a sex offender.' At times, guys will rationalize to themselves, 'I have been mislabeled here.'" He redirects his comments to Cain. "Or 'My offense was with an adult. So what's the deal? Why can't I have contact with minors? What do they want me to do, crawl into a hole?' Those are the kinds of rationalizations I hear guys use when they think about acting out."

"The way I look at it," explains Billy, gaining some composure. "I didn't sign up for this army. I signed up for the ones with the condos and the designer sheets."

Everyone laughs.

"You signed up for the peace-time army," Taylor says. "And you can't figure out why they are using live ammunition."

Public policy toward sex offenders seems driven by emotion, politics, the press, and more emotion. Why shouldn't it be, particularly when we are forced to deal with the likes of Earl Shinner, a resident of Washington state who in 1989 assaulted a 7-year-old boy, mutilating his genitals and leaving him for dead? Three prior convictions for sexual molestation weren't enough to keep him behind bars. Small wonder Washington legislators responded to the public outrage by pioneering sexual-predator statutes that enhanced punishment for habitual sex offenders and required dangerous offenders to register with police so the community could be notified that a molester lived in its midst.  

In the early '90s, child murderers such as Richard Allen Davis in California (who killed Polly Klaas) and Westley Alan Dodd in Washington (a serial predator) personified the evil that fueled the public's fear and loathing of sex offenders. In 1994, Jesse Timmendequas, who had been described by a judge as a "compulsive, repetitive sexual offender," raped and strangled 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey. After serving seven years in a New Jersey prison, he had recently moved into Megan's neighborhood, living with two other sex offenders. Her parents had no idea. The public outcry from the case caused New Jersey legislators to enact what has become known as Megan's law, and this unfortunate victim became the poster child for a notification movement that was by now sweeping the country.

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It would be political suicide for a legislator, even one concerned about privacy rights, to vote against a law aimed at protecting children from sexual predators. "Who else can you safely hate these days?" asks Dr. Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Penn State University and author of Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. "With sex offenders, you have finally hit on a group where there are no defenders."

Certainly, Michael Blair had few defenders when he was accused of murdering 7-year-old Ashley Estell after snatching her from a Plano soccer field on Labor Day weekend 1993. Blair had recently been released from a Texas prison for burglary of a habitation, but the category of his crime masked his true intent: to abduct and molest a child living in the house. Blair was paroled after serving 18 months of a 10-year sentence.

In 1995, the Texas Legislature responded to the problem of sexual offenders by enacting Ashley's laws, a set of 12 statutes that had as its cornerstone community notification. Although Texas had a sex-offender registry in place as early as 1991, only police had access to information aimed at keeping track of pedophiles. Ashley's laws tightened registration requirements, stiffened penalties for repeat sex offenders, and created a notification system that provided the public with the general description of the offender and his crime as well as the block and street where he resided.

After a sex offender was placed on probation or parole, his address would be sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety and the local law enforcement agency where the sex offender lived. The police would then notify local school officials and publish notices in a local newspaper. Legislators believed that this general description (no name, photo, or street address) provided just the right amount of information: enough to put parents on notice but not so much as to provoke vigilantism. Notification was aimed at pedophiles (no incest offenders)--child molesters like Michael Blair who were strangers to their victims.

President Clinton endorsed and signed legislation in 1996 that required all states to enact sex-offender notification statutes. Faced with the loss of federal funds, all 50 states have complied, though the extent of notification varies from state to state.

In response to public demand for more information, the Texas Legislature in 1997 and 1999 pushed its notification system far beyond the original intent of Ashley's laws: The police were now required to publish a sex offender's exact address as well as his name in local newspapers. Most of the sex-offender registry, including photographs, was now posted on Department of Public Safety and local police Web sites. As if that weren't enough notice, high-risk offenders were required to mail postcards to prospective neighbors--three blocks away in urban areas, one mile in rural.

Last August, before the postcard-notification law went into effect, the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Ray Allen from Grand Prairie, told The Dallas Morning News: "This [law] will deter future crime because offenders will know that they are being watched."

But a 1995 study commissioned by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy reached the opposite conclusion. "Unfortunately, the findings suggest that community notification had little effect on recidivism as measured by new arrests for sex offenses or other types of criminal behavior."

If notification statutes don't improve community safety, they certainly give us a heightened sense of security. Just knowing that we will be warned if a sex offender moves into our neighborhood makes us feel safer, as though we have identified a problem and can now do something about it. We can walk our children safely past a sex offender's home; we can instruct our children never to play anywhere near his residence; we can move. That most sex offenders know their victims, that a sex offender can simply travel to an adjoining neighborhood and offend, is of no moment. In this age of information, we want to know as much as possible.  

As the scope of notification has expanded, so has the definition of who constitutes a sex offender. No longer is notification limited to pedophiles in Texas, but caught within its sights are kidnappers, adult rapists, flashers, pornographers, pimps. Teenage boys caught having sex with underage girls must register for 10 years beyond the term of their probation or parole. Sex offenders convicted as far back as 1970 are now required to register. Suddenly it's not just children who need added protection from sex offenders; it's all of us.

"We are talking about crime and sex, and when you put the two together it makes for a very heated issue," says Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore. "There is a tendency to lump every sex offender together so they all seem equally dangerous."

The notification statutes have had other unintended consequences. A mentally handicapped Dallas man who had moved into the former home of a registered sex offender was severely beaten by neighbors who mistakenly assumed he was that sex offender. In Fort Worth, a teenager committed suicide after her father's identity was posted on the Internet.

Yet if a single child, the conventional wisdom goes, is spared the agony of sexual molestation, it doesn't matter that the civil rights of thousands of sex offenders might be abridged. What matters is that they be stopped.

The fear of getting caught wasn't enough to stop Rusty, though it did come into play when he selected his victims. He was attracted to adolescent girls, those who had begun to look like little women. "But not someone so old that they could write down my license number," he says. Driving through a residential neighborhood, he would see a girl on a bicycle and lift himself up in his seat. If she didn't want to see it, he figured, she didn't have to look.

After he exposed himself, he would pull over to the side of the road and berate himself. He had so damn much to lose.

Several universities had offered him athletic scholarships, but he had decided to attend junior college instead. He didn't want to leave his girlfriend, who, not surprisingly, was three years his junior. But when she dumped him, he grew angry; he had given up everything for her. He felt entitled to some fun, something to break the boredom, indulge his fantasies.

He got away with it a couple of times, and then he got caught, mistakenly driving past the home of the girl he had just flashed, who was standing in the front yard beside her mother. They wrote down his license number after all.

Rusty's timing couldn't have been worse: He received probation in Collin County just after Michael Blair had murdered Ashley Estell. "You can't not violate probation in Collin County," Rusty informs the group. "My probation officer [PO] has never completed anyone. I got revoked due to a polygraph test. That's why I am on parole now."

Those words don't sit well with Eddie, who has only a month left on his 10-year probation. He needs to pass a polygraph to convince his probation officer that he is no longer at risk of offending. "What happened with the polygraph?" he asks Rusty.

He had married, his wife was pregnant, and Rusty wanted to attend the birth of his baby. "One of the conditions of my probation was that I could have no contact with minors. "My PO said I could not be there when my daughter was born."

"You can't get any more minor that that," Taylor adds.

"He was afraid I might fondle my baby right out of the womb," Rusty says. "The deal with exposers is, you never actually touch."

Rusty attended the delivery anyway. "My PO told me I had to take a polygraph to find out exactly what all went on. He said he would revoke me if I didn't take it." Rusty passed the polygraph, but in the process admitted he had driven through school safety zones and viewed pornography on the Internet. The judge revoked him for a page of technical violations.

"It's weird," continues Rusty. "In order to take the polygraph, you have to sign away your Fifth Amendment rights so anything you disclose can and will be used against you. But if you don't take the polygraph, they say you're not following treatment and revoke you anyway--and they call the whole thing voluntary..."

"A lot of probation officers don't think sex offenders deserve probation," Eddie says. "So they just jack with you until you find a way to hang yourself."  

Eddie's way was pornography. "It was my drug," he says. Also, he didn't think that Playboy or Penthouse--or his swingers magazines, for that matter--qualified as pornography. No one bothered to define it for him. Three years ago he admitted to a polygraph operator that he was still an avid porn-watcher. His therapist at the time kicked him out of group. Then his PO sought a warrant for his arrest and tried to convince a judge that Eddie had failed to make progress in therapy. Only after Phil Taylor agreed to treat him was Eddie released from the Dallas County jail.

With two other therapists, Eddie had been subjected to plethysmograph assessment, which measured his penile arousal as he viewed photos of children (he showed none, Eddie says); behavior-modification techniques such as masturbation-satiation therapy--requiring him to masturbate frequently to deviant fantasies--that seem almost Orwellian in their approach; and a confrontational, browbeating form of talk therapy that used threats and intimidation to break down denial. All this was done in the name of sex-offender treatment.

"With many therapists, it's like they are just waiting for you to disclose something so they can go spill their guts to probation," he says.

If a probation or parole officer insists that a patient of Taylor's take a polygraph, Taylor won't resist, but he won't kick them out of therapy if they fail. "But let me be clear about this," he warns the entire group. "If I had any reason to think that any of you were at an increased risk of re-offending sexually, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up the phone and call your PO."

Small wonder Eddie remains anxious about taking one final polygraph test.

Since 1996, the Dallas County Probation Department has maintained a specially trained unit of probation officers who, criminal defense attorneys complain, are the Marines of the department. Most of them embrace a hardball approach to treatment--one that attempts to keep the 900 or so sex offenders they supervise in check, monitoring them closely through polygraphs and confrontational tactics. "Sex-offender therapy is not necessarily feel-good therapy," says Ron Anderson, the head of the unit. "It's also about victims and surveillance and assessing risk to public safety."

All this sounds perfectly reasonable until it's applied.

"The central irony is that we scream at sex offenders to be normal but then we don't allow them to exist normally," says attorney Stuart Parker, past president of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "How can anyone realistically avoid all contact with minor children?"

Let's say a sex offender drives to a gas station and walks inside to pay. If the attendant is a 16-year-old, the simple act of handing her the money may violate his probation. A probationer may be prohibited from having a relationship with his own children, even though he never victimized them and is still married to their mother. If he phones her just to talk and his daughter answers, that might be considered contact.

"I am constantly second-guessing myself, wondering, 'What would my probation officer think?'" Eddie says. "I would never go to the movies or the mall. I rarely go out in public anymore."

Because breaking through denial is highly therapeutic and a sex offender often veils his behavior in secrecy, openness in therapy is not just encouraged, it's demanded. In Dallas and other counties across the state, sex offenders are routinely polygraphed, either as a term of probation or as part of therapy. "Therapists will use them to get offenders to be more honest," Anderson says. "But a repeated flunker may be kicked out of therapy if the therapist feels there is nothing he can do with them."

Polygraphs delve into the sexual history of the offender and monitor whether he has complied with the terms of probation. They also present the sex offender with an impossible choice: If he passes the test and discloses some violation to the polygraph operator, a probation officer might file a motion to revoke probation based on those disclosures. If he flunks the test and doesn't disclose, a probation officer might consider this a therapy failure and file a motion to revoke anyway. Either way, disclosing or not, passing or not, a sex offender risks going to the pen if a judge follows the recommendation of the probation officer.

Consider the case of a sex offender who is struggling with fantasies of pubescent girls and reveals as much in therapy. Probation officers have used these disclosures as evidence in court, hoping to convince a judge that these thoughts, which have not been acted upon, indicate that the sex offender is a community risk.  

"How can you punish them when it is essential to their treatment that they reveal it?" asks attorney Parker. "That's not Catch-22. It's Catch-22 raised to the highest power."

Ron Anderson has no qualms about the treatment philosophy of his special unit: "Our primary purpose is to do what we can to see that the offender is not going to offend. We do not want to have more victims."

But that thinking, some argue, has led to an "us vs. them" mentality, where only the treatment providers who are philosophically aligned with probation receive referrals from the department.

"I was blackballed by probation after I testified on behalf of the defense," says Ron Patterson, a sex-offender therapist who runs the Oak Cliff Counseling Center. "Probationers are on a treadmill that is not going anywhere. They can be in treatment for nine years, and the probation department will save up all these technical violations, and then use them in the last minute to revoke some guy."

Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins believes in a blending of the two kinds of treatment alternatives. At his Sexual Disorders Clinic, which has been designated a national resource site by the federal government, "We would report non-cooperation to probation, but we don't divulge the content of therapy," he says. If a treatment provider is perceived as using a polygraph to ferret out new victims or violations, it can undermine trust and clinical rapport. "We want the person to know that we are not just here to do society a favor--we are here to help them as well."

Eddie is late for group: He had wanted to stop at his usual bagel shop, but there was a mob of children queued up in front of an adjoining bookstore. TV cameras sat ready to capture anxious kids waiting to get their hands on the latest Harry Potter novel. "I said to myself, 'Well, I don't think I will stop here,'" he tells the group. Ten years of probation have taught him this.

Phil Taylor uses the story to make certain everyone knows what's expected of them. "OK, somebody tell me what rule applies when you are looking for a place to live..."

"I stay as far away from a pool as I can possibly get," Rusty says, chewing on his nails. "Make sure there is no playground."

Taylor wants to put a finer point on it. "How far can the property line of your apartment be from the playground or the pool?"

Everyone yells out: "500 feet."

But that's only with parole, whose conditions are set by the parole board. Rules for probationers are set by judges, and the distance can vary from 300 to 1000 feet, depending on the judge.

Of course, that doesn't mean a landlord will rent to them. If a registered sex offender doesn't disclose his criminal history, a background check or Internet search certainly will. And it is the rare landlord who will knowingly rent to a sex offender--not if he wants to keep his premises fully insured. Few complexes with children would dare risk it. Generally smaller units, privately run and often run-down, are the only places that will accommodate sex offenders.

"The 500 feet applies not only to where you cannot live, but where you cannot go," Taylor adds. "You may not move your body through a 500-foot radius of a day-care center, school, park, pool, or playground.

"That's impossible," says Cain, who doesn't believe the rule should apply to him in the first place. He raped adult women, not children. What difference does it make if he drives through a child safety zone?

"You still have to deal with it," Taylor says.

"You can't help but drive past them," Cain says. "My PO says just do your best."

"Some take that attitude," Eddie says. "Others take the attitude that 'If I find out about it, I'm violating you.'"

After Rusty spent three years in prison for violating his probation, he was told he would be able to live with his wife and baby daughter. His parents had built a $90,000 addition to their home. The three lived there for a month until a new parole officer paid Rusty a visit at work and forbade him from returning home. He couldn't even get his things. "For me, being away from my wife and kid and parents in an apartment by myself, that's the most dangerous thing in the world," he tells the group. "My family knows what's going on. Living with them, I am accountable, 24/7. It doesn't make sense..."

Shari Scott appears sympathetic. "Kinda stacks the deck against you when we know what makes a guy successful on probation: a safe place to live, a stable, monogamous relationship. When you start disclosing information about your offense to others, it can make it really difficult."  

"It can cut them off completely," adds Cain.

Taylor and Scott encourage the group to disclose only to those who have a "need to know." Family, lovers, possibly employers and landlords. If they don't find out from the Internet, what's the point in heaping more stress on yourself?

Eddie has told his sister but can't bring himself to tell his mother, even after 10 years of probation. He convinced her that his ex-wife falsely accused him. Taylor encourages Eddie to tell her, thinks that some of Eddie's pent-up anxiety may have affected his polygraph results.

"I bombed it miserably," he tells the group. "I was totally honest, but every time I was asked a question, I would think about things I have done with other guys, and homosexual activity has been totally looked down upon by my family."

Taylor suggests a family-style intervention--mother and all. His secrets needed to be dealt with.

But Eddie is resistant: His 80-year-old mother would never understand. Besides, he is more concerned about what will happen to him next: With only 10 days remaining on his sentence, his PO is talking about attempting to either revoke his probation or extend it. Because of Eddie's answers on the polygraph, the PO obviously believes Eddie will offend again.

Unlike with alcoholics, it is hard to work up any empathy for pedophiles. We don't open Betty Ford Clinics for the treatment of pedophilia--we wouldn't dare walk in their shoes. It's a lot safer to indulge long-held stereotypes: Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. All sex offenders are alike.

But for those who have studied the issue, a different perception emerges.

There are those sex offenders who are classic pedophiles, who have a recurring incurable attraction to children. They are the strangers who connive and molest and pose such a grave risk to the community that they may be locked up for a lifetime. They number no more than 5 percent of all sex offenders, though even that is too much. Among their numbers is an even smaller percentage who kidnap and maim and murder and who set the harsh tone of the war against all sex offenders.

"I have been on the bench since 1988," recalls Dallas Criminal District Judge Harold Entz. "And I can't tell you the last time I had a true stranger-on-stranger sex offense [against a child] in my court."

There are those sex offenders who are compelled to expose themselves to children, who are hardwired differently from the rest of us, whose obsession will seldom cause them to molest and often cause them to be caught. Their numbers are also small.

There are those--the majority--who are passive, pitiful men with low self-esteem, who are childlike in their impulsiveness, who prey on those they know--stepdaughters, nieces, the children of family friends--because they are too timid or too angry to deal with the adults in their lives. Studies show that once they are caught, publicly humiliated, and treated, they are the least likely to offend again.

A 1997 study conducted by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, a state agency, followed 722 sex offenders, all released from prison in 1992, for a three-year period. The overall rate of recidivism for these offenders was 45 percent compared with 48 percent of the general prison population. But only 4 percent of the sex offenders were subsequently arrested for a new sex offense. Assessing the factors associated with low recidivism, the council wrote, "Sex offenders who are less likely to recidivate are older, more educated, married, employed at the time of initial arrest, victimized family members in their own residence, and had not previously violated a supervision."

Although the pubic perception is otherwise, repeated studies place the recidivism rate for sex offenders who commit a subsequent sex offense at somewhere between 4 and 15 percent on average. Of course, any recidivism rate, particularly with sex crimes, is an underestimate because many offenses remain both undetected and unreported.

While not everyone is amenable to treatment, research has also shown that those who complete treatment are less likely to re-offend than those who don't. "Those sex offenders who receive effective treatment are from one-third to one-half as likely to re-offend for another sex offense as those who receive no treatment at all or drop out of treatment," says Dr. Karl Hanson, an eminent sex-offender researcher with the Canadian Solicitor General's Office. "Of course, there has been little research as to what exactly constitutes effective treatment."

The Dallas County Probation Department would argue that effective sex-offender treatment isn't so much therapy as it is supervision: Public safety demands that we monitor sex offenders closely, polygraph routinely, and sanction when necessary, even if that means using disclosures revealed in a group-therapy setting. One of its preferred treatment providers has told the press that if given the opportunity all sex offenders will re-offend, while another believes that sex offenders should stay in treatment for life.  

Phil Taylor, on the other hand, believes in giving these men their dignity--what's left of it. He would argue for treatment that offers them the kind of trusting venue that only a therapeutic relationship provides. Only if they are able to safely disclose the issues that haunt them without fear of punishment will they be able to begin the difficult process of change.

Although their methods may differ dramatically, both types of treatment have at their core one fundamental goal: to lessen the risk that the sex offender will ever victimize again.

Rusty (indecent exposure to a child: three counts) is currently being held in the Collin County jail on charges that he violated the conditions of his parole. He had been making progress in therapy and was in the "medium-low risk" to re-offend, based on a risk assessment employed by Taylor and the state. The police, however, claim that while at work, he befriended a teenage girl and, in the course of a hug, touched her buttocks. Police also seized his work computer and determined that Rusty had visited numerous porn sites. The violation of either parole condition--no contact with minors, no pornography--is enough to send Rusty back to the penitentiary for the balance of his 5-year sentence.

Cain (adult rape: two counts) had impulsively gone through a series of jobs and relationships and living arrangements. Because his needs always seem greater than his available cash on hand, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Recently, however, he became involved in a stable relationship and holds a good position with a solid company. Both are causing him to doubt the accuracy of his self-concept as the alienated outsider and all-around bad-ass. Because of his history of recidivism, his risk for re-offending is in the medium-high category.

Walter (indecent exposure to a child: five counts) represents a classic exhibitionist. He has admitted in therapy that he has exposed hundreds of times, which has resulted in three trips to the pen. Age (58), medication (Zoloft), and an electronic leg monitor may slow him down. Nevertheless, his risk of re-offending remains high.

Billy (indecent exposure to a child: one count) attended an AA retreat in Ellis County and was stopped by the police for speeding. In his car was the teenage daughter of one of his friends, who was also in recovery. His parole officer took no action other than to continue the sex-offender conditions that Billy thought should never have applied to him in the first place. Therapy issues include anger management and dealing with long-term history of alcohol abuse. If he ever works through his anger over becoming a sex offender for dropping trou in a drunken rage, his risk of re-offending is considered low.

Eddie (aggravated sex abuse with a child: two counts) served out the final days of his 10-year probated sentence without passing a polygraph and without returning to jail. He was scheduled for gastric bypass surgery that would have forced him to lose significant weight. His attorney convinced the probation department that the surgery would enhance his self-esteem, reducing his risk of re-offending as well as his sizeable waistline. He has yet to have the surgery and has yet to tell his mother that he is a sex offender.

Editor's note: The names and some of the identifying characteristics of the sex offenders quoted in this story have been changed as a condition of their interviews. Mark Donald is the brother of state Sen. Florence Shapiro, who sponsored the legislation known as Ashley's laws.

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