Patty Wetterling questions sex offender laws

The outspoken activist has a change of heart over the wide-reaching scope of laws she helped put into action

On an overcast spring day in 1996, a handful of people filed out of the Oval Office and assembled on the driveway of the White House before a scrum of reporters. They cast satisfied glances at the television cameras as birds chirped and a helicopter whirred nearby. Nothing except for the white memorial ribbons pinned to their lapels indicated the nature of their fateful connection to each other as the parents of children kidnapped by strangers and, in all but one case, viciously assaulted and murdered.

Standing together, they represented a grim who's who of notorious child abductions of the late 20th century. On one end was John Walsh, whose six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a department store in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981 and later discovered decapitated. Then there was Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom in Petaluma, California, in 1993 and whose body was found two months later in a shallow grave. In the middle were Rich and Maureen Kanka, whose seven-year-old daughter, Megan, was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender living across the street from their home in New Jersey. At the front of the group was Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old who was abducted at gunpoint near his home in St. Joseph, Minnesota, in 1989 and never found.

There was a stoic, familial air between the parents, a soldier-like bond. Minutes earlier inside the Oval Office, they had watched President Bill Clinton sign legislation known as Megan's Law, named for Megan Kanka, that required states to release information about registered sex offenders to the public. The law was an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which 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. The original law gave states the option of whether to notify the community of a sex offender's presence. Two years later, Megan's Law said that they must.

President Clinton signs "Megan's Law" on May 17, 1996. Looking on from left are Megan's mother Maureen and brother Jeremy, Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., and John Walsh.
AP Photo/Denis Paquin
President Clinton signs "Megan's Law" on May 17, 1996. Looking on from left are Megan's mother Maureen and brother Jeremy, Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., and John Walsh.
Beginning with her participation in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, Patty Wetterling has criticized sex offender laws, a striking position given her tragic personal history
courtesy of Wetterling
Beginning with her participation in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, Patty Wetterling has criticized sex offender laws, a striking position given her tragic personal history

But before long the victorious mood at the press conference abruptly shifted. After the group thanked legislators who'd helped shepherd the law through, some reporters mentioned challenges to its constitutionality. The parents grew defensive. John Walsh, whose son's murder had led him to become a renowned campaigner for children's safety and eventually the host of TV's America's Most Wanted, pushed himself before the microphones and raised his voice.

"This is letting parents know that the fox is in the henhouse," Walsh said, jabbing a finger in the air. "We're sick of seeing these people get all the rights and our children and the parents not getting any rights. Believe me, I've hunted these people for nine years now. They're predators, they prey upon children — that's their business. We deserve to know these people are in our neighborhoods!"

Patty Wetterling, a petite woman with a neat chestnut bob, looked dismayed in her taupe skirt suit. She interjected, explaining gently that Megan's Law was the equivalent of warning children about a dog in their neighborhood that's known to bite, and adding that it was not about revenge but ultimately just one piece in a large puzzle whose goal was a safe society.

"I do think it will have a positive effect," she said.

Several years later, Wetterling flew back to Washington for another press conference, this one announcing the most comprehensive proposed legislation ever to manage sex offenders. Again, she stood among a cohort of other parents who had suffered unspeakable tragedies.

The proposed law would set national standards for sex offender registration, establish civil commitment procedures for people deemed sexually violent predators, require the registration of kids as young as 14 who had committed sex offenses, and be applied even to people whose crimes predated the law and who had successfully completed their sentences.

By then, sex offender restrictions had mushroomed in a way that was starting to trouble Wetterling. In the years since Jacob's abduction, she had devoted her life to children's safety. But the more she learned about the nature of child sexual abuse, the more she felt like these laws simply didn't get to the root of the problem, and actually made it worse in ways that were hard for most people to grasp.

At the Washington press conference that day, members of the media sidled over to Wetterling to ask her for a comment about the proposed new law. In her earnest manner, she confessed to some misgivings.

"I do have a little bit of concern about it being retroactive," she admitted, "and that it's now going to register juveniles."

Later, on a glorious midsummer day in 2006, President George W. Bush was joined in the White House Rose Garden by lawmakers and victims' families, including John Walsh and his wife, Reve. The president delivered a triumphant speech. Then he sat down and signed the legislation known as the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act.

There are nearly 750,000 registered sex offenders in America today, up 23 percent from six years ago. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on registering, publicizing, tracking, and confining them. Since the Wetterling Act was passed in 1994, laws governing sex offenders have grown successively stricter and more far reaching. In many places, residency restrictions dictate that sex offenders cannot live within a certain distance from schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, parks, bus stops, and other places where children gather. Online registries broadcast the names and pictures of offenders, often without specifying the nature of their offenses. Juveniles treated as adults and labeled as sex offenders for acts involving other kids bear that stigma well into adulthood.

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