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

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 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 predatory strangers, she learned that abductions like Jacob's are extremely rare, and that 90 percent 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 a distinctly low recidivism rate of just 5.3 percent 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. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 28 states require registration for consensual sex between teenagers, 13 for public urination, 32 for exposing genitals in public, and five for soliciting adult prostitutes. Restricting where sex offenders can live, in many cases forcing them into homelessness and disconnecting them from family and social support, hasn't had any quantifiable reduction on the rate of sexual abuse. And many sex offenders are really children themselves: Juveniles make up more than a third of those convicted of sex offenses against children, and their high amenability to treatment suggests that their youthful mistakes don't predict a lifetime of abuse to come.

Cordelia Anderson, a child sexual abuse expert, met Wetterling not long after Jacob's abduction
courtesy of Anderson
Cordelia Anderson, a child sexual abuse expert, met Wetterling not long after Jacob's abduction
Sen. David Durenberger worked with Wetterling to create the first major piece of federal sex offender legislation, which passed in 1994
Greg Helgeson
Sen. David Durenberger worked with Wetterling to create the first major piece of federal sex offender legislation, which passed in 1994

These days, Wetterling is a 63-year-old grandmother with a warm smile, soft blue eyes, and a folksy manner. She's well known for her two campaigns for Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, which she lost to Mark Kennedy in 2004 and Michele Bachmann two years later, as well as her personal story, which is deeply imprinted in the state's collective memory. Her eyes still gloss over with tears when she talks about Jacob.

She's less well known for having quietly emerged as perhaps the most unlikely voice questioning sex offender laws. Although she remains a prominent advocate for child safety — she is the board chair of the influential National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the director of the Minnesota Health Department's sexual violence prevention program — she has expressed gnawing doubts over the past several years about how we deal with sex offenders, a striking stance for someone who has been personally affected in such a devastating way.

"We have an intolerance for sexual violence, which I agree with," she said recently over coffee downtown. "People want a singular solution, and the solution that's been sold over the years is lock 'em up and throw away the key. But we've cast such a broad net that we're catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who just screwed up. Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?"

She paused.

"They are very different than the man who took Jacob."

Long before Wetterling became a public figure, she was a stay-at-home mother in the small town of St. Joseph. On the evening of October 22, 1989, she and her husband, Jerry, went to a party celebrating a local arts festival that she chaired. Their 11-year-old son Jacob stayed at home with his best friend, Aaron Larson, along with their other son Trevor, 10, and their eight-year-old daughter, Carmen. Trevor called over to the arts festival party and asked permission for the three boys to go to a local convenience store, where they could rent a movie and buy soda. They got a neighbor girl to come babysit Carmen and took off on bikes.

The boys were riding home in the dark when a masked man emerged from a gravel driveway along a country road. Pointing a gun, he told the boys to lie down in a ditch, demanded to know their ages, then ordered first Aaron and then Trevor to run into the nearby woods or risk being shot. By the time the two boys caught up to each other and dared to peek back, Jacob and the gunman were gone.

For the Wetterling family, the weeks and months that followed were an agonizing blur. Dozens of county, state, and federal investigators flocked to St. Joseph in the effort to find Jacob. Throngs of firefighters and student volunteers combed the surrounding woods and cornfields.

It soon hit the national news: Peter Jennings on ABC reported, "the effect on Jacob's family has been obvious, but his kidnapping has also torn the tightly knit social fabric of the entire town." Pictures of Jacob, a handsome, tawny-haired boy, were plastered at truck stops, tollbooths, and convenience stores across the Midwest. Billboards and bumper stickers pleaded for information. Thousands of fruitless tips poured in.

Investigators regretfully shared that the most common motive in this kind of abductions was sexual, and they felt all but certain that this was the case with Jacob.

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