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

"There's a whole bunch else that needs to happen," Wetterling says. "We can't just keep locking them up, putting satellite monitoring on them, registering them for life. That doesn't change the problem."

Wetterling is also focused on primary prevention — that is, stopping abuse from happening in the first place. It's a bitter irony that almost all our public funds are funneled into punishing known sex offenders and virtually none are aimed at preventing sexual abuse from happening in the first place. Waiting until a child is harmed, hoping to find out about it, and then reacting with vengeance might satisfy the public's bloodlust and win points for politicians, but it's not a strategy that actually protects kids.

Yet a growing number of clinicians, researchers, activists, and public health officials are turning their focus to primary prevention, which means examining risk factors, protective factors, and even the neurological origin of why some adults may be sexually drawn to children.

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

For Wetterling, primary prevention also means taking a broad, holistic view of what's happening in our culture. She rues the effects of a porn-soaked, over-sexualized culture on young people and espouses teaching children about healthy relationships and appropriate behavior starting at an early age.

It's a testament to her preternatural faith in the power of prevention that she sees even her own son's abductor as someone whose vile behavior might have been averted. In 1999, on the 10th anniversary of Jacob's disappearance, Patty wrote an open letter to his kidnapper:

"I have found some comfort picturing you not as a mean old, ugly, bad guy, but at one time, you were an eleven year old boy," she wrote. "Someone's son...possibly someone's brother needing and hopefully sharing the love an 11-year-old boy deserves. If this love wasn't shared in your family, I'm sorry. Every child is entitled to the love and caring that family and friends provide."

She kept a list of questions she was desperate to ask next to the phone in case the abductor called: Why did you do it? Why Jacob? Where is he? But he never called.

Wetterling still harbors hope that Jacob is alive and will return to her someday. In the meantime, she spends her life thinking about what can be done to help children right now — those who might be victimized, as well as those who might grow up to become victimizers someday.

"We can spend the rest of our years talking about how to manage sex offenders," she says. "But wouldn't it be better if we could quit growing them? That's the bigger problem." 

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