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.
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.
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.
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?"
"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.
Patty was shocked. "Who would do that?" she thought. "Who would ever think of sexually violating a child?"
The sheriff's office worked with a correctional facility in nearby St. Cloud to catalog recently released sex offenders and painstakingly created a database detailing where they lived to track them down for questioning.
By January 1990, the number of leads had dwindled and the FBI withdrew most of the agents it had assigned to investigate Jacob's abduction. Even so, his family remained hopeful. They poured their energy into keeping him in the public's awareness. It wasn't until about a year after his disappearance that Patty began to think beyond her immediate desperation to find her son and mustered some energy to try to help others.
She'd been ruminating about the database of local sex offenders the police had compiled, and how helpful they said such a resource would have been immediately after the abduction to enable them to quickly locate and rule out suspects. Patty felt certain that the database was a valuable law enforcement tool that shouldn't be filed away in some dusty cabinet. In fact, she thought there should be something similar for police to access wherever a child is abducted.
Around that time, Gov. Rudy Perpich asked Patty to serve on a task force examining the problem of child abduction and exploitation in Minnesota. Cordelia Anderson, an expert on child sexual abuse prevention, was appointed to the same task force and remembers feeling amazed at how Wetterling was able to separate her emotion from public policy decisions.
"Despite the extreme characteristics of Jacob's case, which play into the scariest stereotype and are very, very rare, she somehow quickly went to trying to educate herself," Anderson says.
Half a dozen states already had sex offender registries, and in accordance with one of the task force's recommendations, Wetterling helped craft legislation that would implement one in Minnesota based on what was working elsewhere. Accessible only to law enforcement, it would carefully distinguish between offenders based on the number of offenses, victim's age, degree of violence, and amenability to treatment. It wasn't long after the state law passed in 1991 that Wetterling turned her sights on implementing something similar on the federal level, with powerful allies including former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger.
Senator Durenberger was from St. Cloud, four miles from where the Wetterlings lived, so the abduction had struck close to home for him. It was a matter of days after hearing about it on the news that he had driven over to meet the family for the first time and offer whatever help he could.
"There's nothing like coming into the middle of a tragedy that doesn't have an easy answer," he recalled. "Everybody is going, 'What can we do?'"
Durenberger stayed in contact with the family, dropping by every so often to slip a supportive note in their mailbox, and he eventually led the effort to pass federal legislation requiring every state to maintain a sex offender registry accessible to law enforcement, and to regularly verify offenders' addresses for 10 years to life depending on the severity of their crimes.
Although Durenberger was out of the Senate when the law finally passed in 1994, he regarded it as a victory.
"Patty started the movement," Durenberger says. "Just a few people had the nerve to get out ahead of the problem and try to come up with a solution that could apply across the country. This was happening one kid at a time, one family at a time. If it had a potential preventable cause, than we ought to deal with it legislatively if we could. That was the imperative."
At the time, registration wasn't seen as a panacea for the problem of sexual abuse, nor a scarlet letter to be pinned on all sex offenders. As far as Wetterling was concerned, the registry was just something that would make it easier for the police to locate former offenders.
"I think [she] intended for registration to fill a gap in public safety," Anderson says. "The whole movement to register juveniles or to lump all who commit any kind of offense into something they can never in their lifetime shake was not the intent. I don't think anybody foresaw that it would turn into what it's become."
In 2008, Wetterling received a missive in the mail. "My name is Ricky and I'm a 19-year-old Registered Sex Offender," it began:
"One night, when I was only 16, I met a girl at a teen club who told me she was almost 16, and we hit it off. She and I dated for a few weeks, but because of some issues at home, she ran away. The friend she was staying with told her to tell the police we had sex, and that she was too scared to go home because she was pregnant. When questioned by the police, I told the truth, I said "yes we had sex twice." The police informed me she was only 13. I was charged with two felony counts of Sexual Abuse 3rd degree and tried as an adult. Now because of the laws regarding the age of consent I am a Registered Sex Offender. Things for me, as well as my family, have changed dramatically and our lives have been shattered."
Wetterling was dumbfounded. She had never imagined her idea being used against someone like this.
"It just makes no sense to me," she says. "The design of the law was not to punish kids for being kids. He thought she was 16, and she lied."
Wetterling found herself questioning not only cases of juvenile sex offenders like Ricky, but also adults who had clearly committed harm but still didn't seem to warrant the kind of permanent pariah status that registration conferred.
One woman contacted Wetterling to share the story of her husband, a former alcohol abuser who had committed a sex crime when he was 19. He went to jail and afterward turned his life around, getting married and having two kids. The Adam Walsh Act retroactively forced him to register as a sex offender, ushering him into a deep depression. He could no longer sit with his own family at church or chaperone school field trips due to the law's provisions.
Wetterling also met a biochemist and college professor who had been caught molesting his stepdaughter. In addition to his prison sentence, he successfully completed treatment as well as a reunification program with his family and was judged rehabilitated by those who knew him. Yet the unforgiving rules of his status as a registered sex offender eventually pushed him into unemployment, homelessness, and a rootless life at the fringe of society.
She kept coming back to the same nagging feeling: These men were not the same as the man who abducted Jacob. These were not serial child abusers who had no capacity to change, and in a terrible twist, their status as sex offenders might actually make children less safe instead of more. Clogging the registries with so many people who don't represent a real ongoing threat could make it harder to discern those who actually do. Moreover, by perpetuating the stranger-danger myth, the laws could be lulling parents into a false sense of security, blinding them to the much more likely threat of sexual abuse by family and friends. Wetterling started feeling that sex offender laws had simply gone too far.
"We've caught a lot of people in the net who could have been helped," she says. "We've been elevating sex offender registration and community notification and punishment for 20-some years, and a wise and prudent thing would be to take a look at what's working. Instead we let our anger drive us."
To those who support the expansion of sex offender laws, Wetterling's concern for offenders can seem naive and misguided. After his daughter's rape and murder, Marc Klaas became a vocal supporter of stiffer penalties and stricter post-prison monitoring of offenders. He founded an organization, KlaasKids, whose mission is "to protect America's children from the predators who lurk in our shadows," according to its website, and endorses both Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Act.
"My feelings for Patty are very warm, but I think she's wrong," Klaas says. "I don't think the system is out to punish innocent people. These are people who've existed in anonymity for thousands of years and now we're finding out who they are, and they're whining about it."
Wetterling is quick to say that she still supports registries as a law enforcement tool and believes in civil commitment for some offenders who are truly too dangerous to live in society. Yet she has a fundamental disagreement with the other victims' families.
"We just view the problem differently," she says. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for what John and Reve Walsh have done, and I used to sit down with Marc Klaas to have a drink or six. We've undergone a shared experience, and I'm never going to tell a parent the way they're dealing with it is wrong or the way I'm dealing with it is right. I just think some of this really angry, punitive stuff is letting the bad guys win. They're building a world that isn't caring and believing in one another. That's not who I am."
Inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Atlanta a few years ago, Wetterling stood at a podium and held a crowd of 1,300 people at rapt attention. She cleared her throat and told the story she's told hundreds of times, the story of Jacob's abduction. She talked about her determination to help prevent child sexual abuse, not just punish it, and about her resistance to simplistic solutions to a complicated problem.
Among those listening to her address the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, was Joan Tabachnick, a co-chair of the organization's prevention committee.
"I think almost everybody in that audience was in tears because of the vulnerability she's able to show, speaking about the horrific experience she's had, as well as how she's translated that into public policy," Tabachnick recalls. "It's amazingly courageous to ask what can we do to prevent this given that there are so many other parents who don't want anything to do with what she's saying."
Wetterling approaches the issue of sexual abuse prevention with the same sense of complexity and nuance that she brings to her understanding of who sex offenders are. To help keep them from reoffending, she believes we need to aid their success with housing, employment, counseling, and social support, all of which the current system does much to dissuade.
"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.
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."