Elizabeth, a Magnolia mom who doesn't want her last name used, started worrying about sex predators in the neighborhood after she found out that self-proclaimed pedophile Jack McClellan showed up at the grand opening of Ella Bailey Park.
The park, McClellan said on his now-shut-down Web site, was a great place to watch little girls in dresses roll down hills, Elizabeth recounted.
And then there was a suspicious man who was seen hanging around the Magnolia Community Center taking photos of kids on the playground, a development that prompted a flurry of e-mails between neighborhood residents, she said. Police finally had a talk with the man, and he hasn't been seen since.
But that lingering fear of strangers sexually abusing children misses a more realistic danger, according to Det. Robert Shilling from the Seattle Police Department's Sex and Kidnapping Offender Detail.
"Over 90 percent of all sex offenses are committed by someone known to the victim," he said last week to more than four dozen, mostly mothers at a meeting Elizabeth organized in the Magnolia Community Center.
Only about 5 percent of sex offenders are men - or women - who jump out of bushes and grab a child, and less than one-half of 1 percent are like Joseph Duncan, who allegedly kidnapped and sexually abused Shasta and Dylan Groene in Idaho after allegedly murdering their family, and later murdered Dylan. "The problem with that is people start getting the idea this is what sex offenders are," Shilling went on to say.
Based on figures from May this year, there were currently 1,432 registered sex offenders living in Seattle out of 19,629 in the state as a whole, he said. They are broken down into levels 1 through 3 based on a standardized actuarial risk assessment.
Between 60 and 70 percent of them are Level 1 sex offenders, who have a low risk of re-offending. Around 20 percent are Level 2 offenders who pose a moderate risk of re-offending, while around 20 percent are Level 3 offenders who pose a relatively high risk of re-offending, Shilling explained.
"There are always exceptions," he said. "We have many Level 3 offenders who have not re-offended." By the same token, Level I offenders have re-offended, and some Level I offenders have been reclassified as Level 3 offenders, Shilling said.
"They can never be cured," he said of sex offenders, comparing them to alcoholics. "They can be rehabilitated; we see that every day." And sex offenders have a good reason to do that, according to Shilling. "Washington has the strictest sex-offender laws anywhere in the United States," he said.
For example, a convicted sex offender can be committed after getting out of jail if he or she has been assessed as having a "mental abnormality or a personality disorder" and is likely to re-offend, Shilling said.
The commitment involves a civil trial, so double jeopardy doesn't apply as it does for criminal trials, he said. The courts may change the rules, but Shilling said that for the time being such offenders can be held indefinitely at McNeil Island "until they prove they're no longer a menace to society."
Notifying communities about Level 2 and 3 sex offenders living among them is also part of the picture, and Washington was the first place in the world to require that, he said. And next year, the legislature will consider a two-strikes-you're-out law that would lock up violent sex offenders for life without parole after two convictions, the detective said.
That may seem draconian to some, but in China a single conviction for a violent sex offense rates the death penalty, said Shilling, who is also involved with INTERPOL's Specialists Group on Crimes Against Children.
Shilling said he was sexually abused as a child, and because he was a victim, the detective wants to make sure people get enough accurate information to know what to do. "You want to remove that veil of secrecy."
That's not always easy. Shilling held up a poster board that had a dozen photos of men, women and teenage boys on it, asking those at the meeting what the dozen had in common. Ninety percent of the people Shilling talks to at meetings like the one in Magnolia say those pictured are victims of sex abuse. That was the general consensus at the Magnolia meeting, too; but in reality, all those pictured were sex offenders, including one 14-year-old boy who is a Level 2 offender, Shilling said. "You can't tell by looking at someone; that's the whole point."
Level 2 and 3 sex offenders are posted on Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff and state Web sites, but Level 1 offenders aren't because courts have determined they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, he said. However, Seattle police by law can tell people who call them whether someone they know is a Level 1 sex offender, Shilling stressed.
COMMUNICATION A KEY
For many sex offenders, just getting access to children is an important first step, according to Kerry Todd, a social worker at Harborview Medical Center's Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. So open communication between children and parents is key, she said.
"A lot of times, kids aren't going to tell you right away," Todd said of sexually abusive relationships. But there are clues, such as a child not wanting to return to a daycare or no longer wanting to see a particular adult or even another child, she said.
Children's behavior can also offer clues that they've become sex-abuse victims. Sexual behavior and a child being able to name certain body parts are examples, as are nightmares, Todd said.
Parents believing their children when they report abuse is also important, Shilling said. "I wish I had $10 for every single time I talked to a child who said, 'I told my daddy or my mommy, and they didn't believe me,'" the detective said. "I would be rich; I could retire."
Sexual assault cases have actually declined, Shilling said. But in spite of mandatory reporting requirements and better detection, sex abuse is one of the most underreported crimes there is, he said. The vast majority of cases in special-victims units are based on referrals from preschools, childcare providers, elementary schoolteachers, counselors and doctors, Shilling said. "The obvious question is, why didn't the parents know?"
Sometimes parents do know because they're involved, but those cases are hard to solve because family members sometimes cover up the abuse, he conceded. "Kids are told not to say anything because mommy/daddy will go to jail," the detective explained. Police also have to pay attention to other possibilities when child-abuse is reported by a parent. "One of the things we are forced to look at: is there a divorce action going on?" he said.
Pedophiles and sexual predators also troll the Internet for victims, Shilling noted. "These guys are masters of manipulation," he said of behaviors such as grooming (see sidebar).
Echoing Todd, Shilling said it is important for parents to establish communication with their children. "You have to listen to them," he said. "You have to talk to them."
Grooming involves an adult befriending a child as a way to eventually trigger sexual behavior with the child. Here are some of the identifying acts, which are normally performed in secret and with intimidation or persuasion.
Many predators will seek out single mothers with children in order to victimize the children.
Predators may provide superficial care and attention to children that may be lacking at home.
Child molesters will attempt to establish a good reputation within the community, and the predators are often respected members of the community or are in positions of authority.
Grooming often starts out innocuously and involves showing interest in their hobbies, for instance.
Grooming behavior may involve actions that lead a child to feel obligated to an adult who uses his or her place in society to help the child do such things as avoid punishment or skip school.
The grooming process also can evolve into showing children pornography and persuading them that sexual activity between adults and children is normal.
A parent's worst nightmare, a pedophile can look like anyone, but police have identified certain common characteristics of the predatory child molesters. These are some of them:
They are most often adult males and are usually married.
A pedophile relates better to children than adults, and socializes with few adults unless they are also pedophiles.
Pedophiles usually prefers children of a certain age group and may try to get jobs or volunteer with programs that involve that age group.
They often like to photograph or collect photographs of children, either dressed, nude or in sexually specific acts.
The pedophile collects child porno and child-adult porno as a way to: lower a victim's inhibitions; fantasize when no victim is available; relive his sexual activities; justify his actions because others in the pornography legitimize the activity; and to blackmail the victims to keep them from telling.
A pedophile often rationalizes his illicit activities, emphasizing his positive impact on victims and repressing feelings about the harm he has done.
A child molester often portrays the child as the aggressor and talks about children in the same way normal adults talk about lovers or spouses.
Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1309.