Sex offenders usually aren’t strangers, prison official warns
By David Treadwell
Sex offenders are more likely to be someone you know than a stranger on the street, a state prison official told the MidEast Area Community Collaborative Sept. 12.
David Berenson, sexual offenders services director in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said people often come away with a distorted picture of sex offenders from the cases that are presented in the news media.
“What we see, particularly in the national media, are the highest-visibility cases,” Berenson said. “We get the idea in dealing with sex offenders that what we see tells us something about every sex offender there is.”
The reality is often quite different, as evidenced by the fact that most sexual assaults are not committed by strangers but by family members or other persons known to the victim, Berenson said.
Messenger photo by David Treadwell
State Sexual Offenders Services Director David Berenson, center, is surrounded by community activists at his talk on "Sex Offender Management for Community Safety" Sept. 12 at Christ United Methodist Church on Zettler Road. From left to right are: Lynn LaCour, director of the Neighborhood Pride Center Far East; Sheryl Owens, MidEast Area Community Collaborative president; Sharon Ware, MACC secretary; Berenson; Quay Barnes, MACC vice president; Heidi Samuel, Eastmoor Civic Association and Block Watch president; and Henry Fisher, Leawood Gardens-Walnut Ridge Neighborhood Assocation representative.
“If you can better understand who sex offenders are and what the differences are among sex offenders,” he said, “perhaps you as a community and as an individual will have information that you can use to better protect yourself.”
Berenson made his remarks at the fall meeting of the MidEast Area Community Collaborative, a group representing more than 40 neighborhood organizations in the Neighborhood Pride Center Far East region, which encompasses police precincts 9 and 14.
The neighborhood has recently faced the possibility of having a day treatment center for juvenile sex offenders located in a former parochial school.
Advocates for treatment expressed concern that residents misunderstood the nature of the problem and the best solution available.
Berenson contended that sexual assault should be looked on as a public health problem and, like drinking and smoking, and should be fought with a campaign that begins with changing attitudes and values.
“What we’re trying to get at is primary prevention,” he said. “That means changing the attitudes and the way we think about sexual assault and sexual aggression so that we can prevent them from happening.”
One of the most prevalent myths is that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers, Berenson said.
However, 90 percent of child victims of sexual assault know their offender, with almost half of those offenders being a family member. Seventy-six percent of adult women are raped by a current or former husband, live-in partner or date.
“The real risk, on a day-by-day basis, most often lies under our noses,” he commented. “We shouldn’t be lulled into any complacency by our sex offender notification and registration laws, thinking that because we can look up sex offenders on the Internet and know where they live, we are in much less danger.”
A national study of sexual assaults found that in 85 to 90 percent of the cases, the victim and the offender knew each other, he said.
In those cases, he pointed out, 87 percent of the victims were female, 79 percent were 17 or younger, and 56 percent were 12 or younger.
One lesson to be drawn from this data in a community’s efforts to safeguard against sexual assault is: “Watch your little girls, and if it happens it’ll probably be somebody they know,” Berenson said.
In addition, contrary to myth, most child molesters do not use physical force or threat to gain compliance from their victims.
“In most cases, abusers gain access through grooming, deception and enticement,” he said.
By “grooming,” he explained, is meant the often-elaborate preparations that a sexual abuser makes to set the stage for his eventual deception and enticement.
He cited the real-life example of an offender who moved into a city, joined a church and spent months currying favor with members of the congregation, doing household chores for them, lending them money and becoming close friends with them.
“Methodically and strategically,” Berenson related, “he was grooming the community, thinking all the time that if the day ever came when a child might accuse him of having sex with them, the people would say, ‘Not him, not this person!’”
Berenson also said that most child sexual molesters are not pedophiles. The majority are, or have previously been, attracted to adults.
“Pedophiles have a primary sexual arousal for children,” he said. “They’re driven to have sex only with children. The pedophile is a smaller subset of the overall sex offender population and of the child molester population.”
Pedophiles are also not the sex offenders you will most likely see lurking around a schoolyard or playground.
“Situational child molesters” are the type most commonly found trolling places where children congregate.
“They will prey on any vulnerable population — children, the elderly, the mentally retarded, the handicapped,” Berenson said.
Another myth Berenson debunked is that children who are sexually assaulted will, in turn, sexually assault others when they grow up.
“It’s just not true,” he said. “Most sex offenders were not sexually abused as children and most who are assaulted do not sexually assault others. Most people who are victimized as children do not go on to become sex offenders.”
In a study of 500 sex offenders in Ohio prisons, he said, only 9 percent of respondents had been sexually victimized as children and 10 percent had been physically abused as children.
Also contrary to popular belief, recidivism rates among sex offenders are not extremely high, he said.
Within that overall population, “boy victim” child molesters have the highest recidivism rates: 23 percent after five years, 28 percent after 10 years and 35 percent after 15 years.
On the other hand, those offenders who are more than 50 years old at release have the lowest recidivism rates: 7 percent after five years, 11 percent after 10 years and 12 percent after 15 years.
What is more, he said, there is no “typical” sex offender. Sex offenders come in every size, shape, race, ethnicity, educational background and socioeconomic class.
Perhaps the only characteristic they have in common is that the overwhelming majority of them are male.
For instance, he said, of the more than 9,000 sex offenders incarcerated in Ohio, only 110 are women.
“It’s astounding to see the varieties of people coming into the prison system as sex offenders,” he said. “You’ll see people who are 75 years old coming to prison for the first time in their life.”
Sex offenders also present varying levels of risks, he added, with the most dangerous being those who have an antisocial orientation or psychopathic personality.
“They represent about 15 percent of the prison population,” he said. “You can’t teach them empathy. They are cold and callous, and will do anything they need to another person to get what they want.”
Sheryl Owens, MidEast Area Community Collaborative president, said Franklin County has 1,261 registered sex offenders, of whom 215 are located in the neighborhoods encompassed by police precincts 9 and 14.
She said the data Berenson presented should be helpful to neighborhood organizations. “Hopefully, it’ll dispel any thoughts of witch hunts,” she said. “Also, it will educate the public about sex offenders and the role that citizens have to play in preventing sexual assault.”
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