Saturday, March 3, 2012

Registered Sex Offenders & Community Membership

Over the winter I was working with a community that tackled the issue registered sex offenders (RSOs) as potential members. It was a tough conversation.

Essentially it boiled down to a clash between a core commitment to providing safety, in dynamic tension with a root desire to be a transformative community that believes in redemption. Yuck! One of the most dyspeptic things a group has to wrestle with are questions of how to balance two basic values that don't play nice with each other in a specific configuration. On the question of whether RSOs could be members, those conditions obtained.

As you might imagine, the community did not spend time contemplating this possibility when it first formed. The back story is that the group is now over 10 years old and has twice accepted members only to discover afterward that the person was an RSO. As you can imagine, both experiences were gut wrenching. While there was no clear evidence that in either case the person did something sexually inappropriate while in residence, there were some unsubstantiated accusations and considerable anxiety.

Until now, the membership intake process did not include inquiries about a person's criminal record, so neither of the two people in question misstated their situation. While it can be argued that they misled through withholding, there was no falsification.

Community vibrancy is based on trust, and trust was seriously eroded when the RSO status was uncovered rather than volunteered. While the two offenders may have honestly felt that this was something behind them and not worth mentioning, it's not hard to imagine the blood pressure spikes that occurred when this got revealed.

Sexual offenses come in at least three gradations of severity (laws vary by state), with federal guidance suggesting three categories:
Level A) All violent sexual offenses, and all offenses involving children under the age of 12
Level B) Nonviolent offenses (meaning non-coercive) involving minors in the 12-18 age range
Level C) Nonviolent offenses not involving minors

The community asked everyone to share in a Go Round whether they'd be open at all to RSOs being members of the community and, if so, under what conditions or with what limitations.

This was a tender and deeply moving circle, where everyone took whatever time they needed to answer and there was careful listening. In a group of 20 people, four spoke about their personal experience as a survivor of child sexual abuse, and a fifth spoke as a parent whose child had been physically abused. While the statistics on abuse suggest that there were probably more people in the room who had personal experiences with abuse, those are the one's who voiced it.

On the one hand, there were a number of people who ached to be able to offer a meaningful alternative to a punishment-oriented überculture—to give people a second chance.

On the other, the survivors reported dread at the thought of having convicted offenders in the bosom of their community. Parents feared for their children and a expressed a profound sadness at the prospect of tightening vigilance on free-roaming community kids if known offenders were inside the perimeter of the community bounds.

This conversation was further complicated by the recognition that the legal definition for sexual offenses didn't map exactly onto the community's norms, where swimming nude and peeing outdoors were acceptable practices, and there was no judgment about a 19-year-old having consensual sex with a 17-year-old. The community was in agreement that these behaviors—which could earn someone RSO status—were at worst minor peccadilloes and not at all on the same level as the horror of forced rape.

So what to do?
While there was widespread acceptance with the notion that a blanket ban on all RSO's would probably mean that some deserving folks (who perhaps were unlucky enough to get convicted of peeing by a roadside) would be denied the opportunity of membership, the prospect of looking at RSOs on a case-by-case basis (to winnow out the nogoodniks from those worth taking a chance on) represented an emotional wringer for the sexual abuse survivors in the group, who expected the process to be a re-traumatizing gauntlet. In the end, it was too much to ask the survivors and parents to stretch that far and the community agreed to not allow RSOs as members.

Three people stood aside in that agreement—notably, that trio included one of the survivors—and the group gave all three a final chance to speak from their heart about why this decision was hard for them. I thought it was one of the most touching and unifying treatments of a tough topic I'd ever witnessed.

That said, the community was not yet done with this topic.
Does the new agreement translate into background checks on prospectives? What about people who used to be RSOs, but their registration has expired (only Level A offenders are registered for life)? What about people who have committed sexual offenses but not been convicted? What about people convicted of violent crimes but not sexual ones?

In the continuing conversation certain themes emerged. To the extent that there was openness to considering people who had committed offenses, the group was more willing to stretch if the person freely admitted it (lying about convictions will be considered grounds for immediate expulsion), and was able to demonstrate that they'd done some serious personal work to understand what that was about, so that it was far less likely to happen again.

While there is still more to do (how does one demonstrate that the personal work they've done is "serious" enough?), it buoys my heart when a groups opens up a hard issue and gets closer as a consequence of the examination.


Anonymous said...

eh, what do you mean exactly by "forced rape"? As opposed to the sort of rape where the victim graciously allows the perpetrator to rape him/her?

Just curious.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the sincerity and compassion and the willingness to discuss and weigh all the pros and cons in the decision making process. That having been said, I would say that this is an issue that needs some "black and white", "line in the sand" type of decisions. This is especially true given that (1) not once, but twice you have had SO in your midst without you knowing it and with children living there and (2) given the fact that many people within the community have been on the assaulting end of sexual abuse and they have been wounded by it. This particular type of wound can go very, very deep in someone's psyche and is almost impossible, in some cases, to ever fully heal from it. To ask those members to be accepting of ANY type of SO living within the community is just plain wrong! Also, there are children involved. This alone would be a reason to say NO, with no exceptions, to people who have SO on their records - period. If the community allows any wiggle room on this decision, they are potentially creating an unsafe environment, unnecessarily, for some (if not all) members of the community. So what if there might be an off chance that a few people would be "turned away" who had rehabilitated themselves since their SO? There are plenty of other people who do not have SO who can fill those shoes. Why take the chance? Why make people within the community suffer needlessly? This is a no brainer. Do the right thing and stop this now. Twice is enough.