Most sex offenses committed by first-time offenders, experts say
Kimberly Coulter remembers riding her bike all over St. Paul's east side as a kid, not a worry on her mind.
These days she's a Cottage Grove mother of two, and though she says she feels safe raising her kids in their quiet neighborhood near Grey Cloud Elementary School, Coulter said the knowledge a convicted sex offender lives nearby leaves her wary of letting her 10- and 12-year-old even go around the block.
"It's scary," she said after last week's public forum on sexual predators hosted by the Cottage Grove Police Department at Cottage Grove Junior High.
Coulter said she "was shocked" to learn 45 convicted sex offenders reside in her hometown, but officials Thursday night told the 40-or-so residents gathered it wasn't the predators the state knows about that are most worrisome.
The state of Minnesota has "built a wall" to protect citizens from convicted predatory offenders, said Bill Donnay of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
"Unfortunately, most of the threat to the state of Minnesota is not from known sex offenders," he said. "We built the wall; the wall is working. But the threat is inside the wall."
Representatives from the department of corrections, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation and Human Services, Inc., worked Thursday to make parents more aware of what they can do to help prevent sexual abuse -- whether through monitoring their kids on Internet chat rooms, knowing the adults they spend their time around or recognizing the signs of abusers or the abused.
Karen Hogendorf, a victim intervention and recovery program supervisor with Human Services, Inc., said cell phones, chat rooms and Internet pornography are all relatively new problems for parents to deal with -- and with technology-savvy youngsters it can be hard to know kids are safe.
But oftentimes, Donnay said, it's not strangers -- over the World Wide Web or in the flesh -- perpetrating the sexual abuse. Department of corrections statistics show 90 percent of sex offense victims know the offender, whether it's family, a friend or an acquaintance.
And while worried adults wondered why predatory offenders can live near schools, Donnay said 90 percent of sex offenses are committed by first-time offenders.
"It's social proximity, not geographic proximity," he said, "that leads to sexual abuse."
So, though it's important to know what threats are out there, said Alison Feigh, a child safety specialist with the Jacob Wetterling foundation, knowing what to look for and how to talk to your children is critical.
Some red-flags to watch for in adults spending time near your children, Feigh said, are: adults who are overly interested in the sexual development of a child, an adult who is always offering to baby-sit many different children or one who spends most of their time with children and has little interest in spending time with peers.
Parents should screen all caregivers, make unannounced visits to their child's activities, pay attention to behavioral changes and mood swings, and -- most important of all, she said -- trust their instincts.
Be aware, Feigh said, of "the uh-oh feeling."
Linda Fliss, a Cottage Grove mother of two, said she agreed parents need to take on responsibility for keeping their kids safe from predators. Fliss said she wasn't surprised to learn of the number of offenders living in Cottage Grove.
"I used to work with offenders, so I've always known they're out there," she said.
What parents need to do, she said, is help spread the word about suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
"We need to keep each other informed, help each other out," Fliss said.
Fliss mentioned an e-mail circulated among parents about an offender living near Grey Cloud Elementary, saying it was the community "bonding, coming together."
Officials stressed, though, it's important to allow convicted sex offenders the opportunity to re-integrate into society. Harassing a convicted offender now out of prison isn't constructive, public safety officials said Thursday.
Predatory offenders may have been guilty, but "sex offenders have rights, too," said officer Gwen Martin of the Cottage Grove Police Department. "We can't vote them off the island, we can't put them into exile."
But Coulter was shocked residents weren't made aware of every offender living in the city -- the public is notified only of predatory offenders assessed to be of the highest risk to re-offend.
"I'm surprised you're not made aware," she said. "I understand they have a right to move on, but it's scary."
Jon Avise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.