On Dealing With Sex Offenders
Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2005
We Have A long Way To Go
By Linda E. Edwards
There have been calls in the aftermath of the Pixie Lackhan murder by a convicted sex offender, to begin a national registry of sex offenders. There was one writer to the papers who asked whether a Megan's Law system of alerts would work here.
At the risk of causing pain to well meaning people, I want to say that such a system would be futile. It would not have helped Pixie at all for two reasons: the first is that she was over sixteen; the second is the continued national pastime of assigning criminal behaviour to "them people" – meaning people not of our sort, not of our ethnic identification, not of our social standing. Both these situations would continue to give the criminal a ‘leg up' on the populace.
Let us review the painful case of that teenager who never came home. People in the village were reported as saying she had "run off with some man." No one saw her go anywhere with anyone. No one saw her talking in the street or anywhere else with anyone. To the best of our knowledge, this was an innocent teenager who was willing to live under her parents' guidance. This did not save her from the ‘mauvais langue' of ill-thinking people. It is unclear to me just when a report was made of her failure to come home, or of the attitude displayed by the police officers when this may have been reported to them. But all over the world where we mistakenly believe that sixteen year olds know what they are doing if they are assumed to have run off with someone, police officers do not treat this kind of report with any urgency. They did not treat this as a kidnapping - the way they would have reacted to the sixteen year old son of a businessman not coming home. Thus, Pixie's status as a poor and female person may have acted against her.
When a five year old, a ten year old, or an eleven year old goes missing, people react with alarm. However, when the sixteen year old Pixie goes missing, we think that she ran off with a boyfriend. Thus, because of society's inability to treat with Pixie's disappearance as urgent, valuable time is lost in looking for her. Moreover, if the police had a sex crimes registry for the area, that might have saved the life of Pixie's great-aunt, who was allegedly murdered by the same man.
The second factor for the inability of the Megan's Law idea to work is the racial animus that pollutes crime in Trinidad and Tobago. I need to ask all readers of this piece, do you feel that an urgent search should be launched for any child gone missing? Or do you feel that such a search should only be launched for people their own kind, whatever kind that is? (I did not say to raise your hands. I only want reflection on the question.) The reaction of the villagers to this tragedy is also significant. They were talking about setting up some sort of vigilante committee to check "every stranger passing here," ask them where they are going to and so on. Their belief that harm could come to their children or their village only from strangers was proven to be erroneous. This situation resembles in some ways the Oklahoma City Bombing of ten years ago where the person the US authorities were looking for was exactly opposite to the one caught, convicted and executed for the crime. Their first arrest, in London, was of a Middle Eastern businessman who had the ill-fortune of leaving Oklahoma City that same day. The real culprit, blond, blue-eyed, crew-cut, Christian, trained in munitions by the US army, was accidentally picked up for driving a ratty old car with expired tags. Later, when fingers pointed to him, they knew where to find him. So, who did the villagers expect to be involved in the abduction of Pixie? Did they expect a burly, tough character of their wildest fears; perhaps wearing dreads or braids, residing in Laventille or along the East-West corridor? You've got to be joking! The criminal often knows the area quite well, particularly true of rural areas.
Sex crimes, as that village now knows only too tragically, are frequently committed by people nearby and sometimes by people within the family as all the recent convictions for incest indicate.
Our worst criminals of nightmare memory- Mano Benjamin and Dr. Dalip Singh did not go far to seek their victims. Yet, the persistent idea that "dem other people did it", is prevalent. Further to this, the village lamented that he was "such a little fella"; exactly the sort who operates under the radar, unsuspicious, puny and seemingly insignificant, but having a previous record of similar offences. Thus, the big burly sex criminal may not be a true picture of the criminal/sex offender either.
Now a Megan's Law kind of initiative would first have to teach people to believe that all children are valuable, and that this must be the basis of action to immediately begin a massive search for a missing child; no matter whose child. When we have perfected that, we need to market it to metropolitan countries to the north of us, where "whose child" is still very important. Recently, it was exposed how often criminals of one race blame other races, to throw off the scent. Demonizing the "other" is a growing trend.
When little nine-year old Kiesha was snatched from her aunt's homework table, the state went into full gear - this was a classic kidnapping. You come to "get the sawmill man" and he's not home, you take the most vulnerable person, and a little pigtailed girl whose innocent face makes the whole world hate you, whoever you are. Not so with the sex offender. They seem harmless, innocuous, inoffensive, but deadly. Therein lies the catch. He could be next door and you would not suspect him. How often have I heard people say he seemed like a nice guy? Children are lured into danger, by nice guys. Ugly frightening monsters would make them run screaming, and so attract attention.
Now with sixteen year olds, the magic age of sexual consent, the states do not look for them right away. They treat the disappearance of sixteen-year old girls as run-always, and in the US and many other places, there is a twenty-four hour waiting period. Unless someone saw her being pulled into a car, she calls on her cell-phone or there is some other specific indication of a crime against her person. This period could contribute to her death. What we may need here is the classification of all children still in high school as children, and so, if they are missing, they should not be presumed to be runaways.
We used to have that same attitude to child molestation, but fortunately, that has changed dramatically. The police now respond to reported cases of sex crimes against minors, and press charges. Magistrates impose the equivalent of life sentences, and express verbal repugnance for what occurred. It took the death of that teenage girl whose story inspired "Shattered Lives", as well as a few other cases to make police officers more sensitive to situations like this. Some progress has been made, but that early victim felt she had no one to turn to, death was her only option. How many more children are huddling with such terrible secrets, afraid to tell anyone; even their mothers?
Until we have made more progress in dealing with sex crimes against children a Megan's Law system would not work. Along the highways in the USA, there are large state-erected signs that can flash messages of great urgency. "Accident Ahead", or, when needed "Kidnapped Child in Erin Area:" and a radio station for further news. The station broadcasts a description of the child, what he or she was wearing, if possible; a description of the snatcher, and the vehicle and number plate if possible. Every TV station in the area broadcasts it repeatedly. Committed citizens would switch on their radios, and be on the lookout.
Would the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, if there were such billboards, turn their radios to the right station to help find a child? Or would they give a loud ‘steups', assured that their children were safe in their back seat? Would such billboards be maintained? (They would probably require underground wiring or a solar powered pack) Would civic-minded people, seeing something suspicious, use whatever means possible to alert the authorities? Would the authorities have the man-power and vehicles to launch an immediate response? Would civic-minded people, seeing something suspicious, go out of their way to keep an eye on what's going on, and spend good cell-phone minutes to stay in touch with the police? Megan's Law could work in such a case.
This would assume that the police and the people are on the same side, and the criminal kidnappers and child-sex offenders are on the other. Is this always true? Ninety percent true? Eighty percent? Despite the number of policemen found to be corrupt in other countries, (in Britain, Canada, the USA) there is, I think, a basic belief in those countries, that the people and the police are on the same side, and the criminals on the other.
My people still seem reluctant to report crime, if it involves someone they know, someone of their own tribe more or less, or someone of the upper classes. This gives a distorted picture of who the criminals are in the society, forcing each poor group to feed on fears of the other. We need to work at believing that all children are of the same tribe, the human race, that they are all valuable, and that when they are "missing", they have not gone to a sea bath with their boyfriend, but that quite possibly, some harm has come to the child.
Children need to be reminded, more carefully than we used to drill "Stop look and listen before you cross the street," not to talk to strangers, not to stop to give directions to strangers, (since when do children know how to get from here to there, sufficiently well to be able to direct some apparently lost person?) not to help them look for a lost dog, not to accept rides from them, not even if they offer, unless the child is in a group getting in and out, and above all, not to respond to people calling out their names whom they do not know. Parents once again, need to remove their children's names from their backpacks, not allow them to wear t-shirts with their names on them, and remind them to go everywhere in groups of at least two.
In rural areas, like where poor Pixie was snatched, this may be difficult, especially if she is an only child, but every precaution should be taken to warn children about the dangers - from the man next door, the hangers-out at the bar they walk past to come home, and often, too often, the man in the house.
We are the products of a slave society where once a governor, Sir Thomas Picton, allowed a thirteen year old girl of non-white origin and Spanish name, to be hung by her arms from the rafters of a house, her toe resting on a spike to relieve the stress on her arms, because she was accused of stealing money from the "Spanish Gentleman" who had seduced her at age eleven or so, and kept her as his mistress. No punishment was recorded against the Spanish Gentleman for this act of rape, but for this act of torture, Picton was recalled, tried and found guilty. The child, Luisa Calderon, testified against him.
We inherited a society that did not believe that the bodies of the poor women were as sacrosanct as the bodies of others. How many readers remember the late Eric Williams hearings into problems in the garment industry, and the telling upon telling, upon telling of the demand for sexual favours in order to get work? Has that changed?
We have made some progress. We still have a long way to go.
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