In the course of our conversations about her schoolwork and plans for her life, she confided things to me that indicated all wasn't well at home. It was clear that her father was domineering, and I came to understand her troubles as the collision of a sensitive, intelligent nature with a controlling dad and unhappy home. She wrote me several times after graduating -- she got into a prestigious college but dropped out after just a semester or so. The last I heard from her she had headed out west.
It was only years later, after some very inspired journalism on child sexual abuse (by a local television reporter, I might add) and some additional reading on my own, that I realized that my advisee's father had almost certainly been raping her, repeatedly, over the course of many years. The realization came heavy and sickening: What had appeared at the time to be a case of exaggerated teenage angst was massive, horrible trauma -- inflicted right before my eyes.
Whatever guilt I felt at my own naiveté was complicated by another realization: Had my student told me explicitly what was happening to her, I probably would have had trouble actually believing it and wouldn't have had a clue what to do if I had. As a 22-year-old first-year teacher and adviser, would I really have initiated a process in which a young girl would likely shatter her family and put her father in jail?
I subsequently learned that my experience with my advisee coalesced some essential truths about the abuse of children. One: The majority of child abusers -- pick your study for the statistic; it's north of 75% -- are family members or are otherwise known to the child. Two: Most who encounter evidence of sexual abuse either don't recognize it for what it is or don't know what to do.
Two things prompted these recollections. One is several recent horrific cases of child molestation and murder in Florida and the wave of civic revulsion that has followed. Citizens, armed with addresses of their local sexual offenders that are posted at an FDLE website, have in some cases taken to the street, picketing the homes of the offenders or posting fliers advising passers-by of a predator's presence. Eager to appear responsive, local governments, including those in Miami Beach, North Miami and Pembroke Pines, have enacted increasingly harsh laws restricting where convicted sexual offenders may live when they return from jail to their home communities. North Miami Beach's ordinance is so narrowly drawn that it essentially bans convicted sexual predators from moving into the city.
The problem with the governments' response is that -- as with many public policy issues -- they're engaging in a kind of communal self-deception: They address the minor part of a bigger problem, pretending to accomplish with one stroke the kind of community-improvement that only comes with steady, coordinated effort.
How so? For one, attempting to zone sexual offenders out of a community is cynical and irresponsible, creating a game of pass the trash where, by implication, the last community to jump on the bandwagon ends up hosting everybody else's sexual offenders. In addition, in a world where transportation is quick and easy, it won't make a single child in the community safe from the random act of a determined predator. In addition, it perpetuates the false stereotype that children are most at risk from strangers. Worst of all, the approach doesn't help give parents and teachers the information and orientation they really need to keep children safe. It may be somewhat reassuring to know that your city won't allow sex offenders to live within a half-mile of your child's school, but real empowerment comes when you're in a position to recognize signs that the boy or girl next door may be experiencing abuse in his or her own home -- and that you may need to monitor your own child's interaction with that family.
A much more interesting response to the recent tragedies would have been an effort to bolster programs in the schools that give children - and parents - information and teach them about personal safety. That's asking a lot of local officials, but that's what leadership is supposed to be about - bringing responsibility and informed deliberation to the process of building community. Knee-jerk responses only feel good until the next set of headlines -- and in the meantime reinforce the climate of fear that's so much a part of civic life these days, often unnecessarily.
Which leads me to the second thing that prompted the memory of my advisee: A conversation with friends who had just returned from a trip to Europe. They reported that the Europeans they had visited were aghast at how closely my American friends felt they had to monitor their own children -- not allowing them to ride their bikes more than a block or so from home, for example. By contrast, the Europeans thought nothing of letting their children ride or travel unaccompanied across town. "It's like you're building a prison for yourselves to live in," the Europeans told my friends.
There is, of course, no way to be completely safe, in Europe or here. But we can choose to approach issues with the information and understanding that lets us make choices -- civic and individual -- based on more than emotions and fear.Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.