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USA: Most sex offenders know their victims well

Publish Date: 30 Apr 2005

Source: North County Times

Most sex offenders know their victims well, experts say

The kidnap and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion riveted the nation nearly three years ago. After being abducted from her Orange County neighborhood, her nude body was found the next day in the hills west of Lake Elsinore. She had been sexually assaulted and then asphyxiated.

Five months before that, in February 2002, a similar story played itself out in San Diego County when Danielle van Dam was kidnapped from her quiet, upscale neighborhood and murdered.

In each case, a suspect was arrested. In each case, a jury found him guilty. Two more child predators were removed from society. Finally, parents could breathe a sigh of relief.

But should they?

While most parents spend a good amount of time cautioning their children about strangers, experts agree that in reality, it's much more likely a child will be victimized by someone they know. It could be a youth pastor, a teacher, a trusted family friend or ---- even more likely ---- a relative.

The reality

Two experts on sex offenders estimate that 80 percent to 90 percent or more of all child molestations are committed by people who know the victim. And sex offenders who abduct children they don't know make up only about 5 percent of those who have served time in state prison, said Doris Mahlum, a district administrator for the California Department of Corrections Parole Division.

The California attorney general's office estimates that there are about 85,000 registered sex offenders living in the state. According to the Megan's Law database,, there are 2,301 registered sex offenders living in Riverside County and 2,870 registered offenders in San Diego County.

For years, Mahlum worked one-on-one with hundreds of convicted child molesters at Soledad State Prison. And that contact gave her a keen perception of how their minds work, she said in a recent interview.

The inner workings

Most men who molest children are incapable of having a healthy relationship with a woman, Mahlum said. She said that many inmates have told her the innocence of children gives them a feeling of power; with a child, they don't have to have to be successful, intelligent or witty.

"They feel as if they are not good enough to make adult connections, and with a child they feel they aren't as challenged," she said. "The child is perceived as being safe for them."

Once the line has been crossed, confusion and guilt set in for the child, who often feels he or she has been a willing participant, Mahlum said. Sex offenders know how to play on those emotions or will attempt to convince the child, through fear or intimidation, not to tell anyone what is happening.

"They are very manipulative," Mahlum said.

She added that more than 95 percent of child sexual molestations are committed by men.

Child molesters typically fit into one of three general categories: opportunists, who live in the same home as the child; seducers; and abductors, Mahlum said.

The opportunist

Of the men who have served time in California prisons for molesting children, as many as 50 percent abused children living in their own homes, Mahlum said.

Child molestations by family members are vastly under-reported, she said. Often, a man will start living with a woman in order to get to her children, she said.

Abuse such as this can often go on for years, and the abuser is more likely to get away with it because it's less likely that family members will choose to turn the offender in ---- or even believe that the abuse is happening, she said.

The National Center for Victims of Crime reports similar numbers, with 46 percent of children who are raped having been victims of family members. The center also notes that in the case of incest, "victims may fear they will be disbelieved, blamed or punished if they report their abuse."

The seducer

The group that Mahlum refers to as "seducers" frequently seek out jobs or volunteer work --- as youth pastors, coaches or baby sitters ---- that will give them easy access to children, she said. In other cases, seducers are extended family members or friends of the family. She added that seducers make up about 40 percent of all offenders who have served time in prison.

Those types of offenders carefully study their prey before striking.

"Molesters have told me they observe children and identify those that are most susceptible; they look for children that appear lonely, that are left alone or given a great deal of freedom outside the home," she said.

Once they have chosen their victim, they begin "courting" them, Mahlum said.

"They almost never begin by talking of sex; they start by taking them places, to the movies, to swimming pools, to the ice cream parlor," she said.

Later, they will begin touching them, "usually by brushing their hand on their leg," she said. Eventually, the molester will try and isolate the child to somewhere they can be alone.

Just such a scenario played itself out with one former Temecula resident. In the mid-1990s, "Becky J." was 14 years old. In a 2002 interview with The Californian, the then 20-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition her true name was not used, talked about how she had been slowly "groomed" by her youth minister, Kerry Clyde Martin, who ultimately ended up molesting her over a period of two years. Unbeknownst to the community, Martin had previously been accused of sexually molesting children at two other churches.

After befriending the teen, Martin began inviting her to his office for private chats and sympathizing with her problems, she said.

Becky said that as the months went by, Martin began hugging her. Gradually the hugs became more prolonged and the kissing began, she added, until finally he began raping her.

In 1999, after being convicted of 50 felonies, Martin was sentenced to 205 years in state prison.

No safety in numbers

While most child molestations are committed after the molester has gotten the child alone, as in Martin's case, parents shouldn't be fooled into thinking their children are safe in a group, Mahlum said.

One inmate she worked with was also a youth pastor. The man told her he would take groups of children to a church activity room to watch movies. Parents were lulled into feeling safe because their children were not alone.

"He would turn off the lights and have one of the nice little boys sit on his lap," she said. "Since I interviewed him, he was released twice and reoffended twice ---- always in the church."

The man is now serving a 15-year sentence in state prison.

"When he gets out, I know he will molest again," Mahlum said.


A 2004 report by the California Research Bureau reported an average recidivism rate of 12.7 percent for child molesters over a four- to five-year period.

Mahlum noted, however, that the averages are misleading. She said that some offenders, such as those who are in their teens when they begin molesting children, have a much greater likelihood of reoffending than others.

Mental health treatment for offenders apparently is effective. In the same 2004 report, an analysis of 79 treatment outcome studies, involving 11,000 sex offenders, showed that treated offenders had a recidivism rate of 13.2 percent, versus 17.2 percent for those who did not receive treatment. Meanwhile, those offenders who received ongoing relapse prevention treatment had a recidivism rate of 7.2 percent, according to the report.

The abductor

It is the "abductors" who tend to grab the headlines and become parents' worst nightmare ---- people such as David Westerfield, who was convicted in 2002 for killing Danielle van Dam; and Alejandro Avila, who was convicted last week for killing Samantha Runnion.

But this type of offender is responsible for very few of the child molestations that occur.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that child molestations by strangers accounted for 3 percent of the cases of such crimes against children under the age of 6, 5 percent in the 6-to-12 age group, and in 10 percent of the cases the victims were 12 or 13.

A 1995 study by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children that examined child molesters who abduct their victims found that many of the abductors had both low social competence and little contact with children, lessening their "ability to seduce children and (increasing their) reliance on more forceful methods."

They are also more likely to restrain their victims and use weapons to injure them and more likely than seducers to have a history of delinquent, anti-social behavior as children.

A prediction tool

One of the most efficient tools for predicting whether child molesters will commit more such crimes is a test called Static 99, said James Barker, a clinical psychologist with Sharper Future. The company specializes in working with paroled sex offenders, including child molesters, and has offices throughout the state, including one in Palm Desert and another in Colton.

Sex offenders must answer 10 questions about their background. Each question is assigned a point value, and the scores obtained are a very good indicator of the likelihood that an offender will repeat his or her criminal behavior, Barker said.

The test is currently used in California, but in most cases only to help identify sexually violent predators. Barker thinks that should change, however.

"What I am proposing is that (this) evaluation of a person's risk be used as one criteria for determining level of treatment and what level of supervision (all convicted) sex offenders need," he said.

Lifetime need

Mahlum said that for the most serious types of child molesters, "I truly believe that we need to have a lifetime system of managing these people."

Some of the management options could include ongoing therapy sessions with mental health workers; lifetime parole; and special teams to constantly check up on them.

Barker said that once sex offenders complete their parole, few if any continue to receive treatment. And that is a major concern.

The Department of Justice report states that ongoing treatment and management of sex offenders "are indispensable parts of any rehabilitation program, if public safety is to be insured."

Among its recommendations for such a treatment and management program:

  • Mandatory treatment by therapists who are supervised and trained in cognitive behavioral theory with sex offenders.
  • Evaluation for medication.
  • Proper monitoring and supervision of vocational, social, recreational and leisure activities.

"Continuity of treatment is considered a critical factor in managing sex offenders. Maintenance is forever, and relapse prevention never ends," the report states, citing the fact that sex offenders may reoffend even two decades after their release from prison.

Twisted thinking

Barker said that he and other therapists spend much of their time attempting to correct their patients' twisted perceptions of their crimes.

"We spend a lot of time identifying the things you tell yourself internally, so that you can do something you know is wrong," he said.

Referred to as cognitive distortions, he said that some of those rationalizations include: "I am really not hurting this child. I am really teaching her what she needs to know. Everybody does it."

Mahlum agreed.

"Those convicted often have convinced themselves that it is a reciprocal relationship, that the child is enjoying it as much as they are; when the molesters are involved, they don't see it as bad."

Root causes

Barker said one of the most common myths about sex offenders is that most of them were also victims of sexual molestation as children. He added that it is impossible to make generalizations about what causes people to molest children.

However, "if I were to put my hand on one thing, it would be substance abuse," he said.

He emphasized that substance abuse doesn't cause people to become a sex offender, "but if you have these thoughts already, when you are intoxicated you stand a much higher chance of acting out on those thoughts," Barker said.

A 1997 U.S. Department of Justice research report states that some factors, including having been sexually molested as a child, may increase the likelihood of a person becoming a child sexual molester.

According to the report, many of those who molest children had "inadequate social and interpersonal skills, under-assertiveness and poor self-esteem."

Another factor may be a history of anti-social behavior in those who later become molesters, the report states.

"Research shows that child molesters who committed their first sexual offense in adolescence had histories of being disruptive in school, verbally or physically assaulting their peers or teachers," the report states. "A history of impulsive antisocial behavior is a well-documented risk factor associated with some child molesters."

Many crimes unreported

Child molestations often go unreported, according to a 1997 research report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Offenders report vastly more victim-involved incidents than those for which they were convicted," the report states.

The same report states that a national survey of 2,000 children showed that 3.2 percent of girls and 0.6 percent of boys between the ages of 10 and 16 said they had suffered physical sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

A 1994 survey of 453 pedophiles by the National Institute of Health showed that, collectively, those criminals had molested more than 67,000 children, an average of 148 children per pedophile.

What can parents do?

The best thing that parents can do to protect their children is to educate themselves about child molesters and teach their children what to do to avoid becoming victims.

To avoid being abducted ---- besides not talking to strangers ---- children must learn:

  • Never, ever get into a car with a stranger, no matter what they say to you or offer you. After Samantha Runnion was abducted, raped and murdered, a playmate told police that her abductor had enticed Samantha closer to his car by asking her for help in finding a lost puppy.
  • If someone attempts to force you to go someplace, "start yelling 'help, help' as loud as you can, kicking and pushing them away."

When it comes to those who are in positions of trust, Mahlum said that parents should beware of anyone who is frequently spending time alone with their child.

"That should be a red flag," she said.

If that is going on, she advised parents to begin questioning their child.

"Say 'Tell me how your day went'; if they went to the movies say, 'Tell me what happened there and what about after the movies?'" Mahlum said. "What you have to look for is evasive answers and behavior. If they are uncomfortable, look a little deeper into the relationship."

Although there is no way for parents to make sure their children are 100 percent safe, Mahlum has this advice: "Observe your child, listen to your child, and most importantly love your child ---- that will make them less apt to become a victim."

Static 99 test

Experts consider the Static 99 test to be one of the most effective tools for determining the likelihood of child molesters re-offending, according to James Barker, a Palm Desert based clinical psychologist specialized in treating sex offenders. Based on their answers, sex offenders are assigned a score, which he said can be used to help determine their management and treatment.

They are asked about the following:

  • Their age. "People under the age of 25 are a higher risk," Barker said.
  • Whether they have lived with an intimate adult partner for at least two years. "A person who is not able to sustain an intimate relationship is higher risk," he said.
  • Convictions for assault and battery, as well sexual molestation, even if the assault happened in a separate incident before the sex crime.
  • Convictions for non-sexual violence. "Violent people are higher risk," he said.
  • Convictions of all types. "(Those) indicate they don't go along with society's norms and are not afraid to break the law."
  • Convictions for noncontact sexual offenses such as public exposure, the possession of child pornography, obscene phone calls, etc.
  • Convictions for other types of sex offense.
  • Sex offenses against non-family victims. "Incest has a much lower risk of occurring again, because the victim pool is much smaller," Barker said.
  • Convictions for sex crimes against strangers.
  • Convictions for sex crimes against male victims. "These men have a higher recidivism rate," he said.

Contact staff writer William Finn Bennett at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2624, or

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