(NAMIBIA) MintPress – “As a searching parent the hope that your child will return is stronger than any hope I have ever experienced,” reflected Patty Wetterling, a sexual violence prevention advocate whose son, Jacob, was abducted 23 years ago Monday.
Eleven-year old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989 while cycling home from a convenience store with his brother and friend when the boys were stopped by a masked gunman in St. Joseph, Minn.
To this date, the whereabouts of thousands of missing persons, including Jacob, remain unknown in the United States. Forty-four percent of the over 85,000 active missing person cases reported by the FBI in 2011 were under the age of 18. However, this does not specify the percentage of missing persons who were under 18 at the time of abduction.
Of the nearly 670,000 persons reported missing in 2011, just over 500,000 were under the age of 18. Not all missing persons are kidnapped, and many missing persons cases are solved within a day. However, 49 percent of those who are abducted are done so by family members, while 27 percent of kidnappings are done by an acquaintance, and only 24 percent by a complete stranger.
Spreading Jacob’s hope to others
In spite of few developments her son’s case, Wetterling has never lost hope. “I believe hope is a verb,” said Wetterling, who currently works as the Sexual Violence Prevention Program Director for the Minnesota Department of Health.
“You don’t see us sitting around hoping our kids come home, we are out there making a lot of noise around stopping the victimization of children and asking people to help us find missing children,” she said.
Shortly after Jacob was kidnapped, a foundation was created in his name. At the time, Wetterling had little interest in forming a foundation and was solely focused on finding Jacob.
“As time went on, I became aware of the magnitude of the problem and felt a strong responsibility to share what we were learning,” Wetterling told MintPress. “We began speaking and educating families about child abduction, common lures and the fact that it isn’t usually a stranger who takes or harms a child but much more likely to be family or a friend of the family.”
The Jacob Wetterling Foundation, renamed the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC) in 2010, has since been involved in a magnitude of awareness and advocacy programs to protect children in Minnesota and across the nation. “Jacob’s case literally changed Minnesota,” said Wetterling.
At the time Jacob was abducted, only six states had sex offender registry legislation. Wetterling wanted to create a registry for law enforcement to track who has committed crimes against children in the past so they could expedite investigations in the future. After a registry was implemented in Minnesota, the foundation proceeded to advocate legislation nationwide.
Former President Bill Clinton signed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act into law as part of a major Crime Bill in 1994, which required each state to compile a sex offender and crimes against children registry.
The JWRC also played an active role in implementing the AMBER Alert in Minnesota, named after the Texan girl whose body was found through the coordinated response from the media.
Wetterling currently serves on the Board of Directors for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which helps locate missing children. The group has raised their recovery rates to an astounding 97 percent, providing families with the continued hope that missing children, including Jacob, can return home.
Reverse effects of protective legislation
Shortly before the federal passage of the Wetterling Act, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered in New Jersey by a neighbour with a history of sexual violence. The Kanka family believed all community members, not just law enforcement, should know who is listed on sex offender registries.
One month after the murder, Megan’s Law was passed in New Jersey requiring community notification of any sex offender moving into a neighbourhood. Two years later, the Wetterling Act was amended on a federal level requiring law enforcement to release information about registered sex offenders to the public in accordance with Megan’s Law.
While the purpose of these laws is to provide the community with tools to protect children, many critics believe aspects of the laws are counterproductive and wasteful. Not only are these acts costly, they are difficult to implement on a nationwide scale.
Six years after the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA) established a national online sex offender registry, many states are still struggling to comply. As of July last year, CNN reported that only 14 states had “substantially implemented” the 2006 Adam Walsh Act.
A report by the Institute for Psychological Therapies concluded that while sex offender policies are intended to protect the public, “the resulting stigmatization of sex offenders is likely to result in disruption of their relationships, loss of or difficulties finding jobs, difficulties finding housing, and decreased psychological well-being, all factors that could increase their risk of recidivism.”
Others argue that using offender-based registries that list anyone accused of a sexual offense instead of risk-based registries can overwhelm law enforcement officials and distract police from tracking those most likely to act again.
Wetterling agrees there are unintended side effects of laws allowing public notification of sex offenders and that these efforts have made it difficult for those accused of a sexual offense to find housing, jobs and support. “In other words, we almost assure them to failure … when in fact, we want them to succeed and never harm another child,” says Wetterling.
“Elected officials simply want to look tough on crime and make these laws tougher and tougher with no measurable assurance that they have reduced sexual violence or abduction at all but rather negatively impacted many families who have gotten caught in the broad net that has been cast. It is a challenge.”
Stopping the sexualization of children
According to Wetterling, the overarching issues behind sexual violence stem from the early sexualization of children. “We need to change the ‘norms’ that accept exposing our children to sexual violence,” says Wetterling, adding, “I saw a blue ‘onsie’ in a Walgreens store that said, ‘Lock up your daughters, here I come …’” This is the type of early sexualization of children that the JWRC hopes to discourage.
Some studies have found that exposure to pornography and other explicit material prior to age 14 may increase the risk of a child becoming a victim of sexual violence. According to Psychology Today, routine use of pornography may even lead to a desire for more violent material such as rape or torture, possibly making viewers more likely to commit sexual assault, rape or child molestation.
On a larger scale, Wetterling believes society must tackle big companies and individuals that profit from the sexual victimization of children. “Child pornography is a huge, multibillion dollar industry that needs to be shut down … this includes backpage advertising which routinely advertises ads ‘selling’ sexual partners,” she says.
On an individual level, parents can help prevent sexual violence and abductions by being aware of who is watching and interacting with their children. Fifty-nine percent of sexual offenses against children are committed by acquaintances and 34 percent by family members.
Parents can also talk to their children and have open discussions about sexual development. “Give them proper names of body parts,” says Wetterling. “Child sex offenders often say they will shy away from kids who know the names of body parts because they know that these kids aren’t as easily manipulated and will probably tell if something happens.”
For 22 years, Wetterling has been advocating for the protection of children from abuse, and she has no intention of stopping.
“I am fighting for a world of hope for all children … where they have the right to grow up safe and follow their dreams,” says Wetterling.
“This is the world that Jacob knew. In the words of Pablo Casals, ‘We must all work to make this world worthy of its children.’”