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Balance is key in war on child sex abuse

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

Looking at the headlines the past few days, you'd think that Citrus County has become the sex capital of central Florida, perversion division.

At lunch the other day, a fellow visiting from out of town commented upon the number of cases in the news here recently about sex charges involving adults preying on children. He's hardly alone in making that observation.

So far this month, there have been at least three court cases of note. In one, a 37-year-old man was convicted of molesting small boys. In another, a 68-year-old man pleaded no contest to possession of child pornography and providing obscene material to children. In the third, a 20-year-old man pleaded guilty to having sex with four girls under age 16. Two of the offenses occurred while the man was out on bail following the similar incidents.

Equally disturbing have been the new cases:

A 45-year-old man was charged with stalking a teenage girl at a school bus stop. The arresting officer reported seeing the man with his pants down and chased him for a half-mile through the woods before nabbing him behind a tree.

A 78-year-old man was arrested after a woman walked in on him as he was fondling her 10-year-old daughter. "You caught me," he told the mother, according to the arrest report.

A 31-year-old man was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old girl, who also told authorities she had consumed drugs and alcohol at the man's house.

Earlier this month, a 59-year-old man was accused of using a computer to lure two young girls to his Beverly Hills home, where he allegedly forced them to have sex with him.

In a similar incident, a 52-year-old man from Manatee County was charged with using his computer to try to set up a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl in Citrus.

And in the most bizarre case, a 27-year-old woman was charged after she allegedly held a slumber party for seven girls ages 9 to 13 and engaged in various lewd behaviors, from performing nude jumping jacks and demonstrating oral sex using a soda bottle to having the girls do "lap dances" and "lap wiggles" on chairs and each other. That arrest got national exposure and earned a part of Jay Leno's monologue twice last week.

You can't help but wonder: What the heck is going on here?

Are we surrounded by sickos in Citrus? Is the timing of all of these incidents a coincidence or a sign of some horrendous shift in our community's psyche? Have we adults somehow let down our guard when it comes to protecting our children?

In one sense, it's a chicken-and-egg situation. The Sheriff's Office formed a special unit more than a year ago to focus on crimes against children. With the increased attention, you're naturally going to see more arrests being made just as speeding tickets tend to rise when a traffic unit hits the road.

But the new unit was formed in response to the number of such cases that were already occurring. And there's the belief in some quarters that only a percentage of the actual crimes are ever reported or discovered.

So, you're back at the beginning, wondering not only what is happening here but, more importantly, what can we do to stop these attacks on children?

Searching for insights, I turned to County Judge Mark Yerman, for several reasons. Besides holding a job in which he has seen untold numbers of child sex-crime cases, he is also a husband and father and active in a variety of community organizations. He also is a deep and abstract thinker and possesses one of the most agile minds I've ever encountered.

Yerman didn't presume to have the answer, because no single solution exists. He did, however, break down the problem into some of its parts.

"It used to be that these kinds of crimes were behind the scenes, often kept within the family and out of the public sector," he noted. "Then, we as a society decided to deal with this in the public arena. We began demanding that government get involved.

"Where would you go in the 1950s if you were a 13-year-old being abused?" he asked. "Would you go to the Sheriff's Office? Probably not."

That's led to a consciousness shift, he said, and now these behaviors are simply not acceptable.

"There has been a lot of education of kids themselves, to think of their bodies and themselves as worthy of protection and to report offenses," he said. "Children are being taught that this sort of behavior is wrong."

Another change came when American businesses discovered that sex sells. "Back then, someone realized that if you put women on cars, you find that you sell more cars," he said. That opened the doors to the proliferation of sexually charged advertising and entertainment that bombard us, children included, daily.

As for what's going on in Citrus today, Yerman pointed out that in a growing community like this, not only are you going to get good and bad people, you're also shrinking the distances between people.

"We get out more, we have more relationships with more people. It used to be that you would live 20 miles from your neighbor. If you were being abused, who would you report it to?"

I pressed him for some possible solutions, but he wouldn't bite.

"I'm not into solving problems," he said, "I look at managing them. They are the conditions of life. We do the best we can and work toward minimizing them. We'll never live in a world where nothing bad happens.

"Think of this as an illness. You hope the patient gets better over time. You're not going to solve the problem of people getting ill, but you can try to manage the illness."

Yerman also offered a warning against overreacting to the current spate of sex crimes by demanding that the government do more to protect children. It's a balance between the genuine interest in safeguards and using these incidents as a pretext to take away civil rights, as sometimes happens when society insists that the government fix the unfixable.

"Most medications are toxic," he noted. "If you use too much, you kill the patient."

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