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Secret shame: 'They're all nice guys'

Offenders seldom fit boogeyman stereotype

Published: Monday, March 17 2008 12:29 a.m. MDT

Parole agents Kody Floyd, left, and Jerry Cook, right, check the home of convicted sex offender Harlan Hammond. (Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News) Parole agents Kody Floyd, left, and Jerry Cook, right, check the home of convicted sex offender Harlan Hammond. (Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News)
Second in a four-part series.

UTAH STATE PRISON — Larry Burt groomed his young victim to always do what adults told her to do.
And for 11 years, she did. When she questioned his sexual touching that progressed to intercourse, he bought her gifts or showed her special treatment.
Burt, 46, is thoughtful and emotional as he describes his history during an interview at the prison. He tries to explain his thinking at the time — tries to answer the "How could you?" queries as best he can.
"I know I tried to make her believe that it's OK, I'm not physically hurting you," he said in an interview at the Utah State Prison, where he has spent the past 6 1/2 years. "You don't take into consideration it was hurting her emotionally and mentally."

Sex offender Larry Burt has spent the past 6 1/2 years at the Utah State Prison. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) Sex offender Larry Burt has spent the past 6 1/2 years at the Utah State Prison. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
Burt learned about the psychological damage he'd done in the prison's Sex Offender Treatment Program, which includes group therapy.
On this day, eight inmates who allowed reporters to sit in on the session, provided their names were not used, gathered around their therapist in their cell block's computer room. They ranged in age from their 30s to their 60s. One was black, the rest Caucasian. They were from communities along the Wasatch Front, from Orem to Roy. One was a transplant from Las Vegas.
One of them opens the discussion with belabored complaints about new rules that limit access to the computers, making it hard to complete his treatment assignments. Therapist Harold Blakelock uses the issue to help the inmates identify factors they can and cannot change. The inmate persists. He has to do his treatment exercises by hand, he complains. He has to walk from two halls down to do his work. He can't print it out as easily.
Therapist Harold Blakelock conducts a group therapy session for sex offenders at Utah State Prison. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) Therapist Harold Blakelock conducts a group therapy session for sex offenders at Utah State Prison. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
"The issue seems to be immediate gratification," Blakelock confronts the man. "Do you have a problem with immediate gratification?
"You're not going to complete treatment unless you take responsibility, change your thinking," he says. "Don't blame. Don't be a victim."
Observing the group, it is clear what Susanne Mitchell, director of the Salt Lake County Children's Justice Center, says is true. A sex offender is the guy who mows the lawn, pays taxes and fixes flat tires.
"Obviously, it doesn't fit the perception of the boogeyman monster," Mitchell said.
Take Harlan Hammond. He is a well-mannered, articulate 29-year-old married man with a good job. He is direct and personable with his parole agents in a recent visit and answers their questions as they search his computer with special software for traces of porn. They find nothing inappropriate on his computer.
Adult Probation and Parole agents Kody Floyd and Jerry Cook talk to a convicted sex offender during an unannounced visit to his home. (Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News) Adult Probation and Parole agents Kody Floyd and Jerry Cook talk to a convicted sex offender during an unannounced visit to his home. (Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News)
But Hammond was convicted of attempted rape of a child involving a 14-year-old girl he met over the Internet. He's been on parole for almost four years, completed sex offender treatment and is going to school full time. The man is scheduled to be on parole for 10 years but has raised no red flags with his supervisors. They may recommend he get off parole in five years instead.
"So far," said parole agent Jerry Cook, "he's doing pretty well."
In fact, there is no profile of a sex offender.
A Utah Department of Corrections study of 389 offenders found 92 percent were white. Their median age was 32. They had finished nearly 12 years of school and their median IQ was 103, slightly above societal norms. One-third were married, one-third divorced and about one-third never married. Drugs and alcohol factored into their crimes 13 percent and 20 percent of the time, respectively.
Offenders will say the incident just happened. But Blakelock says that isn't true. They lie to themselves. They minimize and rationalize their behavior as "nice abuse."
"They sow the best stories you ever heard in your life about why they're the way they are," said Jeremy Shaw, an Adult Probation and Parole supervisor in the sex offender unit.
"Sex offenders are notorious for deluding themselves, for justifying what they did," said Don Strassberg, a University of Utah psychologist who has studied sex offenders. Offenders often make excuses for their behavior such as "she came on to me" or "I was drinking."
Hearing that a reporter had interviewed a child molester whom he had investigated years ago, a former sex crimes detective wanted to know if he seemed like a nice guy.
The answer was yes.
"They're all nice guys," said Weber County Sheriff's Sgt. J.P. Hansen.
That persona helps them form relationships with their victims. But on the inside, say psychologists and therapists, perpetrators are tormented by their sexual deviance.
"There's a misconception that these offenders enjoy what they're doing," said Blakelock, the Utah State Prison psychologist.
Offenders isolate themselves emotionally and sexually. They lead double lives. They harbor secrets and go to great lengths to get their victims, especially children, to stay silent.
"Kids who are threatened are really good at keeping things quiet," Mitchell said.
Blakelock has treated some 600 sex offenders in his 11 years at the Utah State Prison. Though he says rarely are any two alike, he has observed two primary reasons men commit sex crimes.
Some are deviantly aroused by specific age or gender. For others, life is a mess. They're full of self-loathing. They say they're anxious, unloved and unwanted. "Sexual assaulting helps them feel better about themselves," he said.
Men can perpetrate on children without children being their primary interest. It could stem from a desire to control or it could be availability or not being successful with women, he said.
Says Blakelock, "They rationalize that they're emotionally safe with a child."
"This is something that most people don't know: There are lots of men who commit offense against children who are not pedophiles," Strassberg said. It's not about sex for all offenders. For some it's a matter of power and control.
Burt said he was going through a second divorce when he started hurting his victim. He drank a lot and used methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.
But she wasn't his first victim. He recalled assaulting a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old when he was 13.
Seldom are perpetrators caught the first time. Nearly every convicted sex offender has what are called "uncharged victims," people they admit to sexually abusing but were never prosecuted for.
That information typically comes out in treatment where therapists believe disclosing all victims, whether charged or not, is the first step to successfully completing the program.
But not all offenders are forthcoming.
Acknowledgment usually doesn't come until offenders enter a treatment program in prison or a halfway house. And then it often surfaces only after they have flunked a polygraph test.
There is one thing, however, that clinicians don't want to know: The identities of the uncharged victims. They're careful to tell their clients not to reveal more than a scant description like gender and age. Telling more, they say, undermines the trust needed to successfully treat sex offenders.
Why? Because if a therapist knows details about a crime, he or she has to report it — and that doesn't serve the disclosing component of therapy very well, they say.
Treatment isn't geared toward "curing" offenders. Rather, it's geared toward teaching them to control deviant urges. It teaches them empathy for their victims. Therapists want them to learn to care again.
Successfully treating sex offenders is complex.
"You can't say don't do it anymore and expect they won't do it anymore," said Mark Gaskill, a Salt Lake marriage and family therapist who has counseled sex offenders.
Strassberg said the best research shows it's "very, very difficult to impossible" to change an offender's target of sexual interest. He said it would be like trying to convince a heterosexual person to find members of the same sex attractive.
Sex offenders can learn to control and manage their thoughts and urges through interventions. They can be taught to avoid places or situations that make them vulnerable to their distorted thinking.
"People can change, but to degrees," Blakelock said.
Sex offenders have to buy into treatment for it to work, Strassberg said. Just because an offender participated doesn't mean he's involved or motivated. But those who complete the program are less likely to sexually assault someone in the future.
"I want them to think about why this happens and how can I help it from happening again," Blakelock said.


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