Last night, two of my fellow female ATAT steering committee members and I attended a public meeting at a police station in Conway, Arkansas, on a program called, "Sex Offender Concerns in Neighborhoods."
The program was facilitated by Paula Stitz, Sex Offender Manager at the Arkansas Crime Information Center and Sergeant Glen Cooper, of the Conway Police Department. Ms. Stitz and Sergeant Cooper each had about a 20-minute long program which included a power point presentation on two large screens.
This was my very first time meeting Ms. Stitz in person, although I have had dealings with her in the past, so I was a bit apprehensive.
Approximately 15 to 20 people were in attendance including news media from Fox News and THV.
Upon arrival, we noticed a television camera pointed at Ms. Stitz (photo above) as she was talking, and after we sat down, the camera panned the audience once or twice before the cameraman put the camera away.
We came prepared with several different brochures and materials from ATAT, (Arkansas Time After Time), SOSEN (Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network), and W.A.R. (Women Against Registry).
We listened and watched as Ms. Stitz presented her program first. She was dressed in a light beige business jacket and skirt and couldn't seem to stand still as she talked. She spoke confidently and elloquently, and talked about the points that were on the screen.
A couple of things I took notice of...
1) While talking about hands-off crimes such as child porn or other internet crimes, Ms. Stitz actually stated that "most sex offenders who are convicted of these crimes have a tendancy to go on to commit other crimes."
2) On Ms. Stitz "FACTS" page on screen, it stated: "75% to 85% of sex crimes are committed by family members or with someone the victim knows and trusts," to which she added, "sex offenders love to state this stat."
3) There was NEVER any mention of recidivism rates during Ms. Stitz's presentation or Sergeant Cooper's.
During her entire presenation, Ms. Stitz peppered the program with her own thoughts and feelings on each topic. On the screen, on the "MYTHS" page, there was one statement that said, "I can just 'tell' when someone is a sex offender," which of course she said that sex offenders look and act just like everyone else, but then added, that after years of working in the field, that SHE could tell.
When one of my friends mentioned that she was part of an advocacy group, Ms. Stitz asked her which group, and my friend mentioned Arkansas Time After Time. Paula said, "Oh, Robert Comb's organization," turning her back to us. I quickly added that Robert is just one of our members, that we have many members beside Robert.
At one point, Ms. Stitz did state that some sex offenders would benefit from therapy, but "not from clergy or church people,"as she put it, but rather from a certified professional. No argument there, but I got the feeling that she felt it would only work in a controlled environment such as civil committment.
Ms. Stitz made many statements that were controversial, including one where she said that in cases where sex offenders have only committed one crime, "it just means they have gotten smarter and just haven't gotten caught yet."
I realize that over the years, Ms. Stitz MUST have seen some heinous acts by some horrible people, but to consider that every single person convicted of a sex offense IS a threat to society is just flat out biased and factually incorrect, especially when one considers the FACT that recidivism rates are less than 5% across the U.S.
And according to the Dept. of Justic, the percentage of crimes within families or with someone the victim knows is NOT 75% to 85% as she stated, bur 97%, but I will agree that sex offenders AND their families love to state that fact. Such fact renders the sex offender registry USELESS!!!
After Ms. Stitz's program, Sergeant Cooper gave his portion of the presentation. He demonstrated how to use the ACIC website and showed things such as the sex offender registration form, and offender rap sheets, etc... Sergeant Cooper gave a very professional and unbiased presentation, which is what Ms. Stitz should have done. He showed us a map of Conway with all the 2000 foot off-limit zons to level 3 and level 4 offenders. Needless to say, there wasn't much left of Conway for those offenders to live in.
When one of my co-steering committee members asked him if he had experience with offenders finding it difficult to find jobs or housing due to the restrictions, he declined to comment. She asked him how many offenders were sitting in prison awaiting release but were not being released because they didn't have appropriate housing, and again, he didn't answer, saying something about the ACIC having that information. Funny, because I thought it was basically public knowledge: That there are more than 500 such offenders awaiting release from Arkansas prisons right now.
I did notice at the bottom of the offender rap sheets Sergeant Cooper showed on screen was this quote: "We believe the only person who wins if community notification ends is the sex offender, since sex offenders derive their power through secrecy."
Wow.... Right there is the one statement that makes the reason why advocating for sex offender law reform so incredibly difficult.
Overall, the general message one gets from a meeting like this is "Be afraid, be very afraid." Continued fear mongering at its best.
As soon as the program was over, two women got up and headed for the door and the newsperson stopped them to talk to them, but that was it. The media didn't talk to anyone else excect for Paula and Sergeant Cooper.
After the meeting, there was a brief period of time when people could talk with one another or ask questions of Ms. Stitz and Sergeant Cooper. There was also a survey form to fill out. One steering committe member got up and headed for the presentors; another turned around and began talking with the lady behind her.
I started filling out the form.
Almost immediately, I heard a loud shrill voice screaming at my friend, "I just heard you say that it is OK to look at child porn!" and knowing my friend, I know damn well she didn't say THAT. The woman went on to say that anyone who ever looks at child porn WILL go on to commit hands-on crimes, and even said that they always begin committing their crimes as young as 14 years old. I turned to come to my friend's defense and asked the woman, "And what if that same 14 year old turns around and initiates contact with someone older than them, why are they then a victim and the older person is charged?" to which she replied, "Well, it's not a perfect system."
BINGO! And, THAT, my friends, is why we're here.
But, the lady went on. She attacked my friend and I could see that my friend was getting nowhere fast. I then said to my friend, "You can't change the mind of someone with a closed mind," and the woman then got irate with me, screaming at me that she did NOT have a closed mind, and said she had a degree in pyschology and that she was a social worker.
I have no doubt in my mind that she is either a victim, a family member of a victim, or has seen some horendous things, and for that, I am sorry for her because clearly her vision is so clouded that she cannot think rationally. She may as well have had CRAZY written across her forehead.
I am good friends with two professional psychologists and neither would ever make such broad statements about sex offenders. While both are not exactly on our side, they can at least view each case objectively and treat each case as an individual case and I appreciate their ability to do their job as well as they do.
I returned to finish the survey form and then went over to see if my other friend needed any back up. She was standing alone with Paula Stitz and talking with her. Both were talking in a professional manner and seemed to be "agreeing to disagree."
When I mentioned we were all there to represent ATAT, again Paula said, "Robert Comb's organization" and again I had to remind her that Robert was just one person; that the group had many members. Paula then said some very unsavory things about Robert and told us she that she knows him better than we do, but we already knew that Paula has a personal vendetta against Mr. Comb's. The fact that she used his photo on the slide show of maybe five offenders during the presentation was NOT lost on us and we know it was a direct dig at Mr. Combs just in case he happened to be in attendance.
Thankfully, he was not.
We continued talking, but it was clear that we were getting nowhere. My friend reminded Ms. Stitz that we all have the same goals to make communities safer and that's when I suggested that we would like to work with law enforcement. Ms. Stitz flatly said, "Well, THAT will NEVER happen!"
I was astounded by the comment. Why wouldn't she want help that was offered that might help her do her job more effectively? When I asked why, she said, "I will never work with people who advocate for sex offenders," and turned and stomped off. As she turned, I said, "We're not advocating for sex offenders! We are advocating for FAMILIES of sex offenders!"
But, it was over. She left. It was clear that Ms. Stitz is king of her playground and she does NOT like to be challenged.
So there ya have it, a play by play.
Do I feel defeated? Yeah, you bet. Do I feel like giving up? Hell no! Every time something like this happens, it just makes me want to dig in my heels deeper or bite down a little harder.
The only positive I can really come up with was there were about 15 QUIET souls in that room. Maybe they were there because someone in their neighborhood is a sex offender. Or, maybe, they were there because a loved one is a sex offender. Maybe, just maybe, we had an impact on them in some way. Maybe, just maybe, we'll recruit more people into our advocacy work.
A girl can dream... Oh yeah, she can.