A Warrior Against Fear: Patty Wetterling

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 11.46.27 AM I've been riveted to the podcast In the Dark by American Public Media. It's a nine-episode series exploring the 1989 kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven-year-old Minnesota boy. The case remained unsolved for 27 years for a variety of complicated and unfortunate reasons.

If you only listen to one episode, make it episode 6, Stranger Danger, which zooms out from the Wetterling case and looks at sex offender registries. Such registries didn't even exist before Jacob was abducted; in fact, his case helped spur them:

A handful of states had offender registries already, but there was no national registry. Nor was there a requirement that all states build and keep registries. The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act created just such a requirement. But that was only the beginning. Over the years, the notion of keeping track of sex offenders has grown into something much larger and harsher. The Wetterling Act opened the door to a nationwide crackdown.

In 1996, a new law mandated that the police go beyond tracking offenders and notify communities of their presence. In 2006, yet another law expanded the list of crimes that could land a person on a registry and required the most serious offenders to remain registered for life.

On the surface, such registries seem like a no-brainer. Parents should know who their neighbors are and whether they could be out to harm their children. But there is very little evidence that these registries actually keep children safe, and the burden on the offender can be enormous. Producer Madeleine Baran interviewed a Miami man who'd served his prison time for soliciting underage girls for sex--a crime I certainly find deplorable--but who is now forced to sleep in his car because of the restrictions on where he can live.

Again, it's not like I have a lot of sympathy for these guys. Maybe such restrictions and labeling would seem justified if the registries did what they purported to do--keep kids safe--but they do not. In fact, such a registry would not have helped in the case of Wetterling's son, who was abducted, assaulted and killed by Danny Heinrich--a man who was not listed on any sex offender registry.

I consider Patty Wetterling an everyday hero, simply by virtue of putting one foot in front of the other for 27 years. But I admire her for a more specific reason. Given everything she's experienced--the most horrific nightmare a parent can endure, I'd say--nobody would blame her a bit for digging in, doubling down, and throwing her full support behind laws that are as punitive as possible for sex offenders. But even with grief as a constant companion, she is able to step back, examine her assumptions, and change her mind.

She says:

Right now we're stuck. It's a trap, We want people to be angry about sexual assault, and then when they're angry about it they want to toughen it up for these people, these "bad boys" who do this, and if we can set aside the emotions, what we really want is no more victims. So how can we get there? Labeling them and not allowing them community support doesn't work. So I've turned 180 from where I was.

And here's producer Madeleine Baran:

Patty wanted her legacy to be a world that was better for kids. A safer, happier world. But she said she worries that what all those laws have actually done is made people reject that idea, and instead view the world as fundamentally violent, dark and suspicious, with danger lurking behind every corner. 

Wetterling concludes:

Fear is really harmful. You're more likely to get struck by lightning than get kidnapped. But the fear of sexual abuse is huge. And [parents] think that making their kids scared is going to keep them safer and that's absolutely not true. It's probably the opposite.

Fear is really harmful.

George Orwell wrote, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." I admire Patty Wetterling for interrogating the evidence and her own heart. I'm not sure I could do it.

But we'd better all learn how.

I'm thinking about Patty constantly this week. This week, with all its talk of border walls, and slamming our doors to refugees, and "American carnage." I don't have any illusions that the world is all rainbows and light. But I'm inspired by Patty Wetterling, and people who've been through fearful experiences, and yet refuse to be consumed by fear. 

Madeleine Baran again:

Even when Patty learned all the awful things that Danny Heinrich had done to her son, she didn't ask people to be more vigilant, or pass tougher laws. Instead, she asked people to play with their children, to eat ice cream, to laugh, and to help their neighbors. She asked people to celebrate living in the kind of world where Jacob lived before he was kidnapped...

A world where people weren't so scared of each other. 

And that's what I intend to do.