A Miracle, a Horror
Jaycee Lee Dugard's ordeal, and its lessons

Saturday, August 29, 2009

THE STORY OF Jaycee Lee Dugard, who returned to her mother this week 18 years after being kidnapped off a quiet California street as an 11-year-old, reminds us all that miracles do happen. We can only marvel at the patience of her parents, as well as at the sheer will to live that must have sustained Jaycee as this ordeal consumed her youth. Imprisoned, allegedly, by Phillip and Nancy Garrido and subjected to repeated rapes by Mr. Garrido -- a paroled sex offender -- Ms. Dugard bore two children, who for more than a decade each also lived in confinement with their mother. Like recent cases of horrific child abuse in our own area, these crimes baffle, disgust and infuriate. At a time when parents are preparing to send their children off to school buses, as Ms. Dugard's did on the morning she was abducted, they frighten.

Can they also instruct? Abductions of children by strangers were rare in 1991 and still are today. Furthermore, the law now provides children more protection. All states have some form of sex-offender registration, or Megan's law, so parents may know about potentially dangerous neighbors. (California had a registry in 1991 but no public disclosure until 1995.) AMBER alerts, funded and supervised by the Justice Department since 2003, enable law enforcement to send immediate bulletins of child abductions. In 1988, Mr. Garrido was paroled after only 11 years of a potential life sentence for a horrific rape-kidnapping; today's tougher sentencing might have prevented that.

To be sure, AMBER alerts are directly responsible for a relatively small number of rescues each year. Ever-stricter registration laws for sex offenders may be reaching the point of diminishing returns; in some states, they are making offenders homeless and, hence, difficult to monitor. Still, if the financial crash has proved anything, it is the wisdom of preventing rare events -- "tail risks" -- that have devastating consequences. Certainly Mr. Garrido had little trouble settling in on the leafy Antioch, Calif., street where he concealed his prisoners from police and parole officers who occasionally visited. (A federal court ruled that California's residency restrictions, enacted by a 2006 referendum, could not apply retroactively to cases such as Mr. Garrido's.) For the most part, neighbors, too, found nothing amiss.

Three years ago, someone did call the Contra Costa County sheriff's department about people living in the Garridos' back yard. A deputy responded but never did a background check and left without a search. The sheriff has, appropriately, apologized; we all wish his deputy had acted more like the University of California campus officer who eventually reported Mr. Garrido's suspicious behavior to his parole officer, triggering this week's revelations. But it's not human nature to imagine such evil residing next door to us, a fact that Jaycee Lee Dugard's captors, like so many other criminals before them, exploited to the hilt.

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