President and CEO, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Thursday, November 5, 2009 11:00 AM
Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, was online Thursday, Nov. 5, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the discovery in Cleveland of 11 bodies in one home in a run-down neighborhood that has relatives of the presumed victims wondering how such a gruesome scene could have gone unnoticed for perhaps years, and they charge that police ignored their missing person reports.
How does something like this happen in plain sight? What can authorities and communities do to protect citizens from registered sex offenders? Who are the victims?
There are as many as 100,000 registered sex offenders in the United States whose whereabouts are unknown, and with the passing of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, NCMEC joined in a partnership with the United States Marshals Service (USMS) in their initiative to apprehend fugitive sex offenders. The primary goal of NCMEC's Sex Offender Tracking Team (SOTT) is to support law enforcement by providing assistance in identifying and locating non-compliant/fugitive registered sex offenders.
Fairfax, Va.: How does something like this happen in a community without law enforcement checking into it? Wasn't there enough suspicion? Is it a matter of law or is it a breakdown in the enforcement system?
Ernie Allen: The systems for following up on these offenders are simply overwhelmed. And once an offender has completed his parole, there are limitations in terms of what authorities can do. In Sowell's case, Sheriff's deputies showed up at least once a quarter, went to his house and confirmed that he was there. But absent additional evidence and probable cause, they couldn't enter or do additional investigation. Clearly, they didn't look closely enough and neither did the community. In so many of these cases, these most serious offenders are simply hiding in plain sight. It is not acceptable and we have to do a lot more, including increasing the resources when these guys are released into the community.
Phoenix, Ariz.: It's like an episode of "Criminal Minds." You take people that no one will miss -- homeless, prostitutes, junkies, for instance.
The pig farmer in Canada killed 49 that way. Comments?
Ernie Allen: Typically, the offender is known to the victim, at least casually. While we don't know all the details yet, it is hard to imagine that there aren't families or loved ones somewhere who have been looking for at least some of these victims. From what we know, he seduced or lured most of his victims, getting them into a situation in which they were unable to escape. It is far more typical than the stereotypical fears that many have about snatched off the streets. In most of these cases, they are more "seduction" than "abduction."
Washington, D.C.: What does the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children do in cases like this? Do you look for adults that are missing?
Ernie Allen: Our involvement in these kinds of cases is focused on the offender. We do not work missing adult cases, unless the adult is between 18 and 21 and we are asked to assist by law enforcement. The premise under the law is that adults have a right to be missing, juveniles do not. However, we are very active in the effort to track down missing or noncompliant sex offenders. Of America's 686,000 registered sex offenders (as of our last national survey in July), at least 100,000 are missing or noncompliant. We have a Sex Offender Tracking Team at NCMEC which is using public record databases and other similar tools to try to locate these guys. We do this in support of the US Marshals Service and at the request of state and local law enforcement.
Obviously, Mr. Sowell was compliant with his registration obligations, a fact which was confirmed on a quarterly basis by law enforcement. However, somehow nobody saw what his real preoccupation was. There were no public suspicions or tips reported to authorities (to our knowledge) and law enforcement did not pick up any clues as to his behavior.
Boston, Mass.: Could/should police have walked a cadaver sniffing dog around the street by the house in question when neighbors complained of a "dead body" smell? They wouldn't have needed a search warrant just to do that right? And then, what if the dog smelled a cadaver in that house's yard? Is that enough probable cause for the police to enter the property and start digging?
Ernie Allen: That's right. Just as in the Garrido/Jaycee Duggard case in California, this information was in plain view (or scent). You don't need a search warrant to look over a back fence. When there were complaints of the dead body smell, clearly additional investigation should have taken place. The backyard is private property, but I am confident that enough information could have been generated (particularly considering Sowell's criminal history) to meet the probable cause standard and obtain a warrant for more extensive searching.
Annapolis, Md.: How does this Cleveland case rank in the hierarchy of similar cases nationwide?
Ernie Allen: It is a really bad one. I don't how one rates or ranks these kinds of atrocities, but it is well up the list. America has a long history of serial killers, including people like Ted Bundy and others. The number of victims is outrageous, and particularly troubling is that he apparently conducted all of these crimes in and around his home in the middle of a city. Certainly, the investigation is on-going and it is not inconceivable that authorities will learn more, and that we have not yet identified the full scope of what Sowell has done.
Richmond, Va.: I heard that there was a sausage manufacturer near the house, so that could have provided an excuse for the smell.
Ernie Allen: There are always excuses and explanations, particularly in cities. People are busy. People look for "normal" explanations for situations that appear "abnormal." The key in cases like this and many others is for people simply to pay attention and if there is something troublesome or that appears unusual, to report it. We at NCMEC get hundreds of calls every day through our hotline 1 (800) THE LOST or our cybertipline, www.cybertipline.com. Many of them are from well-meaning people who are concerned about something and let us know. Oftentimes, there is an innocent explanation. However, in case after case, average people doing average things but simply paying attention, are providing information that leads to finding missing children and saving lives. The problem in this case, I suspect, is that there were these kinds of excuses for the smell, and not enough people reached out and expressed their concerns. Some did, and weren't taken completely seriously, but in so many cases, that is how we get resolutions, not from CSI-type wizardry but simply from good citizens speaking up.
College Park, Md.: Is it true that the victims were people on the "edges" of society, i.e., homeless, prostitutes? Do you think he knew them?
Ernie Allen: It is too early to know with certainty, but overwhelmingly female rape victims know their assailants. These are most often crimes in which offenders win the confidence of their victims, lure them into situations in which they have little opportunity of escape and then victimize them. Our assumption here is that he tricked or seduced his victims, and then raped and killed them.
Washington, D.C.: Are sex offenders ever completely "cured"? Is incarceration effective? Do they repeat?
Ernie Allen: The key point that we try to make is that all sex offenders are not alike. One of the areas where we need to direct most of our attention is the area of risk assessment. 2/3 of America's sex offenders are not in jails or prisons, they are in our communities. There is contradictory evidence in the research literature, but clearly treatment is effective and beneficial for certain kinds of offenders. However, the treatment needs to be entered into willingly by an offender who accepts responsibility for what he has done and is committed to changing his life. Other offenders, including offenders against children, we are more skeptical about. For some of these offenders, these offenses are not lapses of judgment, they are a lifestyle. Recidivism research offers some encouragement, but our skepticism is that recidivism measures the numbers of offenders arrested and convicted. Most of these crimes are not even reported, particularly by child victims. And these offenders tend not to be monogamous. They tend to have multiple victims. So, it is a complex challenge for society that requires more serious sentencing for the most serious offenders, more robust and effective follow up and monitoring in the community post-release, treatment as a matter of privilege, not right, and a serious, comprehensive national strategy to do something about this problem.
Woodbridge, Va.: Why does this happen over and over? I am so tired of criminals getting the benefit of the doubt until disaster strikes.
This guy had already done a 15-year stretch for rape, so he has a history of violence. When the neighbors began to suspect something through the stench of decay, law enforcement should have been able to investigate it FROM THE BEGINNING.
Do they really need an invitation from the court system, even when they have "reason to suspect?"
Ernie Allen: The problem is that the greatest leverage that we have over these criminals is when there are specific conditions applied as part of their probation or parole. Once they escape those conditions through the end of their parole period, law enforcement is much more limited in terms of what it can do. In Sowell's case, Sheriff's Deputies went to his home at least quarterly, but they could not go beyond the front door without probable cause and a warrant. We believe fervently in the rule of law, but you are right, the concern about Sowell wasn't because of who he is or what he thinks, it was because of what he had already done. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
Lima, Ohio: Doesn't this case exhibit the shallowness of the registration laws? Legislators can take a bow because it looks like they're doing "something," but in reality all it represents is busy work for bureaucrats.
Ernie Allen: We think registration laws are absolutely essential. At a minimum authorities need to know where these offenders are and what they are doing. But like all laws, they are only as effective as they are implemented. The big challenge we face as a nation is that there are now 686,000 registered sex offenders. It is like triage in a battlefield situation. You can't do brain surgery on everybody. You have to set priorities. You have to identify those who represent the greatest risk and focus greater resources and attention on them. In our sex offender registries in some states, we have registered offenders convicted of Romeo and Juliet-type offenses; i.e., statutory rape in which a 19 year old had sex with his 15 year old girl friend. That is unlawful, but I am not terribly concerned about him as a threat to the community. Similarly, the guy arrested for public urination at Mardi Gras probably isn't the same level of risk as Sowell, a convicted violent rapist or Garrido, a convicted kidnapper/rapist. We need to do much better in not only identifying those offenders likely to represent the greatest levels of risk, but also educating the public about them. That is why we pushed for a provision in the Adam Walsh Act for every state to implement a system with tiers of risk in the sex offender registries. Tier IIIs are the most serious, highest risk. Tier IIs represent less risk, and Tier Is represent relatively minor risk. It is not perfect, but we need to do a better job of differentiation.
Washington, D.C.: In other words, they are among us. Isn't the problem that victims -- if they survive -- don't like the stigma of having had abuse affect them? Is it a personal decision to just "keep it in" and not report it?
Ernie Allen: Absolutely. For example, among children the leading research indicates that we are up to about 1 in 3 reporting sexual abuse, a dramatic increase over 20 years ago. But that still means that 2 out of every 3 victims never tell anybody. Rape victimization data for adult women is comparable. So, when you consider the fact that there are 686,000 registered sex offenders, you must also remember that that only represents those who have been arrested and convicted in a court of law. It doesn't include those whose victims never reported, and it doesn't include those who for some reason were not convicted. There is trauma associated with victimization, and many victims are reluctant to put themselves through the ordeal of the criminal justice process in a quest for justice. We are doing better but it remains a huge challenge.
Baltimore, Md.: Once an offender is released, how often is he monitored?
Ernie Allen: It varies state to state. In the recent Adam Walsh Act, the Congress increased the penalty for failure to be compliant to a felony. It had been a misdemeanor in 25 states. That means that when they don't comply, there is an opportunity to have their parole revoked and have then sent back to prison. Under the Adam Walsh Act, states are supposed to do personal visits/confirmations of the most serious offenders at least quarterly, the Tier IIs at least every six months, and the Tier Is annually. However, again, states are overwhelmed and need help. In many states historically, the way in which an offender was determined to be complaint was by mail, hardly a very effective way of ensuring that the offender is where he is supposed to be and is doing what he is supposed to do. The primary and most intensive oversight occurs when these offenders are on parole and have specific limitations and conditions imposed by the court. However, the parole period runs out. We need to dramatically intensify the system at the back-end to ensure follow up monitoring and supervision. It is not only in the best interests of society, it is also in the best interests of the offender. The last thing a child molester needs is to be told to go forth and sin no more. They tend to be model prisoners, but when they get back on the streets, they begin to encounter children, or the rapists begin to encounter women. They start to fantasize. Society needs them to have meaningful oversight, and not to simply drift into anonymity where nobody knows where they are or what they are doing.
Bel Air, Md.: What tier would Sowell be classified in?
Ernie Allen: I don't know with certainty how he was classified in Ohio. Based on the severity of his crime (violent rape), he should have been classified as a Tier III, the most serious.
Lusby, Md.: I dont' think police and the media take the cases of missing African Americans seriously as they do with white women. You never see the national news reporting on the disappearance of a woman of color like they do white women. You would think we never go missing. When is the disparity going to end?
Ernie Allen: What we are trying to ascertain in this case is whether there were missing persons reports filed on these women. There is no question but that the level of response to missing adult cases is not as intense as with missing children. However, I am convinced that there are reports out there on these victims and that they have loved ones looking for them somewhere. The process of identifying the victims will answer a lot of those questions.
Alexandria, Va.: Don't they have some sniff-alyzer, which can tell rotting corpses apart from sewage?
Ernie Allen: There are a variety of new forensic tools that can be used in these kinds of cases. I am not sure what Cleveland authorities used in these cases, but one of the things that NCMEC's Cold Case Unit does on a lot of these cases is use new technology to try to locate and identify remains. The technology advancements in this area are phenomenal.
Alexandria, Va.: What causes someone to do this kind of crime? And repeatedly? What is in the psyche? Is it a childhood trauma? To what can this be attributed?
Ernie Allen: I wish we knew more. Certainly, we know that many of these kinds of offenders suffered abuse as a child. However, it is important to point out that the vast majority of abuse victims do not go on to become abusers themselves. There is long-standing debate in this country regarding accountability for these kinds of acts; i.e., is this evidence of mental disease or defect, or is it criminality? Our view is that while it is important to focus on causation and how a particular offender turned out the way he did, we do not believe that it is exculpatory. Ultimately, we believe that adults are responsible for their acts. Help them, try to change them, but don't excuse these kinds of crimes.
Washington, D.C.: What is the standard that is used to heighten the search for an adult who may be missing? As I understand it, in this country people do have the right to simply be left alone.
Ernie Allen: Exactly, and that is the problem. Adults have the right to be missing. So, typically, the cases of missing adults that are taken most seriously are those where there are actual witnesses or physical evidence that suggests foul play. One of the challenges is that in many of these cases, there is no evidence, there are no witnesses. It is important that law enforcement take these disappearances seriously and conduct investigations. Because of the growing number of young adults who have become victims, we were asked a couple of years ago to take on the cases of 18 -- 21 year olds when asked by the police to assist. The rationale was that in many of these cases, the fact that a victim became an adult one month before and was abducted at the age of 18 years and 1 month instead of 17 years and 11 months seems pretty arbitrary. It is still a child to his or her parents. So, I think the response in these cases is getting better, but as you point out, there are legal hurdles.
Anacostia, D.C.: In the CBS TV show "Without a Trace," they always put up a picture of someone who has gone missing at the end of the show. In reality, is this effective? Have any of the people posted been found?
Ernie Allen: Yes, and you make a really important point. NCMEC disseminates the photos of missing children through a network of 400 private sector partners. There are missing child bulletin boards in every Walmart store (200 kids have been recovered as a direct result of Walmart shoppers). We work with media. We have one partner that has distributed missing child photos in mailers into 85 million homes each week in America for 24 years. It works. Somebody knows. We recover 1 in 6 of those kids as a direct result of that photograph. What 'Without A Trace' has done in using prime time, expensive airtime to create visibility for these cases is huge. When Jaycee Dugard was recovered, it became clear to me that there are many more of these kids out there who are recoverable. We currently have 800 long-term missing stranger abducted kids for whom we are searching. I simply do not believe that through some accident of fate, we have now recovered every one of them who is still alive through the recoveries of Jaycee, Elizabeth Smart and Shawn Hornbeck. The public is the key.
Betehsda, Md.: Do you think that part of the reason the system is so overwhelmed is because of the broad definition of "sex offender?" Would smarter laws help us determine the potential dangerous repeat offenders and keep better tabs on them? It seems to me that no one would ever have the political will to do something like this for fear of appearing "soft on crime."
Ernie Allen: That is the whole premise of requiring states to categorize sex offenders by tiers of risk. The problem and the challenge is that it is hard and not scientifically precise to do that. Ultimately, our view is that the best predictor of future behavior is what you have already done. There are those who argue for more in-depth psychological analysis and similar techniques. That is great, but how are you going to do that with 686,000 offenders. Clearly, this challenge can't be fixed with "one size fits all" and our approach has been a "triage-based" system, a comprehensive approach that prioritizes offenders and develops an array of techniques more tailored to the unique needs and challenges of each one.
Wasahington, D.C.: Were you surprised about the Jaycee Duggard case, being in the backyard all those years and nobody noticing or realizing she was being held and abused for so long? What is her current condition? How is Elizabeth Smart now? Others?
Ernie Allen: Jaycee is doing great. NCMEC has provided a psychologist from our Outreach Network who is working with Jaycee and her family. This is not a quick or easy process. It really is a life-long process of recovery. You can't erase those 18 years. We are trying to achieve a new normal for her. I was not only surprised but discouraged that Jaycee was not identified and Garrido not apprehended over those 18 years. If you have seen the age progression photo our forensic artists did of Jaycee, it is right on. All we needed was for somebody to look at the picture, generate that one key lead, and Jaycee should have been recovered long ago. Nonetheless, the good news is that she is alive, she is young, she has two young kids to focus on and care about. There is real hope for her future. Regarding Elizabeth, she is an amazing young woman. If you read the articles and transcript of her testimony in the recent hearing on Brian Mitchell, her abductor, you can appreciate what courage this young woman has. Elizabeth, Jaycee, Shawn Hornbeck and others give me real hope for so many of these kids. The human spirit is resilient. These kids figured out how to survive, and we are hopeful about their futures.
Phoenix, Ariz.: Ernie said: "...it is hard to imagine that there aren't families or loved ones somewhere who have been looking for at least some of these victims."
While this is true, the 'community' may very well not notice if there are a few less homeless or other street people. That was the original question -- How can a community not know this is happening?
Ernie Allen: A police officer said to me once, "the only not to find this problem in any city is simply not to look for it." I really believe that we have made enormous progress in this country and that America has begun to look. However, a story like this makes it abundantly clear how far we have yet to go. I don't know how a community can not know that this is happening. We live in a time in which in many places we have lost that sense of neighborhood, people looking out for each other. In many communities, people don't even know who their neighbors are. This is a human tragedy and hopefully, will awaken people everywhere to what else needs to be done.
Washington, D.C.: I can't help but think this tragic situation is due in part because the victims were black women, SOME of them with other challenges in their lives. Thus, they are/were "perfect" victims; some people in the community don't care about such people and sadly, the police, who we the taxpayers pay, didn't care about such people either. So to me, this smacks of racism, sexism and classism, not only on the part of the police, but SOME community members as well. Lastly, do you know what kind of rape crisis services are in this city? Thanks.
Ernie Allen: We know that African-American, Hispanic and other minorities are victimized disproportionately with these kinds of crimes. We know that there are growing numbers of people in our society who have become anonymous, the homeless, the forgotten. In our work at NCMEC, we are seeing growing numbers of kids on the streets of American cities. In a New York Times series last week (am I allowed to say New York Times on this site?), it pointed out the stories of the new American homeless, runaway kids struggling to survive on the streets and being subjected to sexual victimization. Two weeks ago, NCMEC joined with the FBI in a national sweep focusing on child sexual trafficking and child prostitution. To date, we have rescued 900 kids and prosecuted 500 offenders who prey upon kids. In so many ways, we still have "hidden victims," victims who somehow nobody sees. I remain convinced that that police officer was right. First and foremost, you have to look for it and then do something about it.
Washington, D.C.: I heard on cable news that Mr. Sowell stated his aunt with whom he lived was in a nursing home. Did authorities every find her? Could she be among the missing?
Ernie Allen: We don't know that answer right now.
Washington, D.C.: You said that there are 686,000 registered sex offenders. Do you know many of them are non-violent or convicted because of consensual acts (e.g., the 18-year-old boyfriend of a 14-year-old girl)? Given the reality of limited monitoring resources, wouldn't it be more effective to have law-enforcement personnel focus on violent offenders like Anthony Sowell?
Ernie Allen: Absolutely. That is why we argued for and Congress included in the 2006 Adam Walsh Act a "Romeo and Juliet" provision that excludes those kinds of cases. However, that doesn't mean that some states don't include them. The goal is to prioritize these offenders based upon their level of risk to the community, and focus our limited resources on the most dangerous.
Ernie Allen: Thank you for all of the great questions. I have really enjoyed chatting with you this morning, and feel the same sense of anger and indignation that you do about the Cleveland tragedy. I am convinced that average people can make a difference. First, if you see something, or suspect something, or know something, report it, including reporting it to NCMEC at 1 (800) THE LOST. If you want free information about to keep your children and your family safe, visit our NCMEC website at www.missingkids.com. Finally, be a strong loud voice on behalf of these victims. Let your elected officials know that you would like to see the Adam Walsh Act implemented in every state. Interestingly, only one state has been found compliant so far, Ohio. We have a lot more to do, and your voice, your concern can help make it a reality. Thank you. Ernie
Ernie Allen: Hi, I am Ernie Allen, President of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. I know that millions of people are outraged about the tragedy in Cleveland and are concerned about our ability as a nation to cope with, monitor and oversee the 686,515 registered sex offenders in the United States. We at NCMEC are trying to do something about it. I welcome your questions about what can be done and what you can do as a parent or citizen to keep our children and families safe.
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