Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Little Lobbyist on the Prairie

"I think if I had to be America's sweetheart, I'd have gone crazy," says Alison Arngrim, who played mean-girl "Nellie Oleson" on Little House on the Prairie. "I really admire Melissa Gilbert for not pulling out an Uzi."

April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month. But millions of child sexual abuse survivors, including Arngrim, can't just shelve their memories now that May has arrived.Looking back, Arngrim's grateful that as a child she could use her nasty Nellie character to vent her smoldering rage in a healthy way.

When Arngrim went on Larry King Live in 2004, she bravely told her truth to the world - something not everyone in her life knew about. But first she sent an email to her friends and family to give them a heads up.

"I said, 'This is what I'm going to talk about, but don't cry for me, Argentina.'" She didn't want pity - she wanted tougher laws on pedophiles, and she's getting them. She's left the prairie and now hits the Hill as the California chair for the National Association to Protect Children, or PROTECT. This group isn't satisfied with "raising awareness" but aggressively lobbies to make laws that keep kids safe from sexual predators.

Unlike the helpless and isolated child victims they fight for, Arngrim and PROTECT have some powerful allies, like The California Correctional Peace Officers Association. These folks are the prison guards and parole agents who tell convicted murderers when to take a time out. Who wants to mess with them? They're almost as bossy as Nellie Oleson.

The CCPOA and PROTECT teamed up to support AB 487, the California bill that would put all paroled sex offenders with victims under age 14 on intensive supervision. Sounds like a no-brainer, but you can't always count on common sense in a system where sex offenders who molest "only" their own babies are sometimes labeled "low risk."

The bill, which just got sent to the Assembly Appropriations Committee on April 10, would also provide funding for specialized training of parole agents who supervise sex offenders. Yep, there's more to dealing with pedophiles than what you see on NBC's Dateline: To Catch a Predator.

"It takes trained professionals to understand and be able to monitor these people," says Ramon Ortiz, a former public defender with the Sexually Violent Predators Unit.

If the bill passes, each parole agent handling high-risk sex offenders would also have a more reasonable caseload of eight, instead of the 40 high-risk offenders each officer is currently responsible for keeping away from your kids. Not everyone supports the bill, though. "If you get them alone and buy them a drink, there are people who will happily tell you how it's okay to have sex with children," Arngrim says.

The California Attorneys for Criminal Justice are also against it. They think it would cost too much. With all those new parole officers on the payroll, and with each inmate costing about $35,000 a year to house, maybe it's more cost effective to let California's 109,000 registered sex offenders settle into your communities with minimal supervision. This group of attorneys also feels that GPS monitoring is adequate protection.

Great, now we'll know where the pedophiles are. But it's kind of like when Lojack alerts you that your stripped-down-stolen car has turned up in Tijuana -- the damage is already done.

Other groups push for rehabilitation...since counseling worked so well for Catholic priests.

"You don't see a lot of people who commit armed robbery sent to therapy," Arngrim says. "For some reason if he rapes a 5-year-old girl, he needs therapy."

Sure, the bill's protection could cost a bundle, but ask victims how much money they'd pay to never have endured a pedophile's soul-stealing acts. Or ask non-offending parents how many tax dollars they'd spend to stop their sexually abused child's nightmares and flashbacks. Our laws shield children from secondhand smoke. How about from rape by previously convicted offenders?

In fairness, we tried to contact about 33,000 registered sex offenders in California to get their opinion of the Assembly bill. That's about how many are currently missing from the system, so understandably they were unable to be reached for comment.

Still, Arngrim is hopeful. She says that a couple years ago, it was a lot tougher to get lawmakers' attention. "But now," she says, "we see people in Sacramento jumping to introduce child protection legislation. I think this is an excellent trend."

by Amy and Linda Tenowich

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