Magazine article Newsweek

The Hunt for Child Sex Abusers Is Happening in the Wrong Places; When It Comes to Child Abuse, Fear Everyone but the Stranger

Magazine article Newsweek

The Hunt for Child Sex Abusers Is Happening in the Wrong Places; When It Comes to Child Abuse, Fear Everyone but the Stranger

Article excerpt

Byline: Abigail Jones

It's late March when Lauren Book and I head into the bowels of the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC), armed with loose-leaf paper, pencils and the knowledge that we are about to sit face to face with three of the most dangerous sexually violent predators in the state. "This is the most manipulative crowd on the planet," says Kristin Kanner, director of the Florida Department of Children and Families' Sexually Violent Predator Program. And one of the men we're seeing today has been sending Book and her father angry letters for the past few years.

The FCCC is surrounded by seemingly endless stretches of sugar fields, cow pastures and orange groves. Wrapped in 12-foot barbed wire fences and guarded with more than 200 cameras, it is where Florida keeps 640 of its worst sexually violent offenders. About half have committed crimes against just children, a third against just adults.

Visits like ours are rare. Aside from prosecutors, defense attorneys and legislators, the last time anyone from the general public was granted this kind of FCCC access was in 2013, Book's first visit. Her father, Ron Book, routinely referred to as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida, was not happy about that trip. "I just don't like exposing her to the population," he explains. "These are people one step away from killing a kid. People who stole children's childhoods."

Lauren Book, who's 30, is one of over 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S. For six years, starting when she was 11, her family's live-in nanny sexually abused her. Today, she teaches children, parents and educators about child sexual abuse and prevention through her nonprofit, Lauren's Kids. "There was a prevailing thought that child sexual abuse only happened in those neighborhoods over there, with those kids, not in our private school, in our gated community," says Book, who grew up in a wealthy part of South Florida. "It was important to say, 'Yes, it does happen to blond-haired, green-eyed kids who go to the university school.'"

When we walk into the FCCC's main entrance, the first thing we see is a large poster announcing a sexual-abuse awareness fundraiser among residents and staff. Book, Claire VanSusteren (communications director of Lauren's Kids) and I had already agreed to background checks, so all that was left to do was present our IDs to the guard and hand over our personal belongings. We walk through a metal detector and into an interior hallway, where a reassuringly large security guard leads us to the visiting room. "Do you stay for the interviews?" I ask, hoping his answer is yes. He nods.

The room is large and sterile, with white tables, blue chairs and vending machines pushed up against one wall. Defense attorney Jeanine Cohen; Brian Mason, a lawyer with the FCCC; and the security guard sit nearby, but it's clear that Book, VanSusteren and I will be the ones sharing a table with each of the sex offenders. I immediately flash to a piece of advice an expert gave me: "Odds are, in a facility you'll be safe. But don't let [the sex offenders] sit between you and the door." He added, as if reading my mind, "It's right out of the movie--Hannibal Lecter!"

In Florida, it's legal to lock up sex offenders after they've served their sentences, as long as they've been deemed too dangerous to rejoin society. The process, called civil commitment, has existed here since 1999, when the Jimmy Ryce Act took effect in honor of a 9-year-old boy who was abducted on his way home from school, then raped, decapitated and dismembered. When sex offenders complete their time in prison, Florida's Sexually Violent Predator Program reviews their cases, looking for evidence of "a mental abnormality or personality disorder--something that makes them likely to reoffend," Kanner says.

[Related: U.S. Arrests 1,140, Including 3 Soldiers, on Child Sexual Predation Charges]

Once civilly committed, residents spend six to seven years, sometimes longer, undergoing extensive treatment, and they need to show rehabilitation before they are considered for release. …

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