05/17/2010 04:50 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Victims Become Guilty by Association

A friend called the other night, telling a horrifying story. Along with many in her community, she had hired an apparently qualified professional from out of town to provide specialized educational consulting services for her kids. The kids had a few brief supervised encounters with this person, and the outcomes were constructive and credible.

There was no cause for concern, until a community watchdog bungled the process of fulfilling a crucial responsibility. At 5:00 p.m. on a Friday, the watchdog sent out a blast email identifying the consultant as a registered sex offender in his home state. Then all hell broke loose.

There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the whole situation stinks badly no matter the perspective, and is truly rotten for those closest to the issues.

My friend is reeling over the news, feeling deeply betrayed and misled by the person in question. But the guy is gone now (and not coming back), and for a variety of reasons she's sure "nothing happened" with her kids. It's time to recover from the shock and reassure her kids that the adults in their lives kept them safe. That alone is a big challenge, but the situation gets worse. Thanks to the watchdog's approach, my friend's kids are now at risk emotionally in their very small community. The also have to confront more evidence that supposedly responsible adults are not, in fact, necessarily trustworthy.

The day after the alert went out, my friend started getting phone calls and emails from all sorts of folks who received the alert directly or even second-hand. Since everyone knew immediately which families and which kids might have been at risk, the buzz began. And, the hysteria grew and grew over the weekend.

Finding some truth in the chaos of anger, fear and gossip isn't easy, especially when there are several issues at play. But, here's how I see it:
  1. The guy was ethically wrong to have kept his history secret even if he was not legally obligated to disclose it.
  2. Watchdogs have an important role, and alerting the community needed to happen as soon as possible.
  3. The presence of skillful strategy for alerting the community has the double benefit of healing wounds and helping preventing future harm; while an unskillful strategy is no better at prevention and compounds the injury.

Put simply, the watchdog had the right goal -- to protect kids in the community -- but ended up harming these kids all the same. Now everyone assumes that my friend's kids were in danger, if not abused, by a sex offender. The kids are aware of this widely held perception, and their trust in adults and sense of safety has shattered. They are also aware that other people regard them with a kind of morbid curiosity and the arrogance that all too often accompanies it.

Now, a few days after the event, the kids have processed the issues related to the guy but are still reluctant to emerge into the community. It's ironic that, for them, the present risk comes through the oh-so-public exposure rather than the perpetrator.

Perhaps the watchdog issued the alert out of altruism, or perhaps because of the rush of self-righteousness that comes when there's the possibility of danger. The alert could have waited until Monday, giving the watchdog time to notify families directly about the public outreach (and for a variety of reasons, it's indisputable that the watchdog knew the identity of these families). Furthermore, resisting the temptation to send out the warning in the heat of the moment could have prompted a more thoughtful and sensitive letter.

Was it poor judgment or insensitivity that motivated the watchdog's approach? Was the watchdog so focused on the future as to ignore the need to "do no harm" in the present? What about honoring the need for delicacy in prompting a community to revisit the past with fear? Or was there simply the sense that the ends justify the means no matter what? And, if so, did the watchdog demonstrate a callous disregard for the innocents brought down along the way?

My friend was publicly vocal in her criticism of the watchdog's approach, and also acknowledges the validity of goal. In response, she was treated to a show of arrogance and defensiveness from the watchdog who absolutely declined to address the concerns about approach, maintaining simply that the ends justified the means. My friend even received a "lawyers letter" stating that the watchdog declined to communicate further about the situation. Strange isn't it, that a mother concerned for her children's wellbeing is attacked as if she were somehow guilty, too?

In this family's very small community, several families and kids have now been twice victimized -- directly, by a so-called professional who failed to tell the whole truth to those who had a right to know; and indirectly, by public exposure of their association with a guy about whom they had no prior cause for concern. Absolutely the guy is at fault, but so too is the watchdog. He created the vulnerability and terror associated with possibly putting children in harm's way, and the watchdog exploited the injury. In in some ways, that betrayal is even more painful because my friend's family expected support from a community advocate, and was ostracized and publicly humiliated instead. My friend, her kids and others in the same situation deserve better.