Scrutiny, sentences different for female sex offenders

Nationally, women are the abusers in 14 percent of cases involving underage boys.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJuly 14, 2013 

  • JOHN SOWELL

    Public safety reporter John Sowell grew up in Emmett but stayed in western Oregon after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon. He spent the last two decades in Roseburg, covering county government and politics. In his spare time, he officiates high school sports.

When Jean Fisher took on the prosecution of a 35-year-old Kuna woman accused of having sex with eight underage boys, the veteran prosecutor knew she faced a daunting challenge regarding public perception.

Fisher, who has handled hundreds of sex abuse cases during her 24 years with the Ada County prosecutor's office, says people view a woman sexually abusing a boy as less serious than when a man abuses an underage girl. In most instances, the boys don't want to get the woman in trouble and are reluctant to tell authorities what happened. They may also view what happened as a rite of passage into manhood and see themselves as "lucky," Fisher said.

In her view, though, the punishment handed out should be the same.

"If a 35-year-old man did this to 10 adolescent girls, we would have had an uproar in this community," Fisher told 4th District Judge Ron Wilper late last month. Fisher was asking for a 25-year sentence for Courtney Sue Reschke, 35, who earlier pleaded guilty to six counts of lewd conduct with a child and pleaded no contest to seven counts of providing alcohol to minors.

In the U.S., 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is abused, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The percentage is even higher among teenagers 14 to 17; 28 percent are victimized sexually, the center said.

The eight boys Reschke abused fall into that age range.

MARY KAY LETOURNEAU

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cases involving women who abuse girls account for about 6 percent of all cases.

In Idaho, 110 of the 3,838 people currently listed on the Idaho Sex Offender Registry - 2.9 percent - are women, according to a count by the Statesman. Since 1993, adults convicted of sex crimes have had to register with their local sheriff. Registration requirements for convicted juveniles were added in 1998.

In a 2008 report to the Idaho Legislature, females represented 4.4 percent of the suspects charged with child sexual abuse in the 12 previous years. That percentage was consistent with past studies, the report said.

"Simply, we did not see an increase in women sex offenders," one of the study's authors, Boise State University criminology professor Robert Marsh, wrote in an email to the Statesman.

The breakdown between male and female offenders has not been provided in the annual report to the Legislature since 2008.

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, 389 adults and 106 juveniles were charged with sex offenses in Idaho.

Child sexual abuse committed by a woman came to the public's attention in the Northwest when Seattle area middle school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was arrested in March 1997 for having sex with student Vili Fualaau. She spent nearly seven years in prison and gave birth to two children fathered by Fualaau. The couple married after Letourneau was released from prison.

'YOU KNOW THAT YOU DID WRONG'

When he sentenced Reschke, Judge Wilper disagreed with the prosecutor's assertion that women who sexually abuse boys should be treated as harshly as men who abuse girls. He said he couldn't articulate the reasons why, only that it was different.

"I know that you know that you did wrong and that you'll be punished," he said, before giving Reschke a 20-year sentence that could be shortened to three years if she's granted parole.

Last year, Wilper, who declined to comment for this story, sentenced Todd D. Kerr to a sentence of 10 to 15 years for lewd conduct with two girls who were under 16.

Meridian middle school teacher Ashley Jo Beach was convicted of lewd conduct after carrying on a monthslong relationship with a 13-year-old boy in 2009. Wilper sentenced her to 20 years in prison, but gave her an opportunity for parole after serving four years. The Idaho Parole Board has tentatively set a release date for Beach of Dec. 19, 2014.

The sentences in recent cases of women abusing children elsewhere in Idaho have varied. Twin Falls resident Kandi Mohr was sentenced in April to life in prison for sexually abusing a girl from the time she was 2 or 3 until she was 11. Mohr and co-defendant David M. Myers will each be eligible for parole after serving 20 years.

Caldwell resident Robin Hackney served four months in jail last year for lewd conduct with a 15-year-old. She was initially sentenced to eight years in prison, but the sentence was suspended.

Burley resident Tara Bagley pleaded guilty earlier this year to sexual battery of a child 16 to 17. The former vice principal at Burley High School, she was accused of committing lewd acts with two underage girls. She is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in Cassia County.

PSYCHOLOGY OF FEMALE SEX ABUSERS

Michael Johnston, a Boise psychologist who testified for the prosecution in Reschke's case, said female sex offenders are more likely to regret their behavior than men. That could make them more amenable to treatment - and more sympathetic to judges deciding whether to show leniency or impose a long prison sentence.

Dr. Camille Lacroix, a Boise forensic psychiatrist called by Reschke's defense attorney, said female sex offenders have a better track record than men in changing their behavior. Women who were sexually abused are more likely to reoffend, she said.

Lacroix said women also are less likely to harbor long-term sexual attraction to children. In Reschke's case, she also had adult sexual partners during the time she was abusing the teenage boys.

A 2009 study authored by Marsh, the criminology professor, and Steven Patrick, a Boise State sociology professor who died last year, tracked 447 Idaho sex offenders for 13 years and found that only 9 percent committed new sex crimes in that time. The professors cautioned, however, that 13 years was a moderate amount of time to track such data.

BOYS DO SUFFER HARM

Fisher has heard the argument that boys who are victims of sexual abuse suffer less than girls. She doesn't buy that - one reason she wants to throw the book at both female and male offenders.

Johnston testified that boy victims may feel flattered at first and experience intense exhilaration while having a sexual relationship with an adult woman. Eventually, most come to feel they were victimized, he said. They often blame themselves when the woman finds herself in trouble criminally, and they also can find it hard to trust women when engaging in appropriate romantic relationships.

"This may take days, months or even longer. It may happen when they start dating or when they get married," Johnston said.

It doesn't matter if an underage boy agrees to sexual contact, Johnston said. The reason it's a crime to engage in sexual behavior with a minor of either gender is because he or she lacks the maturity to make decisions that are in his or her best interest.

"Even if the 14- or 15-year-old boy consents to it or asks for it, it's not OK," Johnston said.

Many abusers don't understand the long-term harm they can inflict on their victims, Fisher said. She noted that Reschke wrote in a statement that she didn't feel her actions were as bad as someone who abused young children.

A 1997 study authored by Shanta Dube of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that men and women who were sexually abused as children suffered similar health, behavioral, mental and social problems.

Former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy said men and women should be treated the same when convicted of sex crimes against children.

"I don't believe there's any difference between a woman committing these crimes and a man," Leroy said. "I think judges would hold a woman offender to the same standards as a man."

John Sowell: 377-6423

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