Westley Allan Dodd
The Tennis Shoe Brigade
At the time that Dodd was incarcerated, another man, Earl Kenneth Shriner, was being tried for molesting, choking, and mutilating an 8-year-old boy in Washington State. The boy was lucky to survive the attack, which had occurred only months before Dodd's first murders. Like Dodd, 40-year-old Shriner had an extensive criminal record of sexual assaults.
Outraged that Shriner wasn't incarcerated prior to this latest, and most deadly assault, a group of concerned citizens called the Tennis Shoe Brigade took action. (The group earned its name after members gathered a symbolic pile of tennis shoes and dumped them at the governor's office, outraged because he had refused to listen to their pleas for system reform.) The Tennis Shoe Brigade demanded longer sentences for sexual predators, a stop to early releases, mandatory treatment, and more medical compensation for the victims. They also called for mandatory registration of all sex offenders.
Westley Dodd became a symbol of what was wrong, and an impetus to make it right. He is "an example of what we are trying to stop," said a leader of the Tennis Shoe Brigade. Although Shriner was the impetus for organization, Dodd became the poster child in their crusade. It is disturbing that the authorities did not know that Dodd, a known sexual predator, lived only blocks away from where the Neer boys were found murdered. Although Dodd had a lengthy criminal history, his name wasn't on the roster of known sex offenders in the Vancouver area.
Thanks to the persistent lobbying of the Tennis Shoe Brigade, and other concerned parties, the state of Washington passed a number of new laws to keep convicted sex offenders off the streets. Known offenders must register with the local police, the public is notified when an offender is released from jail or prison, and victims are notified in advance if their attacker is due for release. Other reforms include longer sentences, fewer early releases, and more funds for victim services and offender rehabilitation. If a predator is still considered a risk to the community, there is a provision that can keep him behind bars. Communities across the nation are demanding to know if a repeat offender is living next door. One of the many reforms includes California's 1996 "Megan's Law," which provides the public information on the location of known child molesters.
Keeping children safe
Dodd's story is a cautionary tale for communities, law enforcement, and families. Although he killed three children, he plotted to murder and torture many more. (He claimed to have committed 250 crimes against children.) He insisted that he killed his victims to keep from going to jail for molestation, yet it's hard to believe that Dodd would fear a justice system that played "catch and release" with him despite the severity of his crimes. Because of Dodd's example, tougher laws have been set up to trap and incarcerate child molesters.
Children are more likely to be sexually abused or hurt by someone they know, including a relative, than by a stranger. While Dodd became known as a stranger abductor, he began by molesting kids in his own family, and later, children of acquaintances. The vast majority of his victims were children that knew him and, and in some cases, whose parents knew him. Dodd preferred to molest a child that knew and trusted him, and only began abducting unknown children when the ones he knew were no longer available. "I don't think I could have done it if I'd have known them," he said of his murder victims.
According to psychologist Kevin McGovern, pedophiles are "very good at hiding their problems. They mask their identity well. They're very friendly. A percentage is drawn toward youth organizations, church organizations, places where they have access to kids." They rarely fit the image of the "dirty old man." Clean cut, youthful looking, and small in size, Dodd did not appear like the big bad stranger that kids instinctively fear.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, someone the child knows and trusts usually perpetrates child molestations. The US Department of Justice has estimated that each year 354,600 children are abducted by a family member, and up to 5,000 children are abducted by someone they know. Children are routinely told to stay away from strangers. But they need to understand what inappropriate behavior is from someone they know and trust. As NCMEC says, it is "Situations, not Strangers," that children need to watch.
NCMEC's website (www.missingkids.com) lists some safety rules for children and parents, including:
- If someone asks a child to share a "special secret," they must say "NO" and tell a parent or schoolteacher.
- Children should tell a parent or teacher if someone wants to take a photo of them.
- Children should not allow anyone to touch a part of their body that a bathing suit would cover, and children should never touch anyone else in the "bathing suit" areas.
- Parents need to inform their kids never to accept a present from anyone without first telling them.
- If daycare is necessary, ask if criminal checks are routinely run on employees. In finding a babysitter, personal references are best, but if not available, ask the sitter for references, and check them.
- Watch for an adult or teenager who is paying extra attention to your child, or giving inappropriate gifts.
Most importantly, children need to trust their feelings, and speak up if something doesn't feel right. Children need to feel confident that parents or a teacher will listen to them if something seems wrong, even if they feel "guilty" about something (molesters will use shame to silence a child.) Children should not be afraid to say "NO" to someone — too often children are scared of being "impolite" to adults. Parents also need to watch for sudden changes in their children's behavior, including an abrupt fear of a person or place, and inappropriate interest in sexual activity.
These are relatively rare in the United States, estimated at 200 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But as we have seen, these kidnappings can be deadly. Here are some safety tips from NCMEC:
- Parents should escort their children in public restrooms.
- Children should not go to arcades unattended.
- When children are home alone, they should learn to lock the doors and never tell anyone that they are home alone. They also need to know that they can call a neighbor if they are scared.
- If a child gets lost in a public place, he or she should be taught to go to a checkout counter or office instead of wandering around looking for the parent.
- Children should be taught to say "NO" to an adult who asks for "help." If adults truly need help, they should ask another adult.
- Under no circumstances should a child get into a car with someone they don't know, or accept money, even if it's for a "job" from a stranger.
- The child should be prepared to kick and scream if a stranger grabs him or her, and yell "THIS IS NOT MY PARENT" loud and clear. Make a scene to get attention, even if it seems that no one else is around.
Attention must be paid
Ultimately, children and parents must also depend on their communities for protection. Legislation needs to be continually supported so that sexual offenders serve their full sentences, and are monitored after release. Individual efforts do make a difference. Robert Iseli, the father of Lee, became active in promoting children's safety, including work on an amendment to Oregon's constitution that would not allow child pornography to fall under the protection of free speech. Employers need to commit to doing background checks on potential hires if employees have extended contact with children. Perhaps most importantly, we must be vigilant to sudden situations. In her November 17, 1989 column in The Oregonian, Jann Mitchell reminded the community to react when we see a child in an uncomfortable situation. So many times we worry about overreaction or potential embarrassment. But at what cost?
When in doubt, Mitchell said, check it out. "Some people might argue over whether we are, indeed, our brother's keepers," she wrote. "But surely we must be their child's keepers."