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Female abusers hide behind veil of motherly stereotypes


Female abusers hide behind veil of motherly stereotypes
Monday, February 23, 2004

The Express-Times

They're "ruthless," according to one researcher.

They're often overlooked by authorities who find and prosecute child molesters, and they are among the toughest types of sex offenders to treat once they're incarcerated.

These offenders are not set apart by where they grew up, where they live or what they do, but by their gender.

They're women.

Although women make up a small percentage of known sex offenders, that doesn't mean they aren't committing these types of crimes, according to researchers. Women offenders tend to receive the benefit of the doubt from people who investigate and prosecute claims of sexual abuse, said Dennis Stevens, a criminal justice professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a counselor at the women's prison at Framingham, Mass.

"We don't like to connect them with that crime," Stevens said. "That's our basic bread and butter for life: moms. That's like going South and attacking the Bible. It's not what you do."

Victims of female sex offenders are less likely to report the crime than victims of male offenders, said Norfolk, Va., psychologist Julia Hislop, who wrote the book "Female Sex Offenders: What Therapists, Law Enforcement and Child Protective Services Need to Know."

Teen boys are not seen as victims but as developing young men who are "experimenting" with their sexuality, Hislop said.

"A lot of (male) victims of females talk about trying to report their abuse and say they were congratulated rather than assisted," Hislop said. "It's difficult at times for men to come forward."

While men will travel outside their family and social circles to find victims, women offenders stay close to home, sometimes preying on their own children, Stevens said. Often this abuse is viewed as a "family" matter to be dealt with inside those confines, through counseling or, at worst, in family court. But the damage done by women offenders can be every bit as bad if not worse than crimes committed by men.

"They tend to be more pathological than males," Stevens said. "They're more ruthless."

And their victims are often too young to testify against their attackers, so authorities who are already reluctant to prosecute need physical proof of abuse before they can bring charges.

"It's very difficult to bring a charge like that against the mother, because not only are you attacking motherhood, but where do you get the evidence?" Stevens said.

The body of research on female offenders is considerably smaller than work done on male offenders. Although most research is less than 5 years old, it has yielded some insights on how woman can differ from male offenders, Hislop said.

Some women offenders commit crimes only in the company of a male offender. The reverse is rare, Hislop said.

At least one local case lends credence to this theory. Easton resident Linda Ackerman, 45, is serving a 10-to-20-year state prison sentence for luring at least two teenage boys to her bedroom for threesomes with her and her husband, Louis Ackerman, from 1995 to 1997.

Another type of female offender is the type who prefers to offend with teenagers. According to Hislop, these women are often lonely and angry, have difficulty with relationships with men, have poor understanding of sexual norms and have unresolved feelings from being abused themselves.

Former Easton resident Elizabeth Wright, 41, served nearly two years in state prison for having sex with a 16-year-old runaway. Court records say she served alcohol and played strip poker with multiple teens and wrote the 16-year-old boy love letters at his wilderness camp even after she had pleaded guilty to indecent assault.

The lack of research makes treating female offenders in prison a challenge for therapists, said Barbara Doebler, the director of the psychology department at the all-female state prison in Muncy, Pa.

Sex offenders are among the most likely criminals to re-offend. Women offenders are even more challenging to treat than men because their psychological damage is often deeper than men's, Doebler said.

"There is more background work to do because of the huge amount of psychological devastation these women are experiencing," Doebler said.

Women don't respond to the same confrontational techniques that can work for male offenders. Women, however, are often treated in the same programs as men, Doebler said. They are less likely to respond to male treatments because they don't want to admit they have forsaken the role of caregiver.

"Although men tend to deny, deny, deny, the women do it even more," Doebler said. "It's much more difficult for them to admit than men."

Northampton County Assistant District Attorney Pat Broscius, who prosecutes sexual abuse cases involving children, agrees with the experts that there are more women offenders in this area than statistics would reveal.

"You don't get that many," Broscius said. "I'm convinced they're not reported as quickly as male offenders."

Once they're charged, however, women offenders are treated the same as men by her office, Broscius said.

"Eventually, when they're caught, I don't see a difference," Broscius said.

Reporter Rudy Miller can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at [email protected]


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