ESSAY- Repeat offender: Barker would face stiffer penalty today
At the time of the landmark Polly Klaas murder case in California in 1993, I was practicing forensic clinical psychology in the San Francisco area. In that capacity I evaluated numerous child sex offenders and was involved in their trial proceedings.
In order to classify and commit a convict as a sexual predator, multiple independent examinations were required by psychologists and psychiatrists. Reviewing the reports of my colleagues, I was often astounded and offended to read "clinical" renderings replete with value judgments.
This was a discouraging trend, for when the most sophisticated mental health experts lose objectivity, it becomes impossible to break the cycle of 1) a lax criminal justice system, followed by 2) a heinous crime by a long-time recidivist, and 3) hysterical political reform that morphs into a quasi-genocidal campaign and fails to target and effectively treat the offenders.
Considering the first item, it's noteworthy that, way back in 1947, California was the first state to enact mandatory registration of sex offenders. However, it was not until a half-century later, as part of the reaction to the death of Polly Klaas, that community public notice was required upon parole. Prior to that, many of these convicts easily reintegrated into society, only to commit more and often deadlier crimes.
Exhaustive research has been done to understand the nature of the beast. A distillation of the data shows that a propensity for pedophilia manifests early, with the majority of offenders, who are mostly males, having a first incident in early to mid-adolescence.
In broad terms, offenders are classified as fixated or regressed. The former is based on a long-term and compulsive pattern, the latter on a history of comparatively normal function marred by a single episode provoked by a psychosocial stressor. The fixated type is much more likely to re-offend.
Among the pedophile offender sub-types, it is the (male) exclusive homosexual who is the most resistant to treatment. Incestuous heterosexual offenders are the classic regressed type, and generally most responsive to intervention. Non-incestuous heterosexual and bisexual offenders then fall in the middle range.
Painted with the broadest stroke, the psychological profile of pedophiles involves a case of arrested development rendering them less able to make healthy sexual attachments with adult peers– far less able than even convicted adult rapists to appropriately interact with the opposite sex. Moreover, a current theory is that such ostracism by adult peers reinforces the pedophile's emotional flight to seek intimacy with children.
In the case of Katie Worksy who disappeared 25 years ago, the justice system was crucial, first because the jury apparently failed to understand that it could find first-degree murder, and second because the sentence pre-dated lengthy mandatory terms. Given this history, it is all the more trying to read Worsky's convicted killer, Glenn Barker, offering a sympathetic description of himself as a medical invalid victimized by a system– the very system that failed to adequately punish him.
At the time of the crime, however, Barker would not have been classified as a regressed pedophile, because there was no known specific psychosocial stressor prompting the victimization of the minor Katie Worsky. However, like Polly Klaas, Katie Worsky was the victim of an escalating repeat sexual offender, with escalation here best understood as having now clearly chosen a child.
It's important to recall that Barker was a recent sexual re-offender, having failed to consummate a sexually motivated kidnapping of an 18-year-old woman the previous year. It is entirely clinically consistent that because he was frustrated by his prior adult victim escaping his bondage, Barker seized the opportunity to prey on a more vulnerable victim in the form of a child, a 12-year-old whom he rendered more helpless and less likely to escape by first getting her intoxicated.
Nineteen states now have the option of ordering an indefinite civil commitment of violent sexual predators after their prison term, and Virginia became one in 2001. Thus, given the evidence in his serial offenses, the sensational nature of the second one, and the current political climate of zero tolerance, if the Katie Worksy case had happened in this century, Barker would not only be incarcerated well beyond his original term, but quite likely never be released.
The determination of dangerousness in sexual predator cases is still based ultimately on psychological evaluations, and those evaluators are inclined to make conservative assessments in these matters, particularly in cases where children have been victims. Psychiatrists are only human, and therefore even more unlikely to want to have their name associated with issuing a clean bill of health to a perp in a sensational case. Simply put, nowadays Barker would more than likely never again see the light of day.
While that notion may give some comfort to those who lived through, or even just read, the Katie Worksy story, here's the flipside: The total number of civil commitment petitions in Virginia has more than doubled in the past two years, from 43 to 119, and the number of men committed to its special institution for sexually violent predators has tripled, from 16 to 49.
The number will likely continue to increase as the state not only pursues more cases, but also expands the list of crimes that trigger a sexual offender evaluation. In anticipation, the state is constructing a $62 million, 300-bed facility to house them. While a 20-year sentence in a Virginia prison costs taxpayers close to half a million dollars, the same stretch in the state's civil commitment facility would cost over two million per inmate.
Worse yet, it remains nowhere near an irrefutable argument that treating repeat sexual predators– violent or not– has any enduring success. About the only thing experts can begin to agree on is that the earlier an offender is identified and treated, the better the long-term outcome. But even that viewpoint needs more time to bear out.
In Virginia, sexual offenders must register for 10 years, or they may petition the circuit court for expungement from registry (if denied, the offender must wait two years to file new petition). Sexually violent offenders must register for life. Clinically, if not ethically, this is perhaps a fair distinction, as the violent offender is surely a more harmful species.
What then must we do?
The best course is a proactive one. I would assert with absolute confidence that Glenn Barker's first violent/sexual assault was not the one just prior to Katie Worksy. Longitudinal studies are convincing that even a single episode of deviant violent behavior in a child (most notably cruelty to animals, particularly those common as pets) is a reliable red flag of a worse future, and the typical progression is from animals to humans. Violence against others (versus property alone) is much more likely to arise from a combination of neurological/chemical abnormality and an unfavorable social situation (sometimes transient, but more often chronic). There is an entirely convincing correlation between showing a worrisome aggressiveness in even very early childhood and growing into a violent offender later in life.
Katie Worsky's tragic legacy can best be addressed by committing our resources to preventing violent predator adulthoods by identifying and helping violent predator children. Only then will we truly be on target for increasing the chances of a 12-year-old Katie becoming a 37-year-old Katie.
In addition to his work as a forensic psychologist, Dr. Bowen is a playwright and photographer.