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Aiding child porn's often forgotten victims

They are seen as social lepers but still loved by their spouses and parents.

What these husbands and sons have done is considered criminal and reprehensible: collecting and viewing pornographic images of children.

The illegal behavior is almost unfathomable for their relatives to comprehend. Offenders often end up in federal prison, while their loved ones are left to rebuild shattered families.

It is a task, they say, that cannot be done alone.

And that is why Western New York has become home to one of the country's first support groups for relatives of individuals convicted of possessing child pornography.

"We tell our children, 'Don't text and drive,' or, 'Don't talk on your cellphone and drive,' but I never thought to tell them, 'Stay away from porn on the computer.' We didn't know child porn was any more illegal than adult porn," said Marty, a father whose 25-year-old learning-disabled son is in federal prison.

Bill, whose 27-year-old son is serving eight years in a federal prison, says he sometimes views himself as a failure as a parent.

"It makes you feel like, where did you go wrong? We missed it, and we're still kicking ourselves," he said.

The two middle-aged fathers are members of CAUTIONclick, and if you knew their full names they would be crushed. The shame and embarrassment of this happening in their families is that overwhelming.

Of course, their sons' names have been reported in the media, but the hope is that others in the community have since forgotten.

And so CAUTIONclick abides by the anonymity tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, using only first names when publicly promoting the group.

Each month, 20 to 25 of the group's members from as far away as Rochester and the Southern Tier gather at a private meeting place in the Buffalo area and open up their hearts.

In addition to providing one another with emotional support, CAUTIONclick -- which stands for Citizens Against Unfair Treatment of Internet Offenders Nationwide -- supports laws that would give first-time offenders a second chance.

Instead of being sentenced to several or many years in federal prison, offenders would receive extensive counseling and be spared the label of sex offender on a state registry.

Marie, who is married to Bill, says there is a big difference between "hands-on sex offenders" and "noncontact offenders." And yet they are all lumped together, with individuals who molest children sometimes spending less time in prison.

At a recent group meeting in her well-kept suburban home, Marie recalled nearly collapsing in her kitchen when her adult son told her he was under investigation for possessing child pornography.

"He came over a week later and told us federal agents took his computer from his apartment. Out of 100 Internet sites he visited, four were deemed to have underage pornography," she said.

Marie and other group members believe their loved ones, with proper counseling, will never again look at any type of pornography.

David G. Heffler, a Lockport psychotherapist who counsels sex offenders, says not all who view child pornography are cut from the same cloth.

Some find themselves viewing it as the result of becoming jaded to adult pornography and seeking new levels of excitement. He calls that the slippery slope.

Others, however, have an interest in children from the start and can be labeled "pedophiles" who present a much greater risk, Heffler said.

The individuals in the former group, Heffler said, could benefit from long-term, community-based treatment rather than lengthy prison sentences, though he believes there must be consequences for viewing child pornography.

Determining who is a "high-risk deviant" rather than someone who slipped into viewing child pornography, he said, would require consultation with mental health professionals under the supervision of the courts.

As for CAUTIONclick, Heffler says there is a place for that type of support group, but its members need to have a balanced view and recognize that some people who turn to child porn are genuine threats to children.

Advocacy aside, the group's members say they help each other to deal with the wreckage left behind by their loved ones. Jeannie, who also has a 27-year-old son in federal prison, says she still breaks down in tears, though it has been two years since the FBI raided her home.

Yet at her first meeting of CAUTIONclick, she says Marie's words were just what she needed to hear.

"She told me, 'You are not alone,' and that was lifesaving," Jeannie said.

Kate, a mother of three young children, tells group members how she has had to scramble working a full-time job as an office manager and keeping the family together since her 40-year-old husband was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

"I knew he had issues with pornography. It had been an ongoing issue for us," said Kate, adding that she was not totally shocked when federal agents showed up at their house early one morning three years ago.

She still loves her husband, despite the hardship his behavior has inflicted on the family.

For the year that his case was pending in federal court before he took a plea deal, she said, "It was the best year of our marriage. He was getting counseling."

Kate and other members say their loved ones started out with adult pornography and eventually ended up viewing child pornography. If adult pornography had not been mainstreamed into society, they say they might not be in this painful situation.

"A sexualized society" is how the group's volunteer moderator, Carol Conklin, describes current-day culture.

"Exposure to pornography is almost inevitable. We're surrounded by it. The brain's pleasure center is hijacked by it. First it is vanilla porn, then people move on, not really discriminating. They're like in a trance," said Conklin, a licensed clinical social worker who has devoted her practice to sexual addiction counseling. "I've seen lives and families destroyed by the impact of all the issues related to hypersexuality."

To make her case that society has gotten out of control when it comes to boundaries that would spare children, Conklin holds up a recent issue of People magazine in front of the group members gathered at Marie and Bill's dining-room table.

On the cover is a glossy image of a 5-year-old beauty queen. The headline asks: "Gone Too Far?" and points out that children are wearing skimpy costumes in beauty pageants.

Those who would lust over a sexualized image of a child, says Jeannie, are sick.

Instead of sending them to prison, why not get them help? she asks.

"What do we do with sick people in this country -- get them help or lock them up with zero chance of redemption?" she said.

Whether CAUTIONclick members will succeed in modifying the laws is difficult to say.

They have sent petitions to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, seeking a review of the recommended sentencing guidelines for child pornography possession and have attempted to meet with politicians.

Most politicians refuse to meet, not wanting to appear soft on the issue of child pornography, according to Marty, the father of the learning-disabled convict.

Marty's wife, Cheryl, says, "Everyone who reads this story about us will probably think, not me, but it could be."

CAUTIONclick can be contacted at www.CAUTIONclick.com.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com