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Not Only Men Are Molesters

There is just one female violent sexual predator locked up in the state, but experts say rape and child abuse by women are underreported.

August 16, 2002|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are 351 men in California locked up in a state mental hospital as sexually violent predators, prone to attack again and again.

Then there is Charlotte Mae Thrailkill.

The 43-year-old mother of two is California's only female violent sex offender, confined to a maximum-security state mental hospital after experts decided she was too dangerous for release.

Only a handful of women, including Thrailkill, have ever been confined to mental institutions under state laws that allow for civil commitments of sex criminals after they have served their prison terms.

Women are less likely than men to commit sex offenses, but they also are less likely to be reported and prosecuted. Many experts contend that women commit sex offenses far more often than is generally believed.

"It happens a lot more than gets reported, and I think part of that is due to our culture," said Steven B. Blum, a consulting psychologist to a sex offender program in Nebraska. "There are a lot of women who have sexual contact with teenage boys, and they don't get reported."

In the state's regular prison system, only 103 of the 9,746 women behind bars--1.06%--are there for sex offenses, including statutory rape and lewd acts with children. That compares with about 12,500 men, 8% of the total male prison population.

Paul Federoff, a forensic psychiatrist in Ottawa, Canada, said one of the female sex offenders he counsels is an exhibitionist. She opens her living room curtains and strips off her clothes when people pass by.

He told her that unless she stopped this illegal activity, she would be arrested.

" 'Doctor, if someone calls up and says he saw me disrobing in the window, who do you think they are going arrest? Me or him?' " Federoff said she replied.

"And she is absolutely right."

It was widely assumed until recently that women just didn't sexually abuse children, Federoff said.

But during the past two decades, as parents and others have encouraged children to disclose improper sexual behavior, kids have been confiding about abuse by women as well as men.

"Now we are discovering that there are a lot of women who do sexually abuse children, but they get away with it," Federoff said. "There is a growth industry of treatment programs, particularly for adolescent female sex offenders who commit a lot of the crimes while they are baby-sitting."

Thrailkill, whose sexual predator status is up for review by the state in September, told psychiatrists she molested children, ages 5 to 8, whom she baby-sat or enticed into her Santa Rosa apartment to play with her children. Her story, pieced together from court records, is a less a rarity than crime statistics suggest.

*

Thrailkill, the third of six children, was born with scoliosis and a deformity in her mouth that caused speech difficulties. "She stated that school was difficult for her, not only due to her learning difficulties but also due to constant ridicule by her peers because of her physical deformities," according to a state mental heath report on file in Santa Rosa.

When older children picked on her during elementary school, "she would then bully and beat smaller, defenseless children," according to the May 2000 report.

She told counselors that she had a good relationship with her father, but complained that her mother regularly beat her with narrow leather straps, sticks and her fists. Thrailkill ran away several times between the ages of 11 and 16 and was gang-raped at age 15, she told authorities, by four men who grabbed her off a street.

That same year she was severely wounded in a random shooting and spent nine months in a hospital. She never returned to school.

Thrailkill married a U.S. Marine at 19. They had two daughters. She left him five years later, complaining their marriage was sexless, and won custody of their daughters.

*

Women who commit sex offenses often fit into one of three categories.

The "teacher-lover" or "Mrs. Robinson" type has sex with underage boys. These women fancy themselves in love with the boy and don't see the relationships as harmful, experts say.

The women tend to be immature and get an "ego boost" from the involvement, said Blum, the Nebraska psychologist, who counsels such offenders. "Without exception, all of our patients have had a substance abuse problem and also were partying with their victims," he said.

"Generally the male doesn't feel victimized," he said. "A lot of teenage boys would see that as their lucky day."

Despite such perceptions, researchers maintain that many boys may be left confused and angry, and if they are particularly young, they may be sexualized too early and have sexual problems later in life.

Women who have sex with minors make the same kinds of excuses as their male counterparts, said Florence Wolfe, co-director of Northwest Treatment Associates, a Seattle-based program for sex offenders.

Wolfe said the women tell her: " 'I wanted the closeness, the excitement, not the sex. I wanted the safety. He was 13. I was only 27. The kid wanted it.' "

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