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Bob Emerick sat down recently for a heart-to-heart with his 11-year-old daughter, Leslie.
"She really wanted to know why I am leaving Arizona," says Emerick, former director of the now-defunct sex-offender treatment and assessment program at Phoenix Memorial Hospital.
"I told her, 'You know what I do. Part of my job is working with kids who molest other kids over and over. People have a hard time thinking about that. They're closing our program down because of some politicians and some very bad articles in the Arizona Republic.'"
Emerick's professional world collapsed earlier this year after stories in the Republic detailed Phoenix Memorial's use of a device called a penile plethysmograph on juvenile sex offenders as young as 10. The device is said to gauge a male's sexual response to photographs of unclothed and clothed people of both sexes and all ages.
In its initial story, published June 14, the Republic reported state Senator Matt Salmon's disgust for the use of the device on youngsters. "My first reaction was outrage," the newspaper quoted the Mesa Republican as saying. "It smacks of sex abuse. This is the first I had ever heard of doing it on children. It makes me sick to my stomach."
Says Emerick, "Had I read those stories without knowing the truth, I, too, would have been horrified."
But there is another side to the story, one that numerous people--including Senator Salmon--now say was ignored or twisted.
"I think a lot of people, including me, were swayed in part by the newspaper stories in the Republic," Salmon says. "Their coverage turned out to be far more one-sided than we had envisioned at the time."
Salmon's apparent change of heart doesn't pacify Emerick, a lanky, 40-year-old Phoenix native who is leaving his family in the Valley to direct a sex-offender treatment program in Canada.
"I've been dubbed a child abuser, an evildoer," Emerick tells New Times in his first public discussion of his program's demise. "My wife [Maricopa County sex-crimes prosecutor Cindi Nannetti] and myself have had death threats. Photographers from the Republic snuck behind a dumpster near our home trying to get a picture of the 'evil couple.' Our program handled the worst of the worst juvenile sex offenders. I think we were doing the right thing. But I have to leave Arizona to earn a living."
Judge Ronald Reinstein, who presides over the criminal division of the Maricopa County Superior Court, sums up the episode:
"A group called VOCAL [Victims of Child Abuse Legislation], whose family members or themselves have been in trouble for committing sex crimes and don't like it, call a newspaper with a supposed big story. The paper prints up a series of incomplete, sensational news stories that get a few legislators riled up. The headlines might as well have read, 'Hospital Torturing Children!' The ball gets rolling and doesn't stop."
Concludes Reinstein, a former sex-crimes prosecutor: "It's a very bad result."
The Republic stories failed to note that judges, state social workers and others had recommended placing juveniles at Phoenix Memorial Hospital after each child had been caught or confessed to penetrating victims--often more than one--orally, vaginally or rectally.
"We are talking about kids who are not nice people," says Reinstein, whose comments reflect those of three other Superior Court jurists interviewed by New Times. "They are kids who create victims of many other kids. The plethysmograph wasn't a be-all and end-all."
The plethysmograph consists of a flexible rubber ring that the subject places around his penis. Sensors attached to a computer then record his responses to the visual stimuli. Professional opinion on the so-called "peter meter" remains mixed. Still, the device is utilized by about one-quarter of the nation's 700-plus treatment centers for juvenile sex offenders.
"I always knew it was a controversial technique," Emerick says, "but we dealt with violent kids at an extremely high risk to reoffend. If you haven't been around these kids, it's not something you want to think about. The plethysmograph was just one part of trying to solve a difficult puzzle."
The Republic's first story cited the mother of an 11-year-old former Phoenix Memorial patient as a main source. The boy, the story said, had been "treated" with the plethysmograph at Phoenix Memorial after state juvenile authorities had ordered him there for a risk assessment.
The boy, whom we'll call Sam, had "allegedly sexually abused" another child after he in turn had been molested in a foster-care home, the Republic said.
The Republic said Phoenix Memorial had subjected the boy "to a punitive therapy called ammonia aversion. The patient sniffs ammonia if he experiences an erection when shown nude photographs of young children. The acrid odor helps block arousal."
But the story didn't mention that authorities had taken Sam from his mother after she told a counselor she had repeatedly allowed Sam to fondle her genitals.
Instead, the Republic quoted the director of VOCAL, a group known for shrill attacks on prosecutors, judges and the state's Child Protective Services agency.
"This is taxpayer-funded child abuse," the paper quoted VOCAL's Mary Margaret Chapman as saying.
The story didn't mention that Sam's mother was a member of VOCAL.
And, juvenile court testimony later revealed Sam never inhaled the ammonia. In fact, the boy never was "treated" by Phoenix Memorial for sexual deviance and had been assessed on the plethysmograph only once after his legal guardians at the time--the State of Arizona--signed a consent form.
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