LEFT TO HIS OWN DEVICES BOB EMERICK SAYS DISTORTIONS DESTROYED HIS TREATMENT PROGRAM FOR SEX OFFENDERS
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."
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.
(To the dismay of juvenile officials who spoke anonymously to New Times, the state has returned Sam to the custody of his uninhibited mother as a result of the hoopla over Emerick and Phoenix Memorial Hospital.)
State Senator Stan Furman, a Phoenix Democrat, formed a committee on Children's Psychological Treatment Programs after the first Republic stories were published. Furman--whose stances in recent years against photo-radar speed traps and polygraph testing in the workplace have been well-publicized--was joined on the panel by Salmon, Jan Brewer and Cindy Resnick.
Even before the committee convened, Furman called for state agencies to suspend placement of juveniles with Phoenix Memorial. Timidly, the state agreed.
The moratorium and Phoenix Memorial's ostrichlike response to the barrage of bad publicity killed the hospital's program for juvenile and adult sex offenders by last August. No program has arisen to take its place. That means, as Judge Reinstein points out, "the only inpatient facility in Arizona for high-risk juvenile offenders isn't operating anymore. The only one! It was an extremely valuable community resource."
Now, with Emerick effectively exiled from Arizona, one of his chief antagonists expresses surprising reservations about the outcome.
"I started out with one very strong opinion against Phoenix Memorial, and came out with another," Matt Salmon tells New Times. "I still am not at all convinced about use of the plethysmograph on young kids. But I've looked at some of the people who went through that program--predatory and hurtful kids. I left our committee hearings feeling far less confident of my original viewpoint."
Salmon says the call for a moratorium on sex-offender referrals to Phoenix Memorial "was premature and wrong before we really knew what we were dealing with. I think maybe everyone got a little carried away by the headlines."
The Republic's coverage of the Senate hearings was remarkably different from other newspapers'.
"At the close of hours of conflicting testimony that was alternately tedious and horrifying," a September 17 Republic story began, "the only certainty is that oversight of juvenile sex therapy programs is 'absolutely necessary,' state Senator Stan Furman said Wednesday."
Contrast that with the Mesa Tribune coverage of the same event: "A legislative committee considering treatment for juvenile sex offenders heard glowing testimonials Wednesday from several former patients of the Phoenix Memorial Hospital programs that closed last month partly as a result of the legislative inquiry."
Republic managing editor John Oppedahl is out of town until January 4, a spokesperson for the paper says, and city editor Jan Leach did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
But Oppedahl defended his paper's stories in a July letter to Bob Emerick's wife, Cindi Nannetti. "I am satisfied that our coverage of Phoenix Memorial's Sex and Addiction Program has been as professional and as balanced as possible . . ." Oppedahl said in part.
However, Judge Reinstein says he gave a Republic reporter the names of numerous people, including defense attorneys, who may have lent balance to the stories. Reinstein says he did so after a Republic story referred to an "incestuous" and unethical monetary link between Phoenix Memorial and the County Attorney's Office, where Emerick's wife is a sex-crimes supervisor.
"I never saw any of those people quoted in the Republic stories," Reinstein says.
One of those defense attorneys, Michael Vaughn, tells New Times, "I'm no fan of the plethysmograph. I think it ranks right up there with voodoo and water sticks. But, quite candidly, I know one client of mine who would be in prison now if it wasn't for Emerick's risk evaluation. It wasn't that he [Emerick] always was an arm of the prosecution as the media may have indicated."
Despite the local brouhaha, Bob Emerick's reputation outside Arizona apparently has remained intact. He is moving to Canada--he won't say exactly where for publication--to start a community-sponsored program for adult and adolescent sex offenders, as well as victims. Part of his one-year contract includes airfare to and from Arizona every six weeks for a visit with his wife and four young children.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers awarded Emerick a Certificate of Appreciation after he led seminars at the organization's annual convention, held in October. After the convention, in an irony even the embittered Emerick can chuckle at, the Republic recently cited ATSA as a vital, bona fide source of information about treatment and assessment of sex offenders.
Emerick says he gave several impromptu talks to worried sex therapists during the Portland, Oregon, convention.
"I spoke about what they might have to deal with in the future," he says. "I told them they might have to face a loud special-interest group like VOCAL, a few legislators with an eye on headlines and a newspaper that's not interested in the truth. I told them to watch out.
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