Mommy's boyfriend woes -- and ours

By David Reinhard Oregonian
Sunday, August 13, 2000

Let's play connect the dots. Today's game is not for the timid, but makes the connection between two articles in last Thursday's Oregonian.

One was a short, back-page item, telling of a Portland man accused of molesting three young girls -- ages 7, 9 and 11. Michael L. Rouse is charged with more than 100 counts of child sex abuse. One count of first-degree rape, seven counts of first-degree sodomy, 11 counts of unlawful sexual penetration, 93 of sex abuse in the first degree -- the list goes on. The three girls are the children of Rouse's girlfriend.

The other story was front-page Metro section news. It told of Frank James Milligan's arrest in the July kidnapping and attempted murder (throat-slashing ) of a 10-year-old Dallas boy. But it was some background information that was noteworthy here. Later this month the accused Milligan will be sentenced for sexually abusing an 11-year-old. This kid was in foster care at the time, and Milligan, the story noted, had become "a father figure" to him.

The connection?

It's what John A. Barnes called "The Boyfriend Problem" in the Dec. 14, 1998 Weekly Standard.

Barnes was writing about the "depressingly large number" of cases in which a young child is beaten -- often to death -- by his or her mother's new boyfriend, live-in or new husband. He provides example after ghastly example. "What is remarkable . . . is that they draw almost no systematic attention (much less condemnation) from anyone in a position of authority," Barnes writes. "In a country that obsesses over the effect of secondhand smoke on its children, that worries incessantly about 'at-risk' youngsters, and whose chief executive is wont to use children's' welfare as a justification for any policy prescription . . . this is a significant oversight."

He makes a strong case for the seriousness of the problem, citing studies that show children are in far greater danger if an unrelated adult male is in the house. (He states, of course, that in absolute numbers far more kids are abused by their parents, since there are far more biological parents raising their own kids.) But I don't think Barnes went far enough.

As the Oregon examples above suggest, "The Boyfriend Problem" is about more than boyfriends beating or killing their girlfriends' kids. It's also about the sexual molestation and the enhanced opportunities for sexual predators when mommy shacks up with a new guy or when kids have no father but are desperate for "a father figure."

"This is a huge problem," says Amy Holmes Hehn, a senior deputy district attorney in Multnomah County. "There are so many single mothers who somehow find a boyfriend or new husband who is predatory."

In fact, according to Hehn and her colleague Charlene Woods, some of these moms bring such men into their homes even when they know these men have molested kids previously. Others move from one predator boyfriend to the next, and their kids become serial molestation victims.

Woods and Hehn think all this results largely from the woman's insecurities or lack of self-esteem, and a predator's uncanny ability to spot these vulnerable single moms. Barnes, for his part, believes other factors are at work, as well. One is our society's increasing acceptance of cohabitation in place of marriage. Another is the sexual revolution's devaluation of fatherhood.

"Fathers are not simply sperm banks or ATM machines, or pinch hitters for when Mommy gets tired," Barnes writes. "Sadly, children's behavior is often not lovable, except to those with a primal interest in seeing their off-spring grow and flourish. In other words, one of the main purposes of the nuclear family is to protect children from men who are not their fathers."

Barnes is alluding to the violence that a boyfriend -- jealous of the mom's attention and without the emotional ties to a child that might help govern his actions -- can visit on some other man's child. But his last sentences applies, as well, to sexual abuse.

Maybe it's time to start connecting the dots and mentioning the unmentionable: Our "boyfriend problem."

David Reinhard, associate editor, can be reached at:
Or Phone: 503-221-8152

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