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A child molester's choice

For some, court-ordered castrations replace prison time

When a man is injected with women's hormones over a period of time, his testicles shrink. Fat collects in his breasts and arteries, waves of heat and nausea wash over him, and his physical desire for sex shrivels.

Judges and doctors call it chemical castration, but they sometimes disagree about its merits. Nine states, including Georgia, allow it as a condition of parole for child molesters. It's questionable that the offenders who need it always get it. What is certain is that some offenders who have no need for it wind up taking female hormone injections.

Hugh Behling, a man well-known in the small town of Monticello in Jasper County, is the most recent Georgian to sign a court order mandating his own castration. Behling's crime was exposing himself last summer to a 7-year-old girl who he took for a drive on a four-wheeler.

Behling's case posed some difficulties, according to the assistant district attorney who prosecuted him. The judge, for instance, would not at first accept a plea bargain without prison time, and Behling, who is 62, would not agree to spend time behind bars. The victim's family abhorred the notion of the case going to trial, for fear of the pain it could cause the child and her relatives. And if the case had been tried, it would have been the child's word against Behling's.

Judge Hugh Wingfield's solution was to offer Behling a sentence of 15 years' probation, with weekly injections of the female hormone Depo-Provera for the duration of the probation. Behling pleaded guilty June 8 to one count of child molestation, and the district attorney dropped two other counts that allege he urged the child to fondle him.

Ocmulgee assistant district attorney Dawn Baskin was not entirely comfortable with the castration provision, one which she and few other prosecutors have ever recommended.

"Chemical castration is such a drastic step," Baskin says. "Even as a prosecutor, we're dangerously crossing a line. I mean, you're messing with a person's body."

Given the circumstances of the Behling case, however, she didn't see a whole lot of options. If not for Behling's aversion to prison time and the family's aversion to trial, castration would not have been offered as part of the deal.

"Would I do it again with the same facts?" she says. "Probably not."

Former state representative George Grindley, who researched on the Internet the merits of castration, proposed legislation in 1997 permitting chemical castration as punishment for child molesters. The bill passed months later, and Georgia became the third state with such a law.

"They had used it in Europe for years," Grindley says. "And the statistics show that it's just a tremendous tool for judges."

But the statistics also show that the tool doesn't always work. A 1992 study published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that of 40 chemically castrated sex offenders, 18 percent molested while taking the injections and 35 percent molested after the injections ceased. Among men who had not been castrated, 58 percent molested again.

Chemical castration, it seems, can affect the means of molesters, but not always their desire.

"The problem is in the thinking of the sex offender, not in his penis," says Deloris Roys, a Doraville psychiatrist who has treated more than 1,500 sex offenders in the past 13 years. "Just because you give him a limp penis doesn't mean that he's not going to offend with his hands or his mouth or anything else."

Roys, who heads the Highland Institute for Behavioral Change in metro Atlanta, Columbus and Macon, says doctors at the institute have treated "a handful" of sentenced child molesters with female hormone injections. Only two of the 215 sex offenders Roys currently treats are taking the injections, and both are under a court order to do so. The weekly hormone injections cost about $2,000 per year, and convicted child molesters must pay for it.

Some doctors say chemical castration is useful only in extreme cases. Behling's crime of exposing himself doesn't exactly fit into the category of offenses that warrant chemical castration, as described in The Journal of Sex Research.

An article published Aug. 1, 2000, states that chemical castration is appropriate for men with more than three victims and whose attacks involve "penetration to some degree." The article also characterizes the treatment as effective but states "significant ethical barriers exist."

Roys is not an advocate of the treatment. She prefers intensive, confrontational counseling and medications such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.

Roys also says that even when taken properly, the female hormones can have little effect.

"We had one offender that we had on Depo[-Provera] for a very long time," Roys says. "His [male] hormone levels were way down. And he still was having intercourse with his dog."

The court sometimes orders the Highland Institute to chemically castrate men who have no business taking women's hormones, she says. One man got a castration sentence for masturbating in his car. He was fantasizing about photos of nude women, over whose faces he had pasted a picture of a girl in his neighborhood. Roys refused to go ahead with the castration, and the court agreed to modify the treatment.

"That really comes down to an imposition by the state to maybe destroy someone's health," she says, referring to the toll female hormones can take on a man's cardiovascular system, as well as his inability to lose fatty deposits in the breasts, even after he quits the hormones.

"I don't want sex offenders just wandering about doing whatever they please," Roys says. "But there is some level of responsibility that we have to have as treatment providers. Just because there's a court order that says he has to take this drug doesn't mean he needs this drug."

Men castrated in the state have agreed to the treatment in every instance. By law in Georgia and some other states, they must. But castration is often proposed to them in a way that is too good to refuse, such as in the case of Louisiana child molester Jim Elkins. Elkins faced a 45-year prison sentence, but a state judge told him to "bring me your testicles in a jar" and he would let him spend 20 years of his sentence on probation.

Similarly, a judge in South Georgia's Atkinson County told convicted child molester John McDonald in January 2000 that if he ever got probation for his life sentence, he would have to agree to both chemical and surgical castration.

When weighing the options between castrated life on the outside and fully-functioning sex organs behind bars, offenders often opt for castration, according to Roys.

In Georgia, at least they have the option. Sentencing guidelines for castration are stretched even further in California, the first state to pass legislation for chemical castration, just a year before Georgia. California does not sentence first-time offenders to castration, as Georgia does. But all repeat offenders released on parole must undergo the hormone treatments, whether they want to or not.

Few feel any pity for them, according to Roys.

"The real problem is, can we ethically force people to really damage their health," Roys says. "There's a lot of people who would say, 'They're sex offenders. Who cares?' "??