Downtown prosecutor assesses the sexual predator threat
Phyllis Shess is at the forefront of California’s efforts to strengthen sexual offender laws and enforcement
By Kris Grant
Phyllis Shess is proud to call North Park home, where she’s restored a Craftsman bungalow, is active in the community and has only a 10-minute commute to her office in Downtown San Diego’s Hall of Justice building.
But she’s also fully aware that 87 of her 92104 ZIP code neighbors are registered sex offenders, including a fellow just a few doors away, living in one of the nicest homes on the block.
A career prosecutor since 1989, Shess is an expert in sex offender management and has been instrumental in developing best practices for law enforcement and municipalities in handling sex offenders and creating safer communities, helping to make the county a leader in this critical public safety arena. She has been at the forefront of sexually violent predator management in the state of California and sexually violent predator laws.
Shess developed and implemented the state’s first formal community notification process when a sexually violent predator is placed in the community for outpatient treatment. With more than 100 felony trials, she is an experienced trial attorney who has specialized in violent felonies including domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, as well as registration violations and sexually violent predator hearings for the past 10 years.
She is a regular instructor both for the California District Attorneys Association and local prosecutors on sex offender management and sexually violent predator issues. Additionally, she speaks nationwide to decision makers concerned with legislative solutions to the problem of sex offenders in our communities.
She is a member of the San Diego County Sex Offender Management Council and is executive chair of the SAFE (Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement) Task Force, a model for other such agencies in the nation, charged with educating the community about sexual predators and focusing on families. The job includes lots of community education in which she talks to PTAs, church groups and community forums and works with policy makers “so they can make good decisions,” Shess says.
A big part of Shess’s message is that the real threat is not “stranger danger,” which has been the traditional message to children. The reality is that 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults on children are perpetrated by a family member or someone close to the family.
“Parents need to worry about odd Uncle Joe who always wants to play Monopoly with 11-year-old Sarah behind a closed door,” she warns.
Her second warning to parents is to know who their kids are associating with. “Everyone knows it’s not always easy when both parents are working,” Shess acknowledges. “But when Sally says she wants to go over to play dolls with Mary, the parents may know Mary, but do they know Mary’s parents? They most certainly should.”
Likewise, she advises, a person volunteering at your church or a baseball coach aren’t necessarily the people who should have access to your child. “I have a friend, divorced, whose two sons were molested by a church minister,” she relates. “He took a lot of interest in her boys and she thought it was a good thing for them to have a moral, male influence. The older boy revealed the molestation because he was concerned about his younger brother.”
The bottom line, says Shess, is that if anyone loves your child as much as you do or buys a gift for your child, watch out.
“Predatory child molesters are usually charismatic,” she warns. “They go out of their way to ingratiate themselves into our lives, so there are dangers everywhere.”
The other part of protecting children, says Shess, is communication with them. “You really need to talk to your child all the time and then listen to them.”
The talking part is easy, she says, but listening is harder. “Listen to their actions: someone who has always loved T-ball and softball but suddenly doesn’t want to spend time with Coach Jim anymore. Now it may be that Coach Jim is just hard on them. But it could be something else.”
She also says that it is important to talk to children about sex at a very early age. “Sex is not a dirty word. Children need to recognize at a very early age that they have right to not being touched. That is a right whether they are 3 or 30 years old. Don’t force them to go hug grandma if they don’t feel like it.”
While Shess says she personally has never opened the file on John Gardner, the admitted killer and rapist of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, she is willing to talk about the troubling case in general terms. “I can tell you generally that in relationship to sex offenders overall, we need to develop better ways to assess danger and we need more resources to supervise them.”
“Most sex offenders will get out of prison and some will get back into the community. We need to ID them and watch them. And we need to more carefully evaluate their risk.”
Shess refers to the two main approaches to risk assessment: cognizance and static. “Cognizance means that someone does a bad thing, so you won’t trust them. And static risk assessment is a psychological tool in California that ranks a person’s risk on a scale, based upon their past acts. Gardner was risked very low, a 2, while a real danger would be 4, 5 or 6.
“A dynamic risk assessment would capture things that are going on in a person’s life now. Let’s say someone committed a crime 10 years ago. But released on parole, he did drugs, got in fights with people. That should have changed his risk assessment. And it needs to be operational, meaning that information needs to be shared with law enforcement, parole officers, probation officers and local police departments. Someone has to tell the system. It’s all about keeping track.”
Shess advises that we need to accept the fact that sex offenders are living within our communities. “It’s what we do with the information that’s important,” she stresses. “We need to go into the Meghan’s Law Website and know who is living where. Even though there are 87 sex offenders in my community, it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t buy a home here. But I might make sure to tell my child not to go near a certain house. In my case, I didn’t relax until my child went away to college.”
A self-described Army brat born in Oklahoma who lived all over the United States and in Germany for eight years, Shess came to San Diego after graduating in 1984 from Loyola Law School in Lo Angeles. She worked in public relations during and after law school, then began work in a civil law firm in San Diego, but didn’t find the work particularly satisfying. “I talked with a lot of my lawyer friends and the happiest ones were working in the DA’s office — they loved what they did. And so I was hired there in 1989 and I haven’t looked back.”
Community is important to Shess who, along with husband Tom, has called North Park home since 1989. That’s when the Shesses got bitten by the home restoration bug. The couple has spent the past 20 years restoring their 1915 bungalow. The home came complete with hot pink walls, pink shag carpets, hot pink woodwork and a fireplace with weeds growing in it. There was also what Shess calls the “Mickey Finn” bar in the back room done up in red and black with a lava fireplace. “It was obviously the party room,” she says. And while the restoration work Shess claims is “still an ongoing process,” the home’s beautiful restoration has been featured in American Bungalow and The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The Shesses enlarged the home with a 400-square-foot remodel and completely redid the landscaping. The backyard features a French garden and a bricked-in patio with full kitchen. “We literally live out there in the summer,” Shess says.
She looks back over her two decades living in North Park. “When we moved here it was a different kind of a community — a mid-city urban neighborhood that some people felt was riddled with crime and had a lot of problems. I never saw that. I saw a community that had been here for decades. Yes, there were issues in the urban core — deteriorating streets and sidewalks and traffic problems. And that was part of the reason we started North Park News in 1993. We wanted a platform for people to talk about the community what we wanted and where we were going.
“Tom has the first issue on his office wall, with an essay encouraging Chris Kehoe to run for office. Another story was about the newly designated North Park sign.”
The newspaper’s tagline at that time was “a community press is the future of journalism.” Shess says that’s as true today as it was 18 years ago — for any community.
“The one thing I always tell people regardless of where you live, you really need to be part of your community, investing in it and guarding against things that may impact your quality of life. You must challenge those changes.”
(Editor’s Note: North Park News is now owned by REP Publishing, which also owns the Kensington News, West Coast Craftsman and San Diego Metropolitan Magazine.)