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Response to child molesters: SMAC’M

Sat., Feb. 11, 2006

Tamara Cougar wants Idaho to be as unattractive as possible – at least to sex offenders.

She plans to put the message on coffee cups, T-shirts, bumper stickers and even billboards: “Attention child molesters: You are not welcome in Idaho.”

“If I was a child molester coming through this town and I saw that message everywhere, I wouldn’t even stop for gas,” said Cougar, a single mom and founder of the new nonprofit Strong Mothers Against Child Molesters, or SMAC’M.

A grand opening and informational night for the nonprofit is planned for Thursday at Coeur d’Alene’s Harding Family Center. A silent auction and drawings are also planned to raise money for SMAC’M.

Cougar said the organization plans to get tough on sex offenders by looking for and closing loopholes in sex offender laws, keeping tabs on judges who dole out “ridiculously lenient sentences,” and loaning out tiny surveillance cameras so people can catch suspected child molesters in the act.

She was motivated to start the nonprofit after hearing the news last July that a local boy, 9-year-old Dylan Groene, had been killed, allegedly by sex offender Joseph Duncan.

It brought her back to her own childhood when she was 8 and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her mom was a police dispatcher at the time Adam Walsh was kidnapped from a Florida shopping mall. The man suspected of his murder was never convicted.

His father, John Walsh, became a victims’ rights advocate and is host of “America’s Most Wanted.”

“When they found Dylan, it felt like a time bomb,” she said. “Like a capsule inside of me broke open and said it’s time to do this.”

Cougar began SMAC’M with the goal of purchasing and being able to loan out “nanny cams” so people could gather hard evidence of suspected abuse.

“Video is absolutely, positively beyond a shadow of a doubt what we need to bring these guys down,” she said.

She had heard stories from women who are sure their children are being abused by their fathers, but can’t keep the children away from these men because they have visitation rights. That sort of situation is where Cougar believes the tiny cameras could help catch evidence of abuse.

“If we gave that mom a hidden camera, it would happen one more time, rather than every weekend until they’re 18,” Cougar said.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said he believes the video footage would be admissible in court and possibly spare young children from having to take the stand and face their abusers.

Post Falls Police Lt. Greg McLean said video footage is hard to dispute. His only concern is the possibility that someone may wait to report suspected abuse until they get the videotaped evidence, putting children in further jeopardy.

Since she went public with her plans, Cougar has expanded her vision for the nonprofit group. She has been talking with police and prosecutors, telling them when they encounter a loophole in the law to tell her about it. The group plans to speak out against plea bargaining for sex offenses and to pay attention to the sentences judges are handing down.

If there’s a judge who consistently lets offenders off with lax sentences, Cougar said, the group will advertise that on its Web site, which isn’t yet in existence.

She also plans to offer advice for parents and loved ones of victims, like how to report suspected abuse. Part of the SMAC’M outreach will be teaching kids about safety.

For now, SMAC’M headquarters is a corner in Cougar’s living room. She has a desk, computer and an “inspiration wall” to keep her motivated. She framed a copy of the program from Dylan Groene’s funeral.

In another frame are red and blue ribbons that were handed out to Dylan and Shasta Groene’s classmates at Fernan Elementary School after the siblings were kidnapped last May.

Cougar penned an inspirational message that is framed with those ribbons: “When we’re tired or disheartened and don’t feel like working on SMAC’M, remember this is why we’re here.”

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