Debra Lafave’s Child’s Play
In a stunning turn of events this week, Debra Lafave, the former Florida teacher who made international headlines for having sex with a 14-year-old student, has resurfaced in the public eye. Shockingly, Lafave requested that a Florida court amend the terms of her probation to permit her to have supervised contact with the children of her relatives and friends. Lafave’s recent motion raises highly controversial legal and ethical questions concerning how courts and society should handle convicted sex offenders, particularly those who have engaged in acts similar to Lafave, as they transition from serving their sentences back into everyday life.
The Debra Lafave story, with a sultry blond teacher at its center, has been tailor made for the tabloids since the original allegations were lodged against her in 2004. The sensational case immediately sparked intense interest by mainstream media in the disturbing trend of female teachers engaging in sexual relations with minor male students. Hollywood has also examined the traumatic social and psychological consequences of these illicit and illegal relationships most recently in the 2006 critically acclaimed film, “Notes on a Scandal” starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. The soon to be released documentary, “After School” which features Debra Lafave’s ex-husband Owen Lafave, focuses squarely on this alarming phenomenon through original footage as well as interviews with experts and victims.
Lafave, 29, pleaded guilty in 2006 to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery for having sex with her victim in a classroom and other locations. As punishment for her crime, Lafave was sentenced in a Hillsborough Country Court to a mere hand slap without jail time. Lafave served two and a half years under house arrest out of the three years to which she was sentenced. She was freed last year and now the comely young woman is serving seven years probation. Lafave also completed a sex offender therapy program as part of her sentence. In December 2007, Lafave violated her probation and was arrested for spending time with a 17-year-old female co-worker at a restaurant. Lafave claimed she was unaware that this relationship was in violation of her probation. Luckily for Lafave, the court allowed the isolated incident to slide. However, the arrest was a reminder to Debra Lafave that her behavior was being monitored closely during her probationary period. One of the conditions of LaFave’s probation is that she is banned from having contact with minors. A Florida court is expected to hear LaFave’s current motion to ease that ban on Thursday.
Should Debra LaFave be legally permitted to have close contact with children even if such contact is under strict supervision? If so, what procedural safeguards need to be established to protect any children Lafave may come into contact with and is there the risk that she will commit new criminal acts if her probation terms are amended? Owen Lafave, Debra’s ex-husband believes his ex-wife’s current motion should be denied by the court. He stated to Elites TV, “I’m still firmly of the opinion that Debbie’s original sentence was far too lenient. The probation terms were part of a settlement agreement to avoid jail that she, by her own doing, agreed to and while it’s unfortunate that her sentence makes her life difficult; what is even more unfortunate are her original actions that caused harm to the victim, his family, as well as many other people close to Debbie including both me and her parents. Her house arrest period has already been reduced so would I urge the court and Judge Timmerman to uphold the original contemplated probationary period and all clauses in reference to her dealings with minors.”
In evaluating whether to grant Debra Lafave’s new motion, the court must come down hard this time by carefully considering the circumstances surrounding her original crime and determine whether she has and will continue to abide by the rules of her probation. Additionally, the judge needs to fully assess whether LaFave has been sufficiently rehabilitated from an emotional and psychological standpoint so as to not pose a future threat to other children or young adults. Lafave’s track record demonstrates, however, that she has violated the rules of her probation in the past without fully understanding the legal implications of her actions. LaFave has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder which she has claimed may have contributed to her desire to engage in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenage boy. The court will need to determine the likely impact that any psychological disorder Lafave is now experiencing or has experienced in the past will have on her current propensity to engage in the acts that were the subject of her original crime.
Ultimately, in deciding on Debra Lafave’s motion, the court must balance her desire to begin reestablishing a normal life against the potential risk Lafave poses to the minors she may come into contact with as she reintegrates into civil society. The judge will also have to determine whether Lafave has served a sentence that is truly commensurate with the nature and severity of her crime. If the court grants Lafave’s motion, it is essential that it establish strict guidelines and procedures to monitor her interaction with minors so as to ensure their protection. If the motion is denied, it will simply provide Debra Lafave with more time to contemplate the deep consequences of her actions on her victim, his and her families as well as society at-large.
Matt Semino is a New York attorney and legal commentator. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School , Cornell University and is a Fulbright Scholar.
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Contact Matt Semino at Matt@MattSemino.com