GIG HARBOR, Wash. -- For the past six years, convicted child rapist Laura Faye McCollum has lived a lonely existence tucked inside the walls of the state's women's prison.

On Monday, McCollum is slated get some unwelcome company when she moves to the new Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, where she will become the only woman living among 190 of the state's most dangerous male sex offenders.

She isn't happy about the prospect of sitting in therapy sessions with these men, and many experts in the field say it's a bad idea.

"Would you want to sit in a bunch of men who talk about what they did to women and how they'd like to do that to women again?" McCollum told The Associated Press in a three-hour interview from her housing unit at the women's center. "I don't want them bringing their issues on me. I don't want them touching me, I don't want them making inappropriate conversations, I don't want them asking me if they can fantasize about me."

McCollum, convicted in 1990 of repeatedly raping an 18-month-old Tacoma girl and trying to suffocate her with a pillow, is one of only three female sex offenders in the nation considered dangerous enough to be civilly committed -- a process by which offenders are sent indefinitely to tightly controlled treatment programs after they've completed their criminal sentences.

About 2,100 men have been civilly committed in the 17 states that have sex offender civil commitment laws, said Dennis Doren, evaluation director for Wisconsin's civil commitment program.

The other two women -- one in California and one in Minnesota -- are housed and treated apart from men in those states' programs.

In the early 1980s, the Minnesota Department of Corrections attempted coed treatment of sex offenders, but abandoned the program after less than a year, said Ruth Mathews, a psychologist and author of "Female Sex Offenders," who was called in by the department to develop a program specifically for the women.

"It was pretty disastrous," Mathews said. "The women were actually getting worse."

Placing female sex offenders into groups with men is psychologically dangerous for the women, who are more likely than men to be sexual abuse victims themselves, Mathews said. Hearing about the men's crimes can leave them feeling revictimized, she said.

McCollum says she was subjected to a childhood of brutal sexual abuse at the hands of her foster parents.

If McCollum is put into group therapy with the men, it will be with offenders that don't pose a threat to her, said Alan McLaughlin, associate superintendent for treatment and care at the Special Commitment Center. For example, McCollum might be treated alongside child molesters who have no sexual interest in adult women.

"I believe things will be better for her in the new facility," said McLaughlin, who added she will have constant supervision and will be housed in a separate wing from the men.

State officials argue that the new commitment center -- built under pressure from a federal court to treat sex offenders rather than punish them -- is better equipped to handle McCollum's needs. She now lives in a small, dreary mobile home on the grounds of the women's prison.

Before a federal judge ordered McCollum to the women's facility in 1997, she was housed alongside 42 male sex predators for two years at Monroe Correctional Complex. The men touched her, exposed themselves and verbally taunted her, McCollum said.

As a survival technique, McCollum says she mentally changed her gender. She became masculine, cutting off her hair and walking and talking like a man.

But the 46-year-old says she's pretty sure she won't have the same problem this time. She is, she says, very different now from the woman she once was.

"I think now that I've learned a lot and I've learned how to empathize with my victims," she said, leaning her chair against a wall plastered with her favorite photos of puppies and kittens. "I've learned how it's not OK to put your hands on somebody without their permission and it's never, ever, ever okay to touch a child."

She has admitted to sexually assaulting 15 children -- mostly girls between the ages of 2 and 3. When her youngest of four daughters was 3 weeks old, she gave her to her sister, because she couldn't stop shaking the little girl.

In 1997, she begged the court to civilly commit her, knowing she needed help. She now says she exaggerated many of her crimes.

"But the things I did do was bad enough," she said in a southern drawl left over from her Tennessee childhood. When she met single parents, McCollum said, she would "groom them" and buy them alcohol before abusing their children.

But years of therapy have changed her, she said, gazing at her beloved beta fish, Perry. She is nearly finished her GED and has earned a janitorial certificate. She hopes to move to Spokane, get a pet pug, and get a job cleaning office buildings at night, where she has little chance of running into children.

"I'm not worried about re-offending. I'm worried about what it looks like to other people," McCollum said. "I want to be above reproach. I want to be so squeaky clean that I don't have any problems out there."


On the Net:

Special Commitment Center:

Center for Sex Offender Management:

Minnesota Department of Corrections:

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