Native son of Oklahoma, Robert Kimbal
Combs, who most folks know as "Kim," graduated with a B.A. in History
from San Francisco State University in 1977, and by 2004 had earned
his Certificate in Object Conservation from the University of
California Berkeley’s Lowe Museum of Anthropology, his Master of Arts
in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University’s San Francisco
Center for Museum Studies, and nearly completed his Doctorate in
Information Sciences from the University of South Africa.
right: Robert Kim Combs stands beneath the Broadway Bridge in Little
Rock, Arkansas, near where he slept on a cardboard box when he was
released from federal prison and found himself homeless. >>>>
Along the way, Combs built a solid
career as a Museum Curator and History Professor, working first as
Curator for the San Mateo County History Museum and by 2004 having
served as Museum Director for five additional museums, including the
U.S. Army Engineer Museum in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and the 2nd
Infantry Division Museum in Uijongbu, Republic of Korea.
From his homeoffice in Little Rock,
Combs is a potent advocate for guaranteed access to rehabilitative
services for the homeless, effective reentry programs for ex-offenders
and equal treatment under the Constitution for everyone.
was very lucky in my career,” Combs, who is the co-founder and
Emeritus Executive Director of
Arkansas Time After Time (ATAT) and has as a member of the
Steering Committee of the
Arkansas ReEntry Coalition, spoke candidly about the privileged
life he enjoyed as a museum director. But this was before he sent a
disk containing illicit images downloaded from the Internet to an
undercover detective in Arkansas, was convicted of mailing child
pornography, spent 5 years in federal prison and ended up homeless,
sleeping on cardboard under the Broadway Bridge in downtown Little
Rock, Arkansas. It was, to say the least, quite a come-down.
As a child, Combs was chauffeured to school by limousine. Graduate
studies at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, and the International
Museum of Photography in New York, and the Smithsonian in Washington
D.C., launched him to the annals of prestige.
I finished my graduate internships, I started working for the U.S.
Army, as historian and curator at the Presidio of San Francisco,”
Combs, now 57, recalled the early days of his career. “Then I had the
opportunity to design and build a museum for the Army at
Wood, Missouri. I was achieving my goals,” he explained.
“I went to Korea in the mid-1990's and designed a museum for the 2nd
Infantry Division,” Combs continued. "I
relocated there in 2001, to serve as the resident director. I
drove a classic Rolls Royce and attended Embassy Balls. I lived a
But then, Combs said, he fell into a “deep dark place” and began
looking at child pornography on-line. “And it was not just looking at
inappropriate images,” his candor continued. “It was a matter of
communicating with people on-line who were in a similar dark place.”
In a matter of months, Combs found himself “immersed in a community of
sickness” and growing increasingly addicted to underground Internet
Released from federal prison in October 2008, homeless and penniless
in a strange state where he knew no one, feeling helpless, lost,
isolated and completely alone, Combs said that at times he wished
desperately to just go back to prison. “At least there, I knew I would
eat,” he elaborated.
“I'd been divorced for many years and raised my daughter as a single
parent,” Combs recounted. “When I relocated to Korea in 2001, she was
married and had a child of her own. And when I got into trouble, it
was a shock to her and the rest of my family.” Combs has 3 brothers
and said it 'challenged' their relationship. “My relationship with one
brother has never quite recovered,” he said.
Beyond the routine encumbrances (joblessness, homelessness, abject
poverty) faced by every convicted felon upon parole and release to the
community, Combs carried the double-edged stigma of 'sex-offender'.
Classified as a 'level three' by Arkansas standards, Combs is required
by law to maintain compliance with specific regulations that mandate
where he may live and what type of employment he may take, all the
while being subjected to a modern Pandora's Box of intolerance,
suspicion and fear.
“You lose friends and colleagues because it is such a shock to the
system,” Combs explained. “For the first time in my life, I had no
professional connections. And that's when I realized that there were
actually lots of victims. My family, my daughter, my grandkids, my
brothers and my father, my friends and colleagues were all victimized
by what I had done,” he affirmed.
“I even victimized myself by losing my career,” he summarized. “I
screwed up. I behaved illegally. I am ashamed of what I did all those
years ago. But I am proud of what I've been able to do since then. And
I believe in earning a second chance.”
step through the looking glass and back again, Combs is today a
proponent of 'sanity in legal reform' and advocates for the thousands
of Arkansas families who are deeply affected by the unintended
consequences of sex-offender regulations. “It is like advocating for Ebola,” Combs describes the job he
has taken on as a volunteer, working within the system to ensure that
everyone gets a 'second chance' to be a productive member of society.
“The costs of us not doing this are taking an unconscionable toll,” he
At right: Combs meets with Stephanie
Home prior to her interview on It Could Be You, the talk-radio
show Combs hosts, broadcast weekly on Little Rock's
KABF 88.3 "Voice
of the People".
The Department of Justice -- which typically reports general crime
recidivism at 70% -- places sex-offender recidivism at only 3% to 5%
and savvy public officials are taking heed of these demographics with
an eye to using tax-dollars wisely.
“There is tremendous human, financial and moral cost to shaming,
segregating and vilifying people who realistically pose a minimal risk
or threat to the community,” Combs asserted, referencing recent
Arkansas State Parole Board findings that repeat sex-offenses are rare
among those previously convicted of sex-crime.
“It's the rarity of these heinous acts that grabs headlines,” Combs
related. “But it ignores the fact that the majority of all sex-crimes
are committed by family members or someone trusted by the victim. It
ignores the fact that many sex-crimes go completely unreported and are
not committed by people who are on the registry.
“We're working to change the paradigm,” Combs referenced
a multitude of advocacy groups, such as
and FAMM, who
are working on these issues and to differentiate between those who
are on the registry because they made a stupid mistake and those who
are truly repeat violent predatory abusers.
At left: Licensed sex-offender therapist Art Chupik and Kim Combs.
“When we hear the term 'registered sex offender', we need to ask what
exactly did that person do? Did they harm a child or moon fellow
students? Did they rape a roommate or have a teenage romance? Did they
coerce an innocent victim or look at pictures on-line? What was it
that put this person on the registry?
“The punishment needs to fit the crime,” Combs continued. “But that
will only happen when people reject knee-jerk reactions, examine the
science, ask questions, distinguish between violent predators and
people who made a mistake, and that will only happen when they
understand everything about what is going on.”
Despite Combs' noteworthy credentials and excelsior track record as a
professional with a highly laudable administrative skill-set, it took
him nearly a year after his release from prison to regain some minimal
ground as “a contributing member of society” again. But this time
around, he was grappling with isolation, depression, anxiety and fear;
washing dishes, saving-up pennies to get an efficiency apartment, and
dreaming of someday being able to afford the luxury of a second-hand
“There was one person who helped me to survive,” Combs credits, “And
that was my federal probation officer, Ms. Tabitha Mitchell. She bent
over backwards and went out of her way to help me reintegrate into the
community. She helped me get into a homeless shelter, worked with me
to find a job – which took months – and encouraged me. I might not
have made it without her. She was an angel.”
Along the path of his own rehabilitation, Combs became increasingly
aware of the disparities in the system that – instead of enabling and
empowering – seemed to pose the greatest impediment to reentry
Worse, he said, is that so much of the well-intentioned intervention
is not protecting the children who these policies and practices are
intended to safeguard. “There is so much money being wasted in our
state and so much effort from law enforcement personnel being
misdirected that could be used more effectively to truly help make
communities safer, and we want to be a catalyst for helping to
influence that change,” Combs over-viewed objections and
“We want to partner with mainstream victim advocacy groups to find out
what we can do to help them reduce recidivism and make our communities
truly safe,” he affirmed. “While our motto is 'Making Things Better'
it could just as easily be 'No More Victims' because this, really, is
our goal. And this will only be possible when people start looking at
registrants as individuals, not as myth-driven cartoon
admitted, however, that he appreciates the gravity of the obstacles to
be overcome. He said that prior to his own downfall he held the view
that if someone was a convicted sex offender; he would have fallen
prey to knee-jerk dogma. “I probably would have thought they were a
heinous monster and that they probably deserved whatever punishment
they got, and worse,” he admitted.
At right: As an advocate, Combs meets with many elected
officials such as Tim Griffin, Representative
for Arkansas's 2nd congressional district
“So I understand how most people think and feel about sex offenders.
And that our legislators, prosecutors and law enforcement officials
are in a tough place. I mean, nobody gets re-elected for being 'soft
on crime'. Which makes it all the more important to dispel myths and
re-think the ways we are handling this.”
In example, Combs cited statistics and ongoing research debunking the
myth that once someone has committed a sex-offense he or she will
always be a sex offender prone to recidivism and can never be
rehabilitated or cured.
Another dangerous and false perception is based on the myth that most
sex crimes are committed by a 'stranger' when in fact the vast
majority of sexual assaults on children are committed by other
children, and the vast majority of cases involving an adult assaulting
a child or another adult are committed by a person the victim knows
very well; family members, coaches, teachers and close friends; people
thought to be trustworthy and often loved.
This is why, Combs emphasized, it is critical for parents to know the
legitimate 'warning signs' of sexual abuse. He also underlined that
current residency restrictions simply don't work, at least not in
terms of providing safety to children. Instead, he said, these
regulations actually put society at greater risk of criminal activity.
“Residency restrictions tend to isolate former offenders, driving them
underground, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them,
making it more difficult for them to find housing and employment or
have access to treatment programs and so they actually make society
more dangerous,” Combs explained.
He said that while he thinks it is a very good idea for law
enforcement officials to have easy access to ex-offender information,
including current whereabouts and prior convictions, when such
information is made publicly available, as is typical in the current
system, unwarranted fears are heightened, paranoia is exacerbated and
the result too often is eruptions of violent vigilantism or suicide.
“These laws that have been passed by our legislators are enacted with
the best of intentions. They are trying to protect the most vulnerable
among us. But they have so many unintended consequences and often work
against having a healthy society by breaking-up families with scorn,
humiliation and ostracizing from so much of mainstream life.”
In light of recent events, such as the Penn State tragedy, and the
reality of more than 11,000 men, women, and children now on the
Arkansas sex offender registry, “Governor Beebe should create a
Blue-Ribbon panel of experts” in criminal justice, victim advocacy,
prison reform, mental health, rehabilitation, reentry and law
enforcement to draft a new comprehensive legal foundation for dealing
with dangerous violent repeat sex offenders in Arkansas.
This would, Combs hopes, “eliminate the decades of patches and
amendments that form our existing sex offender management system.”
Among the things he'd like to see as a result:
- Longer sentences and stricter controls for dangerous, repeat
violent sexual predators.
- Freeing up valuable prison bed space for the worst of the worst
by more swiftly moving low-threat (no-contact, non-violent) inmates
through the system.
- Streamlining the sex offender registry by cleansing it of those
who pose no dangerous threat to the community, thereby allowing
resources to be concentrated on the truly dangerous.
- An end to the public registry and ineffective residency
restrictions, focusing instead on public education and outreach
programs that work to legitimately safeguard children.
“I am thankful that my family did stand by me, especially my
daughter." Combs concluded. “Going through all of this has
strengthened our relationship and, I hope, made me a better man.”
~ ~ ~