NY Times on Sexual Predator Laws: Do They Really Protect Children?

With a number of Orange County cities placing new laws on the books to ban sexual predators from city parks in addition to county parks raises some interesting questions — the most important being: do these new laws actually protect children from sexual predators or not?  It seems like if you raise your voice in objection to the laws being an ineffective tool in protecting children, those advocating for the laws turn it into a “when did you stop beating your wife” question suggesting you “support” for sexual predators, which is , of course, nonsense.

The fact is a child is statiscally three times more likely to be abused by a family member than a repeat random sexual predator ( a stranger) suggests different tactics are needed to protect children from sexual abuse.  Frankly, the greatest tool in the fight is education. There are a number of educational aides designed to discuss this issue with children of every age.  The New York Times featured this opinion in yesterday’s Weekly Review section and it offers great information we should add to the debate. 

From the story:

“…most criminal justice advocates have been reluctant to talk about sex offender laws, much less reform them. The reluctance has deep roots. Sex crimes are seen as uniquely horrific. During the Colonial, antebellum and Jim Crow eras, white Americans were preoccupied with tales of sexual dangers to white women and children. McCarthy-era paranoia, stories of Satanic ritual abuse and other sex panics stirred pervasive anxieties about lurking strangers. Sexual predators play a lead role in the production of a modern culture of fear.

In fact, the crimes that most spur public outrage — the abduction, rape and murder of children — are exceedingly rare. Statistically, a child’s risk of being killed by a sexual predator who is a stranger is comparable to the chance of being struck by lightning. The reported incidence of most forms of child abduction, including the most serious, has declined since the 1980s.

The most intense dread, fueled by shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “To Catch a Predator,” is directed at the lurking stranger, the anonymous repeat offender. But most perpetrators of sexual abuse are family members, close relatives, or friends or acquaintances of the victim’s family. In 70 to 80 percent of child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect, a parent is held responsible.

No one can doubt that child sexual abuse is traumatic and devastating. The question is not whether the state has an interest in preventing such harm, but whether current laws are effective in doing so.

A 1994 federal law named for Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was abducted, requires convicted sex offenders to register with authorities. Under an amendment to that act, all states adopted statutes collectively known as Megan’s Law — named for a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in New Jersey in 1994 — that require local law enforcement authorities to notify neighbors about a sex offender’s presence in their community. And although registration and notification requirements vary, all states now post searchable online lists of at least some categories of registered sex offenders.

Advocates for laws to register, publicize and monitor sex offenders after their release from custody typically assert that those convicted of sex crimes pose a high risk of sex crime recidivism. But studies by the Justice Department and other organizations show that recidivism rates are significantly lower for convicted sex offenders than for burglars, robbers, thieves, drug offenders and other convicts.

Only a tiny proportion of sex crimes are committed by repeat offenders, which suggests that current laws are misdirected and ineffective. Indeed, a federally financed study of New Jersey’s registration and notification procedures found that sex offense rates were already falling before the implementation of Megan’s Law. The study also found no discernible impact on recidivism and concluded that the growing costs of the program might not be justifiable.

Contrary to the common belief that burgeoning registries provide lists of child molesters, the victim need not have been a child and the perpetrator need not have been an adult. Child abusers may be minors themselves. Statutory rapists — a loose category that includes some offenses involving neither coercion nor violence — are covered in some states. Some states require exhibitionists and “peeping Toms” to register; Louisiana compelled some prostitutes to do so.

And because sex crimes are broadly defined and closely monitored, the number of people listed in public sex offender registries is growing rapidly: 740,000 at latest count, more than the population of Boston or Seattle. The registration and notification rules — the result of efforts by victims’ rights advocates, crusading journalists and tough-on-crime politicians — violate basic legal principles and amount to an excessive and enduring form of punishment.

Newer laws go even further. At last count, 44 states have passed or are considering laws that would require some sex offenders to be monitored for life with electronic bracelets and global positioning devices. A 2006 federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, named for a Florida boy who was abducted and killed, allows prosecutors to apply tougher registration rules retroactively. New civil commitment procedures allow for the indefinite detention of sex offenders after the completion of their sentences. Such procedures suggest a catch-22: the accused is deemed mentally fit for trial and sentencing, but mentally unfit for release.

Laws in more than 20 states and hundreds of municipalities restrict where a sex offender can live, work or walk. California’s Proposition 83 prohibits all registered sex offenders (felony and misdemeanor alike) from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, effectively evicting them from the state’s cities and scattering them to isolated rural areas.

So how real is the danger

According to the FBI and The US Dept. of Justice:

  • 800,000 juveniles (under 18) are reported missing each year, but this includes runaways.
  • “Family kidnapping” accounts for nearly 50% of all child kidnappings.
  • Approximately 80% of acquaintance and stranger kidnappings are sexually motivated.
  • For every 10,000 missing child reports (including runaways) around one child was killed, according to the U.S. Justice Department in 1990.

29,000 Children Sexually Assaulted, Mostly Girls

According to David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in conjunction with the United States Federal Justice Department, 58,000 children in 1999 were taken for short periods of time (i.e. not overnight) mostly by people they knew excluding relatives. Of those, nearly half were sexually assaulted and many were killed. (The report says “fewer than 1% were killed” but 1% of 58,000 is 580, a substantial number.) Nearly two-thirds of these abductees were girls, most of whom were teenagers.

This is why children must be taught that they cannot trust every person just because they recognize them or know them. They should be taught to always trust their instincts and get themselves out of situations that make them uncomfortable.


It’s easy to point to a high profile case like Jaycee Dugard or Elizabeth Smart, but would these new laws have protected them?  Being the exception to the rule doesn’t make the theft of their childhood by monsters any less horrific.  I have a 12 year old daughter.  I want her as safe as possible.  She attended a sleepover camp this summer near Big Bear and we had a long talk about appropriate behavior and things to watch for by adults running the camp and peers attending the camp, and what to do about it if anything happened.  This was a church-sponsored camp and it was the first question I asked of her when she got home (with the second question: “did you have fun?”).  If she goes to the park with friends, alone, she has a strict set of instructions and as cell phone to call. When my son was a boy, I had the same set of worries and the same sort of conversations with him.  As parents, we need to have this conversation regularly with our kids.

California’s Megan’s Law website is a wealth of information for parents, teens and kids about sexual predators and information to help them recognize behavior that can prevent crimes against children.  Here’s the link:

Advice for parents includes:

For Parents:

  • Inform children that it is wrong for adults to engage children in sexual activity.
  • Stress to your child that he or she should feel comfortable telling you anything, especially if it involves another adult. If your child does not feel comfortable being completely honest with you, then together you should find another trusted adult your child can talk to in confidence.
  • Make an effort to know the people with whom your child is spending time.
  • Knowledge is power. This is especially true for protecting children from sexual assault. Teach your children about their bodies, give them the correct language to use when describing their private parts. Emphasize that those parts are private.
  • Make sure you know where each of your children is at all times. Know your children’s friends and be clear with your children about the places and homes they may visit. Make it a rule that your children check in with you when they arrive at or depart from a particular location and when there is a change in plans. You should also let them know when YOU are running late or if your plans have changed so that they can see the rule is for safety purposes and not being used to “check up” on them.
  • Never leave children unattended in an automobile, whether it is running or not. Children should never be left unsupervised or allowed to spend time alone, or with others, in automobiles, as the potential dangers to their safety outweigh any perceived convenience or “fun.” Remind children NEVER to hitchhike, approach a car or engage in a conversation with anyone in a car who they do not know or trust, or go anywhere with anyone without getting your permission first.
  • Be involved in your children’s activities. As an active participant, you will have a better opportunity to observe how the adults in charge interact with your children. If you are concerned about anyone’s behavior, take it up with the sponsoring organization.
  • Listen to your children. Pay attention if they tell you that they do not want to be with someone or go somewhere. This may be an indication of more than a personality conflict or lack of interest in the activity or event.
  • Notice when someone shows one or all of your children a great deal of attention or begins giving them gifts. Take the time to talk to your children about this person and find out why the person is acting in this way.
  • Teach your children that they have the right to say NO to any unwelcome, uncomfortable, or confusing touch or actions by others. Teach them to tell you immediately if this happens. Reassure them that you are there to help and it is okay to tell you anything.
  • Be sensitive to any changes in your children’s behavior or attitude. Encourage open communication and learn how to be an active listener. Look and listen to small cues and clues that something may be troubling your children, because children are not always comfortable disclosing disturbing events or feelings. This may be because they are concerned about your reaction to their problems. If your children do confide problems to you, strive to remain calm, non-critical, and nonjudgmental. Listen compassionately to their concern and work with them to get the help they need to resolve the problem.
  • Be sure to screen babysitters and caregivers. Many states now have public registries that allow parents to screen individuals for prior criminal records and sex offenses. Check references with other families who have used the caregiver or babysitter. Once you have chosen the caregiver, drop in unexpectedly to see how your children are doing. Ask your children how the experience with the caregiver was, and listen carefully to their responses.
  • Practice basic safety skills with your children. Make an outing to a mall or a park a “teachable” experience in which your children can practice checking with you, using pay phones, going to the restroom with a friend, and locating the adults who can help if they need assistance. Remember that allowing your children to wear clothing or carry items in public on which their name is displayed can bring about unwelcome attention from inappropriate people who may be looking for a way to start a conversation with your children.
  • Remember that there is no substitute for your attention and supervision. Being available and taking time to really know and listen to your children helps build feelings of safety and security.
  • Also remember that in the vast majority of cases (up to 90%), children are molested by someone they know. Your efforts at keeping your child safe must be informed by this fact and not focused exclusively on the danger that strangers may present.

And the site offers advice for the community at large:

Talk openly about the sexual assault of adults and children, men, women, boys, and girls.

  • Understand the issues involved in sexual assault. Know the statistics.
  • Assume preventing sexual assault is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Talk to your children about personal safety issues as they relate to child sexual abuse. Do this when you talk to your children about bike safety, crossing the street, or talking to strangers. It is, in many ways, just another personal safety rule about which children need to be aware.
  • Increase your knowledge about risk reduction measures you can take to protect yourself.
  • Invite your local law enforcement, probation/ parole department, rape crisis center, or child abuse prevention organization to a neighborhood discussion group to learn about the issue and to process people’s emotions.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Organize neighborhood block watches, if desired by your neighbors.
  • Do not wait until you are informed that a sex offender is living nearby to begin educating yourself and family on issues of sexual assault.
  • Find out what the statistics on child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, offender arrest, and incarceration are in your community.
  • Beware of the media’s ability to sensationalize the most horrific of stories concerning the sexual assault of children or adults. These stories, while real and very frightening, are not the norm.

There are multiple sites to help parents be aware of the registered addresses of registered sex offenders in your particular city and neighborhood. It’s worth you time to check in to these sites regularly for updates.  What these sites don’t do is identify those who have never been caught or those about to commit a crime for the first time, which seems to be the gaping hole in current legislation proposed by various OC cities.

Todd Spitzer, a former assemblyman and BoS member, has done some terrific work on educating kids on the dangers of sexual predators on the Internet – a far more dangerous and scarier place than the park down the street from my home. I’ve contacted Irvine City Councilmember Jeff Lalloway about adding education programs on preventing child sexual abuse to the City’s DARE program for the coming school term.  Everyone agrees protecting children from sexual predators is important, but let’s make sure we’re level headed about the best ways to do so.