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Protecting Children From Sex Offenders

October 12, 2009

ConcordMonitor : Protecting children from sex offenders.

There is an unwritten law that parents are allowed to become a tad overzealous when it comes to protecting their children. But instincts sometimes prove poor foundations for constructing laws. The district court judge who ruled Dover’s residency restrictions unconstitutional last week has done New Hampshire communities a favor by forcing them to reassess the ways they shield children from sex offenders.

A growing body of evidence – gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups – suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive measures at worst. Such ordinances tend to give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation.

A 2007 study in Iowa, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register had more than doubled.

A 2007 article in the journal Federal Probation draws a clear link between housing instability – one of the obvious consequences of residency ordinances – and criminal recidivism. It suggests a strategy of identifying and carefully monitoring the highest risk offenders and creating stable lives for the rest through treatment and access to housing, jobs and services.

Such efforts, of course, take money, as Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union pointed out to the Monitor last week. But that’s not the half of the problem. The very notion that helping – yes, helping sex offenders reintegrate into society may be the best way to protect our children has a way of enraging the public and dredging up sentiments of deep frustration. Why should we expend our resources on these (pick your epithet) people? Can’t we just exile them all to an island somewhere (a cold one, of course, with no creature comforts)?

We can’t, of course, even if all the registered sex offenders on our state’s rolls posed a real threat to our children (many don’t) and even if deporting all these frightening strangers would really keep our kids safe (in reality, 90 percent of sex offenders are family or friends of their victims). Aside from the offenders who meet the state’s definition of sexually violent predators – so far that’s only one person – they can’t stay locked up indefinitely, either.

And that brings us back to the reality that sex offenders will always live and work and go about their business among us, whether or not they reside within 2,500 feet of a school.

There’s another reality we ought to consider, too, one equally hard for parents to swallow but highly relevant to those protective instincts. Sex offenders are not made in a day. They do not spring from some alternate evil universe. Many, if not most, were preyed upon as children themselves. Statistics vary, but most studies put the rate of sexual offenders who were sexually abused as young people between 30 and 60 percent.

What’s more, many sex offenders are minors themselves. According to law enforcement records cited in a 2006 Valley News article, four in 10 abusers of children under the age of 13 are under age 17. And the small percentage of sex offenders who fit the clinical definition of pedophiles generally discover their deviant urges during adolescence.

It’s natural to want to draw lines between our children and the people who may harm them. But those lines may be more oblique than we would wish.

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