Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's Obviously Not Too Soon to Talk About Sex Offenders and School Bus Stops

School is starting soon across our land, and parents of the type that Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids refers to as “helicopter parents” are girding on their armor and preparing for battle with the massive number of potential threats to their children’s safety.

Not content to have residency restrictions in place that keep registered sex offenders often so far from schools, day-cares, and parks that they can live virtually nowhere, parents are now turning their eyes to bus stops.                                                          

When one mom in Virginia Beach, Virginia, did not get what she wanted from the school board—her daughter’s bus stop relocated due to a registrant in the neighborhood—she went to the media with her complaint and request.

This issue has been brought up as a concern not only in Virginia but also in Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, and California, to name only some. It is a jurisdictional issue, and many counties and districts include school bus stops as a “safe” area. What this means differs as well, depending on the jurisdiction. Some limit the exclusion to registrants who are on parole or probation or to those whose offenses were with children. Some go for a more shotgun approach and apply the restrictions to all on the registry for any purpose. Some do not include bus stops in the restricted areas.

With so many states—there are more than the ones named—and so many jurisdictions within states making this a priority, one would believe the problem must be significant. Just how many kids have been abducted from school bus stops by registered sex offenders—or by anyone, for that matter?

On the other hand, knowing that, according to the FBI, registered sex offenders were responsible for child abductions in less than 1% of the actual cases, and knowing that, according to several sources including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the number of actual, real abductions of children and teens for nefarious purposes averages 115 a year, I didn’t see how it could be significant.

I was not overly surprised, then, when my search engine, in spite of being prompted with several different phrases having to do with children taken from school bus stops, refused to give me anything. The closest I came was the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was taken off the street walking to a school bus stop in 1991, Brittany Locklear in 1998, taken from her own front yard waiting for the bus, and this year's abduction of 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard and her friend who accepted a ride in a pick-up after getting off of their school bus. There have been a few other reported attempts but no actual kidnappings that I could locate. And in two of these three cases, the perpetrators did not live close to where the abductions occurred. The identity of Brittany's killer is still unknown.

It would appear that the danger inherent in registrants living in proximity to a bus stop is minute, right up there with the danger to trick-or-treaters from registrants on Halloween.

Why do we keep trying to address problems that don’t exist? Are there no real ones that need addressing? Someone said, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Isn’t it time we listened?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is August Too Early to Write About Sex Offenders and Halloween?

I really didn't expect to be writing about Halloween until mid to late September, but here it is a full month earlier, and here I am, writing about it.                                                                                                      

It seems that in the state of Michigan, one eager, young state senator has latched onto a tactic proven to endear her to her voting public--propose legislation that restricts registered sex offenders in some shape, form, or fashion. Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R) has introduced Senate Bill 454 which is designed "to prohibit convicted sex offenders whose crime involved a minor from participating in Halloween costumes and 'trick or treats,' children’s birthday parties, and similar non-holiday activities involving minors."  
Sen. Schuitmaker could have chosen better. Every year close to Halloween, a spate of "news" items are released about the towns and counties that will be enforcing bans on any sex offender participation in Halloween activities. Some brag about the elaborate plans they have devised to require all registrants to come to a central location for a "therapy" session. These will be followed by another spate of articles and studies about the waste of resources this involves and the fact that it is totally unneeded.

Prominant among the studies is one by Dr. Jill Levenson et al, prominent researchers and experts on the topic. After describing various studies that examined the issue over many years, the authors conclude, "These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist." The bottom line is that there is no recorded instance of an assault on a child by a registered sex offender under the guise of trick-or-treating or any Halloween activity.

Some counties in California in recent years have been especially zealous in this endeavor, so much so that they crossed the line into clear constitutional violations and came out on the short end of some of the legal action filed last year by California RSOL.

A paragraph in an article published last year after Halloween shows the folly of focusing on registrants as an increased risk factor on Halloween.
... jurisdictions across the nation are making headlines for their efforts in keeping children safe from registered sex offenders on Halloween. Halloween has come and gone, and no children anywhere were harmed or, as far as anyone knows, even approached by such an offender. This includes the thirteen states in which there are no mandates in place regarding sex offenders and Halloween; it includes the many jurisdictions and counties where no such mandates exist even though others in the same state have them. And it includes going back as many years as records have been kept. Even though there is no police report of a child being attacked on Halloween by a registrant, ever, some states and counties choose to dedicate great resources to protecting children at Halloween from them. And the result is their success rate is exactly the same as it is in the counties and states that spent not a penny: 100 percent success rate for all.
Our country has many problems. We need to focus our resources on the actual problems, and we need to frame legislation and laws so that they reflect what empirical evidence shows. We do not need any more laws on the books that address issues that do not even exist.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Passports--the Latest Weapon in the War Against Sex Offenders

A bill has been introduced in Congress by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. HR 898, "Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2013," has as its stated intent: "To authorize appropriations for fiscal years 2014 through 2017 for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and for other purposes."

In brief, a portion of the bill would require  persons who are registered sex offenders to renew an American passport annually rather than the standard ten years. It would subject the holders of "sex offender passports" to increased scrutiny. It would create standards regarding the right to have an American passport that are applicable only to a single group, the vast majority of whom have never and will never use the passport for any nefarious purpose.

As one critic of the bill wrote, "Nothing like seeing the 'And for other purposes,' the governmental catch-all-do-all phrase. While the intent is 'Sex Trafficking,' the wording is such that it can affect any registered sex offender traveling to other countries." He continues, "... in reality -reading his bill HR-898- ANY and ALL persons registered will be affected if they apply for a passport, or if they currently have a passport (Passports being good for 10 years)."

Even disregarding the ambiguous "for other purposes" and going with the language used in media reports and press releases, we have, "A new amendment to Megan’s Law that restricts the passports of U.S. citizens convicted of sex crimes against children...."

This is nonsense. "Crimes against children" sounds awful but is every bit as much a catch-phrase for almost anything as is "for other purposes." It is by no means limited to those who have engaged in trafficking of children.

For the purposes of sexual charges, a child is anyone under the age of consent. Therefore, the man who twenty years ago was registered while in high school for consensual sex with his underage girlfriend, the man whose said girlfriend has been his wife for the past eighteen years, the man who is raising four children with that wife, the man whose charge on the Texas sex offender registry is "sexual assault of a child," the man who will be on that registry for life, would fall under this legislation and be subjected to its requirements and restrictions.

Likewise the man or woman who, as a child, engaged in playful or exploratory touching with a younger sibling or cousin and has been on the registry ever since and will be for life in spite of no repeat offenses and living a law abiding lifestyle will be subject to this legislation should it pass.

The boy and girl in Utah in 2004, ages 12 and 13 respectively, who, when she became pregnant and their sexual involvement became public knowledge, were each charged with sexual assault of a child under the age of 14 and each named as the victim in the other's case, would fall under what this legislation will demand should either or both ever apply for a passport.

Anyone and everyone whose victim was a child—in some states 17—regardless of whether the offense was serious or not, regardless of how long ago or how offense-free since, regardless of whether or not the person has even ever gone abroad, regardless of anything, if that person is still on the registry and desires to obtain or to keep a current passport, he will pay ten times more in ten years for that right and be subject to the restrictions of this legislation.

If the supporters of this bill want it to pass constitutional muster, they need to, at the very least, tailor it much more narrowly so that it applies only to those who have engaged in actual child trafficking or to those who have used their passports to go abroad and commit actual crimes against actual children there.

Otherwise, it is what  virtually everything else is when the target group is registered sex offenders--another means by which discrimination is legitimized against an entire class of people who vary in every respect except being on a sex offender registry.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Predator Test? In My Opinion, It Fails

I just finished watching a program on the CNN/Headline News Channel program Raising America with
Kyra Phillips, a segment titled “The Predator Test."  It utilized a “sting-like” format, with an adult stranger complete with dog approaching children at a park and asking the children to go with him to his car to get more treats for the dog.  Parents were nearby watching; they had, of course, all agreed for their children to be unknowing guinea pigs in the "test."

I did not find the test very realistic or credible. The "predator" gathered up several children at a time, and the ones that would go with him trooped along together in a procession that included some other adult with another dog whose function was never explained. Some of the children waved to their mothers sitting nearby as they left. Somehow I don't think a true predator targeting a victim in a park, which is a very rare occurrence, would take children en masse and in view of their parents.

The promo for the show included some of the footage as well as written text, and based on that, I put this comment on the comment board before the program aired.
My quarrel isn't with addressing the issue of "stranger danger" but with the skewed proportions with which the entire situation is addressed. The greatest focus and use of resources is on the registered sex offender, and that is who has the tiniest risk of harming a child--less than 1%. The next focus is "stranger danger," and that too is very small. According to the office of Juvenile Justice, it is 2-6 %. 
The only way to address the overwhelmingly greatest risk is through structured programs of awareness, education, and prevention, and, as far as I know, our government spends zero effort and money on that. The only thing that is done is by private agencies and is so limited as to be virtually ineffective in addressing the issue. More simply put, our nation spends 100% of its resources dedicated to this issue on 5% of potential victims and nothing on the other 95%.
Then I watched the program. And I took notes.

I was even more disturbed at some of the misleading inferences and missed opportunities for some facts. For example, one parent asked how prevalent a problem it was that children were taken by strangers, and the "expert" indicated it was a serious problem, even saying at one point, “Families need to practice for that moment when a predator comes,” as though it were inevitable. In reality, according to federal statistics, about 115 children are taken by strangers each year; as a basis for comparison, 250,000 are injured in auto accidents.

One of the program "experts" talked about school starting and the dangers of children waiting for the school bus due to the prevalence of kidnappings from bus stops and how an adult must always, always be with them. I Googled several different phrases having to do with children taken from bus stops, and I was stunned when I couldn't find any. The closest I came was the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was taken off the street walking to a school bus stop in 1991, Brittany Locklear in 1998, taken from her own front yard waiting for the bus, and this year's abduction of 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard and her friend who accepted a ride in a pick-up after getting off of their school bus. There have been a few other reported attempts but no actual kidnappings that I could locate.

There is nothing whatsoever wrong with teaching children not to go anywhere with someone they do not know; parents would be negligent not to teach their kids that. However, until we are willing to expend a significant amount of resources on education and prevention programs in schools and communities that address the vast majority of child sexual abuse, that at the hands of people already in the lives of the children, we will not make a dint in the problem of sexual crime committed against children.