How Communities Respond To Sex Offenders Next Door

When residents of the affluent Chicago suburb of Barrington Hills learned late last year that a sex offender had moved to town, the response was immediate.

Hundreds of worried parents, taking advantage of a new state law, showed up at the police station to find out the offender's identity. Residents distributed flyers with his name and address. Within a month, he moved out.

"I would have liked to see a full-sized poster of the individual on the door of the police station," says police commander Michael Murphy. "It's better to warn someone about a potential hazard than to have them ask 'Why didn't you tell us?' "

Across the US, communities are reacting to the news that they are home to convicted sex offenders. After a flurry of state laws - a response in part to the 1994 rape and killing of young Megan Kanka in New Jersey - Illinois and 42 other states now authorize police to tell the public of the presence of such offenders.

The proliferation of the community notification laws has aided schools, child-welfare agencies, and nonprofit groups in keeping children out of reach of potential recidivists. It has also heightened awareness of a crime that some experts describe as "epidemic."

Over the past six months in Illinois, sex offenders have been discovered working in day-care centers and as Boy Scout leaders, state officials say. Meanwhile, police have uncovered new crimes as they track down the 6,000 convicted offenders - nearly half the total - who failed to register under the 15-month-old law.

Yet releasing information about offenders hasn't been problem-free. In some cases, the new laws have provoked confusion among police and residents, criticism from experts as overly stigmatizing, and vigilantism from citizens who drive offenders from their communities.

"Doing community notification without doing community education is like smoking a cigarette while you're standing in a pool of gasoline," says Seattle police detective Bob Shilling, who keeps the public informed about his city's 1,031 offenders. "You are setting yourself up for disaster."

Indeed, while all states require convicted sex offenders to register with police, they differ widely in how this information is released to the public, ranging from active public notification with education to passive access to registry lists.

In Illinois and other states without broad public notification, many citizens remain ignorant about the sex offenders. In some cases, panic sets in when a community suddenly learns on its own that an offender has moved in. And in isolated acts of vigilantism around the US, residents have assaulted offenders, issued death threats, and burned down their homes. More common, communities pressure the offenders to leave, as in Barrington Hills.

"These laws appear to be returning our society to the use of the 'scarlet letter,' " warns Robert Freeman-Longo of the Safer Society Foundation, a nonprofit group in Brandon, Vt., that advocates treatment for sex offenders. The laws, he contends, are simply driving offenders underground.

OTHER experts disagree, arguing that community notification, if deftly handled by police, can help prevent sexual abuse. Treatment, while promising, has not been proven effective and is only received by a tiny percentage of convicted offenders, they note.

"We don't really know yet what kind of treatment works," says Lucy Berliner of the Harborview Sexual Assault Center in Seattle. Police, she believes, have a moral obligation to educate the public.

In Washington State, which pioneered community notification in 1990, police regularly hold public meetings to inform residents about individual offenders and arm them with broad strategies for combatting sexual abuse.

At such meetings, police first point out just how widespread the problem is. Officer Shilling passes out a map showing that every patrol car district in his city has on average 15 to 20 convicted sex offenders. "It makes them realize that they are not the Lone Ranger - every neighborhood has sex offenders," Shilling says.

Second, residents are advised not to threaten or harass offenders, who are more likely to commit new crimes if they feel their lives are out of control. The majority of convicted sex criminals do not reoffend, experts agree.

Finally, police remind parents that more than 80 percent of sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows. "Everybody is worried about the sex offender who jumps out of the bushes and takes their child," says Shilling, "but in the vast majority of cases it is a relative, a friend."

Instead of warning their children never to talk to strangers, parents should teach them that unwanted touching by anyone is wrong and should be reported, police say. And parents should beware of any exclusive attention given their child. "If somebody is paying more attention to your child than you are - bingo - you have a problem," Shilling says.

Meetings such as this one have helped limit cases of vigilantism.

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