Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Does Checking the Sex Registry Keep Your Child Safe?

The blog We Survive Abuse was launched to let sexual abuse survivors share ideas, tools, and resources. In June, the organizer ran a post called “How to Get Your Children Summer Ready to Avoid Sex Offenders.”

The key idea: you can protect your kids from abuse this summer by checking the sex registry to keep them away from friends, relatives, coaches, camp counselors, and so forth with a sexual offense on their record.   

There’s a pantheon of quiet heroes out there who do good work for next to no money, and this blog writer is among them—the goal of keeping the next generation from sexual abuse deserves nothing but praise.

However. For another organization with a long history working in child sexual abuse prevention, the advice in that post is at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Stop It Now was founded in 1992 by Fran Henry, also a survivor of child sexual abuse. Her group takes a public health approach to the problem. Their goal is to prevent sexual abuse before it happens rather than address it through backward-looking criminal justice responses, as a spokesperson told an interviewer for a 2009 book on sex offender laws. To that end, they create media campaigns and educational materials designed to give adults accurate information on preventing sexual abuse.

And it seems to be working—an evaluation of two years of their work in 1999 in Vermont found a 20-percent increase in the number of adults who could correctly define child sexual abuse, and the number of people calling Stop It Now’s sexual abuse hotline increased.

So what does Stop It Now advise about using sex offender registries? Here are excerpts from their site:

On whether ex-offenders pose a threat: “Many people with a history of sexually offending are motivated to succeed when they re-enter society. Contrary to conventional wisdom, counseling can be very effective. Re-arrest rates for sexual offenses are actually very low. When given steady support, counseling, and supervision, they often pose little threat to anyone in the neighborhood.”

On how to interact with ex-offenders: “Consider approaching the person with an offer of support, perhaps through the probation or parole office. Remember, you may already know this person or know their family and friends. Even if they are new in your community, they are a part of it now. If the person who sexually abused is open and honest about the past, they may really be trying to change and live a different life. Show your support for their willingness to live a different life that keeps children safe.”

On reintegration versus ostracism: “It’s also important to understand registered sex offenders pose different levels or risk. For instance, a registered offender is less likely to re-offend if they have received sex offender treatment, if they are being supervised through the criminal justice system (has a parole officer), and have employment and some type of support system, such as family members. When a registered offender is not able to re-integrate in a safe way into the community, they are more likely to take on a life style (being homeless, alone, unemployed) that could increase the risk of re-offending.”

On whether registries are useful: “The registry lists represent a small proportion of sex offenders in any community, since most sexual abuse, nearly 88 percent, is never reported. So, the police and the courts can’t warn us about the people responsible for most of the abuse that is committed across the United States.”

To add to that last point, if you still think sex offender registries might be a useful tool, consider two facts.

First, about 13 percent of new sex offenses are committed by someone who previously offended, according to an analysis by the Justice Policy Institute. That means the other 87 percent are committed by someone who is not on a registry.

Second, about 10 percent of children and adolescents experience some form of sexual abuse by age 18, according to a reputable 2013 analysis of a number of studies.

That means that there’s a little more than 1 percent chance (13%x 10%) that an individual child will be abused by someone who is on a sex offender registry. Put another way, there’s a 99 percent probability that they won’t.

Given how overreaching our sex crime laws have become, there’s a fair chance that the person in your neighborhood on the registry was busted as a teen for consensual sexstreaking or public urination, or sexting. So rather than trolling the list, concerned parents might do well to spend their time putting into place Stop It Now’s common-sense prevention tips.

-Steven

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