Saturday, February 19, 2011

What is Wrong With Megan's Law?

The Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) requires anyone on parole or probation or imprisoned for a sex offense on January 21, 1996, to register with the Division of Criminal Justice Services. In addition, sex offenders sentenced to probation, local jail, or state prison after that date must register upon their return to the community.

Yesterday, we received a note home from the school informing us that a level 3, registered sex offender had moved into the district. The note wanted to make parents aware of this and requested parents review safety precautions with their children. While a reminder is ok, I have some reservations about Megan's Law.

For one thing, it does not appear to reduce recidivism. A recent study concluded:

...that Megan’s law has had no demonstrated effect on sexual offenses in New Jersey, calling into question the justification for start-up and operational costs. Megan’s Law has had no effect on time to first rearrest for known sex offenders and has not reduced sexual reoffending. Neither has it had an impact on the type of sexual reoffense or first-time sexual offense....Sentences received prior to the implementation of Megan’s Law were nearly twice as long as those received after the law’s passage, but time served has been approximately the same before and after the law’s enactment.

But, even if Megan's Law isn't curtailing sex offenders, it must be helping parents and communities keep their children safer, right? Wrong. The study by Zgboa et al also found that the law had not reduced the number of victims of sexual offense. How can that be? Parents know where sex offenders live in their communities. Offenders aren't allowed within a certain radius of schools or other areas where children are. Offenders cannot be employed in those places. So, why haven't the numbers dropped? I think there are two major factors contributing to the ineffectiveness of Megan's Law: parents get complacent and many parents don't have effective tools to help their children.

I have heard parents say, "I checked the registry, we don't have any offenders in our neighborhood." Really? Because we all know how well our social/political systems work. It isn't possible for an offender not to register and fall through the cracks right? But, that is exactly what happens. Social workers, parole officers, and law enforcement are overworked and under paid and sometimes, things slip through the system.

Or, let's consider the case of Joe Creepy. Joe likes to touch young kids. He hangs out in parks, plies them with candy and nice talk, and touches them inappropriately. But, Joe is smart and slick and hasn't been caught yet. It's not like Megan's Law is going to make Joe stop and think, "gee, I'm a pedophile. Maybe I should register?" Nope, Joe will damage many kids before Johnny Law catches up with him.

Because there is a list and their community is "clean", parents get complacent. The thought of someone harming our children is horrifying. Like the proverbial ostrich, some people chose to hide their heads in the sand. If there isn't a nearby predator on the list, it is a comfort. Like most horrific things, human nature tends to turn the eye unless directly confronted.

I worked in the prison system for a few years. I heard inmates discuss the numerous crimes they committed, both sexual and non-sexual, prior to being caught. I do not kid myself about the sex offender registry. Even if no one is on it, I assume there is an offender in my neighborhood, parks, and community. And, I try to arm my children with the skills to protect themselves.

Assuming Megan’s Law does help identify some pedophiles in our midst and raises community awareness of the issue, why isn’t the number of offenses lower for repeat offenders? I think the conventional wisdom, the “stranger danger” strategy, doesn’t work. We send our children mixed messages: “Don’t talk to strangers,” but “say hello to the nice lady.” Young children are literal thinkers and they need concrete rules. Why are some strangers ok to talk to and others are not? They aren’t old enough to pick up on the social cues that help adults discern when someone is “off” or not quite right. And so, we must teach our kids more specifics.

For numerous reasons, it is hard for some parents to do that. For reasons of modesty or religion, some parents have a hard time discussing anything remotely sexual with their kids. They can’t bring themselves to utter the words vagina or penis, so how can they teach appropriate words to their children? Those parents use general terms like down there or privates, that aren’t specific and, therefore, can lead to confusion. We have always told our boys they can touch their own penises, but no one else’s. We’ve told them mommy or daddy or a grandparent might touch them to clean them in the bath, but not anywhere else. We’ve told them their doctor might touch or look at their penis, but mommy or a nurse will always be in the room. We have respected the limits they have set. When Baker no longer wanted me to help him wash, that was fine. I just reviewed proper cleaning with him and trust him to do it.

Another thing we have done in our family is forbid secrets. We have had extensive conversations about this topic. “It is not ok to ever keep secrets. If someone asks you to keep a secret, you immediately tell mommy or daddy.” This has become so ingrained in our family. My father will often say, “let me tell you a secret,” when he is trying to impart a nugget of wisdom. The kids always pipe up, “poppy, we don’t keep secrets.” We’ve spent lots of time delineating the difference between a secret and a surprise (like a party or present) and stressed that some people use the word secret when they mean surprise. If someone asks you to "never tell" it is a secret and you need to come to us right away.

Statistically, pedophiles are male. From early on, I have always taught my boys to look for a “good mommy,” a women with children, if they get lost in a store or at a park. While this isn’t sure-proof, it cuts down on the likelihood that they will blindly trust a male figure. We have countlessly rehearsed the getting lost scenario: find a good mommy, stay were you are, and if someone tries to take you, shout, “this is not my parent.” We review this every time we head to the mall, museum, or an amusement park.

When we first started broaching this subject with the kids, I worried that we would make them fearful of the world; that they would see evil strangers lurking everywhere. I worked hard on stressing that most people are good, but there are a few bad people and we don’t always know who they are. I think this lesson has worked. My children aren’t fearful in public. They don’t mind going into the bathroom by themselves, but they know the rules and follow them. Baker got separated from us at Disney. He walked to a woman and asked her to call his parent’s cell phone. He stayed where he was and we found him before she even made the call.

Some parents worry about raising their children to be too fearful and, so, avoid these types of discussions. Some think, “it will never happen to me,” and so avoid these conversations with their children. Some try to teach their children by ineffective means. Some are so horrified by the idea that they shut down at the thought. But, no law, no matter how well-intentioned, will make our children safe. We can only protect them if we step up to the plate, face our own fears and perceptions and misconceptions, and give our children the tools they need to navigate this wonderful, but sometimes scary world.

Author's Note: Many of the ideas I have formed about safety came from reading Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in personal safety issues.

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