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Keeping Kids Safe

By Nicole Westmoreland





New law makes it easier for parents to protect children from sex offenders


Thanks to Megan’s Law, parents throughout the country can find out whether they have sex offenders living in their neighborhoods or near their favorite parks and schools. And thanks to California’s Attorney General, a registered sex offender database is finally accessible on the Internet (www.meganslaw.ca.gov) for parents interested in using the information to keep their kids safe.


 


The initiative passed the California legislature as Assembly Bill 488 this summer and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed it into law in September. The law allows residents to use their own computers to view information on sex offenders who are required to register with local law enforcement under California's Megan's Law. Previously, parents could only access the data by visiting police stations or county sheriff offices, or by calling a 900 number (900-448-3000) at the cost of $10 per call.


 




“It’s about time the state made it easy to access this information,” says Lyn Schmidt, a Moraga mother of two. “When looking for our current home, I called the local sheriff's department (in Martinez) and asked how I could access their database. They told me that they only had one computer for all of Contra Costa County, that it was rarely available, and that I could come only during the hours they allowed public use,” she explains. “I was very discouraged.”


 


The Making of Megan’s Law




Megan’s Law is named after a 7-year-old Hamilton Township, New Jersey girl named Megan Nicole Kanka. On July 29, 1994, she was lured into her neighbor's home with the promise of a puppy and was brutally raped and murdered by the twice-convicted sex offender. Eighty-nine days after Megan's disappearance, then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the first state-level version of what we know as Megan's Law. The passage of Megan's Law in New Jersey eventually led to the May 1996 passage of a federal law, also known as Megan's Law. This law has specific mandates to make the community aware of the presence of convicted sex offenders posing a risk to public safety. Each state has its own methods for disseminating the notification information to the public.


 


In California, there are more than 102,000 registered sex offenders, including more than 67,000 living in the state (of which the Internet database has only 63,000 listed). Nearly 18,000 of the sex offenders are in prison, and another 13,000 live out of state. Of the 102,000 total, about 1,800 are considered high-risk because of more than one violent sex offense conviction; 85,000 are considered serious; and more than 15,000 are noted as “other,” which means they have been convicted of lesser crimes such as pornography, incest or indecent exposure. (However, the sex offenders in the “other” category are not subject to public disclosure under Megan’s Law.)


 


Locally, the number of sex offenders vary by county. Santa Clara County has 3,460 registered sex offenders, with 2,821 of them either serious or high-risk offenders. By way of comparison, San Francisco County has 982 and San Mateo has 834 total sex offenders.


 


Accessing the Database




Until recently, it’s been rather difficult for the public to access the database. Because not all local police departments have had the manpower to open up their databases to residents, many county sheriffs’ offices have taken the responsibility. Even then, the number of computers available and the hours for doing manual searches have often been limited, and the sheriffs’ offices have not always been conveniently located.


 


Deputy Terrance Helm of the Santa Clara Sherriff’s Office says, “There have been 149 people who have used ML at our three stations through 2004. Citizens within our jurisdiction are notified when a serious or high risk sex offender is released into the neighborhoods.”


 


Law enforcement experts and the state Department of Justice believe the database will be a big help to parents across the state.


 


“It will be a wonderful tool for families to use,” says Mariam Bedrosian, spokesperson for Attorney General (AG) Bill Lockyer’s office. “We hope that families will use this database to protect themselves, to educate their children and to be aware of the risks that surround them.”


 


Residents have indeed responded statewide. Within the first 24 hours of its debut on Dec. 15, the database received more than 3 million visits, according to Bedrosian. While the database is certainly popular, there has been some criticism regarding its incompleteness and its limited search capacity.


 




e="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">The AG’s office acknowledged that about 20 percent of the registry data is inaccurate, including old addresses, incorrect pictures and incomplete vital statistics. They hope the public will help report flaws and pressure local law enforcement agencies to keep the information updated. Although the AG’s office said it will be updating the site every 24 hours, the updates will only be as good as the information provided by family members of the offenders, citizens who know the offenders, or people mistakenly listed in the database.


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e="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">There have been a few calls to our office about how to use the new system and how to edit the information if it is wrong, “ says Deputy Helm. “A woman called recently to report that she had just purchased a home and to her surprise while searching the database at home, she saw that her address was listed as a sex offenders address.”


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e="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Despite these imperfections, many Bay Area parents appreciate the resource.


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e="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“It was easy to use the site,” says Lisa Cartolano, a mom of two boys in Oakland. “You can look up the information based on address, city, county or zip code. The only problem I ran into was that the site was busy and I had to try a few times before I could get on to get the information.”


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Using the Information


 


e="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Not all families are necessarily eager to use the site. Some may fear that knowing about offenders in their community will cause them even more anxiety than not knowing. But because the recidivism rate with this type of crime is high and the offenders can present a danger to the community, many experts and parents feel that it’s important to know where these sex offenders live and to educate kids accordingly. (See 13 Things Parents Can Do To Protect their Children)




 


Cartolano agrees. “I personally would rather know about any registered sex offenders living near me and my family,” she says. “Knowledge is power and if you know that there is an offender nearby, at least you can take precautionary measures to better ensure your children’s safety.”


 


How can you do that without becoming overly fearful? First, recognize that in most cases, these crimes are not random. Most offenders victimize individuals with whom they have had a close relationship. About 90 percent of all child molestation cases involve children who have been molested by someone they know.


 


That’s why the new law and database are key. They can provide you with information on offenders before your child comes in contact with them. (Note that while the new law is designed primarily to protect children, it also makes it a crime to use the database to harass or attack sex offenders.)


 


So now that the database is readily available, be sure to check it every few months for changes or additions that affect your neighborhood or community. It’s free and easy – and possibly a life-saving opportunity.


 


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