Searching for Sex Offenders Online

By Alison O’Leary Murray


New State Web Site Gets Mixed Reviews from Parents

In its first day on line, the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry logged more than 225,000 views. The new searchable database includes the names, addresses, places of employment  – even photos – of about 1,000 criminals living in the state who are judged as high-risk to others in the community.


Linda, a mother of two Natick teens, went to the Web database in its first days on line. She was relieved to find that her town currently lists none of the most dangerous sex offenders, but says she was prepared to show her children photos of any living nearby.


“I think the best way to teach my kids to protect themselves is to give them a little power, and this is one more tool for us to use,” Linda says.


ana">There is no way of knowing how many other parents scanned the photos for familiar faces, but the safety of children was the main thrust behind publishing the information on the Web.


ana">Before the information could become public, Massachusetts cleared years of legal appeals dating back to 1996, when then-President Clinton signed legislation known as Megan’s Law. The law requires states to identify and notify local communities about sexually dangerous criminals who had preyed on children. The law was named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a man convicted of sex crimes who lived nearby.


ana">While the names of some victims, such as Megan Kanka and Polly Klaas are nationally known, Massachusetts has its own symbols of repeat crimes by dangerous sex offenders in Joanne and Alyssa Presti. The Woburn mother and her 12-year-old daughter were allegedly murdered in their home early this year by a man police say was an unregistered sex offender.


ana">“Unless there is a court order saying otherwise, a sex offender can live anywhere,” says Charles McDonald, director of communication and legislation for the state Sex Offender Registry Board. “Now we have rights as parents to have this information, and we urge parents to keep this information in mind as they go about their business, because it’s documented that sex offenders who prey on children are drawn to places where they can see children.”


Making the List

The online registry gives descriptive information about Level 3 sex offenders, while only listing the number of Level 2 offenders in a particular community. Those who made the list of Level 3 offenders featured on the Web site were screened using 25 criteria aimed at determining the individual’s stability and potential to commit another crime, McDonald says. Those who live with their families, hold steady jobs and are getting treatment are less likely to seek additional victims and may be classified as Level 2 offenders, he says. Information about Level 2 offenders is only available through local police departments.


While 1,000 names of high-risk criminals on the Internet seems like a lot, the Sex Offender Registry Board actually began with a database of 17,000 residents who were convicted of sex crimes going back to August 1981. Of those, McDonald says an undetermined number are believed dead; 8,500 are registered with their local police departments; about 3,000 are in prison; and the state is tracking down about 4,000 others for documentation and classification. A state police task force is assigned to finding those offenders who are in violation of their registration requirement: Offenders must confirm their addresses with local police at least once annually.


Mixed Reactions

It can be uncomfortable to view the faces and conviction records of criminals who have raped or abused children, McDonald says.


“It can be startling to see the number of convictions for some offenders. It can be scary to see the pattern of abuse,” he says. “And remember that just because an individual was convicted of these crimes doesn’t mean he wasn’t out re-offending.”


Experts believe that only one in five sexual abuses are reported to authorities, McDonald says. “We urge parents to take precautions with everybody who comes in contact with their children, to supervise them universally.”


For some parents, though, the precautions McDonald cites are more effective than a database of known offenders.


“I would never look at one of those databases,” says Laura, a mother visiting a Jamaica Plain playground with her children recently. “They’re showing the registered sex offenders, but what about the unregistered sex offenders?”


She notes that the Registry would not deter others from committing similar crimes against children, because sex offenders have little control over their actions.


Laura’s mother, Mary, agrees, saying that the database is only creating an atmosphere of fear.


But Marc Klaas, the California father of Polly Hannah Klaas, lived through the fear of his daughter’s 1994 abduction and murder. He is supporting wider access to sex offender information, including a proposal by North Dakota U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan to create a national database of sex offenders.


While Massachusetts is among more than 30 states to put information on registered sex offenders on line, Klaas says many states’ Web sites are a “sham” because they list only a handful of thousands of potential predators. Still, he says, the databases are a step in the right direction; the lists act as a deterrent because members of the community may scrutinize a known predator’s contact with children.


“You don’t have to go any further than the Catholic Church’s scandal to realize that these people will continue to re-offend if they are allowed to operate in anonymity,” Klaas says.


Sandra, a mother of teens from Concord, says she has mixed feelings about the state database.


“It puts a scare into the kids rather than teaching them to always be leery of strangers,” she says. “I tell them to read their gut. They should be taught to trust their instincts, but I don’t want them to be fearful.”


The state Web site also includes tips for child safety and resources for parents of victims. McDonald says the Registry Board continues to collect impact statements from victims of sex offenders that will be considered when evaluating each of the remaining Level 2 offenders for inclusion in the database.


Help Your Kids Protect Themselves

al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">When it comes to personal safety, children need simple, clear and practical advice and tips. Click here for information and strategies to help your kids be aware of and safe from potential sexual predators.

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al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">On the Web

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al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Klaas Kids – is a clearinghouse for information on sex offender registries across the country, information on Megan’s Law and missing children.

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al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">The Massachusetts Sex Offender – allows anyone over age 18 to search by town, zip code or offender’s name. The registry also lists violators who aren’t registered in communities where they live.

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al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Books

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al style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Stranger Danger; How to Keep Your Child Safe, by Carol Soret Cope, Cader Books, 1997. Practical tips on recognizing a child molester, giving children safety rules and precautions and how to recognize and help a child who may have been molested.


Megan’s Law Nationwide; and The Apple of My Eye © Childhood Sexual abuse Prevention Program, by Laura Ahearn, C.S.W., Prevention Press USA, 2001. The founder of Parents for Megan’s Law writes about the history of this sexual abuse prevention law along with safety tips and strategies for parents and kids.


Childhood; It Should Not Hurt!,by Claire R. Reeves, C.C.D.C., LTI Publishing, 2003. This book by the founder of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, offers advice, tips and insight into child molestation,