Sex Offenders in Your Neighborhood

After their release from prison, convicted sex offenders have to live somewhere. But many who find themselves living in neighborhoods with registered sex offenders have new tools to keep an eye on them.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Convicted sex offenders are supposed to register with state agencies. It appears that Dean Schwartzmiller did not. California has the largest registry, more than 100,000. Because of Megan's Law passed by Congress nine years ago, parents can now type in an address online--their own address, say--and see if any sex offenders live nearby. And in almost all urban and densely populated areas, the answer will be yes. NPR's Mike Pesca talked to one parent who did that and was left to wonder, `What do I do now?'

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Knowledge is power. That's bullet point number four in the How To Protect Yourself and Family section of California's Megan's Law Web site. But `empowered' doesn't describe the feelings of Jackie(ph), a mother living in Los Angeles. She first visited the site a few years ago, when the information online wasn't as detailed as it is now, and found that there was a sex offender living nearby.

JACKIE (Mother): You could see--it's like a map.

PESCA: Yeah.

JACKIE: And so you could see that it was the hill that I lived on, but I didn't know what street or how close to my house. So then a few months later, there was a barrage of e-mails among parents saying, `Hey, did you know that they've updated this Web site and you can actually find the person's identity, address, crime, everything?' So my husband and I late at night popped onto the Web site thinking, `Oh, how interesting. We'll find out.' And lo and behold, it is across the street.

PESCA: And so knowledge became something else, something she has trouble defining. She says she's glad she knows. How could any parent who calls themselves responsible say differently? But she isn't sure what to do with the information. She finds herself acting in ways she calls out of character.

JACKIE: I was shocked. I was walking the dog. Kids are on scooters. They always drive into everybody's driveway and mess around a little bit in the driveway. And when they went into that driveway, I had to hold myself back from grabbing my son by the arm and scooting him off of the driveway. He said, `Why? Why can't I scoot in this driveway? I scoot in every driveway.' And I said--I was speechless and then I finally said, `Well, I know that the man who lives here was in jail and I don't know if he's a good guy or bad guy 'cause I don't know him, but let's stay out of his driveway.'

PESCA: Jackie's hand as a parent had been forced. Her six-year-old knew there were such things as criminals, but that abstraction is now personified. Not every parent wants to tell a six-year-old son there is evil in this world. It's harder still to add, `In fact, it lives right across the street.' Jackie found herself telling her children to avoid this man, who had never done any wrong to them. For a parent like Jackie, who wants her children to be open-minded and unburdened, the sex offender registry was forcing some hard choices.

Ms. SHIRLEY GOINS (Executive Director, Center for Missing and Exploited Children): Parents are frightened.

PESCA: Shirley Goins is the executive director for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Ms. GOINS: They need to discuss it calmly. They need to have this plan. And let's face it, the world is not as safe as when I grew up.

PESCA: Well, statistically, that may not be true. What is indisputable is that our awareness of how unsafe the world is has increased. Knowledge may be power, but what the Web registry represents is not knowledge but merely data; data can become overwhelming. To counteract this, Goins suggests that every family have a plan, including a path to get to and from school that's never deviated from, and strict rules so parents always know where their children are. Lieutenant Jim Jennings of the sex crimes unit of the sheriff's office in Contra Costa County near San Francisco says a Web site like the California registry was inevitable, and acknowledges the tension between information and anxiety.

Lieutenant JIM JENNINGS (Contra Costa County): Basically, the media made a position where it's going to be very, you know, front-page news for a period of time, especially until we catch the individual who perpetrated the crime, that law enforcement had to respond with this system of what are we doing to protect our children. Yes, we definitely are giving away part of our innocence, the child's innocence, but I don't think that, as a law enforcement community, we had very much choice besides to give this information out and let the society decide if they want to use it or not. I don't think that we could have done anything else.

PESCA: Awareness of child abuse in this country has emerged from ignorance, sometimes willful ignorance a few generations ago, to acknowledgment which at times veers into panic. There's every indication that these online registries will come to fit this pattern. As of this week, California's six-month-old Web site has already received 144 million hits. Every day more parents and, indeed, more children access the site, which provides them information. Knowledge is yet to come.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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