Megan's Law, and Personal Choices

States are required by federal law to register individuals convicted of sex crimes against children. They are also required to make information on registered sex offenders available to the public. Commentator Susan Straight says just because she can find out if there is a sex offender registered in her neighborhood does not mean that she wants to know.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

By federal law, states must register individuals convicted of sex crimes against children. They're also required to make information on registered sex offenders available to the public. Commentator Susan Straight says just because she can find out if there's a sex offender registered in her neighborhood doesn't mean she wants to know.

SUSAN STRAIGHT:

The Girl Scout mom approached me at the playground fence. `Did you know there's a pervert on your street? I can't tell which house, but it's really close to yours.' `Pervert?' I thought. `What does that mean specifically?' She frowned. `I saw his name and address on Megan's Law, the Web site. You've never gone on?' I hadn't. I still haven't. Knowing about sex offenders is what Megan's Law is all about, named for the girl who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a sex offender who lived near her in New Jersey.

I am a mother of three daughters. Whenever I see her name, I think of how it sounds as if we all knew her, Megan. We did. She was a kid in a neighborhood who was taken away. But as my youngest daughter said to me this morning, `Even if the bad men are in Megan's Law, how can someone stop them? How do the bad men pick what house they're going to break into?' I couldn't answer her. I had my own questions: What if a parent doesn't have a computer and doesn't know who lives nearby? What if a parent is afraid to look?

I was afraid to see the face of the man who'd had sex with a minor, to see all the other faces I might recognize. I'm sure it's the disheveled, 50-ish man who likes to walk on warm evenings with no shirt, pacing up and down our sidewalk with his coffee cup. He appears to have no job. But my contractor neighbor finds out this man writes religious tracts for a living and is suspicious of everyone. And my other neighbors all find out who had sex with a minor. It's the extremely handsome, young, community college student who is renting a room three doors down.

Within a month, after staring and pointing and folded arms from the men and women all around us, he moved away. And how will that solve anything? At the elementary school days later, the Girl Scout mother approached me again. She pressed a slip of paper with her name and phone number into my hand and said, `Call me, and you can come over so I can show you how to look them up on Megan's Law. There are 34 of them in our area.' For the first time I said it. `But I don't want to,' I whispered, knowing I sounded desperate and wrong. `I don't want to know. I'll never sleep again if I know about them and see what they've done.' She shook her head, disappointed, and moved away.

I sit in front of my computer at night. I could log on to that Web site and type in my ZIP code, but I don't. Will invoking that child's name, Megan, Megan, over and over be a chant whose strength vaporizes the man at the door, on the sidewalk, in the van?

NORRIS: Susan Straight is a novelist. She lives in Riverside, California.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to NPR, National Public Radio.

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