No one wants their kids anywhere near registered sex offenders. That is the visceral appeal of residency restriction laws, which limit how far away from a school, daycare, park, etc a registered sex offender can live. Different states, counties and towns have come up with different versions, but the law’s shortcomings are two-fold.
The biggest is that they only apply to the ten percent or so of sex offenders who get convicted. That’s a chilling statistic, not a typo. Why, in this day and age, when child sexual abuse generates so much outrage, is that still the case? Statutes of Limitations on the crime are a major reason. Sex offenders use every imaginable manipulation to keep their victims silent, and researcher shows it takes, on average, 21 years for victims to disclose their abuse.
The other problem with these laws is that the mere proximity of a child to an offender does not harm the child. Child sexual abuse is a deliberate crime, not an airborne pathogen. Abusers need to form relationships with their prey, and they need “alone time” with children. A sex offender who isn’t convicted, registered or subject to residency restrictions may do this by getting a job around children, dating a single parent, or just being the neighborhood “nice guy” who is always there to babysit, tutor or mentor. A convicted, registered sex offender who is subject to residency restrictions will likely struggle to get a job working with children. But they can still be stepparent or “nice guy”, even if they have to travel a ways to do so. And all the political back-patting that goes into getting a residency restriction passed leads local parents into a false sense of security. They may know that their house, with a back yard that abuts a school playground, isn’t near a registered sex offender. But that false sense of security fails to take into account the 90% of sex offenders who don’t get convicted and are living nearby.
And this is why the research shows they don’t work. A recent Department of Justice study that incorporates both new and old research on the issue proves they don’t work. Legislators like NY Senator Terrence Murphy, who oppose Statute of Limitation reform have the wrong end of the stick. Residency restrictions may be popular with voters but do little to protect children.
At best, residency restrictions play a minor role in ending child sexual abuse, but only if there is no Statute of Limitations on the crime, ensuring that most offenders are above the law, and only if there is massive education of the adults in a community about child sexual abuse, who does it and how it can be prevented. There is nothing wrong with supporting legislation that plays a minor role in fixing a major problem. But there is something wrong with supporting legislation that can’t work until another bill passes, while trying very hard to keep it from passing.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.