Members of an Ocean View neighborhood watch group recently went door to door in their community of Country Village, distributing fliers with information about a new neighbor.
But that new neighbor wasn’t being honored by the local welcome wagon. In fact, the flier identified him as a registered sex offender and was designed to warn neighbors that he might pose a danger. And he is not the only local resident whose face has appeared on such an informational notice.
A similar flier was recently posted on the doors of Fenwick Island’s town hall, notifying residents of that town that a registered sex offender was living nearby.
Currently, the informational database maintained on the Internet by the Delaware State Police (www.state.de.us/dsp/sexoff/index.htm) lists at least four registered sex offenders residing within the 19970 ZIP code for Ocean View and Millville, one in Bethany Beach’s 19930, six in the Fenwick Island/Selbyville area and seven in Dagsboro.
That information is available to local residents — indeed, anyone who looks for it — thanks to Megan’s Law.
The law was originally passed in New Jersey in the wake of the 1994 kidnap, rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka. The girl’s killer was a twice-convicted sex offender and lived across the street.
While New Jersey’s law requires “active notification” of community members when a registered sex offender moves into the community (such as mailings or door-to-door notification by law enforcement officers), the federal version of the law enacted in 1996 requires only that the information be made available to the public.
The federal version of Megan’s Law, in fact, served primarily to strengthen existing legislation, namely the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Act, which required sex offenders to register with the state.
Megan’s Law went one step further, by requiring states to release the information instead of simply allowing that state agencies could legally provide it. (The penalty for not releasing the information under Megan’s Law is a loss of federal funding for law enforcement.) But it stopped short of requiring active notification.
That’s where groups like the neighborhood watch have stepped in, notifying the community through fliers and word of mouth.
Despite the requirement, and the efforts of community groups, not all convicted sex offenders are listed in the state’s database. Only offenders convicted after June 27, 1994, for sex offenses specified under Delaware law are required to register. And the specific circumstances that allow the offender’s information to be shared with the public are restricted to those who are determined to pose a significant risk of re-offending.
Those who have been arrested but not convicted are not required to register, but all other offenders are required to register prior to their release from prison, within seven days of entering the state, and within seven days of changing their address. The requirement to register lasts either 15 years or for the offender’s lifetime. It is a felony offense for an offender not to register as required.
When information on a particular offender is made available to the public, it can be extensive.
To help community members gauge the potential danger posed to children or adults, offenders are designated with a status of moderate- or high-risk, and the information includes the age range of their victim, as well as the type of crime. (Low-risk offenders are required to register, but their information is not public.)
The offender’s registered home address is listed, along with the location of their present or planned employment and/or any school they attend. Generally, a photograph is included, along with identifying characteristic such as age, gender and race. They are also required to provide a fingerprint to law enforcement.
While the information certainly has its value to the public, Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin admitted that the notifications are a “touchy subject.”
Not every case is the same or can be taken at face value, McLaughlin warned.
“A lot of these individuals aren’t necessarily your stereotypical child molester. Some of these individuals may have been in a situation where they’re 18 years old and their girlfriend is 15 or 16, and her parents filed a complaint. But that would be considered a crime and they would be labeled a sex offender, just as if they went out and molested a little baby,” he said.
“The one thing that information doesn’t give is a good synopsis of incident surrounding the arrest and conviction. If they had that information, people might treat that individual differently,” McLaughlin added.
The notifications can be a double-edged sword if not used responsibly, the police chief noted. “We want to make folks aware, but we don’t want people jumping to conclusion and going on a witch hunt,” he said. “At the same time, if we have an individual that is a threat to the community, obviously the neighbors have something at stake.”
The boundaries for responsible use of the information are clear, McLaughlin said. “We want them to stay within the guidelines of the law. But we can certainly sympathize when they protest having these people in their community.”
Even groups advocating nationwide active notification are quick to point out that the information is intended to help parents protect their children, not to provide a route for community members — individually or as a group — to perform any sort of vigilante action.
The group Parents for Megan’s Law (www.parentsformeganslaw.com) warns, “Keep in mind that irresponsible use of sex offender information not only undermines the effort to bring you it to you but can jeopardize future notifications.”
Instead, parents with concerns about their children’s safety with a registered sex offender living nearby are encouraged to “honor a commitment to use the information responsibly. Knowledge of the presence of a known high-risk sex offender offers the opportunity to take necessary safeguards for yourself and your children.”
Further, the group warned, that most childhood sexual abuse (estimated at more than 85 percent) occurs by someone a child has an established relationship with, whether known to the parent or not.
According to McLaughlin, the actions of the neighborhood watch group in Ocean View were just the sort of actions community members should be able to take once they are notified.
“The neighborhood watch was alerted that an offender had moved into town. The state police distributed the notification,” he said. “They (the neighborhood watch members) printed out the information from the Internet and distributed it. It was appropriate for them to do that.”
For the Ocean View police chief, there is one primary focus for the community notifications. “The notification is out there for a reason: to raise the awareness level. We need to raise the awareness whenever one of these individuals is in the community,” he said.
And for those wondering what their next appropriate steps would be when presented with a notification, McLaughlin had some advice. “I always encourage anyone who has any questions to visit the state Web site, get pictures of the individual. And if they have (an offender) in their neighborhood, be aware of it, teach their kids appropriate safety lessons and, hopefully, they won’t encounter any problems.”
Parents for Megan’s Law offers tips to help parents deal with the general dangers posed to their children, as well as what to do when they become aware of a registered offender in their community.
Among the suggestions: “Explain the concept of ‘tricky people’ to your child. ‘Tricky people’ may try to manipulate them into certain ‘situations or actions.’ They may try to touch children in their bathing suit areas. You may show them the photograph of the offender and explain that this is a tricky person and if the tricky person tries to talk to them they should take three steps back and run like the wind. Further, if they see the tricky person they should let you or another adult know.”
Parents are also advised to never leave their children unsupervised.
The bottom line on the issue for McLaughlin is, “If people have any questions or concerns, they should be addressed to the police department.”