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Megan's Law Deceptive, Experts Say
'It Tends To Give People A False Sense Of Safety'

By Mike Hudson, The Roanoke Times
Originally published in the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World News
January 25, 1998, Sunday, METRO EDITION


The General Assembly is expected to pass a community notification law during its current session.

Activists who are fighting sexual abuse favor a Virginia version of Megan's Law—a requirement that authorities notify communities when a convicted rapist or child molester moves in.

But some say there is also a danger in the law: It may give politicians and the public a deceptive feeling of security—and the misleading impression that sex crimes are only committed by shadowy strangers.

"It tends to give people a false sense of safety," says Isaac Van Patten, a Roanoke Valley counselor who works with convicted sex offenders. "It perpetuates the 'stranger-danger' myth."

In fact, he says, studies consistently show that 80 percent of sex offenders are people who are known and trusted by their victims—parents, relatives, family friends and others in positions of confidence.

The Virginia General Assembly is expected to pass a community notification law during its current session, as required by the federal Megan's Law. Legislation sponsored by Del. Creigh Deeds, D-Warm Springs, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, would expand the state's current registry of sex criminals and require authorities to notify schools and day-care centers when an offender moves nearby.

It would not provide for direct notification of individual neighbors. Whatever form the new law takes, Van Patten says, it will probably do little to address the larger problem of sexual abuse by family and friends.

To make real progress in the fight against sexual assault, many activists say, politicians and the public must push for more costly measures.

Some suggestions: longer prison sentences, lifelong probation and parole oversight for the worst offenders, and better funding for child-protective service programs.

Andrew Vachss, a New York attorney and children's advocate who wrote federal legislation that created a national sex-offenders data bank, says Megan's Law is a good idea as far as it goes.

But in the end, he says, "It's a bit of a flim-flam." It costs little and requires little real commitment by politicians.

"It's notifying you of the presence of people in your community who shouldn't be in your community in the first place," Vachss says.

Vachss says that despite all the media uproar about high-profile sexual-abuse cases, too little is being done to protect children—especially when the offender is someone already in a position of trust.

"You will do less prison time for raping a child than for raping an adult," Vachss says. "And you are less likely to go to prison for incest than for shoplifting."

Megan's Law was the result of the 1994 rape and murder of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl killed by a neighbor who was a twice-convicted sex criminal. The law requires that states maintain sex-criminal data banks and says state and local authorities must "release relevant information that is necessary to protect the public."

In Georgia, where a version of Megan's Law is already on the books, an investigation last summer by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that sex-offender registration and community notification do little to prevent crime.

"If a person is identified as a serious sex offender, the community responds by chasing him out," Dr. Gene Abel, a national expert on sex offenders, told the Atlanta newspaper. "So they go from one community to another and eventually wind up in one where no cares or knows."

A 1995 report by Washington State University's Institute for Public Policy concluded that informing the community about the whereabouts of rapists and molesters had little or no effect on the likelihood they would repeat their crimes.

In Western Virginia, two recent cases have highlighted citizens' concerns about sex offenders living among them.

Last fall, Botetourt County Sheriff Reed Kelly decided to inform residents that a man who had been convicted of sodomy and sexual battery in suburban Richmond had moved to Cloverdale after being paroled from prison.

In Covington this month, parents voiced anger after learning that a man with a long history of sex crimes had moved next to a school playground. Residents began a letter-writing campaign to push state legislators to pass a community-notification requirement.

Van Patten, the Roanoke counselor, says there is clearly a need for a notification law: "If there's a sex offender in my neighborhood, would I want to know about it? Absolutely."

But warning children about known sex offenders and "stranger-dangers" isn't enough, he says.

If a young child talks to a stranger in a grocery store and then talks to him again five minutes later, the child might not consider him a stranger anymore. The way they've been taught, Van Patten says, "a stranger is somebody in a shabby raincoat that scares them."

But child molesters are smooth operators who know how to gain a child's trust and target kids who are vulnerable because they feel unwanted or neglected, Van Patten says. "They manipulate a child's natural desire for attention and affection from adults," he says.

At the same time, he adds, programs like "McGruff the Crime Dog" give solid information about protecting kids from strangers but do less to combat sexual assaults by people known by the victims.

He says one good defense against sexual offenders is already on the books in Virginia. Van Patten was a member of a commission appointed by then Lt. Gov. Don Beyer that recommended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for anyone convicted of repeat offenses of rape, forcible sodomy or abduction with intent to defile. That was passed into law in 1995.

Vachss, who has written numerous books on child abuse, says that states also need to put more money into child-protective services—in order to cut off abuse in the home. This would help prevent abused children from becoming perpetrators themselves when they grow up, he says.

Vachss believes child protection workers are as "underpaid, under-trained, under-supervised and out and out disrespected as any profession you could find."

He says it's not a lack of recognition of the problem that keeps politicians and the public from doing more to combat sexual crimes against children.

"I think it's a lack of will," he says. "You can get more people at a rally to save whales than to save children. We're quick enough to kill children—a lot of people are in favor of the death penalty for children. But we're not so interested in protecting them."

Mike Hudson can be reached at 540-981-3332 or mikeh@roanoke.com


SEXUAL ASSAULT: HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN

Most child molesters aren't strangers who jump out of the shadows. They work hard to gain children's trust and get jobs or volunteer positions that put them near potential victims. Experts give these tips for what parents can do to protect their children:

  • Know the people your children associate with in and out of school.

  • Make unannounced visits and check references before entrusting your child to an adult or older child.

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Make sure your child knows it's OK to tell you anything. They shouldn't have secrets with any adult.

  • "The greatest single protection you can give your child is that child's sense that they can tell you anything," says Andrew Vachss, an attorney and children's advocate. "If you can do that, you've insulated your child very well."

  • Teach your child how to say no. Children need to learn a healthy balance between respect for adults and the right to be assertive and protect themselves.

SOURCE: Atlanta Constitution-Journal, interviews with experts on sexual abuse.



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