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What is the Point of a Sex Offender Registry?

Sex offender registries in light of the Jaycee Dugard case.

The story of Jaycee Dugard has captivated the nation – and for good reason. We all just can’t believe someone would have to go through something so horrific: being captive for 18 years, having your childhood stolen from you, giving birth to two children fathered by your captor… it’s all so painful and hard to take. But the story in this case has a “happy ending” so to speak. That is, Jaycee Dugard is home with her family and Phillip Garrido is facing life in prison.

Although we are grateful for the “happy ending,” it will be months if not years or decades before Jaycee Dugard can move on from the emotional scars of her painful ordeal. But it cannot take decades or years or even months before the lessons of her case have a real and tangible effect on the way we currently handle and use sex offender registries.

If the Dugard case is any indication, we are in big trouble. This is really a case of an appalling series of missed opportunities:

First of all, Phillip Garrido was a registered sex offender. For some reason, he served only 10 years of a 50-year federal sentence for kidnapping, and less than a year for a concurrent Nevada sentence of five years to life in prison for sexual assault (rape)!

He was paroled in 1988. Three years later, little Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped.

In 1993, he violated his parole conditions and was sent back to federal prison from April to August of that year. His wife, Nancy Girrado, continued overseeing Dugard in captivity while her husband was in prison for those four months—under what conditions, we still don’t fully understand. But when Girrado returned in August of ‘93, Dugard was still being held captive.

How could Phillip Garrido - clearly a dangerously deranged individual - have “slipped” below the radar of the officials who clearly knew about him? Why wasn’t his home searched after a 2006 phone call from neighbor Damon Robinson, reporting that two little girls were living with Garrido, a known registered sex offender?

Do sex offender registries really mean anything? Why do we have these registries if officials are not going to use them correctly to protect society?

Garrido’s parole officer had every legal right to search his home (even without a warrant), because he was a registered offender. The way I see it, we could have brought Jaycee Dugard home three years ago!

A Google search of “Sex Offender Registry” yields more then ten full pages of sites where you can locate registered sex offers. Among the most popular of the free sites is familywatchdog.us. A “sex offender” search also brings up ads for “Free Sex Offender Reports” - for example at NeighborhoodScan.com - where you can register to get updates to your email if a registered offender moves into your neighborhood.

How many of you out there have looked at these sites to find out if sex offenders live in your area…?

Organized sex offender registries have only been around for the last 19 years. The State of Minnesota was first to get the ball rolling in 1991. Prior to that, few states required convicted sex offenders to register their addresses with local law enforcement, and agencies did not have an organized list of sex offenders (in any state).

Obviously, registration alone is not enough. This was underscored after the tragic murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1996 by a released sex offender living on her street. The public outcry (400,000 people signed a petition within a month) created a call for programs to provide the public with information regarding released sex offenders. That’s when Congress passed a federal law requiring state community notification programs – (Megan's Law). As a result, all states were required to notify their communities of registered sex offenders. However, the law did not indicate how exactly to do this, so states were given broad discretion to create their own policies.

Despite the legislation passed, there are still “lost” sex offenders: those who fail to comply with registration duties and remain undetected, thanks to the inconsistent state laws. While Phillip Garrido was not necessarily a “lost” offender, his activities did manage to go undetected for years!

Are there other Garridos out there? How do we find them?

When Congress recognized the problem of “lost” offenders, they passed The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (signed into law on July 27, 2006). The law mandates specific registration requirements for sex offenders in all states. All 50 states were supposed to comply with the Adam Walsh Act by July 27, 2009 (a little over one month ago).

The goal of this deadline was to eliminate the differences among the state registration laws, preventing sex offenders from being able to slip through the cracks in the system. If the Dugard case has taught us anything, it’s that officials, law enforcement, and government still have a lot of work to do to monitor registered sex offenders!

But how, exactly, can we monitor sex offenders, even with all this legislation in place? We, as law-abiding citizens, should not have to have the burden monitoring sex offenders. The burden should be on those who are paid to monitor them and on the offenders themselves.

But as we’ve seen, what “should” happen and what responsible adults will actually do—well, they’re entirely different outcomes.

So, as responsible adults, let’s take this awful crime and plethora of “missed opportunities” and try to find a silver lining. Below are three easy ways to make the job of protecting our kids more manageable.

1. Sex offenders don’t have a particular “look.” They can be anybody. As a matter of fact, they are most likely to be someone that the child knows, trusts, and has access to the child. So, when you’re doing your “safety lessons,” do not over-emphasize stranger danger. Instead, look to and accept the fact that some of the people you know may actually be “strangers” when it comes to personal behavior.

2. Don’t try to teach every “safety lesson” at once. Look for opportunities that come up in everyday life as springboards to conversation. I call these times “teachable moments.” For example, when your child is online, use that time to talk about internet safety. When walking to school, talk about things that could occur on a walk to school. When getting on a bus, talk about the people on the bus. When family is coming over, talk about family members and behaviors, etc.

3. Talk naturally about things that make you (as the adult) feel uncomfortable. This will give your kids the language to describe when they feel uncomfortable. If you see someone on the street and feel an instinct to cross, let your child know that you are crossing the street because that person made you uncomfortable. This is not to make your children paranoid, but to show them how to listen to, build, and trust their own instincts. Quiz them and follow up with scenarios as they unfold. All this helps teach them how to develop and find their instincts.

Remember, keeping our kids safe is all about awareness and communication, and it starts with us.

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