A personal and family protection site is now making it even easier to be alerted to the presence of sex offenders who may be living in your area. Family Watchdog is a free service provided by FWD Holdings Incorporated, which allows users to enter an address and be informed as to where registered sex offenders live nearby and will, if so desired, send you an e-mail if one moves into your area in the future.
Even more amazing, and somewhat alarming for privacy rights advocates, you can enter a sex offender’s full or even just his or her last name, and you can select the sexual predator from the list of nationwide offenders that is returned to see details, any aliases, convictions, a physical description, photos, and a map of the sex offender’s currently registered address.
As a parent of two children, I am concerned about sexual predators living near my home or where my children go to school. While none live in my immediate vicinity, a quick check of the neighborhood where my children’s grandmother lives yielded one home address of a sex offender guilty of child molestation, one home of a convicted rapist, and one home of some person convicted of an “other offense.” The person convicted of child molestation is disconcerting because he lives three blocks from an elementary school. This information may be useful in determining which areas to avoid during trick-or-treating, school fundraising sales, or the walk to and from school. If a sexual predator, particularly one with a history of acts with minors, lives very close by, it may help parents better define areas that their children may play. So, it might be a tool I check from time to time.
Family Watchdog is a great information service which consolidates information that is readily available from most local law enforcement sites, but it also raises significant privacy concerns. I am an ardent defender of the constitutionally implied “right” to privacy. What someone does in his or her bedroom, provided it is consensual, is one’s own business. The key word is consent.
Minors can’t legally give consent; rape isn’t consensual. Convicted sex offenders generally receive a jail or prison sentence, followed by a period of probation in which they are supervised. After probation, he or she is released. Now, with sex offender registries, an issue of fairness is raised. A sex offender who serves his or her time has paid for the crime, but must now practically wear a symbol of this crime for years afterwards, or life, being shunned by society. An obvious retort to this argument is that many, if not most, states take away a felon’s right to vote, so how is this different? If you commit a crime, there are penalties. The sex offender registry is another lingering penalty for sexual predators.
The biggest difficulty is determining which offenders are at risk of re-offending. Rather than take the time to assess this risk, many states and localities paint all sex offenders with the same brush, forcing them to register their addresses with the police department. This often follows sex offenders around for life, even if the crime was a sex act between, say, a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old. They’re only one year apart physically, but miles apart legally. The law in some states makes the 17-year-old a felon who will have to stay on the sex offender registry for years, if not life.
Others, like teens ranging in age from 13 to 17, as Michelle Miller writes for CBS News, are being charged with distributing child pornography for sending nude or partially nude pictures of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends via cell phone. This flirtatious act of youthful indiscretion is a felony that could result in being added to the sex offender registry. Obviously, there is a need for some rational thought regarding determining who is a true risk to society.
Despite these arguments, there is a real reason for concern about sexual predators, as there is a high risk for re-offense for those who are convicted of child molestation. Family Watchdog estimates the re-arrest rate for convicted child molesters at 52 percent. But one must remember these are estimates for those who have already been convicted. Sexual crimes often go unreported or occur for some time before the perpetrator is caught.
Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal reports that, using victimization reports, it is estimated nearly 90 percent of sexual crimes are not reported, meaning sites such as Family Watchdog might give a false sense of security to parents hoping to keep their children safe from sexual predators. Family Watchdog, while a useful tool in knowing where sex offenders are, is not a substitute for simply being aware of where your kids are and keeping the lines of communication open.
Family Watchdog. (2010).
Bialik, Carl. (2008). Under-reporting Clouds Attempt to Count Repeat Sex Offenders. Wall Street Journal.
Miller, Michelle and Hirschkorn, Phil. (2010). Sexting Leads to Child Porn Charges for Teens. CBS News.