I’m a social worker. I’ve done a lot of work in child sexual abuse prevention. I have children of my own, whom I educate using the same prevention principles that I teach others. And I am opposed to the current system of sex offender registries.
Have you ever looked up the registered sex offenders in your neighborhood? It’s pretty simple. Go ahead and Google it—you can see a map of folks right around your house. (Warning: This might freak you out.) Ostensibly, the purpose of such registries is to increase your safety by letting you know that the guy down the street has a sex offense conviction. That way you can avoid him, warn your kids about him, and keep them safer.
The only problem is, it doesn’t help.
Research is increasingly showing that offender registries do not keep our children safer; in fact, it may have quite the opposite effect. There are a few reasons for this.
First, it turns out that 90% or more of child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known and trusted by the child—a teacher, a relative, a rabbi—and only rarely at the hands of a creepy guy living around the corner. So telling people they can look up offenders in their area is promoting a false sense of safety that tells us that if we know who “THEY” are, we can keep our kids safe. In fact, most abuse is perpetrated by people who do not have any previous criminal records. Thus, watching out for people who do is not a good way to protect your children.
Second, not infrequently, the people you will find on the list were never even much of a risk to begin with. This is especially true for people who got on the registry as juveniles. There are legions of stories of teenagers who were charged with child molestation for having consensual sexual relationships with other teenagers a few years their junior, who are then stuck on the sex offender registry for many years afterwards. (This, of course, wreaks havoc on their personal and professional lives, but that is another article.)
But even young people who do sexually violate others are not necessarily a risk to other children in the future: Most juvenile sex offenders do not become adult sex offenders, and most adult sex offenders were not juvenile sex offenders. Treatment has been shown to be effective; there is no reason to throw the life of an overly curious 12-year-old into the trash heap by branding him an offender for the rest of his life.
Lastly, even people who are actual perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be helped. And while I am a proponent of treating everybody like a human being, this is not an article about second chances and kindness to outcasts and such—this is an article about safety for your children. Because what happens to people on the registry isn’t pretty: Since they cannot live within a prescribed distance of places where children congregate (schools, daycares, etc.), it can be extremely difficult to find housing, let alone affordable housing. Finding and keeping a job isn’t easy either (who wants to hire a child molester?). And of course, neighbors tend to not be so friendly once they become aware that the new guy on the block is on the registry.
The upshot of all of this is that offenders are basically excluded from society—which you may think perfectly appropriate—but this means that they are also cut off from avenues for support and rehabilitation. An offender who is being treated and monitored is much less of a danger to anyone than an offender who is basically living off the grid. An offender with a stable job and community is in a much better position to work on his problems than an offender who is destitute and socially isolated.
I’m not here to advocate for child molesters. I’m not a big fan of them, to be honest (and yes, that is an understatement). I’m here to protect your children and mine from sexual victimization. And, as it turns out, the severe punishment meted out to molesters in the form of the sex offender registry may be doing quite the opposite.
Raffi is currently rolling out a new sexual abuse prevention curriculum for Jewish middle schools. Contact him for more information.