Predators among us

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 14, 2005

Communities concerned over sex offenders

By Jay Thomas

The family of Jessica Lunsford, 9, lived out their worst nightmare before a national media audience as hundreds searched for the abducted Fla. child before finding her mutilated body buried in a shallow grave near her home.

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In the days that followed, it was revealed that her accused killer was a convicted sex offender.

Just a few weeks later, another Florida girl was abducted and killed, again by a released sex offender.

Reacting to the events, the Florida legislature passed a bill stiffening Florida's already tough sexual offender laws.

These are only two cases that have caused growing concern in communities throughout the country about those people convicted of sexual crimes. The registering of sex offenders first gained national attention in 1996 with the passing of a federal law known as Megan's Law.

It is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old Hamilton Township, New Jersey girl, who on July 29, 1994, was lured into her neighbor's home with the promise of a puppy and was brutally raped and murdered.

It turned out that the killer was a two-time convicted sex offender who had been convicted in a 1981 attack on a 5-year-old child and the attempted sexual assault of a 7-year-old. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study released in 2004, 60 percent of sexual offenders were reconvicted for similar crimes out of the 300,000 registered sex offenders.

Registered sex offenders

According to Chief Deputy Jimmy Lecroy with the Crenshaw County Sheriff's Department, a criminal sex offender is required to register with his office annually.

"When they get out of prison they are notified by mail by the Department of Public Safety with a notice ordering them to register as a sexual offender," he said. "Failure to register as a sexual offender is a Class C felony."

Lecroy said there have been times when convicted sexual offenders have attempted to avoid registering with the county.

"What we do then is we have a deputy find them and pick them up because at that point we have probable cause to believe they are guilty of committing a crime," he said. "We then give them the option of registering or sitting in jail."

Lecroy said he obtains fingerprints and a photograph of the convicted felon when upon registration. He said the Sheriff's Department also ensures the sexual offender is not moving into an area near a school, daycare center or Department of Human Resources foster home. Households within 2,000 feet of the dwelling of a sexual offender are also notified by the Sheriff's Department, under the Community Notification Act.

Safe Harbor

One local agency that keeps track of where sex offenders live is Safe Harbor, the Child Advocacy Center.

When sexual abuse of a child is reported, Safe Harbor is soon involved in the process that helps build a case for the prosecution.

According to Kathy Smyth, executive director of Safe Harbor, the first response from a parent can be an uncomfortable feeling and parents' reaction on learning something happened with their child or children can play a vital role in their recovery.

"They usually don't know what to do or say," she said.

"First if the abuse has occurred within a family, they should contact the Department of Human Resources who will then refer the child to us. By going to DHR, the child's safety is dealt with first."

Smyth cautions parents to not make judgmental comments to the child.

"They need to show that you understand what they alleging and that you are taking them seriously," Smyth said.

She said the response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse. Smyth said it is important to maintain the following things in mind regarding accusations of sexual abuse:


Assure the child that they did the right thing in telling. A child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty about revealing the secret. The child may feel frightened if the abuser has threatened to harm the child or other family members as punishment for telling the secret.

n Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the sexual abuse. Most children in attempting to make sense out of the abuse will believe that somehow they caused it or

may even view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoings.

n Finally, offer the child protection, and promise that you will promptly take steps to see that the abuse stops.

What to Do

Smyth said if the abuse is accused against a family member through the Department of Human Resources, they are referred to Safe Harbor.

The first step is that DHR removes the child or children from harm's way.

Once they are in the Safe Harbor system, Smyth said they undergo a forensic interview by trained specialists.

"They interview the children with a variety of techniques," she said. "They do it in such a way that it preserves evidence to be used by the prosecution. Also, we involve law enforcement, social workers and the district attorney in those interviews.

They see the child's emotional and physical reactions during the interview using a two way mirror."

She said the interviews are important because they are used by law enforcement to investigate the allegations while protecting the child.

Going to court

Smyth said once a case has been built, a victim service officer works with victims and their family on courthouse orientation.

"At some point when they come to court, we explain that it is their job to tell the truth whether it is in a grand jury or at trial," she said. "Their service officer tells them they have to answer the lawyer's questions and that they have the ability to ask a judge if they need a break or if they need a clarification."

She said while adults easily understand what is being asked in court or what is going on, it can be intimidating to a child.

"It is usually simple things that adults take for granted such as vocabulary," she said.

"We have to really watch how we say things in court because a child will not always understand or comprehend. But we do emphasize they need to tell the truth and that the prosecution will bring in what the investigation found.

Hopefully, it will be enough for a conviction."

She said it is also important that the child victim feels safe in the event of an acquittal and not ashamed of telling someone what happened.

Does the sex offender registry work?

Smyth said she believes the system does work to a large degree and that it does prevent many offenders from doing their same act again.

"Sometimes the last thing these people want is to be found out," she said.

"Part of any type or recovery program is being held accountable for their actions.

To be held accountable, they need to be convicted and the community needs to know about it."