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Manufacturing Fear: Halloween Laws for Sex Offenders

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In North Carolina, a sheriff tells parents to check the online sex offender registry before allowing children to trick-or-treat. In Montana, a town offers a "trunk-or-treat" event where kids can get Halloween candy from trunks of cars in a parking lot to avoid potential danger. In New York, "Operation Halloween: Zero Tolerance" prohibits sex offenders from wearing masks or costumes or answering their doors on Halloween, and, as a parole source says, "There is certainly nothing more frightening than the thought of one of these men opening their door to innocent children." In Oklahoma, a city council is considering an ordinance forbidding sex offenders from decorating their homes or passing out candy on Halloween. In Orange, California, sex offenders can't answer their door or have outside lighting on Halloween, but an additional ordinance requiring window signs saying, "No candy or treats at this residence" was recently revoked after attorneys argued it was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Why worry about sex offenders on Halloween? Research shows no evidence of increased child sex abuse on Halloween and no evidence that a child was ever a victim of sexual abuse by a stranger while out trick-or-treating. This makes perfect sense, because government data shows the vast majority (about 93%) of sex crimes against children are not committed by strangers but by family members or acquaintances. Recently, the afternoon talk show The Doctors examined the debate over the "No candy" signs, and the physicians agreed that the existing laws that barring sex offenders from decorating their homes, having their lights on, and answering the door are probably enough to keep kids safe without the additional signs. Nevertheless, the message to the audience was clear: special sex offender laws are especially important on Halloween.

These laws are the direct product of a culture marked by decades of irrational fears about children and safety on Halloween. Sociologists, such as Joel Best, have tried to understand the urban myths surrounding poisoned candy on Halloween. Media reports warning of potential dangers, such as razor blades in apples, first appeared in the early 1970s, and then spread via word-of-mouth. Best has never found a death or injury of a child on Halloween related to candy based on his decades of research -- and the only substantiated case involves a child deliberately harmed by his own father.

These myths rely on the premise that evil adults are waiting to harm innocent children on Halloween. The poisoned candy myths emerged during a time of increasing fear of crime was increasing and growing awareness about child abuse and child safety. Today, even the Center for Disease Control warns children to only eat pre-wrapped candy and to avoid all homemade treats. The implication is not just that there is a legitimate and genuine risk for poisoning -- after all, the Centers for Disease Control is a federal agency solely concerned with preventing disease and injury, and they are telling children unwrapped, poisoned treats are a real hazard -- but that buying pre-wrapped candy for children is a more caring and neighborly act than baking homemade cookies or giving out fresh fruit. In other words, the sterility of consumerism can keep us safe and sound.

Sex offender laws on Halloween are a natural outgrowth of the fear of a night of social disorder and grave danger, rooted in the belief that any law that can potentially protect children, or even one child, is a good one. Unfortunately, these laws don't protect children, nor do they make us feel safer about a child-centric holiday. Children are not at any special risk from sex offenders or sadistic neighbors out to poison them, and these laws increase fear and anxiety and remove fun and excitement. Halloween should be a night to meet neighbors and connect with community, and it is incredibly harmful to view the occasion as anything else.

In New York, a county executive argued in favor of Halloween sex offender laws because, he said, this holiday is, "a unique situation where children are literally showing up at the doors of sex offenders." When we think about Halloween in this absurd way, as a night of potential child-victims presenting themselves to the sex offenders all around, the only possible response can be sheer terror. Similarly, California's "Operation Boo" promises parents that police, "will enforce the traditional compliance checks on known sex offenders to make sure they're staying away from trick-or-treaters... special transient sex-offender curfew centers will be set up in some regions and targeted transient sex-offender compliance checks will be held in other areas." Would any parent read this and send their child out on Halloween alone? Although the purpose is to threaten and monitor the sex offenders, it contrarily highlights the threat of sex offenders to children. The idea that these programs will reassure parents is absurd. It reminds us that "predators" are everywhere, and, not only that, many sex offenders are homeless and roaming the streets... and possibly an even greater threat than the ones who might lure children into their homes.

Most sex offenders live with spouses, children, or parents, and these policies subject entire families to humiliation and actual danger. Almost 95% of sex offenders are first-time offenders and very few sex offenders are "predators" who prey on the children of strangers (one study found about 5% of sex offenders are dangerous to children -- and sex offenders include those convicted of streaking, public urination, consensual sex between minors, "Romeo and Juliet" scenarios, and, in some states, even men who visit prostitutes).

In the weeks before Halloween, local news stations feature safety tips and reminders about sex offender threat. These stories remind us that sex offenders are everywhere, and that Halloween is simply another opportunity for sex offenders to lure children into their homes. A story on a local Florida news station describes how there are "hundreds of sex offenders living among us," as if we are, literally, surrounded by a creeping and predatory alien force that is not human and not like us. The caption behind the anchor has a shadowed, dark male face branded with the words "sex offender" and "predator". The story tells us that while law enforcement is doing an enormous amount of work tracking these "offenders and predators", but parents have to also help keep children safe. One way to do this, they suggest, is by using mobile applications that allow parents create maps of local sex offenders. They can use this while trick-or-treating, because it shows which houses to avoid, as well as photographs and other details about the sex offenders in the neighborhood. Just like pre-packaged candy and consumer advocacy, technology and vigilance can keep our children safe from danger and uncertainty.

The false dichotomy of evil adults and innocent children and families prevents children from meeting their neighbors and becoming part of a community. Sex offenders are subject to more post-punishment restrictions than any other ex-offenders, and have lower recidivism rates. Halloween sex offender laws, and rampant media coverage of the threat of sex offenders on Halloween and throughout the year, is creating a neurotic and fearful generation of kids who grow up thinking they are helpless prey facing threats from real monsters. Children are safest when they know their neighbors, and Halloween is a good opportunity to meet others in the community. There are some actual threats to child safety on Halloween -- like an increase in pedestrian car accidents -- but sex offenders and poisoned candy aren't among them.