Since the publication of my blog post "Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Recidivism?," a question I have been asked is "Paul, isn't it a good thing that I as a parent knows who is a sex offender living in my neighborhood so I can tell my child to stay away from that person?" My responses are that such knowledge is only a tip of the iceberg, or telling your child about that individual sex offender is like protecting your child with a BB gun; you might get lucky by using this tool, but it is not a strong tool. Sex offender registries are not very useful tools to protect your child. Let me explain and then offer what you should do.
First we have to distinguish between the types of sex offenders. There are all different types of rapists; all are criminals. There are also sex offenders who, while they committed a crime, are not rapists and who are not violent. When we are talking about keeping children safe, we need to be concerned with pedophiles, which is a specific clinical disorder identified in the DSM. Not all sex offenders are pedophiles. The person who got drunk and raped a woman is a criminal, but not a pedophile. And there are different types of pedophiles. When talking about keeping children safe we should be concerned with pedophiles. Lumping other sex offenders in does not really add any marginal value to keeping our children safe. The point is we should stay focused on who is the threat.
Sex offenders as a category have a low rate of recidivism and as a category do respond to treatment. However, as a subgroup, pedophiles have a high rate of recidivism. Pedophiles have a clinical disorder that is not responsive to treatment.
The research is fairly clear about the effectiveness of sex offender registries in adding value to public safety. Two new studies cast doubt on whether sex offender registry and notification laws actually work as intended. Other studies have questioned this as well.
Politicians want you to think that registries are effective because politicians have put a lot of political capital and attention into registries. They want you to think that 'sticking it' to the sex offenders is proof that they are keeping your child safe. Doing something -- anything -- is action. Victims advocates want you to be alerted to who has committed an offense in the past so that you can avoid these offenders in the future. The idea is that there is value in knowledge of who committed these awful crimes.
The problem is that the politicians aren't advocating evidence-based approaches, and the advocates aren't focusing on the fact that more than 95 percent of offenders on a registry are not going to reoffend with a sex offense. In focusing on the registry, neither one is focusing on that the real threat to a child is not the known sex offender, but the sex offender who has not been. We all hear about the sex offender who was on the registry and who reoffended, but these high profile cases are reported because they make for good and important news. But such recidivism is not representative of what is going on the majority of the time. The majority of the time sex abuse on a child is being done by someone who is known and trusted by the family.
Real World Example of Not Doing Enough
Consider the following real world scenario: A parent said to me that he keeps his children safe by checking the local sex offender registry. I know where this individual lives and so personally checked the local sex offender registry and found that no sex offender was living close to this man and his family. The question then is: what else have you done in addition to checking the registry? His response was pretty much nothing. His stock was in knowing who is a sex offender and keeping his kids away from those people.
The people that we need to be worried about the most are not who we know to be on the sex offender registry. That is like giving someone a fish when they are hungry. What we need to do is teach a child how to fish. We need to teach children how to identify who is or has attempted to violate them.
Herein lies a problem with a sex offender registry. By focusing on who has offended, who are not focusing on who may be offending. This is a subtle but very important distinction. If we think that the only people who are offending are those who have been caught, our children are vulnerable. But if we teach our children how a sex offender acts and what to look for, our children are much safer.
- educate their children on what is appropriate touching and inappropriate touching,
- when boundaries are crossed,
- when to report that boundaries have been crossed, and
- to let children know that they won't get in trouble for reporting when boundaries are being crossed.
Parents need to realize that the person most likely to sexually abuse their child is someone they know and trust, and someone who has regular contact with their child. This known and trusted person is likely to violate the trust of the family and child. That is why it is important for a child to have the tools needed to protect themselves from these trusted persons, and to know when to report when the trust is violated.
It is not only important for parents to educate their children, but schools need to educate their students because sometimes the abuse is happening at home. And parents and educators need to be properly trained how to identify when a child is being victimized.
I am not advocating that we eliminate sex offender registries. Parents and the public want to know who has committed sex offense that may be living near them. And since all criminal records are public information, parents and the public have the right to know and this information should not be suppressed.
My point is that a registry is about as effective as a BB gun; you might get lucky by using this tool, but it is not a strong tool. The public needs to start to understand that sex offender registries don't keep people safe they way they would think because of the nature of how predators operate when building and then violating trust. And the public also needs to realize that not all sex offenders are pedophiles. Most are people who will never re-offend ever again. That is why the real threat is likely to come from someone known and trusted by the family. The statistics are very clear about this.
Politicians and advocates use fear to make their point about the harm that sex offenders do. Fear is a blunt tool. I am not saying fear is not a useful tool, but fear is not as useful as an evidence-based practice such as talking to your child, which is what I am advocating to keep children safe.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul has a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard, and a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC. Paul can be reached at email@example.com or 508-639-9511.