Not long ago, I was discussing the DaiShin WolfHawk case with some friends, most of whom, like me, are mothers of young children. All of them applauded Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania for removing Melissa and DaiShin’s child a mere 24 hours after he was born. They felt that the father’s 20-year-old rape conviction and presence on the sexual offender registry should preclude him from raising a child. And they had no issue about the County terminating the parental rights of the mother either, believing that just the fact she had willingly brought a child into the world with a sex offender made her automatically unfit. When I disagreed with them and stated that though I doubted the WolfHawks would be winning any “Parent of the Year” awards, I still felt that their basic rights had been violated, I was vehemently accused of not wanting to “protect the children.” I was stunned by the reaction.
Protect the children. It is a mantra we hear a lot these days from both parents and legislators. Many laws to help prevent sexual crimes against children are too quickly passing across the country all in the name of “protecting the children.” But are they actually doing so? Many of these new laws are using Megan’s Law – a federal law that requires convicted sexual offenders to register and maintain their address and contact information with the state in which they reside – as a basis for legislation that sets greater and greater limits on the civil rights of sexual offenders. Doing so, I fear, is a serious misstep.
For one, it is not clear that Megan’s Law is actually protecting said children. In one of life’s sadder ironies, Megan’s Law would not have saved Megan Kanka, the girl for which it was named. Though her killer, Jesse Timmendequas, was a repeat sexual offender, his crimes would not have merited a community wide notification of his presence in Megan’s neighborhood. Similarly, in the recent high profile cases of Dylan and Shasta Groene, Jessica Lunsford, Jessica Lunde, Dru Sjodin, and others, each perpetrator was registered per Megan’s Law as a sex offender – just not in the area where they stalked, assaulted, and murdered their victims. To say that it is ineffective is an understatement. Many serious sexual predators give false addresses, disappear after initially registering, or “shop” for victims away from home. And most state and county agencies are too overworked and under-funded to keep track of each and every one.
Lawmakers are now attempting to overcome these issues by extending Megan’s Law. For example, there is new legislation in Iowa forbidding sex offenders from living within so many feet of areas where children are likely to be. Correspondingly, Jessica’s Law in Florida now requires repeat offenders to be electronically monitored for life. Many of these restrictions are also being considered at the federal level. Unfortunately, like Megan’s Law, all of these measures are knee-jerk reactions to specific crimes, which is hardly a way to successfully legislate. On paper, laws like these make us feel safer, that we are doing something about the problem. I believe that sexual registries also give us as parents a false feeling of control – that we can prevent such a tragedy from happening to our own child with the by simply entering our zip code into a website. But the sad truth of the matter is that these registries may make us feel better, but they are seriously lacking in capacity and resources to be truly effective.
Unfortunately, speaking out against the effectiveness or legality of Megan’s Law is much like speaking out against holding detainees indefinitely at Guantánamo or the Patriot Act to the Bush Administration. There is a sort of “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” mentality – or worse, if you aren’t for the law, than you are, in fact, for the crime itself. To a certain extent, I do understand this. Sexual crimes bring out a visceral response in us, especially when the victim is a child. We mourn the loss of innocence, we empathize with the parents, and it makes us want to ensure that it can never, ever happen to another child. And as a mother, I, too, often want to lash out at the perpetrators of these senseless and unspeakable crimes. But in the case of preventing future offenses, this mindset only works against our objectives when we ignore the shortcomings of these laws in the name of “protecting the children.”
Though I am not certain what acts of law are necessary to truly protect our children from violent sexual crimes, I do know that unless we as parents, and as citizens, can open ourselves up to the discussion of alternatives to Megan’s Law, instead of continuing to legislate emotionally and blindly – and without inanely suggesting that detractors are somehow “for the pedophiles” – we will continue to see the headlines announcing yet another child victimized by violent sexual crime and still come no closer to realizing an effective solution.