The front door flies open, and behind it your second-grader strides through with an “I can’t wait to get outside and play” look on his face.
While listening to an elaborate description of the day’s school lunch, you reach for the weekly manila envelope sent home with students to inform parents about what is happening at school.
You expect to read about the next campus fund-raiser and see a calendar of event – pretty standard stuff.
But what you find is an announcement that a convicted sex offender has just moved into your neighborhood.
There is no picture, no name, no address, no telephone number, no driver’s license number, no physical description, and no details about the crime this person committed.
The letter simply says this person has moved nearby and provides his or her age, gender, and the street where he or she lives.
After staring out the window for a moment, you feel for the kitchen chair behind you and sit down, lost in thought.
“Bye, I’m going to go ride my bike,” your child calls out, banging the door behind.
A NEIGHBORHOOD IN DISBELIEF
The Dallas Morning News recently published a brief classified ad, purchased by the City of Dallas, that said a 36-year-old male convicted of “sexual assault of child” had moved to Lake Circle Drive in the 75214 zip code.
Lakewood Elementary, which sits on the corner of Hillbrook Street and Lake Circle Drive, sent out a warning in the school’s newsletter to parents, and the Lakewood Homeowners Association republished the school’s announcement in its newsletter.
When Fran Charbeneau, the mother of a 14-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, heard the news, she sat her children down and forbade them to travel on Lake Circle Drive ever again.
“I think people are outraged,” Charbeneau says. “They want something done, but they don’t know what to do.”
This is the first time Lakewood parents have been notified that a sex offender has moved into their neighborhood. It probably won’t be the last.
Under a new state law – Ashley’s Law, Texas Revised Civil Statutes, Article 6252-13c.1 – which became effective Sept. 1, 1995, cities must publish announcements about sex offenders in newspapers that have general circulation in the areas in which the sex offenders live. Cities are reimbursed by the sex offenders for the fee newspapers charge to print this information.
In Dallas, this information appears in the Morning News under “notices,” located in the classified advertising section. Addresses, names, pictures and physical descriptions of sex offenders aren’t published, and an explanation of the charges isn’t provided.
The law also requires police departments to notify school superintendents when convicted sex offenders move into their school districts. It’s up to the school districts to decide what to do with this information.
Since August 1991, 1,036 sex offenders have registered with the Dallas Police Department, says Sgt. Patrick B. Welsh, who works in the assault section of the department’s Crimes Against Persons Divison.
Since Ashley’s Law became effective in 1995, 131 sex offenders have been reported to school districts in Dallas, he says.
Neighborhood parents say they want as much information as possible about convicted sex offenders.
What do the sex offenders look like? How close do they live to neighborhood schools? What did they actually do? Are they repeat offenders? Have they committed other crimes? This is what Charbeneau wants to know.
“A person who has served time in jail and has paid his debt is one thing, but this is a sickness,” Charbeneau says. “I do feel that a person has a right to anonymity and a right to change his life. I don’t want to make the person wear a scarlet letter.
“I just want my children to be safe. The more they know about what to avoid, the more they can be children. I want my children to be children.
“I wish I had the answers.”
WHAT SHOULD OUR SCHOOLS TELL US?
Dallas Public Schools doesn’t have a district policy for notifying parents of sex offenders in their neighborhoods. It was Lakewood Elementary Principal Karen Rogers’ decision to send out a notice to parents in the Lake Circle Drive case.
The district’s policy is to notify principals when a sex offender moves into their attendance area, says Robby Collins, special assistant to the district’s superintendent.
“The principal uses his or her judgment about notifying staff, personnel and others,” Collins says. “It’s a need-to-know basis.”
Those who need to know are school staff in charge of children’s safety, Collins says, such as playground supervisors.
The school district receives much more information than what appears in the Morning News, including sex offenders’ names, physical street addresses, descriptions of their vehicles, identifying marks such as tattoos and scars, and even shoe sizes.
One of the school district’s attorneys is researching how much information can legally be provided to parents, says Collins, who would prefer to provide parents with sex offenders’ names and addresses.
“What we have set up is consistent with the law,” Collins says. “If I had my way about it, we’d get a picture and tape it on the entrances of doors at schools.
“If the ultimate objective of the law is to give parents information to protect their children, they ought to know who the guy is and where he lives.
“I have absolutely no concern about the privacy of someone who has pled guilty to molesting a child.”
WHAT OTHER CITIES ARE DOING
The Richardson School Board recently passed a parent notification policy for that district. RISD intends to forward letters to parents when a sex offender moves into their high school attendance zone. The letters will include only the offender’s age, gender, attendance area, city, zip code and the charge of which he or she was convicted – the offender’s name and specific address won’t be included.
If parents want more information about the sex offender, they must make a written request to the police department, which charges a fee from $20-$50 depending on the scope of information requested, Sgt. Welsh says.
The Plano, Allen and Lewisville school districts have adopted similar notification policies.
“I question how much good that will do. Parents can read that in the newspaper,” says Collins about RISD’s new policy. “Everybody knows you’ve got sex offenders in the neighborhood and should be careful.”
The Dallas School Board as of yet has not discussed the issue of parent notification, says board member Roxan Staff, who represents the Woodrow Wilson High School area and its feeder schools.
“We’re on uncharted waters,” says Staff, a mother of two. “Right now, I don’t know that our policy is totally uniform, and there probably should be more consistency. When you have a new law, there will be adjustments made. This is just a process we’re going to have to work through.”
How would Staff vote on a parent notification policy?
“As long as we’re within the law, I am for giving parents as much information as possible,” she says. “I always err on the side of the safest thing for a child. Someone who is defenseless needs more protection (than a sex offender).”
Staff says she is concerned that providing limited information will frustrate parents and start rumors flying.
“This is one of those things that neighborhoods are going to have to work through. You’re always concerned about the rumor mill, but every community in the Metroplex is having to deal with this. You can’t escape it.
“As a parent, if someone knew something that could harm my child and didn’t tell me, I’d be awfully upset.”
THE SEATTLE EXPERIENCE
Seattle Police Department Detective Bob Shilling has watched his community react for six years to public information distributed about sex offenders.
Washington State passed a law in 1990 legalizing bulletins alerting communities about sex offenders, including pictures, names, ages, weights and brief descriptions of the offenses, Shilling says.
The bulletins are posted in schools, libraries, newspapers and sent to neighboring residents’ homes, Shilling says.
“When it first started, there was some over-reaction,” Shilling says.
For example, a group of people in Snohomish County burned down the home of one sex offender, Shilling says.
Since then, there have been two minor incidents – one sex offender found a note on his house saying “move or die,” and another sex offender answered his door one day and “had his face punched in” by an angry resident, Shilling says.
“People understand now they have a chance of losing this law by doing something stupid like that,” Shilling says.
Charbeneau says she thinks some people would be “in front of his house” if they knew where the Lake Circle Drive sex offender lived.
She says she wants to contact the property owner who rented the sex offender his house to find out if the owner knows about the crime.
“I hope these people are rehabilitated and can be integrated back into society, but in my heart, I don’t believe that is the reality for this kind of problem,” she says.
“There’s a lot of places for people to live. I think the law should be changed. How unreasonable is it to say you can’t live within a certain distance of an elementary school or daycare center? That’s not unreasonable for a law-abiding parent to ask.”
Sex offenders give up some of their rights even after serving their punishment due to the nature of their crime, Charbeneau says.
“If that person victimized one child, that child is damaged for life. It never goes away,” she says.
UNDERSTANDING THE LAW
Lakewood Elementary Principal Karen Rogers says she notified Lakewood parents about the Lake Circle Drive sex offender to encourage them to review safety precautions with their children. She hopes parents will be more vigilant in supervising their children, she says.
“It was stated, I hope, in a way that was not scary to them,” she says.
But the school’s notice was slightly different than that which appeared in the Morning News.
The school’s newsletter says the Lake Circle Drive man was convicted of “child molestation” while the charge listed in the Morning News is “sexual assault of child.”
What’s the difference?
When an adult engages in sexual acts with a minor – defined as a person 17 years old or younger – he or she can be charged with one of three offenses, says Dallas Police Sgt. B.A. Fassett of the child exploitation division.
When an adult engages in intercourse or oral sex with a minor between the ages of 14 and 17, he or she is charged with “sexual assault of a child” – the charge of which the Lake Circle Drive sex offender was convicted. The charge is the same, whether the adult uses physical force, threats or drugs to make the child participate in a sexual act or the child is a willing participant.
In cases where force isn’t used, the crime is commonly referred to as “statutory rape,” a term not used in the Texas penal code, Fassett says. Sexual assault of a child can be punished with a two to 20 year jail sentence.
“Our laws in the state of Texas say a child under 17 years of age can not consent to sex,” Fassett says. “A child under 17 does not have the maturity to make that decision. We as adults can out-think kids at any turn.
“The line gets blurry the closer you get in age to whether or not we should label someone a child molester. You’re going to ruin someone’s life on either side. It comes down to this: Was the victim taken advantage of?”
When an adult engages in intercourse or oral sex with a minor younger than 14 years old, the adult is charged with “aggravated sexual assault of a child,” Fassett says.
In cases where the child is between the ages of 14 and 17, a sex offender would be convicted of this charge if he or she used a deadly weapon; caused serious bodily injury or attempted to kill the victim or another person during the attack; made the victim fear death, serious bodily injury or kidnapping; or acted in concert with another offender.
Aggravated sexual assault of a child can be punished with a five year to life jail sentence.
When adults fondle a child or expose themselves to a child under the age of 17, the charge is “indecency with a child,” Fasset says. Fondling can be punished with a two to 20 year jail sentence, and exposure can be punished with a two to 10 year jail sentence. All penalties are more severe for repeat offenders.
When Charbeneau hears the term “child molester,” she says she thinks of the third type of offender, the one charged with indecency. Based on information she heard and read, Charbeneau incorrectly assumed this was the crime the man on Lake Circle Drive committed, she says.
“Nobody would know the difference – no lay person who doesn’t understand what the charge means,” she says. “It’s very confusing.
“Having more information changes the way a person reacts. There can be all kinds of details that are unknown. They should be more specific.”
WHO IS A THREAT?
In the City of Dallas, there are about 1,400 child sex abuse cases reported each year, Fassett says.
A typical pedophile will commit, on average, 117 acts of molestation before being caught, says Claudia Byrns, executive director of Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center.
Lynne McLean, who previously worked for Child Protective Services and managed a sexual abuse group treatment center, says research isn’t clear about whether treatment can help sex offenders. Statistics show that four to eight percent of sex offenders who have completed treatment will be re-arrested for sexually abusing children, she says.
She says it’s difficult to compile statistics about how many sex offenders repeat their crimes.
“It’s not like it’s black and white,” she says. “It’s hard to know if they’ve done anything if they’re not re-arrested. With some, you can make a difference.”
Texas law requires treatment for child molesters if a convicted offender receives probation, says Ron Goethals, director of the Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
The Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center handles the County’s most severe child molestation cases. And according to the Center’s 1995 statistics, victims know the suspect in 96 percent of these cases, Byrns says.
Forty-nine percent of the cases involve a father-figure, 12 percent involve a mother-figure, 21 percent involve another family member, 10 percent involve the child’s acquaintances, and 4 percent of the cases involve the child’s caretakers, Byrns says.
Rogers says the statistics indicating that abused children usually know the sex offender probably should be a part of Lakewood Elementary’s anti-victimization training.
“I need to follow up on that,” she says. “Stranger Danger always does seem to be the thing that captures our attention most often.”
ON THE LOOKOUT
Lakewood PTA President Diane Pitts says she talks honestly with her two children about sex offenders.
“I don’t hide things from my kids. I don’t try to shock them, but I talk to them about precautions. Unfortunately, you can’t pretend it’s not there,” Pitts says.
Pitts approves of Principal Rogers’ action to notify parents, she says. Partial information is better than no information, she says. The warning will make parents more cautious, she says.
But Pitts says the information she and other parents have been given isn’t enough.
“Probably right now, everyone on Lake Circle is suspect. With the information we have, everyone is on the lookout,” Pitts says.
“If you’re a man out taking a walk, and you’re 36 years old, you’re going to be looked at sideways.
“None of us know the circumstances of the conviction, but when you have children, you have to assume the worse.”
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