October 31, 2011

Halloween restrictions on sex offenders do little to protect children, two groups say

10-31-2011 Missouri:

As children roam the streets trick-or-treating Monday night, registered sex offenders will be forced by state law to sit in their unlit homes with signs that deter the costume-wearing, candy-seeking youngsters.

Local and state organizations, however, say the law that prohibits offenders from contact with children on Halloween does little to protect children from sexual abuse and more to humiliate offenders.

Enacted in 2008, the law requires registered sex offenders to avoid all Halloween-related contact with children, remain inside their residence between 5 and 10:30 p.m., post a sign stating, "No candy or treats at this residence," and leave all outside residential lighting off during the evening hours.

A violation of the law is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

"They're picking on sex offenders," said American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri legal director Tony Rothert, who argued against the law when it was passed in 2008. "It's like a scarlet letter making them put a sign in their yard to keep children away."

The state law is vaguely written as to what "Halloween-related contact" is, Rothert said, adding that sex offenders cannot help dress their children or grandchildren for Halloween under the law.

Rothert, along with four sex offenders -- including one from Cape Girardeau -- argued against the law three years ago, saying it was unconstitutional to make sex offenders who were convicted before Aug. 28, 2008, abide by it. The law was amended in Rothert's favor, but the wording remains vague, he said.

"The law is adding punishment to people who have already been sentenced, and that's un-American," Rothert said. "They have to go on house arrest for one day."

The law is a symbolic effort by lawmakers and a flawed one at that, Rothert said. Varying degrees of sex offenders exist in every community, and someone who committed a nonviolent sex crime should not be treated like a child rapist, he said. Cape Girardeau County is home to 166 registered sex offenders, according to statistics from the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department.

While the measure is in place to protect children, it does little to shield them from sex offenders, Beacon Health Center president Tammy Gwaltney said. Formerly the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence, Beacon Health Center helps child and adult victims of sexual abuse by providing examinations, counseling, prevention education and advocacy.

"The person who is the most dangerous to a child is the one who is the closest and has the most access," Gwaltney said. "You're not putting a child in any more harm when they're trick-or-treating."

Gwaltney said the best way for parents to protect children from sexual abuse on Halloween is to be with them at all times during trick-or-treating and ensure that they are with trusted adults at parties. If a child is going to a Halloween party, parents should talk to them about adults touching their bodies before dropping them off.

The signs sex offenders must post on Halloween do little, Gwaltney added.

"The concern is for those who are not identified, those without signs," she said. "There are many sex offenders out there who have not been identified."

Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison said he is unaware of any arrests made on Halloween as a result of the law. No arrests were made before the law was in place either, he said.

Although no arrests have been made and the law has come under scrutiny from organizations like the ACLU, Kinnison said the law has good intentions and has proved to be helpful in other communities.

"It discourages persons who have a background with sexual offenses from participating in Halloween activities," Kinnison said. "It's really for the kids, and you can't argue with that." ..Source.. by Patrick T. Sullivan ~ Southeast Missourian

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