The Sexual Predator Threat

Repeating "Don't talk to strangers" isn't enough. Learn the best ways to keep your children safe.

Stark Reminders

Earlier this year, the frightening dangers posed by child predators made headlines once again when police in Kirkwood, Missouri, charged Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizzeria manager, with kidnapping and sexually assaulting two boys -- one of whom had been living with him for more than four years.

The case was a stark reminder that, despite all the attention that's been focused on the issue over the past several decades, crimes against children are still all too common.

Making Progress

"Kids are certainly safer today than they were a generation ago, but there's more we need to do," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia.

On the plus side, Allen cites an avalanche of federal, state, and local laws that have been enacted in recent years, making it harder for convicted sex offenders to hide from authorities. He says that all Americans, from parents to policymakers, have an increased awareness of the threat of child abduction and are familiar with ways to help kids be safe. "The result is that more missing kids come home safely today than at any other point in history," Allen says.

But challenges remain, such as fully funding and implementing existing programs and policies, as well as trying to fill in some of gaps in a national patchwork of laws. But even more important, they involve making sure that parents remain acutely aware of their role in keeping their own children safe.

"No laws or policies can take the place of education," says David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. He advises parents to have ongoing conversations with their children about the risks kids face and how to avoid them. On the following pages, we tell you everything you need to know to keep your child safe.

Smart Ways to Talk About Safety

  • Do speak calmly and openly. Don't scare your child into listening to you. Otherwise, he may be too frightened to absorb information and ask questions -- or come to you later if someone hurts him.
  • Discuss predators' ploys. Warn your child about the tricks criminals use to lure kids, like asking them to help find a lost pet or give directions. Explain that adults should only ask other adults for help.
  • Tell your child to say "no" and run away from anyone who makes him uncomfortable -- and that might include someone he knows, such as a family member, a coach, or a friend's sibling.
  • Rehearse scenarios that could occur. ("What if somebody you don't know comes to pick you up at school?")
  • Discuss inappropriate touching. Your child should know that his private parts are off-limits: No one should touch them or ask him to touch theirs.
  • Update your conversations as your children get older and the dangers change. Adults or teens may try to lure preteens by promising romance; boys can be vulnerable to adults who offer to share secrets about sex or show them pornography.

How You Can Stay Vigilant

Know your child's friends and their families. Avoid people who routinely let your kid get away with bad behavior and adults you don't know well who offer to babysit for free or spend a lot of time with your child.

Be suspicious of any adult who:

  • Seems to spend most of his time with children.
  • Asks kids about sexual subjects or comments on their bodies.
  • Tickles or wrestles with children who don't want to play.
  • Singles out your child from a group and offers extra attention or presents.

Take your child seriously if she says she doesn't want to go to a friend's house or participate in an activity, or if she becomes uncharacteristically depressed or distractible. These might be signs of sexual abuse.

Check the policies of your kid's sports leagues and other groups. Do they do background checks on staff and volunteers, and what sort? Know their stance on approved and nonapproved contact between adults and children. You'll know to be suspicious if, for example, an adult offers to host a sleepover in violation of an organization's policy.

Use public sex-offender registries to check on potential babysitters, caregivers, and any other adults who spend time with your child.

Show up often at your child's activities and get involved. You'll get a read on the behavior of staff and volunteers -- and it shows that you're watching.

Take pictures of your child in case of emergency. Police recommend that you always have a recent color photo of your kid that shows his head and shoulders. Take one every 6 months for kids under 6; do it annually for older kids.

6 Online-Safety Strategies

According to a Department of Justice survey, one in five children ages 10 to 17 who use the Internet have been propositioned online. Here's how you can keep your child safe.

  1. Put your computer in a common area of the house where you can monitor the sites your child visits. Know his passwords, screen names, and account information. For young kids, set up a family screen name everyone can use.
  2. Don't let your child get too personal. Explain the dangers of sharing information online, such as his phone number, address, full name, and his school's name. The same goes for photos: Background details could reveal too much information, such as the mall where your child likes to shop.
  3. Install monitoring software on your computer so you can check where your child goes online and whether strangers e-mail him.
  4. Talk about chat rooms. Make sure your child understands that the people he meets there aren't always who they say they are. Monitor his visits carefully.
  5. Know when your child goes online at friends' houses. Are other parents monitoring activity as carefully as you would?
  6. Beware of soliciting. Make sure your child tells you if someone asks him for personal information or wants to meet offline. Report criminal behavior to the site and to the police.

Crime-Fighting Tactics

Recently, virtually every state has been cracking down on pedophiles, passing strict laws intended to make it harder for predators to victimize children. But while you may feel confident and relieved that the government is getting tough on sex offenders, experts warn against letting your guard down. "The laws can give parents a false sense of security," says Jill Levenson, PhD, a professor at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida. That's because there's little consensus on which tactics are the most effective, or even whether they do more harm than good in some cases. Here's a look at the pros and cons of each.

Megan's Law

How it helps: In 1996, Congress required all states to register everyone who had committed a sex crime against a child; two years later, the information was made public online. The law was created in response to the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was killed by Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her. "If we had been aware of his record, my daughter would be alive today," says Megan's mother, Maureen.

It used to be difficult for parents to search a registry for a specific name, zip code, or city. But that changed last year when President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which created a national, easy-to-use registry (nsopr.gov). Plus, states can now share information on sex offenders, which makes it harder for them to disappear and allows U.S. Marshals to track anyone who runs or fails to register.

The downside: Many convicted pedophiles can elude registration or use a fake address. When The Dallas Morning News conducted a three-month investigation of registered sex offenders in North Texas last year, it found that one in six weren't living at the address they provided, and 46 percent couldn't be located through certified mail and phone calls.

Residency Restrictions

How they help: Since 2004 at least 27 states have passed laws forbidding sex offenders from living within a specified distance of schools, childcare centers, and other places kids gather. Cities and towns can also pass residency-restriction or -notification laws. Currently, lawmakers in many states and municipalities are trying to enlarge restricted zones, often up to 2,600 feet.

The downside: Residency restrictions are meant to create safety zones for kids, but not everyone is convinced they do. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children doesn't support them. "They lead people to believe that their kids live in a sex abuse?free area," says director of legislative affairs Carolyn Atwell-Davis. An association of county prosecutors in Iowa recently asked that their restrictions be rescinded, saying they'd backfired. The prosecutors argued that the laws caused "offenders to become homeless, change residences without notifying authorities of their new location, register false addresses, or to simply disappear." In other areas, opponents of residency restrictions claim that the law forces offenders out of populated locales and into rural areas, where it becomes harder to track them.

GPS Tracking Devices

How they help: Between 2004 and 2005, three states -- Louisiana, Tennessee, and Massachusetts -- created pilot programs that require some of the most dangerous paroled offenders to wear GPS anklets or bracelets so police can track their movements. Since then, 22 other states have passed laws requiring or authorizing GPS tracking, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

The downside: Tracking devices can be useful for offenders with a history of parole violations or who are likely to elude registration, says Dr. Levenson. However, the system is expensive, costing up to 10 dollars a day per offender. And while the device can tell police where someone is, it can't give any information about what he's doing. Plus, the system won't prevent crimes from occurring in seemingly innocent places, such as the pedophile's home or a friend's or family member's house. Since GPS tracking been in use for only about two years, its effectiveness is still unknown.

Cases That Made a Difference

These are some of the young victims whose kidnappings and murders have helped change laws and raise awareness.

Etan Patz, 6, vanished from a Manhattan street in broad daylight in 1979, and the case remains unsolved. May 25, the day he disappeared, is now National Missing Children's Day.

Adam Walsh, 6, was taken from a mall in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981 and later found dead. His dad, John Walsh, went on to cofound the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Jacob Wetterling, 11, was abducted while riding his bike in his Minnesota neighborhood in 1989. He was never found. The case prompted the first-ever law to create a statewide sex-offender registry.

Polly Klaas, 12, was snatched from her Petaluma, California, home in 1993, and later found dead. Her murder led to the creation of tougher penalties for child predators.

Megan Kanka, 7, was raped and killed in 1994 by a New Jersey neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. A law named for Megan requires state residents to be notified when a sex offender moves into the area.

Amber Hagerman, 9, was kidnapped while riding her bike near her grandparents' home in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. The "Amber Alert" system designed to help find abducted children was created in her memory.

Elizabeth Smart, 14, was abducted at gunpoint in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002 and found nine months later living in a nearby suburb with her captors. Her parents have become active lobbyists for tougher sex-offender laws.

Jessica Lunsford, 9, was kidnapped and killed in Homosassa, Florida, in 2005 by a registered sex offender. A law in her name increased prison sentences and other penalties for sex offenders.

Shawn Hornbeck, 15, and Ben Ownby, 13, were allegedly kidnapped by Michael Devlin. Hornbeck had lived with Devlin for four years before being found (along with Ownby) last January. The case raised awareness of the dangers of child predators once again.

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