How to Find Sex Offenders in Your Neighborhood

Learning how to use the public sex offender registry and other tools will help you become more empowered as a parent. Here's what you need to know.

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Photo: Michael Gordon/Shutterstock

When it comes to protecting children, there are certain measures no one wants to think about taking, but parents often find themselves exploring simply as a precaution. Among these may be researching registered sex offenders in your neighborhood.

According to the non-profit Darkness to Light, which aims to prevent child sexual abuse, 1 out of every 10 children will experience sexual abuse by the time they are 18. (For girls, that number is 1 in 7; for boys, 1 in 25.) While 90% of childhood sexual abuse is committed by someone a child already knows, it may not be someone you know unless you trail your kids every second of the day. And the vast majority of children don't tell an adult about the sexual abuse.

According to safety experts who compile data from the public state sex offender registries of all 50 states, there were at least 767,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. as of May 2022. It is worth noting, however, that sex offender registries are widely acknowledged to be imperfect. For example, not everyone on it has been convicted of a crime that they are likely to commit again, and juveniles as young as 9 have been listed.

But for concerned parents, these state registries still provide a snapshot of your little ones' immediate environment. You might use it to plan their route to the school bus stop or to figure out where to trick-or-treat, for example. No matter the specific reason, having this kind of data at your fingertips can be an empowering way to protect your children.

Here are five ways to quickly locate registered sex offenders in your neighborhood.

1. Search the Official Sex Offender Registry

The best way to pinpoint the location of registered sex offenders in your community is to check your state's official sex offender registry. Every state is required to maintain public records regarding registered sex offenders.

At the federal level, there is the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (DSNSOW). The site operates in partnership with the Department of Justice (DOJ), and it allows you to search all 50 states, the District of Columbia, five U.S. territories, and Native American tribal jurisdictions. You can look up a person by name or set parameters to get a list of registered sex offenders in your city, town, and zip code, even searching within a specific radius of your home.

There are caveats. The amount of info you get will depend on where you live; some jurisdictions don't provide much detail about past offenders, or only require them to register briefly. Conversely, some states are criticized for offering too much information. Florida's registry, for example, includes the names of people who have merely passed through the state for at least three days, do not live there, and have already been removed from other registries. It may be worth looking through your own state's database for details.

Your state's official sex offender registry, local sheriff's office, or police department may have newer information than DSNSOW. "Some sex offenders neglect to register when they're supposed to, including mandatory updates," points out Margaret Arsenault, executive director of Face2Face Youth Group, a California non-profit devoted to improving children's social and emotional well-being. "In California, offenders must update their registration annually, or any time they change their residence, which also includes incarceration."

2. Look at an Offender Map

Updated daily, the useful website Family Watchdog provides a color-coded map of surrounding areas with sex offenders listed by type (offense against a child, rape, battery), address, and proximity to local schools. Underneath each offender's photo is a link to see the charges against them, plus any aliases used. You can also sign up to be notified when offenders move in or out of your area.

3. Download a Smartphone App

The free OffenderWatch Parent app is like neighborhood watch for sex offenders. It offers much of the same info provided by the sites like DSNSOW and Family Watchdog but also allows users to submit tips about particular offenders and contact law enforcement when needed.

The family location sharing feature means that you can track your kids' whereabouts in real-time and see if there are any registered sex offenders living nearby. For a fee, the app works on your behalf, actively letting you know if your child is near a registered sex offender's home or if a registered sex offender is trying to contact your kid via phone, text message, or email.

4. Do a Little Detective Work

Is that neighbor who lives on your corner giving you a weird vibe? Has your 10-year-old been mentioning a new neighbor a lot? If nothing turns up when you check the registries, but you have this weird, sinking feeling, enter their details (name, age, sex, race) on BeenVerified.com, Intelius, TruthFinder, or Spokeo. You never know what you might turn up—and it's better to be wrong than uninformed.

"Offenders regularly decide not to register," says Christy Keating, a former criminal prosecutor who teaches parents how to protect children from abusers as the founder of Savvy Parents Safe Kids. "When this happens, their case is typically referred to prosecutors to file a failure to register charge, but it may take weeks, months, or in some cases, years before they are apprehended."

5. Keep Your Eyes Peeled

Don't let your newly acquired detective skills or the ease of accessing online registries lull you into a false sense of security. It's important to remember that many offenders simply have never been caught, prosecuted, or convicted, says Keating. It's still vital to look out for signs that something is off with your child or the people they interact with. Remember: You are always going to be their first (and best) line of defense.

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