Background checks and sex offender registries give parents, youth-serving organizations and the general public a false sense of security. People who have not been formally trained on child sexual abuse prevention trust that background checks and sex offender registries will protect children from being exposed to predators at school, camp, daycare, and in neighborhoods.
First, many youth-serving organizations do not perform adequate background checks or have potential employees and volunteers’ fingerprints scanned by a Live Scan Operator. Second, background checks are very limited in what they can reveal. Even the State of California Department of Justice states on their website regarding background checks, “The review of an applicant’s criminal history is only one piece of an agency’s process in making a suitability determination.”
The fingerprint scans will only show if there is a criminal history record. For an offender to have a criminal record they must first be convicted of a crime. Only 3% of all predators are ever convicted. Background checks will not catch roughly 97% of predators. Why? Because there are many steps that must happen for a conviction to occur. Each step only reduces the chances the predator will be charged with a crime. Here is a very simplistic list of the actions that must be taken by several people to reach a conviction:
1. Suspicion or discovery by an adult of abuse or boundary crossing. Rarely ever will you catch an adult offender in the act of abusing a child. What you will see are boundary crossing and questionable behavior.
2. Disclosure; rarely ever do children speak up when they are abused. Less than 10% of victims of child sexual abuse speak up at the time of abuse. It is common for victims not to come forward until well into their 30s, 40s, or 50s way past the statute of limitations.
3. When children do find the courage to speak up, they try an average of 9 to 11 times before an adult understands or believes them.
4. If and when the adult finally understands and believes them less than 10% of those are reported to anyone for many reasons including fear and shame.
5. When reported, it is often not reported to the proper authorities who will investigate or keep a record. For example, the vice principal and parents reported inappropriate behavior by the teacher who molested my daughter to the principal years before the teacher molested my daughter, but nobody ever reported to the police.
6. If it is reported to law enforcement, they will investigate. Rarely will there be enough, if any, physical evidence. If they do not find any other victims, which doesn’t usually occur in the initial investigation, even though there are ALWAYS more victims, the prosecutor will not file a case because these cases are too hard to prove without evidence and it is one child’s word against one adult’s word.
7. Prosecutors require more than one victim to come forward for the same offender, but they do not keep records long enough to match when and if another victim happens to come forward. There is no national standard as to how long the police department keeps their records of reports that do not lead to conviction and the different departments do not have access to each other’s reports, WTH?!
8. Reports to the Child Welfare System hotline, are supposed to have national reach and supposed to be kept indefinitely. However, CWS is only concerned about what is happening in the child’s home so if the abuse is happening elsewhere, they can’t help you.
9. In the event more than one victim comes forward to report the same offender and the investigator finds reason to believe the accusations, the prosecutor then decides what to do with that information. Only if the prosecutor believes they can get a conviction will they file the case.
10. Then a preliminary hearing is set, and a judge must hear both sides and determine if there is enough evidence to proceed further. This requires the victim to go on the witness stand and point to the offender and answer questions. This is where the offender always pleads not guilty and their attorney asks for more time. Months and months go by, while the offender has the opportunity to continue molesting children.
11. If the case goes to trial it can take several years before a conviction, and only if found guilty by 12 people with a burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Criminal defense attorneys will stop at nothing to place just an ounce of doubt in their minds.
12. If the case does not go to trial, the investigation and the preliminary work the prosecutor does can still take a couple years. All the while, the offender is free and clear to molest children. More than 95% of cases are plea bargained instead of going to trial. The prosecutor offers to reduce the charges in exchange for the offender pleading guilty. This means that the offender is then charged with a lesser crime than they actually committed. For instance, in our case, the teacher molested my daughter in every meaning of the word and penal code. However, he pled down to “false imprisonment”. This gives him less time in prison and the charge of a crime that sounds nothing like child molestation.
Here is where we get to how the sex offender registries provide a false sense of security. In addition to the offenders not being listed by the crime they actually committed but instead by the crime they pled down to, there are many limitations to each registry.
There is a National Sex Offender Public Website and each US state, territory, and tribe is supposed to have their own registry. A quick check of the states, I found Alabama doesn’t even have a working registry. Other limitations include, when the registry was developed. Some registries, such as Alaska weren’t enacted until 1999, others weren’t enacted until well into the 2000s.
Every registry has disclosures that clearly state not all registered sex offenders will be in the database for various reasons. Every registry has “Errors and Omissions” which states that information may not be complete or accurate. Search yourself and you will notice a lot of the entries will not have any addresses or they will say “last known” address. There is no person who is actively following up to see that the addresses for the offenders is accurate. There is no accountability.
In California, our Sex Offender Registry is called Megan’s Law, enacted in 1996. Megan's Law is named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed by a known child molester who had moved across the street from the family without their knowledge.
In California, here is a list of laws and obligations registered sex offenders must follow. If you read through them, you will see that registered sex offenders can live near schools, attend school, and be on school campuses, depending on their registration. Most people believe that predators are not allowed within so many feet of a school.
This is just the tip of the iceberg as to all the ways these registries do more to protect the offenders than the victims and potential future victims. Offenders can petition to have their name removed. Registries have time limits; some offenders are only required to be on the registry for 10 or 15 years.
I teach child sexual abuse prevention and I am an advocate for victims of abuse. When I tell the story of my daughter, I cringe when people reply by assuming I feel lucky the teacher who molested her is on the sex offender registry. Do I believe that will stop him from molesting children again? Absolutely not. Do I believe he could find employment or volunteer for an organization that puts him in a position of trust with children? Without a doubt! We, as a society, have convinced ourselves that the registries protect kids and future victims of sexual assault and they simply do not. Of course, I still believe registries serve a purpose and need to be utilized AND their limitations understood. I believe anyone that will be working or volunteering with children must be checked against the registry and livescan. However, there is so much more you can and should do to check someone’s background, as taught in the training I provide.
I hope I have given you enough information to make you think differently or pursue more knowledge. The only way to protect kids is to educate yourself so you can learn all the facts versus myths. The myths, like strangers are bad / family is safe, background checks protect kids, registries stop offenders from hurting more people, these beliefs are what feed predators and helps them be successful.
The next time you hear the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” just remember only 3% of child predators and 1% of rapists are ever proven guilty. That doesn’t mean they didn’t commit the crime.