April 10th, 2007
A number of towns across the UK will be taking part in a pilot programme where details of registered sex offenders will be made known to residents. Under the scheme you will be notified if a sex offender is living locally to you, and women can access the sex offenders register to see if a potential new relationship partner has a record of child abuse. People won’t be able to find out the names of any offenders or exactly where they live. The scheme will be assessed to see if it has any impact on child safety and how communities react. It is based on a version of Megan’s Law from parts of the US where communities are made aware of any sex offenders living locally to them.
The UK hasn’t got that a good record with managing child abusers. For many years the problem of child abuse was downplayed or ignored, and efforts to protect children were in some cases resisted by those in positions of power. More recently we have become more aware of the extent of child abuse and the damage such abuse causes. However, there’s also been an increase in vigilantism and a misunderstanding of child abuse – mostly stirred up by the tabloid press – where neighbourhoods target the local suspected ‘paedo’.
Whilst many child protection charities have welcomed this new pilot, there are concerns that it could well encourage communities to begin witch-hunts to find the sex offenders in their locality. Currently adherence to the sex offenders register is high – meaning those who are required to make themselves known to the police and probation services do so. If people feel their neighbours are targeting them there are worries they may stop complying with the sex offenders register and disappear – making them more of a risk to children.
Obviously if communities decide to seek out abusers there are increased risks of people who are not child abusers being wrongly accused – and of increased problems of neighbourhood nuisance and violence.
It isn’t clear if this pilot will differentiate between why people are on the sex offenders register – since those convicted of sex offences are not always a risk to children. Also the scheme will only notify communities of those convicted of offences, not the many abusers who have no criminal record and remain unknown to legal services.
In an ideal world a pilot scheme would happen without any launch or fanfare so impacts of any programmes could be measured. Clearly with something as controversial as sex offender monitoring pilot scheme was never going to keep out of the papers, but having extensive media coverage may well incite community anger and fear that could pose a threat to the effectiveness of a pilot scheme.
Many experts remain divided on the best way to manage this issue. On the one hand parents, teachers and children do need to know if there are any paedophiles that pose a risk located nearby. Yet because in the UK this knowledge tends to be met by mob rule and violence it poses a risk to the safety of many individuals – including the children we want to protect. It is likely this pilot scheme will simply encourage vigilantism rather than encouraging us to be vigilant about child abuse and understand it’s not just a case of strangers being dangerous – risks to children may come from those they know and trust best – often friends and family members.Tweet