Residents struggle with living among sex offenders -- Gazette.Net


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The drive home from the police station after his two sons alleged that a longtime neighbor had molested them sparked many questions for a Bowie man.

How would he handle seeing the person in the community while awaiting an arrest? Would his family be safe while he was at work? How would knowing the man was not in jail yet affect his 6- and 10-year-old sons?

But one of the biggest questions remained, how could he have overlooked the signs of abuse?

“I want to say it’s shocking, but it isn’t, because I’ve always had my suspicions,” said the parent, who asked not to be named to protect the identity of his children. “When they’re trying to be your friend to get to your kids, you really feel like you’ve been used. It makes you doubt your instincts as a parent.”

For parents going through such incidents — and residents living nearby — learning there might be a pedophile in the community can raise questions of security.

According to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Prince George’s County is home to the second-highest number of sex offenders in the state, with about 800 of the state’s 8,151 offenders, which includes about 1,500 offenders who are incarcerated or currently not in the state. Baltimore city has the highest amount, with more than 1,600 offenders.

Erin Julius, a state department spokeswoman, said there is no specific classification for those who abuse children when categorizing sex offenders, so she could not provide data on which areas of Maryland contain the most offenders convicted of sexual crimes against children.

“When registering offenders, we use the classification system recommended by the federal government so that there is some level of uniformity between the states,” she said. “...There is not a ‘child sexual offender’ classification, but the crime committed is provided on the [sex offender] registry so people should be able to determine which offenders are child sex offenders.”

In Prince George’s, the registry lists about 90 residents as having been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

According to Darkness 2 Light, a national nonprofit for sex abuse research and prevention, about 500,000 children nationwide are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. One of every four girls and one of every six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to the organization.

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said the number of cases in Prince George’s County is on par with national statistics. She said statistics show that the average age of a child victim is 9. She also said 30 percent to 40 percent of the victims of offenders are family members.

Safety planning

People convicted of sex offenses in Maryland are required to release personal information to law enforcement agencies so officers are aware of their residence, place of employment, birth date and other indentifying information. Their information is kept in a public database, www.dpscs.state.md.us/sorSearch, so officers can check on them.

“Concerned citizens should absolutely use the sex offender registry as part of an overall personal-family safety plan,” Julius said. “While it is important to know the identities of registered sexual offenders living in your area, it is also important to know that it is more likely that an individual would be victimized by someone who has not been required to register. Understanding how to deal with strangers is important, but most sexual offenses are committed by someone known and often trusted by the victim.”

According to the Maryland department of public safety and correctional services, of the 8,047 registered sex offenders as of September, 251 were noncompliant with regularly checking in with authorities, and of those, 198 were hiding to avoid arrest or prosecution.

There are three tiers of offenders. Tier 3 classifies the most severe offenders with incidents of rape, first-degree sex assault and other violent sex crimes. Tier 2 includes sexual solicitation of a minor, distribution of child pornography and human trafficking. Tier 1 offenders have been convicted of crimes such as possession of child pornography and fourth-degree sex assault, which can include incidents of inappropriate touching and attempted sex assault, according to state guidelines.

The registry is provided by the state, but the county police department’s sex offender registry unit’s five investigators are responsible for updating the database and continually checking on offenders.

Lt. Lakina Webster, commander of the county police department’s special crimes division, said depending on the level of offense, offenders are required to visit the police department every three or six months to provide updated information and have a new photograph taken to put into the public registry.

“We also go out and make home visits, to verify they’re staying where they say they are,” Webster said. “It’s a means of keeping them on their toes to show that we are checking.”

Sgt. Katie Hart, an investigator assigned to the sex offender registry unit, said offenders who have abused children are not focused in any one part of the county.

There are no rules forbidding offenders of any kind to live in certain areas, unless there are conditions in their criminal sentence that prohibit them from living within a certain proximity to schools, parks or churches, Hart said.

Police said there are no specific types of people that fit “the mold of a sex offender.”

“It could be anyone or anybody. It does not affect just one area and is not based on one socio-economic status. There are even female sex offenders here,” Hart said.

Dion Parker, 37, of Upper Marlboro, who has two boys, 11 and 5, lives one block from a registered sex offender convicted of a third-degree sex offense against a child, according to the database. Parker said he had not checked the registry and was not aware an offender lived close by.

“It does concern me, and it just shows that you can’t let your children wander,” he said.

Parker said he always keeps close watch of his children to keep them safe.

“I keep my hands in a lot of my kids’ activities all year round, and I’m always outside with them when they’re playing,” Parker said.

Lois Stewart, a Hyattsville resident of 50 years, lives across the street from a registered sex offender who had been convicted of sexually abusing a minor.

“If my children were still living here, I’d be quite concerned about that,” she said, adding residents should be aware when an offender lives in the neighborhood. “If a person wants to straighten out, they should be given the opportunity to straighten out, but it’s important for people to know things like that.”

Hart said residents living among sex offenders can take precautions by going to the online database and requesting to be notified if there are changes to the registrant’s status in terms of employment status, violation statuses and repeat offenses. The database of sex offender information can be filtered by county, area or type of offense.

Keeping up with cases

Webster said having just five investigators oversee more than 800 offenders is a constant struggle, and said the department could benefit from adding additional officers. However, she said the personnel level has not impacted service, and said offenders still are dealt with regularly and the database stays up-to-date.

She said the number of offenders dealt with in Prince George’s fluctuates, and the length of time they remain on the registry depends on the conviction. According to state registration requirements, an offender convicted of incidents such as fourth-degree sex offense, which includes child pornography, child abduction and similar offenses, receives a 10-year registration term. Those convicted of incidents such as first-degree rape and first-degree sex offenses receive a lifetime registration term.

John Erzen, spokesman for the county’s state’s attorney’s office, said there are four prosecutors assigned to work on sex abuse cases involving children and said the cases are adequately handled without them “falling through the cracks.” He said, if need be, other prosecutors not detailed to the abuse team will take on cases. He said the office has partnered with Darkness to Light to educate residents and community leaders on how to identify signs of sexual abuse and where to go for help.

“Whether it’s a cloak of secrecy or however you want to define it, there does seem to be an issue where people don’t want to come forward or want to talk about it,” Erzen said. “As the program is appropriately named, we’re trying to bring these things out of secrecy and out of darkness so people are more aware of what’s happening and people can get the help.”

The Bowie man, who has begun therapy for his family, said he would like changes made to the offender registry, which he said is not sufficient because listed offenses are vague and the tendencies of a convicted rapist and convicted pedophile can be different.

He said he would like to see more information about specific convictions for each offender added to the registry so parents and families can be more aware.

“They will constantly be reliving these events forever,” he said of his children. “There are too many visual reminders here, so I’ll need a change of venue for their sake. I’ll probably rent out [my house] and move, but I guarantee I’ll check the [sex offender] registry before I know where I’m moving.”

Erzen said the state’s attorney’s office feels the amount of information on the sex offender registry is adequate, given it provides up-to-date photos of the offenders, states what type and level of offense for which they have been convicted, and provides contact information for the offender’s case worker if residents have questions.

John DeGout, vice president of Leadership Development of YMCA Metropolitan Washington, also is partnered with the state’s attorney’s office and Darkness 2 Light in its education campaign and said it’s important for parents, residents and community members to be aware of their surroundings and their childrens’ activity.

“The most important thing is to make sure if you do notice something, you’re talking to them. Keep asking open-ended questions,” DeGout said. “It’s up to the adults to protect the children.”

djgross@gazette.net

Staff Writer Vanessa Harrington contributed to this report.