Should Megan’s Law become Sarah’s law in bid to halt paedophile murders?

While many parents remain convinced that more needs to be done to protect children from paedophiles, introducing a version of the US Megan’s Law to this country would be at best unworkable and at worst counterproductive, according to many children’s campaigners. Anabel Unity Sale reports

Child sex offenders have always generated rabid press coverage, understandably so given the nature of their crimes. However, cases like those of Sarah Payne, murdered six years ago by Roy Whiting, and reports of recent paedophile murders in Belgium have seen a heightened fear of child sex offenders, which may yet influence government policy.

These fears have been further raised by the row over convicted paedophile Craig Sweeney’s sentencing for kidnapping and assaulting a three-year-old girl, soon after serving a sentence for a sexual assault on a six-year-old. This reopened the debate about whether communities have the right to know when a paedophile is released from prison into accommodation in their area, as they are in the US under Megan’s Law.

This summer junior Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe will travel to the US to see what lessons have been learned from operating Megan’s Law. While the government rejects claims it is being unduly influenced by the tabloid press, it clearly wants to be seen to be taking the issue seriously.

Megan’s Law was introduced after the murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka in July 1994 by Jesse Timmendequas, a known paedophile, in New Jersey. It came into effect in the state later that year and was rolled out in the rest of the US in 1996. The legislation allows the police to record and publish information about convicted child sex offenders released into local communities. Anybody can check their local register to see if a convicted offender lives near them. For the past six years the family of murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne have lobbied for a similar law here – Sarah’s Law – a campaign backed by the News of the World. But sex offenders are already reclusive and hard to reach – so what are the implications of having such legislation in the UK? If it were brought in, what effect might it have on how social care professionals engage with sex offenders?
Ray Wyre is an independent sexual crime consultant with more than 20 years’ experience of working with child sex offenders and has met the US police who dealt with the Megan Kanka case. He says a UK version of Megan’s Law would not stop the sexual abuse of children because the law only provides details about predatory paedophiles – those who actively seek out children to abuse – and not non-predatory sex offenders, who believe children willingly give their consent. He adds: “We can’t have it here because most abuse takes place within a family or by someone known to the child and this law would identify them, and therefore the family and the child.”

Wyre says many of the professionals he has dealt with in the US would prefer to have the UK’s system of managing child sex offenders than their current arrangements.

The ideas behind Megan’s Law promote the perception that the sexual abuse of children is carried out by strangers, according to Mary Walsh, head of abuse recovery charity Saccs. “Child abuse is a syndrome of secrecy and denial, and is about pressurising children into keeping secrets. Expecting the perpetrator to have purple spots and be in a dirty mac, and not to be someone they know, is all part of this.”

NSPCC policy adviser Zoe Hilton agrees that if a version of Megan’s Law came into effect here it would not make children any safer or help their parents protect them. In 2001 the children’s charity published research on Megan’s Law which found little evidence of open access to the sex offenders register quelling the number of offences.

One scenario that could result from introducing Megan’s Law is that child sex offenders will vanish from the radar and go into hiding. Claire Phillips, director of policy at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, says sex offenders may be driven away from the monitoring system designed to keep them, and their community, safe. She says the UK’s monitoring system has a higher compliancy rate than those used in the US (according to the Home Office 95 per cent of offenders comply with the UK registration system).

There is also a problem with having a universal system that registers all convicted sex offenders in the same way, and does not distinguish serial paedophiles from other offenders. Phillips adds: “Megan’s Law would not discriminate between serious sex offenders and someone who committed a consensual act with someone a year younger than them.”

The threat of vigilante groups attacking people they suspect are paedophiles worries Tink Palmer, director of the Stop It Now! campaign to end child sexual abuse. She says that as most abuse takes place within the family setting, if an offender is identified their home may be attacked and their children exposed to further harm. She agrees offenders would disappear to avoid such attacks although their families may still be in danger.

The only residential treatment centre for child sex offenders closed in July 2002. The Wolvercote Clinic, run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, shut when it had to move out of its premises in Surrey. Since then the Home Office has failed to identify areas suitable for a centre. A Home Office spokesperson said: “Ministers are considering options for how best to treat the most high risk sex offenders who are on licence in the community.” She added that lower risk sex offenders participate in accredited non-residential treatment programmes.

So what should be done to improve working with both groups? Palmer would like the government to invest more resources in sex offender treatment programmes and Mappas. The Stop it Now! campaign actively works with child sex offenders to help them behave responsibly – it runs a helpline offenders can ring if they think they may reoffend – and Palmer says more support like this needs to be available.

Phillips says the Office of the Children’s Commissioner is keen for the UK to establish more circles of support for sex offenders in which offenders who have been released from prison move to an area where some residents and practitioners know of their conviction, enabling them to gain support when difficulties arise. “We would like to see people supported to change their thoughts and their behaviour like this.”

Such a scheme exists in Berkshire. Circles of Support and Accountability run by Quaker Peace and Social Witness with the police and probation service has more than 100 volunteers.

Whatever the government does next over Megan’s Law it has to ensure it protects all the vulnerable individuals involved in child sexual abuse cases. And unpopular though this may be in some quarters, this includes the offenders themselves. CC

Mapping offenders
Once a convicted sex offender in England and Wales is released from prison they are subject to a multi-agency public protection arrangement (Mappa). Established in 2001, Mappas provide a statutory framework for collaborative working in order to assess and manage violent and sexual offenders. Offenders deemed to pose the highest risk are referred to the panels and can be managed at three levels. These arrangements require the police, probation and prisons to work together, supported by other agencies such as social services, health and housing, to manage the risk dangerous offenders can present
to the public.

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