Are kids at risk near sex offenders?
TAMPA - It has been called the geography of punishment. But whether it's 1,000 feet, 1.5 miles or 2 miles, distance doesn't go as far as parents might think to protect children from sex offenders, according to those who work with them. Within a 2-mile radius of Young Middle Magnet School, where more than 600 children will come and go when school starts Tuesday, live 263 convicted sex offenders. That's a greater concentration than at any of Hillsborough County's public schools. Two miles is the distance at which most Hillsborough students qualify for a bus ride; if they live closer, they must walk to school or get a ride.Concerns about proximity are behind a Florida law barring a sex offender judged guilty in the past seven years from living within 1,000 feet of a school. In addition, whenever a sex offender moves within 1.5 miles of a school, day care or other buildings where children gather, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office alerts the business or school. But experts say parents and community leaders may be fighting the wrong battle with moves aimed at putting distance between offenders and potential victims. Distance, they say, doesn't offer protection. The reason: Predators rarely victimize at random. In as many as 93 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the offender, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. "People believe that the registered sex offenders are the highest risks, when they really need to look at the people in their own lives," said Laura Umfer, a psychologist who treats sex offenders in Tampa. The 1,000-foot barrier can be a safety net, said Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Karen Bracero, but she agreed that most offenders victimize children they know. "The public, understandably so, thinks all offenders and predators are the same, and every sex offender is going to prey on all children, and it's usually not that way," Bracero said. This view is echoed by Bonnie Morgan, who is listed on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Sexual Offender and Predator registry. Morgan is a predator, a designation that indicates repeat offenses or the seriousness of the crime. "If you really want to offend, you are going to do it no matter where you live," said Morgan, 41, convicted in 2000 of charges stemming from having sex with a child. "Living near a school doesn't make a difference," she said. "It's what's in your mind. "I'm not looking for another victim. I think that's where the difference is." * * * * * The "Geography of Punishment" is the title of a critical 2008 report from the Prison Policy Institute on a 1,000-foot rule aimed at another kind of criminal behavior near schools: drug offenses. In many ways, it's the geography of poverty that helps determine the highest concentration of sex offenders around schools in Hillsborough. Young Middle and three other schools with the highest numbers are in one of the poorest ZIP codes in Tampa, 33602, where median household income is $19,079 and the number seeking a federal tax credit for low-income people tripled from 2007 to 2008. About 60 of more than 260 public schools in Hillsborough have 100 or more sex offenders living within 2 miles. The five schools with the lowest concentrations — three of which have zero — are in more affluent New Tampa. Edward Stickell, 53, lives within the 33602 ZIP code. He is listed on the public registry because of a conviction in 1993 for lewd and lascivious acts on a child younger than 16. Stickell had trouble finding housing as soon as he was released from prison. Even a local charity didn't want him. "I was staying there for like four months, and when they finally realized my past — which was during the cold nights — I got thrown out on my keister," Stickell said. "They flatly told me that if it wasn't for the fact that I had the charge, that I could live there forever." Stickell recalled walking by a house and seeing the woman who lived there run inside and close the door. "Once people actually sit down and talk to you," he said, "they actually find out this can't be the same person that's on the website because he doesn't act it." * * * * * Work was hard to find, too. He is employed as a courier. "It's impossible to get a job. They have computers. You can submit your application for a job and they go straight online to check your background, and they are going to see you are a sex offender. "Right off, denied." Sexual offenders in Florida are prohibited from working at places children frequent: schools, child care facilities, playgrounds, parks, libraries, theme parks and malls, for example. Anyone convicted of a sex crime after May 2010 is also prohibited from distributing candy to children at Halloween or working as a Santa Claus or Easter bunny. "A lot of these people have a story," Detective Bracero said. "They are trying to work and do the right thing. No one wants them to live there, no one wants to give them a job, and it's hard for them to get back on the right track." The sheriff's office receives many calls from people asking to have sex offenders removed from their neighborhoods. "They don't understand that if they aren't on supervision, they have a right to be there," Bracero said. Residents often learn about offenders near their homes and schools through the FDLE registry. It's a useful tool, viewed with the proper perspective, said Keith Kameg, spokesman for FDLE. "If you are involved in your child's well-being, it's about knowing your surroundings," Kameg said. "Just because someone is a registered sex offender doesn't mean they are going to commit a crime. This just gives you the most information so you can make the best decision for your family." Tara Dembowczyk of Tampa, mother of a 6- and a 3-year-old, said she heeds the experts' advice and understands that sex offenders need a place to live. But she's concerned about the chances, however slight, of a random approach. "I realize that the majority of the time, children are hurt by those they know," Dembowczyk said in an email interview. "However, there are still instances where children are taken and/or abused by those they've never met. Because of this, we, as parents, must stay vigilant and protective of our children as much as we can." Stickell said he doesn't need a law to know he should stay away from places children gather. "My call is I'd rather be at least 9 miles from a school, that way I don't have to get the thought," he said. "The farther I stay away, the better my mind is and I can live at ease." Umfer, the psychologist, said offenders who want to commit a sex crime will find a way, regardless of their proximity to a park or a school. They are motivated more by seeing a need met, whether it is power or sexual gratification, than by an attraction to children, she said. Sex offenders are manipulative, Umfer said. They use their charm and deceit to persuade children to trust them. Then they attack. "The child looks up to the adult and trusts the adult. They think it's OK because an adult is telling them it is." According to a study by the Justice Department, 5.3 percent of American sex offenders are re-arrested for a new sex crime within three years. That's why people concerned about children's safety should ensure that those working near children, regardless of their past, are carefully screened, she said. "The more active parents are in their kids' lives," Umfer said, "the less likely they are to be targeted."
Editor Dennis Joyce contributed to this report. (813) 258-7604 [email protected] (813) 221-5789