Imagine this scenario: you’ve lived in the same neighborhood for months, even years, and feel quite at home there. You have everything you need in your immediate area and have turned your house into a real home. You love your neighbors and get along with them. Then, one day, you receive an official notice that a sex offender has moved in.
If you live alone or with a significant other, this may frighten you, and you may think of this person as a threat. If you have children you may be particularly frightened. You may be tempted to keep an eye on your family’s every move, accompanying them wherever they go. But even if this news sounds off some alarm bells, here are a few steps you can take to not just help you and your family stay safe, but stay calm too.
Know who’s around you
If you are concerned that there are unknown sex offenders living in your neighborhood be advised that the federal government requires that all states release information to the public on registered sex offenders. This is “Meghan’s Law,” enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1996. However, it is up to each state to determine how to notify community residents. Law enforcement is, for example, sometimes required to notify residents either via fliers or community notification meetings.
States are required to keep a registry of convicted sex offenders, and there may even be online maps that show where they live. If you live next to a school or park, your neighborhood may not necessarily be clear of sex offenders: every state or jurisdiction has its own laws about where sex offenders can live and how close to places such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and even houses of worship. For greater peace of mind, you may want to check up on these laws with your local government. Often, specific details about a given sex offender’s crimes may even be available.
There is also a national database of sex offenders. The National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) created by the U.S. Department of Justice allows users to search by name, state, zip code, or even address (but only if the state allows the NSOPW to access address information).
Stay calm, alert, and vigilant
Once you are certain that a sex offender or sexual predator lives in close proximity to you and your family, it is especially important to stay calm yet aware of your surroundings. In addition to keeping an eye on the state or national registries, take steps to learn skills that will help you stay safe. Panicking may ultimately be unproductive. Instead, communicate your knowledge to those around you. With children especially, create the sense that nothing has changed – but prepare them for dangerous situations.
Remember, unfortunately, many sexual predators may not have been caught yet. According to some experts, 95% of new sex crimes are committed by people whose names have not yet been added to the registries. Additionally, three-quarters of sex crimes are believed to be committed by someone familiar to the victim – not a stranger.
Talk to your children, if you have them – but be careful what you say
Adults can typically comprehend the feelings of anxiety and fear and can generally digest information better than children can, but this doesn’t mean that “little ones” should be kept in the dark. Communicate the severity of the situation, but in gentler terms and in a soothing tone. You don’t have to fully explain the grisly, graphic details of a sex offender’s crime: simply say that that person’s behavior can hurt them, so they should stay away from them. Add that, if the sex offender gets too close, the child should immediately find an adult with whom they feel safe. If you feel that you might benefit or are especially motivated, you could also consider reaching out to local law enforcement or child protective services to determine the best way to communicate this to your children.
If the sex offender is someone you know, or someone who spent time around your child
While it’s not ideal, sometimes a newly convicted sex offender happens to be someone with whom you’re acquainted. It may be the relative of your or your children’s friend, a next-door neighbor you get along with, or even someone you see almost everyday, like a grocery-store employee.
To ensure your safety and that of your children, you may want to consider cutting ties with that person or perhaps those who work with or live closely to that person. If your child’s friend lives with the sex offender in question, move all play dates to your home instead of letting your child go to their friend’s house – this way, you are the one supervising them and retain some control.
In the event that the offender is a friend of yours, you may want to consider severing ties or limiting contact with that person for the safety of your family.
Whatever the case, you may wish to consider prioritizing safety over the historic relationship you have with the offender or those people who spend much time with them.
Know where your kids are and what they’re doing – even if it means “annoying” them
More likely than not, kids are more than happy to tell you how “annoying” you are by not giving them their space. Sure, teenagers who want their freedom are likely to lash out at any parent’s attempt to hinder that transition into adulthood. But if you’re a parent of a minor, know that having your child yell at you from time to time is well worth it if it means keeping them safe. Have them check in with you throughout the day, and have them tell you where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing. They may not always be telling the truth, but at least you’ll hear from them regularly.
If you’re the parent of a small child, know who is spending time near your kids whether they’re on a playdate, attending an after-school activity, or even on their morning walk to school.
Practice safety techniques with them, and give them knowledge to defend themselves
Regular practice of safety techniques teach your family how to assess a situation and determine whether or not they are in danger. You can even practice these methods in your own home by simulating how you believe a dangerous person may try and approach your child. For example: you can have your child or teenager learn how to politely reject an accoster, then immediately seek out a safe space where there are other adults.
However, these skills are of little use if you don’t give your child some space. You can gradually increase the amount of independence they have if they’re at an age that they are just now starting to leave home without you to accompany them or absent your direct supervision.
Most importantly, teach your child how to say “no.” This may be the most important tool in the arsenal, as it may protect them against emotional and physical coercion, unsafe games, or inappropriate touching.
Living in the same neighborhood as a sex offender can be scary, especially if you have children, but it doesn’t mean you have to move. By staying informed and alert, you can take steps to better protect and keep you and your family safe! Check out other ways you can help improve neighborhood safety.