Sex offender registers don’t mean we can assume children are safe

Broadcaster Derryn Hinch is a prominent campaigner for US-style sex offender registries, but it is important to be aware of their limitations. AAP/Dan Peled

The sexual abuse of children remains one of the most urgent and unremitting issues across the globe. The royal commission into sexual abuse of children in institutions has given currency to an entrenched and critical social problem. However, our newly published research into Australia’s first publicly accessible register of sex offenders highlights the dangers of public misunderstanding of how it works and, indeed, of where the risks for children are greatest.

While many see the royal commission as an unprecedented examination of child sexual abuse in Australia, the reality is that it avoids any focus or recognition of where most of this abuse occurs, which is within a family setting. This is extremely important: it means that a child is most vulnerable in the context where the utmost safety is expected as well as assumed.

Notwithstanding this concern, the royal commission and recently completed state inquiries into abuse in institutional settings mean sex offenders outside of the family institution – their crimes, modus operandi and propensity to repeat offend without detection – are very much to the fore in public and political discourse.

Alongside these debates sits the issue of managing convicted sex offenders. Countries have established “sex offender registries” whereby certain types of offenders are listed and required to inform police of their residence, work status and other movements.

In the US, California first implemented a sex offender registry in the 1940s. The model is now established across every US state. It was not until the mid-1990s and into the first decade of the new century that countries like the UK, Canada and Australia implemented such registries.

Australia late in adopting public offender registers

In 2012, Western Australia was the first of the Australian states or territories to permit public access to specific areas of the sex offender register. This was done through the Community Protection Website (CPW). Our research undertook the first ever study on persons who have used it.

Countries such as the US and Canada pioneered public access to their registers and/or notification to the local community as to the identity and whereabouts of convicted child sex offenders living in their area. Research from the US, Canada and the UK has found that public support for such registers is linked to feelings that the community is “safer” because they can access this knowledge. Recent survey-based US studies identified significantly high levels of support for public knowledge of the whereabouts of convicted offenders in their neighbourhood on the basis that they felt “safe” and believed it would reduce re-offending.

However much law enforcement and the general public welcome these management tools, little evidence exists that these deter repeat or first-time offenders. Despite enhancing a sense of control and security among community members, sex-offender registers seem to have done little to actually protect children.

How does the WA model work?

WA Police operate and monitor the CPW. The announcement and launch of the website prompted debate and criticism from civil libertarians and others. These critics claimed that any public access to information about repeat child sex offenders was:

  • an invasion of privacy and a violation of the human rights of offenders

  • would lead to vigilantism

  • would prevent the rehabilitation of repeat child sex offenders.

The CPW operates differently to many other public sex offender registries. The WA government established clear parameters on the level of information that the public could access.

The register has built-in security as well as safety mechanisms requiring anyone seeking information first to provide details of their identity and residence. As such, members of the public could seek information only about a convicted repeat offender already on the register living in the vicinity of their community. This process enabled police to tag any information released and monitor any misuse of the information.

What did the WA study find?

In the latter part of 2013, researchers at the Social Justice Research Centre at Edith Cowan University surveyed people who have accessed the CPW. A total of 162 adults, the majority from WA, completed a 40-item online questionnaire.

The study found that the majority were in favour of the CPW on the basis that it provided them information to better protect their children and themselves. That said, fewer people agreed (32.1%) than disagreed (44.5%) that the website protected children from convicted sex offenders. Significantly fewer agreed (13.6%) than disagreed (54.9%) that the website could prevent child sexual abuse.

Of the respondents, 16%, the majority of them males, expressed a view that the CPW stigmatises offenders. However, 92% believed that protecting children from sexual victimisation was a community responsibility.

The most frequent criticism of the website was linked to the availability of information – or lack thereof. People felt they did not get enough information about individual offenders. They were also frustrated that they could seek information only about an offender living in their vicinity.

The vast majority believed that every type of sex offender should be on a publicly available register. This indicates that access to relevant information enhances the community’s sense of security in this context.

In WA, of about 3,000 registered sex offenders, only 82 had their details available for public access. AAP

The survey did reveal that many people had misconceptions about the website and its purpose. For example, a request for information about child sex offenders in their neighbourhood that returned no details was taken to mean none lived in that locale. Such a conclusion is erroneous and could be potentially dangerous.

Many respondents took the absence of a registered offender as evidence they were living in a community free of child abusers. As such it fostered a false sense of security.

In fact, at the time of completing the study, WA had about 3,000 registered sex offenders. Only 82 had their details available for public access on the CPW. Thus, finding no information on the CPW must not be taken to mean that there are no child sex offenders in one’s neighbourhood.

Specific criteria must be met for an offender to be listed on the CPW, which includes being a repeat offender. That is someone already on the list of “registered offenders” monitored by police and correctional agencies who has committed another sexual offence and is therefore a serious repeat offender posing risk. Juvenile offenders are not included on the list.

If CPW doesn’t track all offenders, what use is it?

It could be argued that the CPW promotes community awareness and may be a useful platform for intelligence gathering and engagement for police. Further, it can be suggested that a community that is more aware would be more vigilant in monitoring the safety of their and others’ children.

However, survey respondents did express three areas of concern:

  • that the absence of an identified offender via the CPW could lead to a false sense of security

  • that the majority of offenders are not likely to be detected

  • that the majority of sexual offending against children occurs in the family context.

Given the ground-breaking nature of the CPW as a buffer against community concerns about the prevalence and life-long trauma related to child sexual abuse, it is vital that more is done if the website is to achieve its objectives. Community education about the prevalence of child sexual abuse and its impacts as well as the modus operandi of offenders is urgently needed. Providing such education would complement the CPW.

Finally, it will provide people with greater confidence to act on suspicions as well as direct knowledge. It must be hoped that leads the public to readily report relevant information appropriately to enhance the protection of children everywhere.

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