If convicted of child endangerment, you could lose custody of your children. Permanently.
Sound like a bad made-for-TV-movie? It's a real-life scenario that will play out all over Ohio if House Bill 111, already passed by the Ohio House, moves out of a Senate committee and is voted into law by legislators.
The brief summary provided by the bill's author, State Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon), states that the law will in part "expand the definition of neglected child to include a child whose parent, guardian or custodian knowingly allows certain sexually oriented offenders or child-victim offenders to reside in the same residence as that child."
If you're not aware of a houseguest's conviction on a sex-related crime, your children could be defined as "neglected." Can't prove you didn't "knowingly" allow this to happen? You're going to be in deep, because anyone could make an anonymous call to the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services (JFS) and start an investigation.
One of the many problems with this law -- beyond unnecessary trauma for children who aren't at risk and debates over wrongful convictions -- is that it's redundant. JFS already has the power to launch investigations of parents; all they need is a suggestion of abuse, according to Jackie Sparling, administrative assistant for the Sex Offender Support and Education Network.
Sparling is a child-victim of molestation at the hands of a family member. She passionately believes that former offenders have the right to a second chance.
Sparling says that most individuals on the Ohio electronic sex offender registry are male and many have children. She says HB111 all but guarantees that former sex offenders will be prohibited from living with and therefore parenting their own children.
"Case workers are human beings," she says. "Human beings come with their own set of prejudices. ... They're going to go in (to home investigations) with a preconceived notion ... and I fear happy, healthy, well-adjusted children are going to be taken out of perfectly fine and wonderful homes ... and put into foster care."
The potential for false accusations and botched investigations is something Tracy Golden, president of the Ohio chapter of Women Against Sexual Predators, avoids addressing.
When asked to comment about the potential harm done to children and families when false accusations of abuse are made, she doesn't respond. She does point out problems within the agencies as proof this law is necessary.
"As everyone already knows, child welfare agencies consistently are poorly run," Golden says. "Every time I hear from a family who is having problems getting their child's sexual abuser prosecuted (it's) due to the lack of help and actual hindrance from Family Services. Unless there is DNA left in the child, many times they refuse to prosecute because they refuse to take the words of a child as true.
"This law will make children safer because it will do what some parents lack to do, which is use common sense. You do not place your children in a home with a convicted felon who has a propensity to sexually abuse. We all know the staggering statistic that the over 90 percent of victims know their attacker. It would be foolish to assume that this is not occurring in their home."
Golden says children won't be taken from a safe home environment as a result of HB111.
"They will not be wrongly separated from their families," she says. "They will be separated for their own protection until the sexual offender is removed from the home. You do not leave the fox in the chicken coop and hope that he leaves. First you protect the chickens, then remove the fox."
Aside from providing no evidence to support her claims about JFS obstructing investigations, Golden's logic is flawed. She assumes that any person convicted of any sex crime is a risk to a child.
The nature of the mental health issues that cause people to act out sexually aren't all the same (see "Postcards from the Edge," issue of Jan. 12, 2005). Portraying people convicted of any sex crime as out to molest children and a guaranteed repeat offender isn't helping children or anyone else, according to Sparling.
"There are about 600,000 people in the national registry," she says. "According to the Department of Justice, only about 5.3 percent are people you'd really want to know if they were your neighbor -- they are of the predator caliber. The rest of them are paying for that 5.3 percent.
"Ninety five percent of all new sex crimes are committed by people who are not on that registry. So tell me, what good is it? It's a public gallows. It's a shaming tool. We should know from past history that it does not work."
One of the things that concerns Katherine Blacksmith (not her real name) of Northern Ohio is the "false sense of security" laws like HB111 give the general public. She believes the money spent on registries and enforcing laws that prohibit former offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school perpetuate a "lie" that children are safe from sexual abuse if these laws are enforced.
After working with former offenders for five years, Blacksmith says that most people still aren't aware that most offenders know their victims.
"It's a false sense of security because ... it's normally someone that's close to the victim," she says. " 'Stranger danger,' are there those icky pedophiles out there? Yes. But they make up such a minute part of the population and yet everybody is being classified as being that dangerous."
Now married to a former sex offender who committed his crime more than 25 years ago, Blacksmith says the stigma is an added punishment but the laws on top of that make it difficult to move on.
"We have the worst of the worst case here with my husband," she says. "What I find very disturbing is that he spent over 19 years in prison. He received treatment. He got a very good job since he got out. He's getting on with his life. He has remorse. He doesn't blame anyone else for what he did, and yet he's going to be persecuted for life."
Unwilling to subject his victim to potential publicity participating in an interview could bring, Blacksmith and her husband decided to remain anonymous. They want to live their life together with their daughter, who's a toddler, and that's what they're trying to do despite his requirement to register for life as a sex offender.
"My husband is a lot of things: He's a husband, a father, a Viet Nam veteran," Blacksmith says. "He had a great naval career, he's a hard worker, he's a friend. He's somebody's uncle, cousin. But sex offender still remains. ... Does that ever go away?"
HB111 additionally mandates that former sex offenders can't change their name or they'll face fraud charges. It also contains outdated language -- the passage of Senate Bill 10 last year changes all of the offender categories -- and includes an exception for an offender who's a juvenile in order to allow families to deal with problems related to incest when the offender is under age and a blood relative.
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