Every week, dozens of parents, guardians and leaders at youth-serving organizations tell me that they want to do whatever they can do to keep their children safe from abuse. One such tool is the state's sex offender registry. Accessible by the Internet, sex offender registries provide a simple map and list of people who have committed sexual crimes against children, or sexually violent crimes against adults. There are even apps for viewing the registry on mobile devices. One need only to do a routine check every so often in order to be reminded that the threat of child sex abuse impacts every neighborhood and that every community has its share of offenders.
The Maryland Court of Appeals' recent decision in John Doe v. Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services may allow some sex offenders to have their names removed from the statewide sex offender registry. This alarming prospect is a grim reminder, however, that the sex offender registry is just one tool in the battle and not all we can and should do to keep our community safe from sex offenders. Equally important are proactive measures we all can take to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse and ultimately keep our communities safe.
First, make time to talk to your child about safety. It only takes about 25 minutes, and it's not as difficult as it seems. Simple conversation starters can be found at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center's website, bcaci.org, and include age-appropriate questions such as: "What would you do if someone called the house or knocked on the door when I wasn't home?" or "Have you and your friends talked about what types of pictures are OK to post online?" The answers you get will open the door to further discussions about your family's safety rules.
Second, create a family safety plan. We are conditioned to respond to emergencies; we all know where the exits are on a plane in the event of a water landing, and how to shelter in place during the next "snowmageddon" event. But our children are much more likely to experience child sexual abuse than to be hurt by, say, a natural disaster or terrorist attack. We know that 16 percent of boys and 25 percent of girls will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday — this is the situation we truly need to prepare for. Take the time to draft simple guidelines about safe adults, who your children can trust, and know to report abuse to law enforcement or child protective services if it is suspected. It is time to extend the fabled "ounce of prevention" to protecting our children from sexual abuse as well.
Finally, remind your lawmakers that they need to continue to keep children safe from abuse. Attempts must continue to be made to strengthen existing systems around child protection. Maryland's legislators are currently debating gun safety, an important issue. But consider that in 2011, there were 46 child gun deaths and 13,059 children who were victims of abuse and neglect, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
A number of bills before the General Assembly this session offer lawmakers the opportunity to close loopholes that allow part-time coaches to get away with sexual child abuse; to crack down on the failure to report abuse (Maryland is one of only three states with no penalty for a willful failure to report abuse); and to even establish a statewide task force to improve Maryland's existing child protection systems. Lawmakers need to hear from their constituents that these issues are a priority. With potentially fewer offenders on Maryland's registry, improvements in laws to prevent children from being abused in the first place may be more important now than ever.
The sex offender registry is one tool to monitor those who have been identified as a threat, but there is plenty more we all can do to continue to keep our children safe from abuse.
Adam Rosenberg is executive director of Baltimore Child Abuse Center, a nonprofit child advocacy center. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available at http://www.baltimorechildabusecenter.org.