THE PROBLEM WITH MEGAN’S LAW (Megan’s Law was supposed to protect us from neighborhood predators. But in too many places, kids are still in danger.)
Good Housekeeping/Amy Engeler
The sounds of children and splashing water caught Francine Johnson's attention on a weekdayafternoon last May. Wondering if school had let out early, she looked out her window at herneighbor's above-ground pool and saw a half dozen young boys, each around eight years old, playingin the water. With them was Robert Forzano, the strapping blond automobile mechanic who lived nextdoor to Johnson in suburban Rancho Cordova, California. She was puzzled, thinking it odd thatForzano, 42, who didn't socialize with other adults in their neighborhood, would be playing withchildren in the middle of a school day. Whenever I saw him, he was standoffish with me. Kind ofgruff, really, says Johnson. So this was strange.
Johnson mentioned the pool party to her husband that night; and she kept up hervigil, watching boys come and go on several other afternoons. Both her backyard and Forzano'sopened onto the busy White Rock Community Park, and the local elementary school was just across thestreet. In fact, the school's principal, Fay Kerekes, could nearly see Forzano's house from whereshe stood as kids poured into her school each morning. But there was one shocking fact that neitherof these women knew: Forzano and his roommate, tow truck operator Brian McDaniel, 42, were bothconvicted child molesters.
Forzano had served four years in prison for molesting boys under age ten inVentura County, California; after his parole, he moved in with McDaniel, who had a similar recordof lewd acts with a child under age 14 (the men are thought to have met in prison). The two meltedinto this community outside Sacramento just as easily as they might have a decade earlier, beforethe passage of Megan's Law.
That landmark piece of legislation was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka,murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from the Kankas' NewJersey home. After Megan's death, her grief-stricken mother, Maureen, campaigned tirelessly for alaw that would prevent other parents from having to endure a similar tragedy. In May 1996,President Clinton signed a law requiring all states to make information about pedophiles andrapists available to the public. But Congress gave the states a lot of leeway in how theyaccomplished this goal. Putting a law in place is one thing, Maureen Kanka says today. Havinglaw enforcement and the state work together to see that the registries are as up-to-date aspossible and that they're being used effectively is another.
Had Forzano lived in Texas, Florida, or another state that is aggressive aboutimplementing Megan's Law, the police might have been sent to the White Rock Elementary School towarn the principal that a convicted pedophile had moved in little more than a block away. Or flyerswith his photo might have been handed out to neighbors by law-enforcement officials. But at thetime, California's version of Megan's Law was among the most permissive in the country. Plus,California was doing a poor job of enforcing the requirements they did have: In 2003, 30 to 40percent of the state's 100,000 convicted sex offenders were missing from the registry.
Forzano, at least, kept his appointments with the sheriff's office, spokepolitely to detectives, and provided a correct address. But with the California state registry notyet online, his neighbors could have learned about Forzano's criminal history only by going to thepolice station, signing an application, and looking him up on a CD-ROM. Or, for $10, they couldhave called a 900 number to get information. Not surprisingly, says Laura Ahearn, executivedirector of the New York--based advocacy group Parents for Megan's Law, no neighbors made the call.When Megan's Law was passed, there was so much hope that these laws would be strong, she says.But some states have deluded the public into thinking they are being protected when theyaren't.
Forzano and McDaniel kept their lawn trim and their driveway full of cars. Manymornings, Forzano would stand outside working under the hood of his old Mustang, greeting childrenwho passed by on their way to school. Forzano's appearance caused no alarm--his tanned face andthick neck looked youthful and macho. To the eight-year-olds in the neighborhood, he was simplyBob, or my friend Bob. Forzano's young friends--almost a dozen boys between seven and 12years old, mostly from low-income families newly arrived from Ukraine, according to thepolice--kept quiet as Forzano groomed them, as the long seduction of young victims is called. Thefriendly greetings over the hood of Forzano's Mustang turned into conversations in the park. OnceForzano was no longer a stranger, or someone to be feared, the boys came through the chain-linkfence in his backyard and into the pool, police say, and then up the steps into his house. Forzanoplied them with sodas and snacks and movies that weren't available at home and gave the older boysa refuge from school. The parents didn't realize that their kids were skipping school, says Sgt.Micki Links, who is in charge of the sex offender registry for the Sacramento County Sheriff'sOffice. The kids didn't want anyone to know, to stop a good thing. And when they said, 'We were atBob's house,' the parents thought it was a little friend, not an adult.
Forzano kept his pool parties going for several weeks, police say, until DeputySteve Wright, a resource officer with the Folsom-Rancho Cordova Unified School District, lookedinto curious absences by two boys from the nearby Mills Middle School. The boys wouldn't say wherethey had been, so the school asked for Wright to be put on the case. He got the boys to admitthey'd been hanging out with an adult named Bob. Wright drove them past the house for confirmation,ran a check on the license plate of a car in the driveway, and learned of Forzano's status as aregistered sex offender. Wright listened with concern as the boys talked about playing in Forzano'spool and in his house, sometimes with their seven- and eight-year-old brothers, students at WhiteRock Elementary School. One of those younger brothers, police learned, appeared to be Forzano'sintended victim. Forzano showed the boy some child pornography, which is often the first steptoward coercing sexual acts.
At dawn on May 25, 2004, Principal Kerekes was awakened by a call from thesheriff's office. Now that someone was obviously in danger, California state law allowed police towarn the school about a sex offender. Principal Kerekes signed for the Megan's Law disclosure andreceived a rap sheet on Forzano. At the same time, the police, with a warrant, entered the men'sneat, wood-shingled house and found a stash of child pornography on McDaniel's computer, a hiddenvideo camera set up to capture children undressing and urinating, and a wealth of toys and games.It was pretty scary, says Sergeant Links, to see that these two grown men had more Walt Disneyvideos than most parents.
The next day, the police announced the arrest of Forzano on two felony chargesof molesting or annoying a child under 14 (for improper touching in the pool) and on amisdemeanor--using a camcorder to film someone unknowingly for sexual gratification. They alsoarrested McDaniel for possessing child pornography.
By summer's end, only a brown spot on the ground hinted at the place whereForzano's pool had once stood. McDaniel tore it down after he bailed himself out of jail, while hishousemate remained in custody awaiting prosecution. Later, McDaniel was convicted and sentenced toa 180-day work furlough program and three years' probation. In September, Governor ArnoldSchwarzenegger signed a bill giving Californians Internet access to more of the state's sexoffender registry. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury indicted Forzano for possessing, receiving, anddistributing pornography of minors. (State charges are still pending.) The offense carries amaximum 60-year prison term. As of press time, he had not yet entered a plea. But if convicted,Forzano won't be around children for a very long time to come.
Below, Karen Terry, Ph.D., editor of a Megan's Law sourcebook and an associateprofessor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, answers questions on how tomake Megan's Law better.
Q: What are the basic requirements of the law?
Anyone who commits any type of sexual offense (against a child or an adult) must registerwith the police as soon as he's released from prison. The offender has up to 30 days, depending onthe state, to appear at the police station and give his address, a photo, and sometimes a DNAsample. But states have a lot of leeway with public notification, the second part of the law.Most states rank sex offenders into three tiers: Level I is low risk (of reoffending), Level II ismoderate risk, and Level III is high risk (known in some states as sexual predators). In almostevery state, only information about Level III offenders is available to the public. And eachcommunity can handle the notification differently. Some counties release names and photos only onthe Web. Some have a book of names at the police station. In other areas, police will godoor-to-door or hold a town meeting. Others will put up a poster at the post office. In somejurisdictions in Louisiana, the offender has to personally go door-to-door and tell neighbors thathe is a sex offender.
Q: The law has been in place for almost ten years. How well is it working?
The law has been very helpful in investigations. When a crime occurs, the police look at theregistries, match up the modus operandi, and they have a list of people to talk to. As forprevention of future crimes, supervision of convicted sex offenders--when the police can drop by anoffender's house at any time to look for evidence of kids or any sign of relapse--may be effective.It's important for sex offenders to know that someone is watching them. Plus, these laws arepopular because the public feels protected. But that may be a false sense of security; Megan's Lawhasn't really been studied, and we can't prove that it deters future sexual assaults.
Q: What parts of the law need fixing?
The biggest issue is keeping the registries up-to-date. Some states, such as Florida, havebeen very good at this; others are having a hard time keeping up. Offenders move around quite abit. They may register with a false address, or they don't reregister when they move. Or they justtake off immediately and never register. Most places don't have the resources to follow up. Forinstance, New York City has a monitoring unit with wonderful, hard-working, diligent officers. Butseven officers are in charge of about 4,000 sex offenders.
Q: When the law was passed, some groups worried about vigilantism against sexoffenders and privacy infringement. How has this played out?
The courts have pretty much decided that an offender's right to privacy is less importantthan public safety. The offender may be stigmatized or verbally abused, but that's notunconstitutional. But it does bring up another issue with Megan's Law: Generally, child molestershave poor self-esteem and don't relate well to adults, so their treatment involves learning toimprove their social skills and form relationships with adults. But if they live in Texas, whereone judge has made them put a sign in their yard that says I am a sex offender or a bumpersticker on their car, they are likely to be ostracized. They can't make friends or have appropriatesexual relationships, so it can start the cycle of offending again. Plus, if the notificationprocess is too stigmatizing, offenders may not register, which is the part of the law that has beenshown to be most helpful to law enforcement.
Q: What should parents do?
Look at the Internet registries. If a child molester lives down the street, show his pictureto your child and say, Take a good look at this person. This person has harmed children before.Stay away from him. But even if you don't find anyone on the registry in your area, it would be amistake to say, Phew! No sex offenders on my block. We're OK. Sex crimes are highlyunderreported. Sex offenders who are actually quite dangerous don't appear on those registries.Consider this: Nine times out of ten, the offender will be someone the child knows and not thestranger at the end of the block. So say to your child, If anyone, including Uncle Joe or AuntSue, touches you in a way that's improper, you need to tell me.