Remember the good old days, when finding an apartment was as easy as walking up to the landlord and asking if there were any vacancies? Today, apartment hunting is a bit more involved, leaving renters with many things to consider before choosing a place to live. For instance, it’s no longer the noisy neighbor–you know, the one who plays Molly Hatchet CDs until two in the morning who is the big problem. The real concern is the kindly neighbor in Apartment 12, who just happens to be a registered sex offender. In this day and age, the old hippie with the love for southern rock may just turn out to be your favorite neighbor.
Why are registered sex offenders allowed to live in the same apartment complexes where families with children reside? The primary reason is that in many states, the law declares that landlords cannot discriminate. In California and many other states, the law prohibits landlords from denying an apartment to someone who is listed on the online sex offender database. If a resident is listed on the Megan’s Law list of registered sex offenders, the other residents in the building may never even know and the landlord is helpless to do anything. The law places landlords in a precarious position, and as one California landlord stated, “The government is quick to tell us that we can’t deny tenancy, but if the sex offender strikes again on the premises, the landlords are often considered legally liable.”
So, if you find out there is a registered sex offender living in your apartment complex, what should you do? Should you move out? Should you warn others? How can you and your family feel safe?
First, Review the Statistics
Here are some common beliefs about registered sex offenders followed by the facts.
Common Belief: Sex offenders strike at a whim and anyone is a potential victim.
Fact: The vast majority of sexual crimes are conducted by a family member or someone close to the victim’s family. This is the case for crimes against both children and adults. In adult sex crime cases, 76 percent of victims are assaulted by current or former husbands, dates, or live-in partners. In the cases involving children, 60 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls are victimized by family members or family friends. The Megan’s Law website has recently increased these numbers to nearly 90 percent.
Common Belief: The majority of sex offenders are in jail.
Fact: With only 12 percent of rapes and sex crimes are ever reported, the truth is that there are more sex offenders on the street than in our prisons.
Common Belief: Convicted sex offenders will always commit another sex crime.
Fact: Once a sex offender is arrested, their recidivism rate is diminished. Child molesters, once released from prison, commit another sex crime 13 percent of the time. They will more likely commit a different, non-sex related crime (37 percent). Similarly, rapists had a 19 percent recidivism rate against a 47 percent conviction rate for non-sex related crimes.
Common Belief: Sex crimes are happening more and more often.
Fact: Although they are much more publicized than ever before, the actual number of sex crimes has decreased slightly over the last decade.
Common Belief: Convicted sex offenders are not treatable.
Fact: Registered sex offenders who partake in cognitive-behavioral treatment and relapse prevention are less likely to re-offend than those who are not registered.
While these facts may not ease the anxiety around living near a registered sex offender, the information may help clarify some common concerns. Look for more facts about registered sex offenders at CSOM.org (Center for Sex Offender Management).
Also, be sure to visit websites like FamilyWatchDog.us for information about registered sex offenders living in your area (information varies by state). For some states, the website provides a photo of the registered sex offender, crime committed, home and work addresses, and a physical description. ApartmentRatings.com shows the number of registered sex offenders who live near the apartments listed on the website.
Next, Team Up with Your Neighbors and the Manager
When you discover that there is a registered sex offender living in or near your apartment complex, there are a number of things you can do to help protect your children and/or yourself.
Get together with your neighbors and assemble a neighborhood watch program to look out for each other; exchange phone numbers and email addresses so that you have a way to keep in touch outside of knocking on everyone’s door. Coordinate play dates for the children who live in the apartment community or building so that they are never out an adult’s sight. Plan monthly meetings where everyone can get together to discuss concerns.
Remember to include the landlord or property manager to give him/her an idea of how living with a registered sex offender nearby affects their tenants. Perhaps the group can even ask for a part-time security guard at night to be available to walk a single woman to her door if she requests it. If the landlord doesn’t want to pay for a security guard, see if one of the tenants can perform the job for a cut in their rent. The old African proverb made popular by Hillary Rodham Clinton, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is more relevant than ever.
Technology can help you keep track of your children, which is especially helpful if you work and the kids are on their own after school. Sprint and Nextel offer cell phones with GPS technology built right into them so all you have to do is look to your cell phone for the location of your child. In addition, FamilyWatchdog has teamed up with Sprint mobile to create FamilyWatchdog Mobile. You can view FamilyWatchdog’s famous sex offender map right from your cell phone. Plus, with Sprint’s Family Locator service, you can get daily notifications on your child’s whereabouts at certain times of the day, such as after school or after dinner. FamilyWatchdog Mobile is free, but data rates apply. Sprint Family Locator costs approximately $9.99 per month in addition to your monthly service charges.
Old-fashioned means of protection work, too. Kathy S., of Trenton, NJ, came up with a simple way to help keep her daughter safe. Kathy purchased a good quality whistle and connected it to a chain for her daughter to wear around her neck. To make it fun and fashionable to wear, she and her daughter made a craft project out of it and added color and beads to the whistle. Kathy says, “It’s a peace of mind for me to know that Melissa has the whistle on her whenever she’s out and if she ever needs help, it’s there for her.”
While a cell phone or a whistle can certainly help, there’s no substitute for education. Make sure that your children know to call 911 in the event of an emergency. Have your child’s name and address somewhere on their clothing at all times. Designate a time for your child to come home or to check in. Perhaps most important, build and maintain open and honest lines of communication with your children, so they will feel comfortable telling you if something happened to them or to one of their friends.
Know the Law in Your State
It is important to note that laws regarding registered sex offenders vary by state–so make sure you know how it works in your state. In Wisconsin, landlords cannot discriminate against convicted felons, but in other states like Connecticut, Florida and Maine, the law says differently. In New Jersey, registered sex offenders are often given free or discounted rooms at local motels once they are released from prison, but in Michigan, if a convicted sex offender doesn’t have a home, she or he will often remain behind bars rather than be released on the streets.
In Massachusetts, renters are not allowed to use the fact that there is a registered sex offender living in their complex as a reason to break their lease. In virtually all states, landlords can perform criminal record checks, but many of them cannot discriminate. It can leave law-abiding citizens feeling as if we’re the only ones who are giving up our rights.
One of the problems the United States is currently facing is the number of homeless registered sex offenders is on the rise. Homeless sex offenders are impossible for police to keep tabs on, and that makes them even more dangerous. While some states like Illinois make their homeless sex offenders check in on a weekly basis, a homeless sex offender is more likely to not be registered and therefore harder to track.
However you approach it, dealing with this issue is not easy. Have you had any experience with a sex offender living in your apartment community? We’d love to hear some of your advice in the forum.