Agencies: New Laws Will Help Prevent Sex Abuse
08/26/2010
Daily Times

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OCEAN CITY -- Uncle John has been taking his nephew Steve on camping trips every weekend. The family knows John has a history of being a sexual predator, and they suspect he may be grooming the child for abuse.

In the recent past, social services could only help that child once they suspected he had been mistreated. Not anymore. New laws passed this year in the wake of the horrific abuse and murder of a Salisbury girl address loopholes in the system that deals with sexual predators.

A panel of state employees who work with the sex offender registry, child protective services and incarceration spoke to some of those changes during a panel at Thursday's annual Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City. The new laws will take effect Oct. 1.

Stephen Berry with Child Protective Services --who gave the chilling example of the camping uncle -- said one new law puts social services ahead of the curve, and requires agents to assess situations where a child may be at substantial risk of sexual abuse. "Up until this point, child protective services has been an after-the-fact intervention," he said. "We can only knock on a family's door once we suspect a child has been mistreated. The passage of this bill puts us before that."

Laws also were passed that mandate social services and the Department of Parole and Probation work together and share information. In the past, social services agents weren't legally allowed to share with Parole and Probation officers.

Another new law has to do with reporting of children living with, or in the regular presence of, a registered sex offender. It requires those at social services to verify that the people on the sex offender registry have committed any offenses against children.

Berry said it's now required that law enforcement and social services conduct assessments jointly, and that they do it within 30 days. "Some of our local departments of social service agencies were sort of clamoring for this," he said. "They were getting the calls, from the community about someone who they suspected the child was being prepared for the abuse. They felt like they couldn't do anything. Well, now they have the authority."

Tammy Bresnahan, a director with the state Department of Human Resources, said after 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell was killed in December 2009, it led Gov. Martin O'Malley to convene all the state agencies that deal with protecting children. The conference led to closing loopholes in reporting, disclosure, and tightening criminal history checks.

David Dawkins with the state Division of Parole and Probation said among the 69,000 adult criminal offenders in Maryland, about three percent, or 2,300 of them, are sex offenders.

The "extremely high-risk population" has a lot of resources thrown at them, including GPS tracking using an anklet, polygraph testing within 30 days of release, and possible monitoring of their home computers.

Dawkins credited the "containment model" as one reason that less than a third of one percent of monitored criminals committed another sex offense, as measured from July 2008 to December 2009.

"It allows our agents to spend a lot of quality time with our sex offenders," he said. bshane@dmg.gannett.com