How Not to Protect Kids from Sexual Assault

Only a few states have complied with a federal law requiring sex-offender registration and notification. The rest have good reasons for holding out.
by | March 5, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

As of last fall, only 15 states had complied with the 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is a particularly chilling piece of news in light of the child-sexual-assault scandal engulfing Penn State University, and so it bears a bit of checking into. Why have so few states complied with the federal law?

According to the NCSL report, the financial hit that states would take from not complying is less than the cost of doing the labor-intensive work of having offenders register regularly and in-person with the authorities. If that were the only reason states aren't implementing the law, we ought to be deeply concerned. The fact is, however, that full implementation of the law would have no impact on the incidence of sexual assault. SORNA is an expensive non-solution to the problem.

The vast majority of the children who are assaulted are victims of someone in their immediate family or a coach, priest or someone else who has been brought into a position of trust. Creating a list of offenders is worthless in controlling assaults by such individuals. In fact, experts say the risk of stranger abuse is something like .0017 per 1,000 kids.

While researching the issue of child sexual assault, I came across a strong commentary in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader by Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and began an email correspondence with her about what might actually make kids safer from sexual assault.

She told me about a case she handled when she was a child-welfare worker in which a 12-year-old was being raped by her stepfather. Neighbors told Mehnert that they knew about the assaults, but none of them had called the police. It turned out that the man, who had served time in prison for molesting children, was also raping a 14-year-old stepson. "He is required to register," Mehnert wrote, "but nothing stops him from living with small children. Clearly the system is broken ... and a list is not the answer."

Laws like SORNA are passed because they play well with constituents. Politicians score points, look good and head on down the road. But eventually people notice that "the system is broken." Symbolism wears off and we're left with ineffective government. Enough exercises like SORNA that don't work, and we begin to sap people's confidence and trust that there is any way that government can actually help them work collectively to solve problems.

Here at the Governing Institute, we're on the lookout for things that actually work to improve outcomes. In the case of child sexual assault, a best practice that does seem to make a difference is the children's advocacy center model championed by the National Children's Alliance. If you visit the alliance's website, you'll see that while more than three quarters of a million children were victims in 2009, CACs intervene in 259,000 cases a year and there has been a steady decline over the last three years in abused and neglected children.

I've got an idea. Penn State has raised the public's awareness on this issue. Now might be the time to more successfully push effective responses to the problem. Let's take the money being spent trying to implement SORNA—or punishing states for not implementing it—and use it to create and strengthen children's advocacy centers across the country.