Tougher laws would honor Sarah Foxwell

By Lisae C. Jordan
Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Christmas Day, the body of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell was found near her home town on the Eastern Shore. A registered sex offender was charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and murder in her death. As the community mourned her loss, the General Assembly reconvened in Annapolis, and legislators have since introduced more than 80 bills addressing sexual assault and sex offenders. More than 25 of these address the incarceration of offenders. While such "tough-on-crime" bills might be the easiest to explain to voters this fall, others would do far more good.

Information-sharing. Upon release, some sex offenders are placed on parole or probation. In another part of state government, Child Protective Services (CPS) investigates allegations of child sexual abuse by family members or caretakers. Incredibly, these agencies do not share information. For instance, if someone at CPS finds that a child has been sexually abused by a paroled sex offender in a home, he or she does not tell the offender's parole officer.

Bills introduced by Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico) and Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) would require information-sharing between these agencies. Kelley and Dumais's bills would add the extra protection of requiring CPS to investigate situations in which sex offenders are living with or are regularly around a child. These bills would help prevent future child sexual abuse.

Supervision. The current system is dishonest. The state tells the public that there is a sex offender registry without making it clear that registration is not the same as supervision. Only offenders who are on parole or probation are supervised, and parole and probation end well before registration periods do. Compounding public confusion, offenders are labeled on the registry as "compliant" when all they have done is provide their addresses and basic information.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed a bill that would go beyond registration and require that convicted sex offenders start out with a presumption of lifetime supervision. Conditions of supervision would be tailored to the individual offender and could include a wide range of restrictions, such as tracking by the Global Positioning System, and orders to stay away from a victim.

Supervising convicted sex offenders is a good idea, and this bill is one of the most important this session. Unfortunately, lifetime supervision would be part of sentencing and could be applied only to future cases. The newly reconstituted Maryland Sexual Offender Advisory Board should explore ways to impose supervision retroactively.

Strengthen prosecutions and support victims. Most sexual assaults are not reported to the police. When they are, few cases result in convictions. Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) are nationally recognized programs that bring together law enforcement, social workers, prosecutors, medical personnel and advocates to respond to children who disclose sexual abuse. They are child-centered programs that minimize the number of times a child is interviewed and reduce victims' chances of being re-traumatized.

CACs also help prosecute child sex offenders by collecting reliable, admissible evidence. This strengthens cases and leads to more convictions. Without a conviction, the other sex offender laws about sentencing, registration and monitoring do nothing.

Del. Conway, from the Eastern Shore, where Sarah Foxwell's body was found, has introduced a bill to support Maryland's Child Advocacy Centers by including them in state statute. Sponsored by Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) in the Senate, this bill would help support existing CACs and encourage creation of new ones where they do not exist. This bill should be enacted. It is one of the only victim-centered bills of the 80 sex offender bills that have been introduced, and it is the least the General Assembly can do to help child victims.

In the end, none of this is going to bring Sarah back or heal the suffering of the countless other victims of sexual abuse. But these bills would create real change that can help prevent tragedies. The General Assembly should move beyond arguments about who is toughest on crime and enact policies that will help end sexual violence.

The writer is legislative and general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Maryland Children's Alliance.

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