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Column We need a version of ‘Sarah’s Law’ to help protect children

Irish parents must be given access to controlled information on sex offenders in their area, writes independent TD Denis Naughten.

IN THE DAYS following the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, self-styled vigilantes mounted angry protests outside the homes of suspected sex offenders; innocent men were attacked because they bore a resemblance to the photographs of alleged paedophiles printed in a newspaper; and the home of a paediatrician was vandalised due to the apparent confusing of her professional title with the word “paedophile”.

With these events in mind it is understandable that some decried the introduction of Sarah’s Law in the UK as an incitement to vigilante violence. But, despite such fears, nothing of the sort came about; in fact the main consequence of Sarah’s Law has been the protection of over 200 children from potential harm.

In its first year the British scheme received 1,600 enquiries and 900 formal applications for information. Of these, only 160 lead to disclosures relating to child sex offences with a further 58 relating to other crimes; none of which resulted in the predicted vigilante violence. Disclosure schemes like Sarah’s Law, and the one proposed in the Bill I introduced to the Dáil last month, are not about punishing sex offenders or stoking public outrage, they are about giving parents the power to protect their children.

I readily admit that the disclosure of information on sex offenders is far from a child protection panacea. As opponents of such measures often state the majority of abuse takes place in the home. I have no cause to argue against this sad reality, in fact I introduced legislation to change the archaic law that protected female sex offenders from full prosecution for incest in response to a case of horrendous sexual abuse within a family in Roscommon.

Confidential information

However, I would still pose the question; what of the abuse that does not occur in the home? Are we to be any less appalled by it merely because it is less frequent? If a mother or father notices an adult regularly spending time near the school gate, seemingly without reason, why should the gardaí not be in the position to provide that parent with relevant information on a confidential basis?

At present, a large body of Garda intelligence and other important information concerning individuals sits passively on the Garda information systems. The Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring Bill) 2012 aims to put such information to good use in an intelligent and proportional way. At present, the gardaí are not specifically statutorily empowered to share such information with parents, guardians, and other carers of children for the purpose of enabling them to take steps to safeguard those in their charge from a recognisable risk.

If enacted the Bill would establish the Information on Child Sex Offenders scheme (ICSO scheme) which would enable parents and guardians to enquire whether a person coming into contact with their child or vulnerable adult has been convicted of a sexual offence or is otherwise likely to pose a serious danger to children. The sad fact is almost 20 per cent of sex offenders will be imprisoned within three years of release, but given the amount of abuse which goes unreported the real rate of recidivism probably far higher. A disclosure scheme such as this aims to protect children from such repeat offenders.

Failing system

While post-release monitoring is also crucial to achieve this goal, the current monitoring regime in Ireland is not fit for purpose. At best it is lax, at worst it is negligent. Currently, all sex offenders are required to notify An Garda Síochána within seven days of their release from prison that they have been convicted of a sex offence, and provide their name and address. They must also notify any change in address or name and must give notice if they intend to leave the State.

The duration of the post-release notification requirement varies, depending on the sentence received; it ranges from a five-year period for non-custodial sentences to an indefinite period for sentences of over two years. However, this system is just not working. In 2008, the CSO records indicate that 16 sex offenders breached their notification requirements; this figure rose to 24 in 2009, more than doubled in 2010, and last year a shocking 61 breaches were recorded. Clearly the current system is failing, and as a result children are being put at risk.

While my Bill aims to strengthen the current monitoring regime, I do not believe that monitoring in and of itself is enough. The fact of the matter is the reduction in Garda manpower and resources have severely curtailed the force’s ability to monitor sex offenders. Thus, the limited and controlled release of information about a sex offender living or loitering in the vicinity of a school, playground or other community facility for children would assist in the resourcing of such protective measures. By equipping parents and schools with the facts, they will be best placed to take preventative measures to safeguard children in their care.

Denis Naughten is an independent TD for Roscommon/South Leitrim.

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