Revealing child sex offender information to the public doesn’t improve children’s safety and could actually do more harm than good, an expert says.
Child Safety foundation Bravehearts research director Carol Ronken said similar schemes elsewhere had demonstrated publicising information could even pose greater risks for children.
“Unfortunately, public notification schemes, along the lines of Megan’s Law approach, may, in fact, increase the risk of reoffending,” she told Victoria’s Inquiry in the Management of Child Sex Offender Information last week.
“Schemes that publicly shared the home addresses of offenders may drive offenders underground, deterring them from updating information to authorities, essentially meaning that police no longer know where these offenders are.”
Ms Ronken said in many cases of public registers, the victim and the offender’s family have been shamed and/or put at risk because of the offender’s actions.
“Strangers are only between five and 10 per cent of who the offenders are. Ninety-five per cent of the time, the offender is someone the child knows, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s an uncle, aunt, grandparents, cousin, they’re often family members,” she said.
“In Australia, the very fact that most offenders are interfamilial would rule them out of a national register because of that risk of identifying the victim of the offence.”
Criminologist and Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice Associate Professor Dr Kelly Richards said the scheme not only created heavy stigmas that prevent positive progress for the offenders but also created a false sense of safety within the community.
“We want those people to change, we want those people to do better, but we make it almost impossible for them to do that. We make it almost impossible for them to form healthy relationships, get jobs, live a normal life,” she said.
“The scheme also gives this really false sense of security to people … I think the assumption is ‘well if someone is not on the register, then they’re nothing to worry about’, but of course that simply isn’t true because we know that most people never even reported child sex offending to begin with.”
The report by the Crime Statistics Agency shows a 36 per cent increase in sexual offences against children in Victoria between April and June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Ronken said that with increasing occurrences of sexual offences against children, “education, public awareness, and evidence-informed policy and legislation are critical.”
“A by-product of these [prevention] programs in talking to kids about some of their rights—we’re also talking to potential young people who may display problematic or harmful sexual behaviours; and talking to them about the fact that they know that their body belongs to them, no one has the right to touch their body, and they don’t have the right to touch anyone else’s.”
Dr Richards said there were more efficient, evidence-based alternatives to the public register scheme.
“Programs such as Ditto, Stop It Now!, and COSA [Circles of Support and Accountability] are all evidence-backed programs that would provide more efficient results in decreasing these offences than the public register scheme.”