By KJ DELL’ANTONIA
C.’s quandary was simple, and read something like a nightmare (or the opening sequence of an episode of “Law and Order”). She’d received notice from the local sheriff that a registered sex offender was moving into the house next door to hers. This was no “Romeo and Juliet” misunderstood teen, but someone with a genuine history of preying on young men and boys, although not as young as C.’s toddler son.
A few days after C. wrote me, a friend e-mailed from Newton, Mass. A popular second-grade teacher at her local elementary school had just been arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a girl and filming it, and of posting to an international Web site that trafficked in child pornography. Rather than a sullen, mug-shot figure from an offender registry, this was a teacher described as “beloved,” one who took kids rock climbing and whom many parents adored. Which suggested to me that perhaps the biggest danger of having a sex offender next door might not be the sex offender himself, but that it might blind one to the dangers that could lie elsewhere.
The most respected commenters picked up on just that. Chris Martin put it simply: “Next door is pretty bad but we must remember that most perps live in the same house. Mine did.”
This doesn’t mean commenters weren’t sympathetic to the need to warn a child about the known danger. Maggie wrote:
In this situation I would certainly tell my kids they were not allowed in his house, no matter what he said. I would also tell them that, at one time in his life, he did something bad to children and I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I would also point out that sometimes people can change and grow, so I’m not going to be unfriendly to him. But I would tell my children point blank that they are never to be alone with him, no matter what. I would point out other adults they might turn to instead, should the need arise — perhaps a neighbor, a teacher, a police officer.
The “sex offender next door” raises a gut reaction. As M.D. said, a home should be the safest of all environments. In C.’s situation, “I would lose that feeling of security and more importantly, it would forever change the way I parented my children.” M.D. would move without hesitation, but as many of us noted, C.’s ability to sell her home is probably compromised. It’s one thing to find a way to deal with the sex offender next door, and another to buy into the problem.
Readers had excellent suggestions for how C. can cope. “Convene a meeting of neighbors,” suggested Eleanor. “I would also use the occasion as good reason to really connect with friends in the neighborhood, with special attention to communicating with each other about the whereabouts of our kids,” boo agreed. “I would not act paranoid, but matter-of-fact about the dangers that apparently exist all around us. At least this sex offender is known, and hopefully easily avoided.” SM suggested a good fence and a security system, and many, many commenters had good words with which to address the situation with a child. If all of us practice what we preach in that respect, our children should be prepared to handle the gravest of situations.
But do we? It’s easy to say we talk to our children about the risks, and harder to do, and especially to do well. No one wants a sex offender to move in next door, but it’s that Newton second-grade teacher who should heighten our fears, and our awareness.
“Mr. E,” as he was called, underwent a check of his state criminal history before he was hired by the school district, and posted a more extensive background check when he registered to offer baby-sitting services on Care.com (a popular child-care Web site). “No red flags were raised,” reports the Boston Globe, because there were no flags to raise. The teacher in question, David Ettlinger, had never been convicted of a crime — and still hasn’t been.
So while my sympathies are still with C., I’m not finding myself inclined to go look at our state’s sex offender registry tonight. Instead, I’m wondering if I’ve really had all these talks I mean to have, and think I’ve had, with all of my children. Do they really understand what’s O.K., and what’s not, and what they need to tell me about? Do they know that I’ll believe and protect them no matter who or what?
The thought of a sex offender next door is bad enough. But the sex offender I never see coming is the one I’m really worried about.