Experts estimate that 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. These are traumatic events that can have lifelong consequences, and parents should do everything they can to keep their children safe from this all-too-common crime.

The Maine Department of Corrections Adult Community Center, a brick building at 125 Presumpscot St., is seen in the background near the playground at Presumpscot Elementary School. The two properties share a fence line. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And that’s all that the parents of students at Portland’s Presumpscot Elementary School are trying to do. But when they demand that the state shut down a probation and parole office near the school grounds, they are going about it the wrong way.

Focusing on the office where formerly incarcerated people periodically check in with authorities perpetuates the “stranger danger” myth, and distracts families attention from places where much greater risk lies.

There may indeed be, as the parents claim, registered sex offenders who stop in at the probation office. But, from time to time, there are probably registered sex offenders at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in the same building getting their driver’s licenses renewed. Registered sex offenders may also show up at the convenience store across the street or the pizza place down the block.

But according to researchers, the place you are most likely to find a child predator isn’t any of those places – it’s in the child’s own home. Thirty percent of the time, the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s family, and 60 percent of the time, it’s someone who the family trusts. Forty percent of the time, the abusers are other children, who would not be visiting an adult probation office.

It’s true that, in a small number of cases, adult strangers kidnap children to abuse them. These acts tend to attract a great deal of attention, both because they are so horrifying and because they are so rare. Focusing on them distracts from the equally traumatic crimes committed much more often against millions of children.

This controversy also distracts from the necessary work that’s done by the Maine Department of Corrections in its probation office. This is not a sex offender registration site – it’s a location where a wide variety of  individuals are required to show that they are living up to the conditions of their release. Since almost everyone who goes to prison will someday get out, services that smooth their transition into society are in everyone’s interest.

It’s right to insist that the state provide adequate security for the community. But siting these offices should not become subject to a neighborhood veto.

Parents are right to be alarmed about the prevalence of sexual abuse, and they should inform themselves and each other about the danger. But fear and prejudice won’t make anyone safer.

 

 


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