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Issues - sex -Abuse - Rights for sex offenders?

Balancing children's safety and sex offenders' rights
By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff | June 12, 2004

When parents in Athol learned last year about Harold J. Fay, a sex offender living down the street from an elementary school, mothers and fathers who once allowed their children to walk alone to the Sanders Street School made time to walk beside them.
One mother showed Fay's mug shot to her 5-year-old son and warned, "This person hurts children." Parents called police, the school's principal, and Fay's probation officer, wanting to know what could be done.
Nothing, they were told. Fay, a convicted sex offender rated by a state board as a high risk for offending again, was living, as required, at least 500 feet from the school. Even so, last month, after Fay allegedly violated his probation by visiting friends when their children were home, a judge heeded parents' complaints and ordered Fay to move away from the school.
The unusual order highlights an emerging dilemma as the state nears the end of its classification of more than 6,600 sex offenders: balancing the protection of children with the rights of convicted sex offenders, especially those deemed most dangerous, who are living legally near schools.
Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Democrat whose district includes Athol, is researching a bill that would ban sex offenders from residing near public or private schools. The main difficulty, he said, is crafting a law that could survive court challenges over the constitutional rights of sex offenders.
After constituents called Brewer to complain that Fay lived near the elementary school, the state senator lobbied Fay's probation officer, asking him to recommend that the 64-year-old man be required to find another home.
Other communities are struggling with the same issues. In Lynn, Councilor Timothy Phelan was stunned to learn that a sex offender lives near his daughter's elementary school. Phelan proposed that the city mail a listing of the most dangerous sex offenders -- Lynn has 23 classified by the state as Level 3, the most likely to commit more crimes -- to every resident in the city. The first annual mailing is scheduled to go out soon.
And in Framingham, Selectwoman Ginger Esty has been calling attention to two Level 3 offenders who live near the Framingham Community Charter School. "The walking routes to schools are a minefield," said Esty, who has mapped where the town's sex offenders live.
Some schools notify parents about any offenders who have been classified by the state Sex Offender Registry Board as Level 3. The state Department of Education requires schools to adopt a policy on whether they inform parents of Level 3 offenders living nearby, but doesn't suggest what that policy should be.
"We're not recommending that they do or that they don't," said spokeswoman Heidi Perlman.
Residents can also get addresses and see photos of local sex offenders from their police stations. Police decide locally how widely to publicize the faces of Level 3 offenders. In Athol, schools do not notify parents about sex offenders, but their photos are published in the local newspaper and posted in the town library.

John Swomley, a defense lawyer who has represented sex offenders, is troubled by the increasing restrictions on their lives after they have finished serving their prison sentences. He has seen clients ostracized and lose their jobs and their homes, after they are classified as sex offenders.
The registry mocks the goal of reintegrating offenders into society, Swomley said.
"Everything about this whole law runs counter to that," he said. "Their little scarlet letter is following them around everywhere."
In Athol, a blue-collar community about 38 miles northwest of Worcester, Fay was fitted last week with an electronic ankle bracelet. He can only leave his house for approved excursions, including doctors' visits and church.
Fay said he's struggling to find a new apartment by the end of the month, the deadline given by his probation officer. Fay, whose name is well known among Athol's 11,000 residents, had no luck when he inquired about every apartment listing in two local papers, he said.
"Everyone I call either hangs up on me or tells me they haven't got anything," he said. "[It's] because I'm a registered sex offender."
Fay spent three years in prison after he was convicted of five counts of exposing and touching himself in front of children. He found the Sanders Street apartment in 2002 with the help of a friend. It was a rare apartment that he could afford on his monthly disability check of $783, he said.
"I think it's unfair," he said. "I don't bother anyone where I'm living."
Susan J. Loehn, a Franklin County prosecutor, argued before Superior Court Judge John Agostini that Fay's probation violation should send him back to prison. She also argues that because Fay's backyard abuts a schoolyard, it's not clear that he is 500 feet away from the school.
Some Athol parents argue that Fay's right to live where he chooses places their children at risk. Paul Landry Jr., the father of two children, asked officials to take action when he learned that Fay was living near the school. "As far as I'm concerned, the civil rights of a criminal shouldn't take precedence over the civil rights of a kid," Landry said.
Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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