Twenty to thirty years ago, most families would not have understood the need for a dynamic resource to locate sex offenders in their area because most families were blissfully unaware of the pervasive nature of sexual crimes against children. There almost certainly were not fewer child predators in those days; there was only less awareness of who they were and how they operated.
Two of the families who unfortunately knew better were the Wetterling and Kanka families. Jacob Wetterling was 11 years old when, in October of 1989, he was abducted by a masked man from a convenience store near his home. Had Jacob’s parents known that they lived near several halfway houses for paroled sex offenders, they would have had the opportunity to exercise more caution and instruct their son about “bad strangers”. They didn’t know, however, and at the time there was no legal requirement to notify them.
Sadly, Jacob’s remains were not found for another 27 years … but his family did not let their uncertainty over Jacob’s fate prevent them from taking action that would help other families keep their children safer. Just a few years after his disappearance, the Jacob Wetterling Act—which required states to track and verify the residence of all sex offenders annually for 10 years after their release from prison, and to do the same for all violent sex offenders quarterly for the rest of their lives—passed into law as part of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
While this was a huge step in the right direction, more was still required. This need for heightened legislation was tragically highlighted by the 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender living in Megan’s neighborhood. Had Megan and her family known to identify Timmendequas as a “bad stranger”, he likely would not have been able to lure the innocent, carefree child into an abandoned home as she played outside.
The Kankas recognized that tracking the residency status of sex offenders was not enough; this information needed to be shared with the community at large as well. As a result, the Jacob Wetterling Act was amended by Megan’s Law, which required law enforcement to provide citizens living near convicted sex offenders with certain identifying information (rather than leaving it to the discretion of each jurisdiction as the Jacob Wetterling Act had). All 50 states have since passed some form of Megan’s Law.
Jacob Wetterling, Megan Kanka, and their families have made a tremendous difference in keeping other children safer from sexual predators. Nevertheless, child sexual abuse is still a problem nationwide. OffenderWatch is dedicated to furthering the groundbreaking work represented by the Jacob Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law through the OffenderWatch Initiative, which establishes partnerships between law enforcement agencies and school districts to provide the most accurate, up-to-date information on the locations of sex offenders in the community, and to educate parents and children on how to identify and avoid these “bad strangers”.
There is no way to know for sure how many children’s lives have been changed or saved by these key pieces of legislation, or how many may be changed or saved in the future by our continued efforts to prevent child sexual abuse. However, one thing that can be said for sure is that the impact of these children’s lives, their family’s legal fights, and the way that these cases inspire organizations such as OffenderWatch can never be overstated.