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Tracking Sex Offenders: The Impact of Megan's Law

Originally published: January 12, 2007

Offender sues to overturn residency restrictions

By ALAN GUENTHER

GANNETT NEW JERSEY

You might expect Steven Elwell, a 35-year-old South Jersey sex offender, to complain about a local ordinance that aims to keep him away from children.

Because of restrictions in an ordinance adopted last year in Lower Township, Cape May County, Elwell can't be near schools, playgrounds, parks or day care centers not even with his own toddlers.

Elwell, a former teacher, had an affair eight years ago with a female student. But he says he's now a new man, seeking a pardon from the governor.

The restrictions on where sex offenders can live and congregate are preventing him from rebuilding his life, Elwell said. But Elwell is not the only one with questions about what are more than a dozen residency restrictions for sex offenders in municipalities around the state.

William Plantier has doubts, too. Plantier is an assistant commissioner for the state Department of Corrections, and he is a former longtime warden at the state's sex offender prison.

Plantier wonders if such ordinances can be enforced. He's concerned that the new laws may mislead parents into thinking that their children are indeed safe from sexual assaults.

Most sex offenders prey on children close to them, even family members, Plantier said. But the new rules seem to be aimed at keeping offenders away from children they don't know.

Even though 7-year-old Megan Kanka was kidnapped and murdered by a neighbor, "sadistic pedophiles" who snatch children they don't know are "very rare," Plantier said.

So what will the measures accomplish?

To Elwell, who is suing to overturn the restrictions in his town, they're "nothing but feel-good legislation brought up at election time."

Elwell says he received death threats when he publicly opposed a law to prohibit registered sex offenders from living near places where children congregate.

There are three tiers of sex offenders. Elwell is a tier one offender, which means law enforcement authorities believe there is a low risk he will commit a new sex crime. Tier one offenders are not listed on the State Police Web site.

Tier two offenders are considered moderate risks, and tier three offenders are deemed to have a high risk of committing new crimes.

Elwell was convicted of engaging in sex with a 16-year-old girl at a high school when he was 27 years old.

"I made a mistake," Elwell said.

Since then, he says, he has tried to rebuild his life. He recently opened a pizzeria in Cape May. He married, and he and his wife, Jennifer, a teacher, have two toddlers.

Just as he felt he had turned a corner in his life, Elwell said, his past came back to haunt him.

In October, then-Gov. Richard J. Codey signed legislation to prevent sex offenders from trick-or-treating or passing out candy to children on Halloween.

"The only reason my wife and I have even bothered to come forward is because of our children," Elwell said. "I want to try and (make it) so that they can live a normal life."

Under current laws, he can't take his own children to the local park.

"I can't take them to the beach," he said. "My son is 1, and my daughter is 2 1/2, and I couldn't take them out for Halloween. Do they seriously think I'm going to walk down the street, with my two kids, and grab some other kid?"

Under the new laws, he said, "you've got to sit with the lights out in your house and not put any decorations out that would make it look like you're able to hand out candy."

When Megan's Law was passed in 1994, Elwell says, he supported the provision that would register and track sex offenders.

Under Megan's Law, offenders were grouped according to how dangerous they are considered to be. But many of the residency ordinances adopted by municipalities make no distinction among offenders.

Plantier is among the experts who believe the measures may not protect children in the ways that elected officials intend.

Plantier worked for 27 years at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center prison in the Avenel section of Woodbridge, including 10 years as its superintendent.

Establishing "sex offender-free zones" may not have much impact, Plantier said.

"Sex offenders aren't nailed to the floor," Plantier said. "They can move around."

And such ordinances disregard some bitter truths about sex offenders, Plantier says.

The laws focus attention on strangers, Plantier said, but someone who is known by the victim - a priest, a coach, a family member commits most sex offenses.

Most pedophiles ingratiate themselves with what he called "the throw-away kids.

"A pedophile is going to move in where he sees a vacuum . . . a kid who is vulnerable, not a part of things. They're good at identifying that kind of child," he said.

Soon, Plantier said, the sex offender is "taking that kid to McDonald's, doing this, doing that . . . and parents are letting them assume that role."

Parents should worry less about "individuals who pull up to the curb and grab a kid," than adults they know, he said.

Children should be wary of strangers, he said. But they should be especially careful of the adults who are close to them.

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Multimedia

VIDEO

Exposing loopholes

Megan's mother Maureen Kanka of Hamilton, Office of the Public Defender spokesman Thomas Rosenthal and Manalapan resident Thomas Grande discuss Megan's Law. (Requires QuickTime. Please allow time for stream to begin.)

INTERACTIVE MAP

Sex offenders: How many and where they live

Find out how many convicted sex offenders live in each county and which counties have the most offenders per capita. Also, learn how many sex offenders live nearby your kids' schools. (Requires Flash.)

INTERACTIVE MAP

Zoom in on sex offenders living near you

Click on your township to learn how many convicted sex offenders live in your neighborhood and how serious their crimes are.

Find out more on the Web

You can get more information on the New Jersey Sex Offender Internet Registry. Here you can search by name, town, Zip code or street. (Registration required.)

The National Sex Offender Public Registry is another site where you might be able to learn more about sex offenders living near you.

 

© 2006, Gannett New Jersey Newspapers and Gannett News Service

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