Monday, October 18, 2010

The New Urban Myth---The Danger of Registered Sex Offenders at Halloween

It's almost time for the annual Halloween sex offender hysteria. This seemingly has replaced the urban myths about poison candy and razor blades in apples. I was interested to find that there has actually been a recent empirical study of the issue. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Halloween sex-offender monitoring questioned," describes it:

...Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher with the Medical University of South Carolina's Family Services Research Center in Charleston, S.C., said, "There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation."

Paul Stern, a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, Wash., agrees.

"People want to protect kids; they want to do the right thing and they make decisions based on what at first glance may make some sense. Sex offenders, costumes, kids -- what a bad combination," he said.

"Unfortunately, those kinds of policies are not always based on any analysis or scientific evidence," said Stern, who started prosecuting sex offenders who victimized children in 1985.

Stern, Letourneau and two others published a paper last year for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers called: "How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween."

The study looked at more than 67,000 sex crimes in 30 states against children 12 and younger from 1997 -- before many Halloween sex-offender programs began -- through 2005, well after many were under way...

"These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law-enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist," the study concluded.

Letourneau said, "There's just no increase in sex offense on that day, and in all likelihood that's because kids are out in groups or they're out with their parents and they're moving around, they're not isolated and otherwise at risk." She said a better use of police on Halloween night would be to help protect children from traffic.

"We almost called this paper 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year' because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day," she said.
The entire study is available for purchase. An authors' summary is available for free.

Interestingly, the study found that sex crimes increased substantially during summer months and that the summer would be a more appropriate time for increased vigilance. More from the study:

It might be argued that Halloween sex offender policies are worthwhile even if they prevent only a single child from being victimized. However, this line of reasoning fails to consider the cost side of the cost–benefit equation. The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probable dangerous events. For example, a particularly salient threat to children on Halloween comes from motor vehicle accidents. Children aged 5 to 14 years are four times more likely to be killed in a pedestrian–motor vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year (Centers for Disease Control, 1997). Regarding criminal activity on Halloween, alcohol-related offenses and vandalism are particularly common (Siverts, 2002). Although we do not know the precise amount of law enforcement resources consumed by Halloween sex offender policies, it will be important for policy makers to estimate and consider allocation of resources in light of the actual increased risks that exist in other areas, such as pedestrian–vehicle fatalities. Our findings indicated that sex crimes against children by nonfamily members account for 2 out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns.

...the data set did not contain variables that would have
been valuable for even more precisely focusing the study incidents, such as information about whether the perpetrator was a registered sex offender or whether the incident specifically involved a trick-or-treat context.


Literally thousands of articles have been published in recent years about the danger presented by registered sex offenders at Halloween. Absent from all of them has been any mention of any specific incident in which a registered sex offender has attacked a Trick-or-Treater---not one, ever! If you know of any such incident, please e-mail me or post a comment below. I bet you can't find one. This is a new urban myth. We always need some sort of monster on Halloween. It's the nature of the holiday.