The following is an opinion piece from State Senator Katherine Clark:
Last week, a Wakefield man was charged with 100 counts of child abuse and sexual assault involving very young children. These hideous allegations are deeply disturbing. Our primary concern is for the children and their families and providing them with the support and help they will need. At the same time, we also must examine how we can strengthen our system to prevent the exploitation and abuse of children and other vulnerable populations.
To assess the need for changes in our laws, I have been working with Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone, local law enforcement, and the Wakefield legislative delegation to examine our system of classifying sexual offenders and notifying the public about offenders in our communities.
Categorizing Sex Offenders: Currently, sex offenders are categorized into three levels: Level 1 is considered the least dangerous and Level 3 the most likely to reoffend. Public information is only available for offenders classified as Level 2 or 3. Although the defendant in the Wakefield case had prior convictions of indecent assault and battery on a child, he was classified as a Level 1 sex offender, thus shielding his information from the public. We are closely reviewing the current categories to determine if the classification criteria should be adjusted to improve public safety. In addition, we are researching whether the Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) should be allowed to consider a substantiated report of abuse – even if it does not result in a conviction – in reclassifying an offender to a higher level of threat.
Increasing Licensing Agency’s Access to Sex Offender Registry Information: We have a robust system of licensing child care providers in Massachusetts that includes extensive background checks. Currently, however, the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) cannot obtain registry information on sex offenders. While no system of background checks will screen out all potential criminals, allowing EEC access to this sex offender registry information would provide an important additional safeguard.
Look for the License: A great start to finding an educational, high quality and safe child care environment is to make sure that your child care provider is properly licensed. The Massachusetts EEC maintains a searchable web site to locate licensed child care providers in your area at www.mass.gov/eec. In addition, EEC will provide the licensing history of a child care provider over the phone to help parents gain a better understanding of the program and staff. Many other states have child care licensing histories available online for parents to access easily, and Massachusetts also should provide this information on its website. In addition, parents should always ask for references and be wary of any program or person that tries to restrict access to your child during any time of the day.
As we consider these changes to our laws and regulations, we must do so thoughtfully and carefully. This horrible case raises far more questions than answers, but we must continue to vigorously enforce our regulations, examine the system overall, and make changes that better protect our children, vulnerable adults and our communities.