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You should be told if your neighbour is a paedophile

By Joan McAlpine, the Herald, 21/10/2004

BEFORE we begin, please be reassured you are still reading a quality newspaper, committed to truth and balance. Our front page will not shrink overnight or its masthead turn screaming, hysterical red. Still, what I am about to say is an argument seldom advanced in the journals of the thoughtful middle classes.

It is this: Mark Cummings, the little boy who died at the hands of a paedophile near his home in Glasgow, would still be alive today if his family had known their neighbour was a convicted sex offender. They were denied this vital information because we have no Megan's Law, now enforced in most American states, which gives the public access to details about paedophiles living in their local area.

After the murder of Sarah Payne in England, the Westminster government sought advice from the police, the probation service and children's charities on whether a similar "Sarah's Law" would work here. They were advised against it. You will be well-versed in the arguments, and may even advance them yourself: it will increase vigilante acts, interfere with attempts to treat offenders, and drive individuals "underground" where they cannot be properly monitored by the authorities. Opponents of the law often point out that most abused or murdered children are attacked by someone they know, and so this type of legislation would make little difference. Better, they say, to make sure the right professionals are informed, and give them the power and resources to protect the public. Such comfortable, liberal assertions are easy when you are rich enough to choose your neighbours by purchasing a house in a good area where the population is stable. If you have children, they can probably play safely in their own garden. No doubt you keep them active with lots of organised activity: trips to the sports centre, karate classes, swimming - all under the watchful eye of responsible adults.

Mark's mother and grandmother did not have that luxury. Living in a high-rise in the Royston area of Glasgow, Mark's family would have no say over who moved in - and no power to move out either. Mark's garden was the communal strip of grass where he went to play football with a pal last June, and where he was lured into conversation by Stuart Leggate, his killer. Since they lived in the same block of flats, it is likely that Mark knew his killer - but even if he didn't, his status as a neighbour perhaps made him a "safe" person in the child's innocent eyes.

His death is depressingly similar to that of Megan Kanka, the seven-year-old American who was murdered by a man with two previous convictions who lived across the street. The little girl's mother launched a campaign which she hoped would prevent similar deaths. Most American states have some kind of Megan's Law. In some states you must go to a police station to find out if convicted sex offenders live near you. Others publish everything on the web, including photographs and home addresses.

There is some evidence of vigilante action. Lawyers acting for paedophiles in New Jersey have recently challenged Megan's Law, claiming it discriminates against one particular social group. They have documented 102 such reprisal incidences, of which 55 were directly linked to the online register and which included low level harassment, such as egg-throwing. This is small when you learn there are 3500 released offenders in the state.

Of course, we do not want lynchings. But we should remember that outbreaks of urban hysteria are often triggered by fear and ignorance. That is dissipated if people have access to official, accurate information. Even so, it might be decided that, for their own protection, offenders cannot be housed in the kind of areas where Mark lived - estates where young children often play unsupervised. The authorities will have to find somewhere else to put them. They may need police protection. Unfair? Draconian? Intolerant? Surely it's a matter of who carries the risk? I am advocating moving risk away from the most vulnerable children and on to the men who are a danger to those children. And, yes, I realise children are more likely to be attacked within the home. But while we should not be complacent about family abuse, it does not cancel out the fact that Mark's murder, while rare, follows a distressing pattern. We need to do something about that.

Those who oppose Megan's Law say it will prevent rehabilitation. Of course people should be given a second chance, in the case of the thief and even the thug. Predatory paedophiles are different. While at Peterhead Prison, Leggate was treated under the Stop programme. Stop has received plenty of admiring publicity. Prisoners who undertake the course must admit their guilt and learn to view the offence from the victim's perspective. Completion of this treatment would have reflected well on Leggate and influenced those supervising him in the community after release.

In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that Stop works. When HM inspector of prisons, Dr Andrew McLellan, filed his report on Peterhead this February, he was complimentary about Stop. But he also noted it had not been evaluated since its inception in 1993. He recommended that this was done as a matter of urgency. Until that happens, journalists and others should cease gushing over unproven success because we want easy answers to this difficult problem. Leggate's language when confessing to the murder suggests Stop has done nothing to improve his capacity for empathy. Instead, he displays a psychopathic disregard for the child as an individual. "I heard myself saying, 'You let the last one go; I am not letting this one go." Mark was just a thing. Did Leggate reveal these pathological tendencies during Stop? If so, he should have remained in prison. If not, then he displays personality traits typical of predatory paedophiles: the capacity to deceive and manipulate.

This well-documented ability to deceive makes these men extremely difficult to supervise once they are released. It certainly failed for Leggate, who was monitored by police. Yet this is the option favoured by opponents of Megan's Law: i.e., "trust the experts who have failed to protect you in the past".

It is notoriously difficult to assess the risk of recidivism in sex offenders. The National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (Nota) says past behaviour is the best indication of future behaviour, but points to additional, complex triggers. Some research suggests men who abuse boys, or children outside their own immediate family, are more likely to re-offend than those who violate their daughters. Younger men are also more likely to re-offend, as are those with several previous convictions. All these factors apply to Leggate.

Timescale is important. According to Nota, studies show one in five sexual offenders is reconvicted within five years compared to one in two for offences of non-sexual violence and dishonesty. However, when recidivism is studied over 25 years, 52% of child molesters had re-offended. So the fact that Leggate's last offence was in 1997 did not mean he was "getting better".

We have only begun studying the mind of the paedophile in the past 20 years. There is a long way to go before we can understand it, let alone change it. Even if the people monitoring Leggate had been consultant psychiatrists with a special interest in criminology, there is no guarantee Mark would have lived. He died because we place too much hope in an inexact science. Until we can better predict the behaviour of these volatile, disturbed individuals, we should give power back to the people in the front-line of child protection: the parents.

 
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