Many of the 500,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S. have been convicted of molesting one or more children, completed their sentences, and re-entered society, says U.S. News & World Report. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually exploited before they adulthood. Online registries are one of the few ways to tell if the new neighbor has a history. “There isn’t a profile of a typical sex offender,” says Scott Matson of the Center for Sex Offender Management. “They come in all shapes and sizes–they can be a wealthy neighbor; they can be a professional; they can be unemployed and homeless.” Ninety-one percent are heterosexual. Most abusers are not strangers. A 1998 study said that 60 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls who are sexually victimized are abused by someone they know, whether a friendly neighbor or a doting uncle.
Because every state run its registry its own way, many offenders slip through cracks in the bureaucracy. “The tremendous lack of uniformity means you will be able to protect your children better in one state than another,” says Laura Ahearn of Parents for Megan’s Law. Some states assign a risk rate to offenders and don’t include in their registry the ones who are considered low risk, which means, says Ahearn, “you could live right next to a predator and have no way of finding out.” Her organization gives failing grades to the registries in 22 states, including California, where 102,616 registered sexual offenders reside. Perhaps the biggest loophole is that “we’re counting on convicted sex offenders to do the right thing and to register,” says Nancy McBride of the missing and exploited children’s center. Many don’t.