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Parents for Megan's Law touts record on sex offenders as it seeks to expand into Nassau

Laura Ahearn, Executive Director of Parents for Megan's

Laura Ahearn, Executive Director of Parents for Megan's Law and The Crime Victims Center, works with a team on helping them use the new technology, which includes tablets and smartboards, during a meeting in Ronkonkoma, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

Parents for Megan's Law, a nonprofit that monitors convicted sex offenders in Suffolk County, has alerted police to 173 cases in which offenders allegedly reported inaccurate addresses, contributing to 38 arrests, according to the agency and new county data.

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, said in the first 16 months of the program, the agency also has identified more than 160 offenders who had not updated their photos on the state's sex offender registry as required by law.

The Ronkonkoma-based agency, which works to prevent and treat victims of child sexual abuse and rape, is halfway through its $2.7 million contract with Suffolk and is touting its record as it seeks to expand into Nassau.

"Our role is to gather information and to confirm what offenders are providing to the registry so that the community can have a tool that's up to date and accurate," Ahearn said. "That means when someone goes online and looks up an offender, they know that information is up to date."


Prevention vs. monitoring

Critics say the money would be better spent on sexual abuse prevention programs in schools, since abusers often are family members and others known to victims.

They also note state and county figures showing that state parole and Suffolk probation officers already are monitoring 473 of Suffolk's 1,100 convicted offenders.

"It's such a disservice. . . . Those are resources that could be going toward prevention programs," said Bill O'Leary, a licensed social worker who treats sex offenders and sex abuse victims.

In March 2013, Suffolk awarded Parents for Megan's Law nearly $900,000 in annual funding for three years, under County Executive Steve Bellone's Community Protection Act.

The law, approved unanimously by the County Legislature in an emergency vote that bypassed committee hearings, turned over the task of verifying the addresses of Suffolk's 1,100 offenders to Parents for Megan's Law. The legislation also ended the practice of placing homeless sex offenders in trailers on the East End.

Convicted sex offenders in New York are required by law to report their addresses, and to provide current photographs to a state online registry, which the public can search.

Parents for Megan's Law's contract also calls for education programs, and Ahearn said the agency has conducted 205 workshops in schools, libraries and community centers this year.

The agency has hired seven retired law enforcement officers, with starting salaries of $50,000 a year, who go out in morning and evening shifts to verify addresses of offenders.

They travel in teams of two, with assignments to verify the addresses of 10 offenders per week. They forward offenders' names to Suffolk County police for follow-up if they are unable to reach them after five attempts.

Before the in-person visits, investigators comb social media websites to ensure offenders are not violating rules that restrict their online activities.

"Generally, the offenders are cooperative -- they're not looking for trouble," one investigator, a former Brooklyn homicide detective who declined to be identified, said after verifying the address of a "level 3" sex offender -- a designation for those who commit the most serious offenses -- at a one-story brick house in Gordon Heights.


Nassau still in talks

Nassau police officials said they expect next month to begin their contract with Parents for Megan's Law to monitor the social media activity of the county's 550 registered sex offenders. County officials and Ahearn said the price of the contract still is under negotiation, but declined to comment further.

O'Leary and others continue to question the value of the monitoring programs.

Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether the program was "making the community safer," given that recidivism rates are lower for sex offenders than other felons. Data from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision shows that of convicted sex offenders released from prison in 2009, 3.9 percent had committed another felony by 2013, compared with 9.6 percent of all felony offenders.

As an alternative to the monitoring programs, O'Leary has been lobbying state lawmakers to pass "Erin's Law," which would require school districts to offer sexual abuse prevention education for students.

The measure -- named after Erin Merryn, a sexual abuse survivor and author -- passed the New York State Senate last year, but was rejected by the Assembly's education committee. Nineteen other states have passed the law.

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