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sex offender

Readers — It is time to update the term “Kafka-esque,” which seems to suggest bureaucratic madness belonged to another time and continent. That madness is alive and well, even in Dallas, TX, as you’re about to read.  This piece comes from a Facebook post by my speaking engagement agent, Judy Safern at Leading Thinkers. – L. 

I was delighted when my son’s fifth grade teacher asked me if I would accompany their class downtown on a field trip to the art museum. My son was, too. The night before the trip he texted me: “Goodnight!! I love you!! I can’t wait to go to sleep so I can wake up and we can go to the museum!!”

That morning I got to the school, but first had to buzz for entry. Not that Lorena, the secretary couldn’t SEE me through the glass doors and doesn’t recognize me after a year of buzzing me in when I came to  attend concerts, meet with teachers, volunteer in the library…

“Hi Ms. Lorena!” I smiled and waved after she buzzed to ask “Who is it?” “Judy Safern, here for the field trip!”

Bzzzzz. I’m IN!

Then, on to the office to a) sign their Visitor log with the date, time, name of the child I am visiting and reason for my visit, and b) log into the computer and register my presence online and print out a badge with my photo.

But, uh oh!  ”This system does not recognize that name.”

Hmmm. Maybe I’m in there as “Judy” not “Judith” — though, of course I am in there as “Judith” because that’s how my driver’s license identifies me and the school has a copy of my driver’s license. And my water bill. And my lease. And my divorce agreement. They know everything about me.

“Judith Safern,” I typed again.


“Gosh, Lorena,” I said, more flustered than irritated. “What’s going on??”

Other parents were jostling to sign in. “You must not be in there,” she said. “Let me see your driver’s license.”

Daaaaaa’yum. (That’s “damn” with a North Texas dipthong.) Damn. Ms. Lorena is p.o.’d at me.

I handed it over.

She was PISSED. I mean really pissed. She did not have time for this nonsense, no way, no how.

She studied my government ID, looked at me. Yep. Still me. The me she’s known all year. Then she typed my name into HER computer. Looked up at me again. “You’re not in here. You must not have done your background check.”

“Yes, I have…” I said. “Of course I have…”

“Well,” she said with no smile, no irony, “You’re not in here.”

“Would you please check the paper files?” I asked. “I KNOW I’m in the system!”

“No, MA’AM,” she said.

Now, let me explain the use of “ma’am” here for a moment. You see, in Texas, “ma’am” is not an innocent term. It’s loaded. I mean LOADED with meaning and nuance. Loaded like your daddy’s Colt 45 loaded.

When and if one says “ma’am,” the place it appears in the sentence  and the tone in which it is pronounced make ALL the difference in the world.

THIS use of “ma’am” was a dis.

“This is the DISTRICT system,” Lorena said slowly, hand on her screen. “You need to be in HERE to go on the field trip. You must not have submitted your background check or you’d be in here.”

“But I AM in there,” I said. “And I have completed the background check and I have volunteered at this campus. I was just here last week shelving library books. The system recognized me then, I had a printed badge. Look, we can check the log book and find that badge.”

“Oh, you can’t use that badge TODAY!!!,” she said with great alarm.

“No, no, of course not,” I assured her. ” I just mean, we can VERIFY that I’m in the system by locating that — or any of the dozens of other sticker badges — in the log book.”

Because, of course, one can’t simply leave this school after visiting the building, one must surrender one’s badge and sign out. As a rule follower, I have always pasted my badge in the log book at the conclusion of each visit.

Parents were jostling for the logbook. Others were in line to print their badges. I was gently pushed aside.

This poor secretary was overwhelmed. Too much going on at her desk. I spied the office manager a few feet away and sought eye contact. Fail.

“May I please speak to your supervisor?” I asked the secretary.

“Good MORNING, Ms. Safern!” the school counselor greeted me with a shoulder pat as she breezed past, arms loaded with files, en route to a meeting.

“She’s busy right now,” the secretary.

“I understand that,” said I, “but the bus will be here soon and I am supposed to help chaperone this field trip so we need to sort this out. Can I please speak to someone who is willing to help?”

She glared at me.

“I’m sure someone can just CALL the district and verify my background check…I was in the system last week,” I said as mildly as possible.

“Ma’am,” she said.

Oh, f***.  REALLY? Really, Lorena? You’re gonna  ”ma’am” me NOW? We don’t have TIME for Texas Woman Smackdown, the kids want to go see some ART!!!!!!

“Ma’am,” she said “I don’t know WHY you’re not in our system now but if you’re not in the District system on the DAY of the field trip you can’t go.”

The parents who had observed all of this were standing back now. Everyone else had badges.

Mind you, all the f-talk was in my head. I had been calm, cool and collected through the whole thing. But still I was suspect, so none of them spoke up.

They were prepared to send a busload of students with too few chaperones rather than risk the chance that a parent volunteer whose paperwork they could not find might be a pervert.

“How about if you just call?” I asked. “I will go home. And if you can reach someone to verify my clear background and y’all want me to come help today, just call me, I’ll either zip back over here to help chaperone on the bus or I can just meet them downtown.”

“What’s your number?” she asked.

“You HAVE my number,” I said. “It’s all over your filing cabinet and in several different computer screens.”

“Write it down for me, ” she said. “I don’t have time to look it up.”

(Something about this part of the exchange felt as if she was TESTING me to see if I, the evil shapeshifter who had somehow invaded the face and form of Judy Safern, in fact KNEW the number???)

Rule follower that I am, I wrote it down…

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said with a smile as I left. “I appreciate your help and I’ll be waiting to hear from you!”

Then I did what anyone with my national media contacts WOULD do.

The Today Show? The New York Times? The Huffington Post?

I speed dialed Lenore Skenazy as I walked to my car.

“Worst-first thinking,” she said. “That’s what just happened. Without official paperwork they immediately leapt to the worst case scenario, first: that you COULD be a pervert. What would happen if they let you go, even without being able to find you in the district system? Of course, with all those teachers, volunteers, museum guards and docents around, you might not actually have had an opportunity to RAPE any of the kids today but, who knows, you might still groom someone.”

We spoke for about ten minutes. Lenore let me vent. She did a great riff on how just-following-orders, Nazi-complicit the whole thing is: ”Well, sure, they’re good NEIGHBORS and they seem like fine people, but the law says that they must be marched out of town and shot, so what can I do?”

Lenore is not just a champion for giving kids more independence and Free-Range, she’s an advocate for more common sense in all dealings.

“The fear factor in public schools in some states is out of control,” she said. “It’s counter-productive.”

It was a fascinating, fun, reassuring conversation, but as we were speaking, my other line rang.

“Hang on, Lenore! It’s THEM!”

“Ma’am?” I heard Lorena say in a conciliatory voice. “I don’t know WHY but for some reason your name was just not associated with our school today, but you ARE in the system and we DID find your clearance so you can come on the field trip.”

Which I did.

But, um, I think we need to re-evaluate the policies and procedures here. Maybe not go with “worst-first thinking” — maybe go with common sense, or even the odds? Rules ARE important. I appreciate them. I follow them.  But rules are RULES.

They are not REALITY. –  Judy Safern

Welcome, kids, teachers and pre-screened, government-approved parents!

Hi Readers! There’s the boogey man and then there’s the ice cream man. But thanks to a country suffused with predator panic, the two are fused together like the twin sticks of a  Popsicle.

It’s the same if you are guy and you want to work in day care, or as a birthday party clown, or even as a Cub Scout leader: everyone gives you the extra once over. God forbid an adult male likes being around kids! In our society, we’ve been conditioned into distrusting that. Hence, this latest proposal:

Earning the right to sell ice cream or any products door-to-door in Attleboro [MA] could soon require an extensive background check. City Councilor Mark Cooper will introduce an item at Tuesday’s council meeting calling for state and federal fingerprint-based criminal history checks for people applying for certain licenses….

“I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy to make sure the ice cream man isn’t a person who would harm our children,” Cooper said.

His proposal — or at least the ice cream part of it —  is based on two entirely false premises:

1 – The idea that ice cream guys are creepy pedophiles until “proven” otherwise.


2 – That background checks make anyone safer. Considering that the majority of the guys on sex offender lists do NOT pose a threat to kids AND that the majority of the people who DO pose a threat to kids are NOT on the list  – what is the POINT?

Only to reinforce our fear of men around kids, period.

“This ordinance is based on paranoia, not on safety, and certainly not on common sense,” says Ben Miller, policy analyst at the think tank I’m working with, Common Good. “The real menace isn’t the ice cream man—it’s the bureaucratic license requirement making it harder for entrepreneurs to create jobs in a struggling community.”

Bureaucracy and fear go hand in hand.

Wait a sec! Isn’t that kind of…pervy? – L

How terrifying!

How terrifying!

Hi readers — I thought this was a fantastic post by a dad mistaken for a pedophile. My blood was boiling on his behalf.  BUT…wait’ll you get to the guy’s conclusion. It does not sit well with me. Wonder if it makes you squirm, too. – L.

P.S. This story got sent to me last week, though now I see it’s from about a year ago. Anyway, still curious as to your reaction.

Yikes! Is that a male with a female child !?!

Yikes! Is that a grown male with a female child?!?


[brightcove vid=1777239257001&exp3=1684488549001&surl=http://c.brightcove.com/services&pubid=35121359001&pk=AQ~~,AAAACC1laJk~,tMO2d6O4mickzCfG8Kpt2wQCZRxpuzpo&lbu=http://www.ksdk.com/video/default.aspx?bctid=1777239257001&w=300&h=225]

Readers — Will you please watch this news report and tell me what is going on? A man in a pick-up truck calls out to a girl, “Come here” and this is the BREAKING STORY OF THE DAY? Every single cop car is ON THE CASE? The newsroom is scrambling its reporters to GET THAT STORY? – L

Hi Folks! I have  a new theory: Don’t trust anyone who claims that “children are our most valuable/precious/vulnerable…” anything. They are always out to sell. Like this one. —  L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m on a couple of e-mail lists for deal-of-the-day promotions. This one showed up today.
Truthfully, when I think of Groupon and its brethren, I tend to think of, say, $24 worth of cupcakes for $15,  not $240 worth of  ”Be Really Frightened and Overreact!” advice for $25.  (Not to mention that an awful lot of the stuff mentioned in this “deal” seems to be stuff one could get for free with a little quality time with Mr. Google, but that’s another problem for another day.)
The deal is brought to us by “Kids Live Safe,” whose website is a shining example of the parent-frightening industry at its best (worst).  Everything we see could be part of a checklist right from the Scare Parents Into Buying Something Unhelpful That Will Make Them Feel Better But Not Help Their Children:
    *Photo showing vulnerable child (extra ten points for female child) embraced by loving mommy? Check.
    *Lots of Unnecessary Capital Letters on Frightening Words? Check.
    *Promise of lots of technology to show how up-to-date and cutting edge the service is? Check.
    *Unintentional grammatical errors unwittingly demonstrating how stupid the whole thing really is? Check checkity check!
The one item in the package that many people might truly benefit from — the FBI crime statistics — is, I suspect, the one item they’re going to look at the least.  But, as you’ve said repeatedly, if folks DID take the time to look, they’d discover that the rate of truly nasty crimes has been dropping in recent memory.  It’s our culture’s relentless quest to keep children perfectly safe (impossible this side of heaven!) that’s been spiraling out of control, not crime.
So just wanted to say: Keep up the good fight. — Dairy State Mom

Hi Readers — This is a candid letter from the mom of a sex offender who is on the registry for life. Read it and see if our sex offender laws are doing the job they were intended to do: keep our kids safe from predators. — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: My son was recently subjected to a death threat when a neighbor discovered that he was listed on the sex offender registry. What heinous crime had my son committed that our neighbor deemed worthy of death? “Falling in love.”


He was 17, she told him she was 16. At the time he had no reason to doubt her. A short time later he learned a harsh life lesson. They never got beyond kissing or hand holding, but she wrote in her diary that they had made love. When her mother read the entry in her 14-year-old daughter’s diary she quite justifiably became angry. Without talking with either one of them, she called the police and had my son arrested. He spent 45 days in jail awaiting trial.


Had the mother taken her daughter to the doctor, she would have found out that her daughter was simply voicing a private fantasy. The girl begged her mother to stop the proceedings, but the wheels of “justice” were already in motion.


The girl was so distraught about the situation that she constantly sought to contact my son to apologize and beg him not to hate her. She finally convinced her older sister to help her get in touch with him. One day shortly after sentencing and being put on a strict 3-year probation mandating no contact with his “victim,” my son was walking home from the store a block from our house. A car pulled up behind him and he heard a familiar voice beg, “Please stop and talk to me for a minute, we won’t tell anyone, please!”

His only reaction was to break into a full run. He burst through the front door of our home and collapsed into a pale, quivering heap of fear in the middle of the floor.  He managed to shakily mumble enough for me to realize what had just happened.  I immediately took him to the police station and had them document exactly what had happened. Only with their assurance that he had done the right thing and that everything would be OK, could he finally calm down enough to breathe.
My son was quite shy around girls to begin with and she was his first love. As things stand right now, he may very well never have another. He never finished high school due to his probation rules, and will be required to register twice a year for the rest of his life. He has lost every job he has been able to find, due to his listing on the registry.  He can never join the military, or even follow his lifelong dream of a career in music, even though he is a talented singer/songwriter and drummer.
Why not? The laws work this way: His sentence was 3 years’ probation and 25 years on the registry in his state of conviction, Michigan. He couldn’t keep a job in Michigan, he kept losing them because of the registry, resulting in homelessness. Homelessness and joblessness are parole violations, so he was sent to jail for six months. After two more trips to jail for failure to register — resulting in three more months in jail —  he came here to South Carolina to live with us.  As long as he can keep a roof over his head and registers when required, he will be safe. A third failure to register could send him  to prison for a mandatory 5 year sentence. Unfortunately, in our state, sex offender registration is lifetime for everyone.

He cannot pursue his musical career because it costs money (which neither he nor we have), for his instruments and upkeep, advertising, etc. Plus, if you are on the registry you have to  go in and report everywhere you are employed. Which means if he had a gig in, say, Seattle, he would have to report the address of his performance, the length of time he will be there, where he would be staying for the duration, etc. This is required for each and every change, notwithstanding the fact that anytime he leaves his home address for more than 3 days, it has to be approved with both the sheriff’s department here and the sheriff’s department at his destination, and either of them are at liberty to deny his request at any time.
I also wanted to mention, that although he does not have a driver’s license, he is required to register OUR car on his registry listing, which makes public, the make, model, color and plates of our car. This may seem trivial to some, but to a vigilante our car becomes a target, regardless of who is driving it.
The whole thing makes for a very complicated and many times hopeless existence. — Lila Folster

Beware of young love.

Hi Readers! Ever look at a map of the local sex offenders, the ones with little dots showing where the guys live who prey upon helpless little children? Well, as of this week, there are two dots that won’t come off until the guys die of old age — which could be quite a while.

Right now, they’re both 16.

The boys committed their crime at age 14. And just what was it?

Horseplay. Stupid, disgusting horseplay. According to NJ.com, the kids pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-olds’ faces for the simple reason that they “thought it was funny” and were trying to get their “friends to laugh.”

That’s how one of the teens explained himself to a Somerset County, N.J., judge back in 2008. (His friend headed off a trial by pleading guilty to the same act.)

The judge then considered what he had in front of him, and rather than think, “These punks could use some community service time and maybe a suspension from school — plus an in-person apology to the kids they sat on,” he thought, “These two are sex offenders.”

After all, what they had done was, technically, “criminal sexual contact” with intent to humiliate or degrade. And so sex offenders he ruled they were. That meant they were subject to Megan’s Law. In New Jersey, such offenders, even as young as 13, have to register for life.

This past week, the young men appealed their sentence and lost.

What does it mean to be on the sex offender list? First of all, the public knows where you live. Websites and newspapers can publish your photo. So can TV news. Parents can warn their kids never to go near you.

In many states, registered sex offenders have to live a certain distance from where kids congregate, be that a school, day care center, park or bus stop. So these young men may have to move to the sticks.

When they get a job (Good luck! Not many places are dying to hire registered sex offenders), they have to notify the authorities of where they’re working.

They also have to re-register four times a year, and if they miss an appointment, they can go to jail. In some communities, they have to turn their lights off on Halloween. In others, they have to answer the door saying, “I’m a registered sex offender.” All because of this stupid prank they pulled at age 14.

And meantime, their presence as a dot on the map is terrifying everyone in their neighborhood. After all, they’re on the sex offender list!

“These lists were originally conceived by most of the voters who cheered them on as lists of people who had some sort of psychological compulsion to sexual predation,” explains Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. People assume anyone on it is “a permanent menace.”

These guys are more like Dennis the Menace, which is why we have to change the criteria that land folks on the registry. These young men were never “predators.” And as the years go by, the idea that they pose a danger to children will become even more ridiculous. When you’re 20, 30, 40 — 80! — you don’t do the things you did as a 14-year-old trying to impress your buddies. Why is Megan’s Law blind to human nature?

If it were making kids safer, maybe we could overlook how obtuse it is. But a 2008 study found that, in New Jersey at least — where little Megan Kanka, for whom the law is named, was murdered — the law showed no effect in reducing the number of sexual re-offenses or reducing the number of victims.

It’s time to change the law and the registry. Otherwise, too many of the dots on a sex offender map will be victims, not criminals. — L