An offender among us

These toys belong to a child care facility in the basement of a North Lawndale house. A convicted sexual predator lives on the second floor of the same building and is listed as "compliant" with Illinois law requiring him to register. Photo by Joe Gallo.

These toys belong to a child care facility in the basement of a North Lawndale house. A convicted sexual predator lives on the second floor of the same building and is listed as "compliant" with Illinois law requiring him to register. Photo by Joe Gallo.

LaKicia Brown walks with a confident stride, but her eyes are laced with worry. A veteran educator with a decade’s experience before she opened the Loren Children’s Learning Center in the South Shore neighborhood in 2006, Brown thought she knew all the issues that should concern her.

But she didn’t realize until recently that James Lilly lived next door to her facility. Or that Alan Campbell and Roderick Wesley lived on the next block on South Merrill Avenue.

All three men are convicted child sex offenders–”and they are violating a state law by living less than 500 feet away from Brown’s facility. Yet, the men are listed as “compliant” on the state’s sex offender registry.

“It’s definitely a concern because we are dealing with children,” Brown said. “You never really know what’s going to happen so we take the necessary precautions to make sure [sexual abuse] doesn’t happen here.”

These measures include putting locks on the building’s front and back doors, installing video cameras in the facility and having the children play in an enclosed back yard.

Many other facilities may need to take similar precautions.

In Chicago, 797 child sex offenders and predators are violating the state’s residency rule by living within 500 feet of a school, playground or licensed child care facility, The Chicago Reporter found. And they are doing so with impunity, as the state’s law enforcement agencies have done little to crack down on these violators.

The Reporter’s analysis shows that these violations occurred in communities across the city but happened most often in poor and black neighborhoods.

The Reporter interviewed nearly a dozen local and state elected officials, but few seemed aware of the high number of violations. This could be in part because online sex offender registries maintained by the Illinois State Police and the City of Chicago are effective in flagging only a small number of violations.

A vast majority of violations are likely to be overlooked since the registries, while allowing their users to search sex offenders by proximity to schools and parks, do not take into account the locations of more than 3,300 licensed child care facilities in the city.

The state police’s registry even labels 693 offenders who are violating the residency rule in Chicago as “compliant.” More than 40 percent of these offenders, in fact, live within 500 feet of two or more facilities.

And law enforcement agencies can produce little evidence that they have been vigilant in enforcing the residency rule in the city.

The Chicago Police Department declined to respond to the Reporter’s repeated requests for comment on the issue. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said it does not tally how many violations it has been alerted to by local police departments. The office also said it filed two charges against residency violators in 2008, four in 2009 and just one in 2010.

This lack of enforcement dismayed state Sen. Iris Martinez, whose district had 34 offenders violating the residency rule.

“We have laws in place because we are trying to protect our children,” Martinez said. “Once again, we say to law enforcement, –˜They’ve got to put their money and their resources to what is most important.’

“It is not acceptable that we take this attitude. It could mean that the life of a child could be saved,” she said.

Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a Springfield, Ill.-based advocacy group, acknowledged the scarcity of resources available but warned that the consequences of abuse demand vigilance on the issue. “Living in an era of diminished resources can lead to complacency about accountability,” she said. “Once sexual abuse occurs, what a tremendous drain that is on people’s ability to function the way they would like and what a loss that is to the community and the society at large.”

Alderman Anthony Beale, whose 9th Ward had 37 residency rule violators, the city’s sixth-highest total, echoed the concern and called for action, legislative or otherwise, to be taken.

“The safety of children is always first and foremost as it relates to public safety,” he said. “If this is some kind of undercurrent under the radar, we need to address it aggressively.”

Illinois law states that child sex offenders may not knowingly live within 500 feet of a school, playground or “child care institution, child care center, part-day child care facility, or a facility providing programs or services exclusively directed toward persons under 18 years of age.”

When sex offenders are released from prison, the Illinois Department of Corrections is initially responsible for making sure that their new residence meets the state’s residency rule, said Cara Smith, the department’s chief of staff.

In Chicago, sex offenders must register within three days of their release with the police department, and, depending on their offense, re-register every three or 12 months.

The Chicago Police Department declined repeated requests for information about whether it checks the residency rule as part of offenders’ registration.

Offenders who fulfill their registration responsibilities are listed as “compliant” by the state police on its sex offender registry, said Isaiah Vega, a department spokesman.

But being identified as compliant means nothing for the residency rule.

In Chicago, 44 percent of 1,573 child sex offenders who are identified as compliant lived within 500 feet of a school, playground or licensed child care facility. So did 335, or 44 percent, of the city’s 755 sexual “predators,” a group of offenders who have been convicted of more serious crimes than child sex offenders.

These violations happened most often and at higher percentages in communities with median incomes below the citywide median, the Reporter analysis found. The same trend occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods.

In the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, for example, 66 of 84–”or 79 percent–”of child sex offenders identified as compliant are violating the residency rule–”the highest number in the city. The Auburn Gresham neighborhood has 38 of 45–”or 84 percent–”of its offenders in the same circumstances. Both communities had median incomes below the city’s, and both areas are predominantly black.

By contrast, Forest Glen, a predominantly white neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side that had a median income significantly higher than the city’s, had just two offenders, neither of whom violated the residency rule.

In all, 64 percent of all residency rule violations occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods, compared with 12 percent in Latino communities and 4 percent in white neighborhoods.

Of the city’s 77 community areas, 35 percent were predominantly black, according to a Reporter analysis of census data. Majority-Latino communities made up 16 percent, while 19 percent of the neighborhoods were predominantly white.

This range in compliance levels is caused in large part by the fact that more sex offenders live in black communities, and more licensed child care facilities are also located in those neighborhoods. Black communities had 57 percent of all licensed child care facilities in Chicago, compared with just 11 percent in Latino neighborhoods and 6 percent in white areas.

But Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children, a Chicago-based children’s advocacy group, said the number of violations may actually be higher.

The Illinois Department of Human Services found that 35 percent of Chicago children less than 4 years old were in child care provided informally by friends, family and neighbors–”in facilities that were not licensed with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Whelan said the 1996 passage of welfare reform and many single mothers’ unpredictable work schedules have created a market for child care providers in the community who can meet the needs of people with constantly changing work hours.

The number of people whose occupation was indicated as “day care” in the census rose 14 percent in Chicago from 17,790 in 2005 to 20,240 in 2009–”at twice the growth rate of all jobs in the city, according to a Reporter analysis of census data.

The vast majority of residency rule violators–”767, or 94 percent–”live near child care facilities. Just 15 of the violators were near schools, while another 31 live near playgrounds.

Yet, online sex offender registries fail to pay close attention to locations of child care facilities. The city’s registry can be searched for sex offenders’ locations by ward, school, park or address but not by child care facility.

The state police’s registry shows the locations of each sex offender, along with icons for each park and school in the state, but there are no similar icons for child care facilities.

Alderman Beale said that absence should end. “If you’ve got parks and schools, you should have child care [facilities] also,” he said.

Vega of the state police said the placement of any icons identifying schools and parks goes beyond the law’s mandates. Concerned people can enter the address of the child care facility and identify the number of offenders living within a 500-foot radius, he said.

Ann Spillane, chief of staff at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, said child care facilities should be included on the site as part of giving the public as much information as possible.

Besides the lack of information about child care facilities and playgrounds, the state police’s registry can be misleading. On the site, the word “compliant” simply means that the offenders have complied with state law by registering at prescribed intervals. The offenders’ compliance status has nothing to do with whether they are complying with the residency rule, which is monitored by local police, Vega said.

As a result, the offenders could literally be living in the same building as a child care facility and still be listed as compliant. The Reporter discovered one such instance in Chicago.

But such information is apparently not shared regularly among relevant agencies.

Spillane said that’s been an ongoing problem. “We should be using the computer technology that’s available to us and allowing people to see through mapping where child care facilities are and where ex-offenders live,” she said. “We have struggled for years to have all relevant agencies talk to each other and exchange data on a regular basis so that the public can go and be armed.”

The lack of child care facility data on online registries is a case in point.

DCFS maintains a list of licensed child care facilities in the state on the Sunshine Illinois site. Kendall Marlowe, a DCFS spokesman, said his department “regularly responds” to requests from law enforcement agencies for lists of child care facilities but does not share it with the state police or the City of Chicago on an ongoing basis.

Such problems reveal an inadequate system, Martinez said. She added that no law enforcement agency is taking sufficient responsibility to change this untenable situation. She said she plans to “see what we have in current law, looking to see if it’s a matter of amending or enforcement.”

Opinions differ widely about the effectiveness of residency restrictions in keeping children safe.

Ed Yohnka, communications and public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, maintained that the law has the opposite of its intended effect. By giving offenders so few places in which to live, he said, the legislation makes them less likely to register and essentially drives them underground.

Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., has written a number of studies that have shown that residency restrictions have no connection to reduced rates of child sexual abuse. “There doesn’t seem to be any real statistical correlation between proximity to a school or child care facility and an offender’s likelihood of reoffending,” Levenson said.

But state Sen. Jacqueline Collins rejected the notion that offenders living so close to a child care facility did not present a risk to children, noting that the majority of child abductors strike close to their own neighborhoods. More often than not, she said, those neighbors are black.

Registries can give parents a false sense of security, said Margie Slagle, an attorney who specializes in the child sexual abuse issue at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. This can deter parents from learning about the issue, she said. She endorsed an approach in which offenders are assessed by psychologists for their risk of reoffending, rather than subjected to a uniform residency restriction.

Levenson said Illinois’ residency rule is lenient, with many other states and municipalities using distances of 2,000 or even 2,500 feet.

The Reporter found that offenders were prohibited from living in 34 percent of the city’s total area. This analysis did not distinguish between residential and commercial areas of the city.

Alderman Beale pushed for higher levels of compliance with the existing law. “If I have to round up my state lawmakers, I’ll do it,” Beale said.

Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose 5th Ward includes much of the South Shore neighborhood, where the Loren Child Care Center is located, called for regular briefings from the police to the aldermen about the registry so that they can help keep their constituents informed.

Back at the Center, Brown calls firmly to Tristan, a preschooler, to sit on a chair before turning to smile tenderly at a boy who thanks her for sharpening his pencil. While saying that she does not endorse forcing offenders from the community, she also does not support compromising on the existing statute. “Kids are the first priority,” she said. “Adults are here to protect them.”

Contributing: Angela Caputo, Kimbriell Kelly and Alden Loury. Allison Griner, Louis McGill and A. Jay Wagner helped research this article.

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