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Are Special Laws For Sex Offenders on Halloween Legit?

Research shows no evidence of increased child sex abuse on Halloween, so why the fear-mongering?

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In North Carolina, a sheriff tells parents to check the online sex offender registry before their children go out to trick-or-treat. In Montana, a town offers a “trunk-or-treat” event where kids can get Halloween candy from open and decorated of cars in a parking lot to avoid potential danger. In New York, “Operation Halloween: Zero Tolerance” program sex offenders prohibits sex offenders from wearing masks or costumes or answering their doors on Halloween, and a parole source says, ““There is certainly nothing more frightening than the thought of one of these men opening their door to innocent children.” In Oklahoma, a city council is considering an ordinance forbidding sex offenders from decorating their homes or passing out candy on Halloween. In Orange, California, sex offenders can’t answer their door or have outside lighting on Halloween, but an additional ordinance requiring window signs saying, “No candy or treats at this residence” was recently revoked after attorneys argued it was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Why worry about sex offenders on Halloween? Research shows that no evidence of increased child sex abuse on Halloween and no evidence that a child wasever a victim of sexual abuse by a stranger while out trick-or-treating. This makes perfect sense, because government data shows the vast majority (about 93%) of sex crimes against children are not committed by strangers but by family members or acquaintances. Recently, the afternoon talk show The Doctors examined the debate over the “No candy” signs, and the physicians agreed that the existing laws that barring sex offenders from decorating their homes, having their lights on, and answering the door are probably enough to keep kids safe without the additional signs. Nevertheless, the message to the audience was clear: special sex offender laws are especially important on Halloween.

Fear of social disorder and uncertainty

These laws are the direct product of a culture marked by decades of irrational fears about children and safety on Halloween. Sociologists, such as Joel Best, have tried to understand the urban myths surrounding poisoned candy on Halloween. Media reports warning of potential dangers, such as razor blades in apples, first appeared in the early 1970s, and then spread via word-of-mouth.  Best has never found a death or injury of a child on Halloween related to candy based on his decades of research – and the only substantiated case involves a child deliberately harmed by his own father.

These myths rely on the premise that evil adults are waiting to harm innocent children on Halloween. The poisoned candy myths emerged during a time of increasing fear of crime was increasing and growing awareness about child abuse and child safety. Today, even the Center for Disease Control warns children to only eat pre-wrapped candy and to avoid all homemade treats. The implication is not just that there is a legitimate and genuine risk for poisoning – after all, the Centers for Disease Control is a federal agency solely concerned with preventing disease and injury, and they are telling children unwrapped, poisoned treats are a real hazard – but that buying pre-wrapped candy for children is a more caring and neighborly act than baking homemade cookies or giving out fresh fruit. In other words, the sterility of consumerism can keep us safe and sound.

Sex offender laws on Halloween are a natural outgrowth of the fear of a night of social disorder and grave danger, rooted in the belief that any law that can potentially protect children, or even one child, is a good one. Unfortunately, these laws don’t protect children, nor do they make us feel safer about a child-centric holiday. Children are not at any special risk from sex offenders or sadistic neighbors out to poison them, and these laws increase fear and anxiety and remove fun and excitement.  Halloween should be a night to meet neighbors and connect with community, and it is incredibly harmful to view the occasion as anything else.

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