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When evil lurks near our children

Echoes of the final bell faded as Kansas children recently pushed through the doors of Central Elementary School and headed home.

On this spring day, small groups cut across the lawn of an adjacent eight-unit apartment house -- the home of a convicted child molester. Two years out of prison, he lived about 200 feet from where the kids played during the school year in Kansas City, Kan.

But he wasn't breaking any laws. In Kansas, sex offenders can live wherever they want -- even if that's right next door to a school.

In Missouri, where 1,000-foot residency restrictions became law nearly two years ago, children remain vulnerable. Hundreds of offenders in Jackson County alone live closer than that to a school or day care, a Kansas City Star investigation revealed. Many live there legally because they set up residence before state law changed.

Proponents insist the boundaries protect children from predators. Parents feel safer. And when states don't have buffer zones, or don't actively enforce the ones they have, thousands of children could be at risk, they say.

"This is a sick world and someone has to do something," said Topeka's Tonya Marie Smith, a child-molestation survivor who favors buffer zones everywhere. "Someone a child sees every day in the neighborhood, they don't think of as a stranger."

Overall in Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties, 450 offenders -- nearly 25 percent of the total -- live within 1,000 feet of a school or day care, The Star found.

Among other findings:

Sixty percent of Wyandotte County offenders and almost half of Johnson County's are registered at addresses inside a 2,500-foot school boundary proposed recently in Kansas.

One in four Jackson County offenders resides inside Missouri's 1,000-foot buffer zone for schools and day cares. Authorities don't know how many offenders break the law, which only involves address changes after August 2004.

Missouri corrections officials repeatedly authorized illegal living arrangements for paroled offenders.

Parents like Kirsten McGuire, a midtown resident and mother of two, can't understand the lack of accountability by authorities and offenders.

"I think it's pretty pathetic," McGuire said. "What good is a law that isn't enforced?"

Oh my goodness'

Oftentimes offenders live near schools unnoticed and undetected. Though some area school officials routinely visit the registries, many others do not. A few said they didn't know where to check.

But when they did, surprise turned to shock.

This spring, Central Elementary in Kansas City, Kan., didn't have just one sex offender registered nearby. It had six, according to the latest registry. All within 300 feet, less than the distance covered while circling the bases on a baseball diamond.

As of press time, all six remained registered in the neighborhood, though three had moved, according to their landlord.

Five of the six had victimized children under age 14. The sixth, a repeat offender, committed one crime against a child under age 16.

"Certainly we're concerned about it. ... It almost seems like a disproportional amount," said Central Principal John Burton, who thought Kansas already had a buffer zone.

His staff already teaches children about stranger danger and what to do if approached. Students learn to walk home in groups, not alone. After The Star informed Burton of the offenders, he drafted a letter informing his students' families, saying, "I'm writing to you as a parent."

Media attention also prompted the offender living closest to the school to move last month. His landlord, Max Harrell, said he asked him to leave.

"His apartment was facing a school," said Harrell, who rented to all six offenders near Central but has not asked others to move. "Out of respect for us he did move."

Harrell, who accepts parolees as tenants, didn't know any of the six were sex offenders until recently.

"We won't rent to them anymore," he said.

Throughout Kansas City, Kan., many school officials were surprised to learn offenders lived so close to schools. Stacia Brown, principal of Caruthers Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., didn't realize two nearby residents were offenders until told by The Star.

"Now I'm worried," she said. "My kids who are walkers could be in possible danger every day."

Her school is among the 160 in Wyandotte, Johnson and Jackson counties The Star found with at least one offender nearby. At least 21 schools had three or more offenders within 1,000 feet.

Mark Twain Elementary Principal Marguerite Martinez already had been tipped by her sister to two offenders living within a few hundred feet of her Kansas City, Kan., school. The sister accessed an Internet sex-offender mapping site.

"I just looked at it and said, Oh my goodness,' " Martinez said. "We have one bus and everybody else walks."

Martinez warned teachers and promised to learn more about nearby offenders.

Across the area, some districts are so concerned about offenders that they consult registries when planning -- or moving -- bus stops. The Kansas City, Kan., district recently shifted a stop after parents warned officials an offender lived in front of one.

The Fort Osage School District has done the same.

"We don't want to be dropping kids off in front of an offender's house," said Assistant Superintendent John Ruddy, whose district regularly monitors where offenders live. "We need that awareness level."

It's unfortunate, he said, that those who lived within the 1,000-foot boundary when the Missouri law took effect are allowed to remain.

"That's the frustrating part of this law," he said.

The Kansas debate

Smith of Topeka discovered last year that a sex offender lived in the apartment building next to hers. She immediately worried about neighborhood children and the nearby elementary school.

"It was like something snapped inside," said Smith, who for more than three decades kept secret the pain and scars of being molested as a child. "I was like, It's time to tell the world and get something done.' "

That night as her neighbors slept, Smith plastered her neighborhood with fliers about the man. He moved within two days.

Smith again stood out front as a victim and proponent as Kansas considered buffer zones earlier this year. She pushed for a bill that would have, among other things, prohibited child molesters and pedophiles from living within 2,500 feet of a school and 1,000 feet of a day care.

And she spoke before Topeka City Council members as they debated whether to implement a 2,000-foot buffer. The buffer failed 5-4.

In the state Legislature, lawmakers tabled buffer zones for further study and prohibited other cities from implementing their own until research is done. They instead toughened prison sentences for child molesters and strengthened registration requirements.

Kansas state Rep. Ward Loyd, of Garden City, said current registries contain too many low-risk offenders to order all of them away from schools. Buffer zones likely will come up again next session.

"You need to apply surgery skills to identify and target the ones we ought to be afraid of," Loyd said. "Too many times they (states and cities) throw a blanket out there and say, We've done our job.' "

Skeptics say buffer zones take substantial resources to enforce and don't provide the foolproof protection many claim.

First, registries are full of inaccuracies, with no way to know who really lives where. A Star investigation of registered offenders in three area counties found that nearly a third did not live where they said.

Second, no matter where offenders live, they easily can prowl other neighborhoods for victims.

And third, extreme boundaries push some offenders underground and leave authorities no way to monitor them.

If the 2,500-foot buffer had passed, huge swaths of Johnson and Wyandotte counties would have been off limits to child molesters and sex predators.

No comprehensive studies exist nationwide on whether the residential restrictions work. But some small studies, and experiences in other states, suggest downsides.

In Iowa, which began enforcing 2,000-foot boundaries in September, authorities lost track of 200 offenders in the first six months.

Studies from Colorado and Minnesota found no connection between recidivism and how close the offender lived to a school, according to a report given to Florida lawmakers last year.

Another study found that such laws tended to isolate Florida offenders from family and community support, causing financial stress and instability in their living arrangements.

"Such restrictions can lead to homelessness and transience, which interfere with effective tracking, monitoring and close probationary supervision," Jill Levenson, an assistant professor of human services at Lynn University, told Florida lawmakers.

But buffer supporters like Missouri state Rep. Brian Baker from Belton, who pushed to expand Missouri's zone to one mile, said society can't just sit back and wait for the next child to be victimized. Baker said he has counseled the victims of child sex abuse and has seen the emotional scars left behind.

"I see this as a preventative measure," he said. "Anything we can do that protects children from this sort of crime is something that needs to be done."

Missouri problems

Missouri's buffer became law in August 2004. Violators face up to four years in prison, though none has been prosecuted yet in Jackson County.

Sheriffs' deputies lack the time and resources to ensure that all of the county's 1,400 offenders obey the law, officials say. That means some violators catch a break and don't get caught.

The Star also found multiple examples of state employees repeatedly, though inadvertently, creating violations.

For example, 13 registered offenders resided in two midtown apartment buildings within 1,000 feet of an elementary school and church-operated day care. Probation and parole officials approved many of their plans to live there.

Officials made those placements before the department began using Kansas City Police Department maps last fall to determine where offenders legally can live, said Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth. Those violators must move when their leases expire, he said.

But the department neglected to map one key address, 1514 Campbell St. in Kansas City, until the The Star pointed out a problem with it.

Even after the buffer took effect, corrections officials placed dozens of convicted sex offenders there at the Kansas City Community Center, a work-release residential facility in the shadows of Kansas City's downtown high-rises. About 40 offenders currently live there.

Less than 1,000 feet away sits the campus for the Kansas City School District's Manual Career and Technical Center, also home to a preschool.

Gene Morgan, the residential facility's president, said no one previously questioned the center's proximity to school property.

Officials are considering how to fix the situation, Hauswirth said.

While the Corrections Department seeks to rectify its own mistakes, the task of enforcing the boundary law in Jackson County has fallen to one woman.

Kathy Covey, a detective with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, must make time, often working overtime, for that duty while also investigating rapes, robberies, burglaries and other crimes.

Following tips from the public, Covey has developed cases against 24 offenders and plans to soon submit them to prosecutors.

Unless they get more money to hire additional deputies, Jackson County sheriff's officials say, they can't do much more than respond to individual complaints about offenders.

Maybe someday, Jackson County can do what some smaller Missouri counties with fewer offenders already do: search out violators and arrest them.

After detectives in Marion County, home to Hannibal, recently arrested one-eighth of their offenders, some complained that the buffer restrictions hadn't been enforced where they previously lived, said sheriff's investigator Regina Webb.

"We tell them we didn't make the law," she said. "We just enforce it."

To reach Laura Bauer, call (816) 234-7743 or send e-mail to lbauer@kcstar.com. To reach Tony Rizzo, call (816) 234-4435 or send e-mail to trizzo@kcstar.com.

About the staff

Tony Rizzo, 48, covers crime and criminal justice issues and has been with The Kansas City Star for 22 years.

Laura Bauer, 35, is a Kansas desk general assignment reporter and has been at The Star for 1 1/2 years, arriving from the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

Staff writer John Shultz contributed to the series.

The series was edited by Donna McGuire, a crime and justice editor. Don Munday was the copy editor.

How these stories were done

How close do offenders live to schools and day cares? To find out, The Star created an extensive database of offender addresses from Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties and plotted them on Google Earth, an Internet mapping system built on satellite images.

Reporters excluded offenders whose addresses were unverified in Kansas or who were in correctional facilities in either state.

The Star obtained and plotted the addresses of public and private schools from state education departments and other sources. In Missouri, the Department of Health and Senior Services provided day-care addresses for commercial, church-based and licensed home providers.

Because of a state law, Kansas authorities would not provide a similar day-care list. So The Star used various sources, including phone directory listings and a child-care center list provided by the Day Care Connection referral agency, to create as comprehensive a list of day cares as possible. Still, addresses for several hundred could not be obtained and were not plotted. Reporters called day cares listed in the phone book to verify that each still operated at the listed address.

Once reporters identified schools or day cares with multiple sex offenders nearby, they again went out in pairs to verify offenders' addresses.

Reporters used a Google Earth measuring feature to calculate how many offenders resided within 1,000 feet of the schools and day-care facilities. In addition, reporters measured how many Kansas schools and offenders were within 2,500 feet of each other.

Reporters also borrowed from Kansas City police a device that measures distances at accident scenes and used it to verify Google Earth's accuracy between two locations.

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