- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - Desiree Navin moved with her two young children to a home on Sioux City’s west side earlier this year.

Her girls, Joeyanna, 7, and Jayceelynn, 5, were preparing to attend the nearby Liberty Elementary School this fall until she took them on a walk to a park near the school at 1623 Rebecca St.

“I saw him sitting there relaxing with his dog over by the school, and I thought, ‘He looks familiar,’” she said.

As the man got closer to her, Navin remembered, “Yep I know him, he’s a pedophile.”

Navin said she had heard the man, whom she had known since she was a teenager, was a sex offender. To verify her suspicions, she visited the Iowa Sex Offender Registry Website, where she learned the man was on the registry and his address was less than 250 steps from the school. The Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/2eDJToo ) reports that the registry showed he was convicted in 2003 in Iowa of lascivious acts with a child between the ages of 14 and 17 and in a neighboring state of a sexual charge against a minor.

“You ain’t going to school there,” Navin said she told her children that same day.

To her dismay, she later learned from a Journal reporter that the man was within his legal rights to live there.

The landmark 1995 Iowa law that established the sex offender registry originally prohibited nearly all convicted offenders who victimized children from residing within 2,000 feet of a school or registered day care — the length of about six football fields. But changes approved seven years ago by then-Gov. Chet Culver and the state Legislature relaxed the restrictions for offenders convicted of less serious sexual crimes against minors, like the man Navin and her children encountered.

“You had a whole number of offenders that, quite frankly, couldn’t find a place to live,” Terry Cowman, an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent who heads the state’s sex offender registry, said of the reason behind revisions to the law.

Nearly all residential areas in Sioux City, for example, are within a 2,000-foot restricted area, a map circulated by the police department shows.

With large sections of other cities and towns off limits to offenders on the registry, many “were reporting places that were fictional or places where we could never find them,” Cowman said.

“Obviously there is going to be hesitancy of anybody wanting them to live in their neighborhood,” he said. “But there is also the policy argument that you would rather want to know where they are, rather than have them report a fictional address.”

State officials point out the 2009 changes established exclusion zones where schools, child care centers and public libraries officials have the ability to grant or deny access to any convicted sex offender. And offenders are prohibited from loitering in those zones.

The man that Navin inquired about is one of 14 offenders that currently list legal addresses within the 2,000-foot zone around Liberty Elementary, according to the most recent data provided to the school district.

Other provisions in the law also exempt some offenders on the registry from the residency prohibitions.

For example, offenders who already lived at a residence prior to a nearby school or child-care facility being established aren’t required to move.

That has happened in a few cases in Sioux City, where more than a dozen new elementary schools have opened in recent years, many in existing residential neighborhoods. For example, a check of the registry shows that two offenders with residency restrictions list addresses within 2,000 feet of Unity Elementary School, which opened in 2008 at 1901 Unity Avenue.

Of the roughly 6,000 offenders statewide on the registry, about 1 in 5, or roughly 20 percent, are subject to the 2,000-feet barrier, Cowman said. The ban generally applies to offenders convicted of first-, second- or third-degree sexual abuse, or what Cowman describes as “the worst hands-on sex assaults” against minors.

State or local authorities could not pinpoint how many of the 470 active registered sex offenders currently living, working or attending school in Woodbury County are subject to residency restrictions. Using the statewide ratio as a guide, though, there may be around 350 who are eligible to live inside the buffer zones.

Upon encountering the offender on the registry, Navin called the school district and police complaining about an offender she believed, at the time, was prohibited from living that close to Liberty Elementary.

Fearful for the safety of her young children, she also immediately transferred them to Loess Hills Elementary School - a mile longer drive from their home.

After being told authorities would look into her complaint, Navin said she grew frustrated when it appeared no one had followed up on it.

State and local officials acknowledge registered sex offenders subject to residency restrictions are essentially on the honor system when they report their address.

“I don’t monitor it,” said Jeana Davis, who heads the registry in Woodbury County. “We have always been told it is up to the registrant to know where he (or she) can or can’t live.

“There’s a map in the Sioux City Police Department they can obtain. Sometimes I don’t know whether they are in that restricted zone until someone calls and says, ‘I believe so and so is within the 2000-foot,’ or when DCI does home visits. Then they realize they are in violation of that.”

In that case, a failure to comply notice would be sent to the Department of Criminal Investigation, and a compliance check would follow.

In Iowa, there are five DCI agents and seven civilian staff that perform administrative work for the registry. Cowman said local authorities do what they can when a complaint is issued.

“There is always a need to grow, we could always use an extra agent or two to help with these investigations,” he said. “In some areas of the state what you do is kind of triage it and work worst cases first. There is also cooperation with local authorities. There may be a deputy to help you out here or a deputy could help out there.”

Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew said his patrol division has a list of sex offenders that its officers use to verify addresses and employment throughout the county when a complaint is issued.

“We follow up on calls by citizens concerned about sex offenders in the neighborhoods. We work in collaboration with the state DCI and U.S. Marshals,” Drew said. “It’s a priority among law enforcement agencies.”

Davis said how often sex offenders are required to register is based on a three-tier system related to sentences handed down by a judge. Tier one is once a year, tier two is every six months, and tier three is every three months.

When they register, registrants must provide all relevant information, including address, with whom they live with, schools, employment, vehicle information, tattoos, scars and telephone numbers, Davis said. The registrants must also provide internet identifiers on social networking sites, dating website usernames and emails.

Offenders are subject to additional criminal charges if they do not comply with the registry guidelines. Depending on the conviction, Davis said an individual can be on the registry anywhere from 10 years to their entire lifetime. If offenders spend time in a correctional facility, that time on the registry is paused until they are put into society again.

School district officials said they are diligent about protecting students from offenders on the registry.

Janet Flanagan, a spokeswoman for Bishop Heelan Catholic Schools, said all building principals monitor where sex offenders live by routinely checking the registry website.

“They are always on a lookout basis,” Flanagan said.

Alison Benson, a spokeswoman for the Sioux City Community School District, said the school district is given an updated list of all registered offenders every month. When setting up bus routes, the district’s system flags offenders who live near stops.

Benson said the district also reviews the registry prior to planning new school buildings.

“We look at where land is available when building schools,” she said. “Then we have a committee with the police department where they design the safest routes there are to get to school.”

Child safety is always a priority, but sometimes it’s out of the district’s reach, she said.

“It’s just ‘stranger danger,’ in general,” Benson said. “We have people on the playground and after school looking after the kids, but if it is after school when they are walking, we can’t walk home with them,” Benson said. “It’s out of our hands at a certain level.”

Navin said one of the best practices to keep children safe is for parents and other adults to be aware of who is living in their neighborhoods.

“I think that everyone should be aware that there is an app out there where you can download,” Navin said. “I think that people need to watch their kids more closely … (because) everywhere you go there is probably going to be a pedophile living close to you. It’s pretty concerning.”

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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