New ways to protect your family against convicted sex offenders; including e-mail and telephone alertsCorey

The following provisions of the N.C. General Assembly's session laws 2008-117, 2008-118 and 2008-220 took effect Dec. 1.

- Every sex offender required to register must report to his or her local sheriff's office in person within three days after moving to a new home, receiving a verification form from the State Bureau of Investigation and to provide written notification of address changes, changes to academic status or employment status at colleges and universities and intent to move out of state.
- Registered offenders cannot access commercial social networking Web sites that permit minors to become members or maintain personal Web pages.
- Registered offenders can no longer have their names legally changed.
- Offenders whose victims were younger than 16 are prohibited from being on the premises of any place intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors, including, but not limited to, schools, children's museums, child care centers, nurseries and playgrounds. They also are prohibited from being within 300 feet of any such place located on other premises not intended primarily for minors, such as those located in malls, shopping centers or other places open to the general public.

New rules restricting where sex offenders can go and what Web sites they can visit will likely mean more work for Gaston County Sheriff's deputies.

Cpl. Shane Farmer doesn't mind the additional duties. He applauds the N.C. General Assembly's changes to state sex offender registration laws that took effect Dec. 1.

"I think it was definitely a big step forward in the legislation that was provided to us," he said. "I think it's fantastic."

One of two deputies assigned to keep tabs on Gaston's 340 registered sex offenders, Farmer said he expects more reports of offenders out of compliance now that requirements for registration are more stringent.

Churches closed to some
A law prohibiting sex offenders whose victims were under 16 from being within 300 feet of child care centers and playgrounds has already drawn reports of violators.

"We've fielded several complaints of that nature already," Farmer said. "Once the general public is more aware of the new law changes, that's going to increase."
Gaston County deputies asked the state Attorney General's office if the 300-foot law applied to churches, which often provide nurseries for children while their families attend worship services. The Justice Department said churches are not exempt.

"There is no exception within North Carolina law that would allow them to attend church if that church is within 300 feet of a nursery," Farmer said.

Sex offenders are now required to register with their local sheriff's office within three business days of moving to a new home. They receive two address verification letters per year from the State Bureau of Investigation and must present them to deputies in person within three business days.

Formerly, offenders had 10 days to verify their addresses and to notify the sheriff's office of a move.

"It puts more restrictions on the actual offenders and makes them held more accountable," Farmer said. "It does help our records. What I forsee happening is it making us a lot busier."

About half of the county's registered sex offenders have failed to notify the sheriff's office when they changed their addresses, Farmer said. When offenders don't show up within the three-day window and can't be located at their homes, deputies obtain warrants for their arrest.

No more MySpace
Two new laws restrict sex offenders' activity online. It's now illegal for registered offenders to access social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook that allow minors to sign up.

Farmer said offenders who created personal profiles on such Web sites before the law took effect and those who did so in other states can no longer visit the sites.

Effective May 9, registered offenders must provide their local sheriff's office with all e-mail addresses, instant messenger screen names and other online identifiers. Those who get new identifiers will be required to notify the sheriff's office in person within 10 days.

Finally, registered offenders are now forbidden from having their names legally changed.

"They were figuring out if they changed their name and changed their appearance a little bit, they could kind of escape their past, so to speak," Farmer said.

Of North Carolina's 100 counties, Farmer estimated that Gaston ranks in the top 10 in sex offender population. The county is also unique in its approach to keeping track of offenders. Sheriff's deputies visit each registered offender's home four times per year.

"Sheriff (Alan) Cloninger takes a very proactive appraoch to that, and I think it's a good thing," Farmer said. "We actually go above the statute."

Deputies divide the list of resident offenders by ZIP code and make "knock and talk" visits to every one within a three-month period. Farmer said the offenders are usually cooperative.

"They know what we're there for," he said. "They'll come out on the porch or they'll even invite us in briefly. Generally, unless they're in violation and they know they're in violation, they won't avoid us at all."

Farmer said the home visits provide a deterrent to those who may commit repeat offenses. Offenders are more likely to follow the law if they know deputies will be checking up on them regularly, he said.

The tougher sex offender laws may result in fewer offenders moving to the Tar Heel State.

"I've had people calling to get clarification on some of the laws, and if they were easier, they would move here," Farmer said. "I think some of the new laws might slow that down, and that's a good thing for North Carolina and Gaston County."

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