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Sunday, 6 August, 2000, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
The story of Megan's Law
US President Bill Clinton
President Clinton signed Megan's Law in the Oval Office
American parents - unlike their UK counterparts - have access to information on paedophiles living in their local area under legislation known as Megan's Law.

The law - which was signed by President Bill Clinton four years ago and has been adopted in some form by all 50 states - arose from the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka.

She was killed by Jesse Timmendequas, a known child molester with two previous convictions for sexual offences, who had moved across the street from her family without their knowledge.

This caused outrage in the US and Megan's mother campaigned for a change in the law to give parents access to information on paedophiles in their area.

Megan Kanka
Megan Kanka's death prompted legal changes

Parents must now be informed when offenders move into their local area after being freed from prison.

Fifteen states list offenders' details on the internet, allowing parents to enter their zip code (post code) or a name, to check if anyone on the register has moved in nearby.

Supporters of the law point to cases where registered sex offenders have been discovered working in amusement parks, youth counselling and a range of other activities involving close contact with children.

One Californian grandmother told how she had checked the database after growing suspicious that her daughter-in-law, and mother of her four grandchildren, had re-married to a convicted sex offender.

"I said, 'What if he's a rapist?' and sure as hell, he was."

But opponents argue that it encourages acts of vigilantism and does not give offenders who have paid their dues the chance to merge back into society.

They also question the effectiveness of Megan's Law. Only 80% of paedophiles comply with registration requirements in the US, compared with 97% in the UK.

Critics also point out that most cases of child abuse occur within the family, and suggest that victims may stay silent if they know a family member will be denounced.

State differences

Offenders must register their address with the local police upon release from prison, but many give bogus details.

Others have given their details, but travelled outside their local areas to prey on youngsters, where no one has been warned about them.

The law takes different forms in different states.

Offenders in Louisiana can be made to wear special clothes or carry sandwich boards announcing their crimes.

In Washington, law enforcement officers can call at every house in the neighbourhood to warn people about an offender moving in.

Sex offenders in Oregon can be forced to display a sign in their windows.

Some believe that Megan's Law does not go far enough and several states are investigating the use of, or have already introduced, chemical or surgical castration for certain sexual offenders.

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