About 10 percent of the most dangerous sex offenders in Lafayette Parish are using social networking sites in violation of a Louisiana law meant to protect children online.
The overwhelming majority are middle-aged men, many of whom used technology to commit their crimes — from secretly videoing someone changing clothes to using the internet to convince children to perform sexual activities.
A four-month Daily Advertiser investigation found a serious lack of oversight when it comes to sex offenders on social media.
Virtually nothing is being done to enforce the state law that prohibits these kinds of sex offenders from using social media.
The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office is responsible for enforcement, but the law is “not currently being enforced,” according to LPSO spokesman Lt. John Mowell.
The reason is a perceived conflict between the Louisiana law and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that makes prosecuting violators nearly impossible.
A complication: The advanced technology and enormous time it takes police to find offenders in a constantly evolving digital environment
“Louisiana has some of the toughest laws when it comes to sex crimes online,” said Stacie Rumenap, who leads the nonprofit Stop Child Predators. “But if they’re not being enforced, what good are they?”
We found two dozen sex offenders are using social media illegally
Louisiana law prohibits some convicted sex offenders from accessing social-networking websites, chat rooms and peer-to-peer networks.
Social networking giants such as Facebook and Instagram also ban registered sex offenders from interacting with users on their platforms, but they are still found on those websites, including:
- A 57-year-old Lafayette man who brands himself on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube as a writer who found God while in prison — yet he’s been convicted of nine sexual offenses, including two involving juveniles, since 1987. His latest charge is for a felony obscenity that allegedly occurred in April.
- A 65-year-old Carencro man whose Facebook profile says he stands for the flag and kneels at the cross. He was indicted on a child pornography charge, but was convicted in 2013 of indecent behavior with a juvenile through a plea agreement.
- A 43-year-old Lafayette man who uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to brand his insurance company after being convicted in 2012 of using the internet to persuade a juvenile to engage in sexual conduct.
- A 55-year-old Lafayette man whose Facebook profile photo is a selfie with a child. He, too, was convicted in 2012 of persuading a juvenile online to engage in sexual conduct.
At the time of our investigation, there were about 350 convicted sex offenders who lived, worked or volunteered in Lafayette Parish.
About 275, or 80 percent, are classified as dangerous child predators.
They have been convicted of any sexual offense involving a minor or video voyeurism — the videoing or photographing of someone without permission for a sexual purpose or the transferring of such images or recordings.
We found social media accounts for about two dozen of the 70 or so who were convicted after Louisiana’s social media ban went into effect.
Keeping sex offenders off social media is as hard as keeping teens offline
Louisiana’s tough social media policy for most convicted sex offenders dances along the line of an acceptable restriction and an infringement of constitutional rights.
Former Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, said she authored the bill to give law enforcement the ability to arrest sex offenders engaging in inappropriate online activity.
“I think it was the right thing to do,” Thierry said. “Law enforcement can only do things we need to be done when we have the laws necessary to enforce them.”
The law was drafted after a sex offender convinced a 12-year-old girl to meet him but was intercepted by Louisiana State Police at the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. Lawmakers found more than 600 Louisiana sex offenders on social media who were using their real names and photos when the bill was drafted.
The law passed unanimously in 2011, but it was thrown out a few months later by a federal judge for being too broad.
Lawmakers rewrote the law — which banned convicted sex offenders from almost any online activity — in 2012 to narrow the focus to specific internet usage.
“Slowly, other states started doing what we did,” Thierry said. “It brought awareness that there’s an issue going on.”
The problem is that other states were also challenged for violating the constitutional rights of sex offenders — primarily their right to freedom of speech.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a convicted sex offender who faced prison time for violating a similar law in North Carolina.
Although the court opinion acknowledged that a legislature could pass “valid laws to protect children” from “a most serious crime,” it called North Carolina’s law “a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens.”
If a convicted sex offender seeks to reform and pursue a lawful and rewarding life, the court ruled, he or she could benefit from accessing the world of ideas shared on social networking sites.
“On Facebook, for example, users can debate religion and politics with their friends and neighbors or share vacation photos. On LinkedIn, users can look for work, advertise for employees, or review tips on entrepreneurship. And on Twitter, users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner,” the court opinion said.
Lt. Jack Lightfoot, criminal intelligence supervisor for LPSO, said the ruling was unfortunate for Louisiana since North Carolina’s law was broader.
“North Carolina was a blanket law,” Lightfoot said. “If you were a sex offender, you couldn’t touch a computer, basically, whereas Louisiana’s law was somewhat specific in that the law is meant to protect children from predators who prey on children, and for that reason, Louisiana narrowed the focus to convicted sex offenders whose crimes involved a juvenile.”
The Supreme Court ruling is also why a 54-year-old convicted sex offender in Acadia Parish faced no consequences after he allegedly contacted an 11-year-old girl last year through the social networking site Musical.ly.
The victim’s father reached out to the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office to report the crime.
The offender was arrested and charged with unlawful use of a social networking site, but the case was quashed last August because of the North Carolina case.
Policymakers have yet to address potential problems with Louisiana’s social media ban.
“You can’t enforce something that’s not enforceable,” Mowell said. “So to arrest people and put them through the process would be futile. It’s not going anywhere.”
Even before the North Carolina ruling, Acadiana sex offenders rarely faced consequences for social media use.
Only 12 people in Lafayette Parish were arrested between 2013 and 2017 for unlawful use of a social networking site.
“The way we learn about social media issues is it’s reported to us,” Lightfoot said. “There are 13,000 sex offenders in the state of Louisiana and potentially 80 or 90 different prohibited sites. I just don’t have the technology to research all of that.”
It works the same way in Acadia Parish, according to Sheriff K.P. Gibson.
“I wish I had someone who could spend full-time on that,” he said. “I’d say half to two-thirds of sex offenders are on social media. It’s just a matter of finding them and getting them off.”
Complaints that come in are investigated, and when found to have merit, law enforcement will report the profile to the social network for removal and follow up with the sex offender.
“We’re not just telling sex offenders we’re not doing anything about this,” Lightfoot said. “We are taking enforcement action. And I assure you that to everyone we’ve told, ‘You’d better get your butt off of social media,’ we’ve said it in such a way that they get the point.”
Sex offenders online are motivated by sexual interest in minors
The internet enables sex offenders to groom victims quicker and easier than ever before.
“That process used to be done in person, and it used to take months and even years,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, co-director of the Sex Offender Research Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Now, that process can be done online from your own home, and that process is accelerated so that it can happen in days or weeks.”
Those who use the internet to commit sexual crimes don’t usually create fake identities.
“‘They won’t say, ‘I’m a 12-year-old boy.’ They’ll portray themselves as an adult male,” Jeglic said. “They use the technology to select individuals who are vulnerable and more likely to meet up with them, and they’ll offer them things in exchange for meeting up with them. And they’re able to groom their victims that way.”
People who use the internet to commit sexual offenses are generally motivated by a sexual interest in children and adolescents, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative.
The initiative identifies these characteristics of internet-facilitated sex offenders:
- 1 in 8 have an official record for contact sexual offending.
- 55 percent admitted to a history of contact sexual offending.
- Child pornography offenders are likely to be pedophiles.
- Solicitation offenders are primarily interested in adolescent girls.
It breaks online sex offenses into three categories:
- Child pornography (possession, distribution and production).
- Sexual solicitation (online interactions with minors for sexual purposes, including plans to meet offline).
- Conspiracy crimes (collaborating with others to solicit minors or produce or distribute child pornography).
It’s tough to pinpoint how many sex offenders will reoffend.
Sexual recidivism rates range from 5 percent after three years to 24 percent after 15 years, according to Department of Justice records, but the rate is likely higher.
Only a small portion of all sex offenses are reported to law enforcement, and only a fraction of those are successfully convicted.
Sex offender treatment programs can reduce sexual recidivism, especially if they’re tailored to the individual offender, but they’re still not promising.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that about 10.1 percent of convicted sex offenders who underwent psychosocial treatment committed another sexual offense within about 6 years.
That’s just a 3.6 percent difference from the 13.7 percent sexual recidivism rate of untreated sex offenders.
There’s a small percentage of sex offenders who will learn from their crime, move forward and “do the right thing,” according to Rumenap with Stop Child Predators.
“The problem is that most of these offenders — because the type of crime they’re committing is so unusual — can’t help themselves,” she said. “Most will say, ‘Sure,’ to staying off of social media — until they do it.”
‘Nothing really works. Nothing.’
Experts who work with sex offenders and their victims have mixed opinions about the value of laws that restrict internet usage.
The goal for research psychologists like Jeglic is to rehabilitate sex offenders back into society, and social media has become an integral part of today’s society.
“Obviously, if there’s a law prohibiting it and they’re doing it, that’s not good because they have to follow the terms of their release,” Jeglic said. “But it’s hard to say if these blanket laws make sense. Video voyeurism and social media don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
“A lot of these things, they may feel better to us, but the data actually shows that they’re not evidence based.”
The goal for victim advocates like Rumenap is to restrict sex offenders so they can’t target more people, even if the restrictions seem harsh.
“When you’re talking about people who have committed these kinds of sex crimes, it’s just a matter of time before it happens again,” Rumenap said. “Or it’s a matter of time before they’re caught again, I should say.
“The reality is that nothing really works. Nothing.”
And the goal for law enforcers like Lightfoot is to use limited resources to keep pressure on the most dangerous sex offenders.
“You get a feel for who you need to worry about,” Lightfoot said. “Let’s put what resources we have on the problem ones, and then we’ll just do what we need to do to keep the other ones in line. Our feel is that the more we pressure the ones we’re worried about, we find we’re more successful with our services.
“And if we can keep them from touching a child, you know what, that’s the end goal.”
It takes a village to protect a child
Even if convicted sex offenders face strict restrictions online and those restrictions are enforced well, children will continue to face dangers while online.
Here’s how you can protect the children and teenagers in your life.
1. Understand the risks. Stay abreast of technology as it changes and advances.
2. Establish an open dialogue. Allow children and teens to confide in you if they feel scared, uncomfortable or confused by material they encounter while online without fear of punishment. This allows you to better understand their internet use and intervene if necessary.
3. Design an internet contract. Consider creating clear rules for children to follow to help them understand potential risks and dangerous situations. Examples of rules include:
- Not disclosing personal information such as full name, address, phone number or social security number
- Not posting your photo on public sites of any kind
- Not chatting with strangers
4. Use technology to protect children. Consider using filtering and monitoring technologies to screen and supervise what children can see while online. Examples include:
- Client-side filters: These allow you to block certain kinds of material through password-protected software.
- Content limits or filters through internet service providers: Most companies offer family-friendly services that allow you to block certain kinds of content.
- Server-side filters: Schools, libraries and other entities use these kinds of sophisticated filtering systems that can be customized for different users.
- Search engine filters: Search engines like Google allow you to turn on a safety filter to limit results. Other search engines like Yahoo! offer special children’s versions of their search engines that only search child-friendly sites.
- Monitoring software: This allows you to view a digital record of children’s online activity.
- Keystroke software: This lets you review a record of everything a child types.
- Web history tracking: You can view recently visited websites and older cached files and cookies that can contain clues about internet usage.
5. Deal with problems that arise. Document online predators, criminal activities and offensive material so local and national law enforcement agents can investigate.
Learn more about how to protect children online at justice.gov/criminal-ceos/children-internet-safety.
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