published Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Georgia, Tennessee law enforcement officers on lookout for sex offenders tonight

Number of sex offenders registered in surrounding counties:

* Hamilton: 559

* Sequatchie: 44

* Marion: 70

* Bledsoe: 451*

* Rhea: 114

* Bradley: 238

* Catoosa: 128

* Whitfield: 197

* Walker: 117

(Bledsoe is home to the Southeast Tennessee Regional State Correctional Facility)

Source: TBI and GBI

Today marks one of the most popular holidays for children — dressing up in Halloween costumes and going door to door to ask for candy.

Law enforcement officers in Georgia and Tennessee also will be going door to door, but not in search of treats.

"We are targeting higher-risk offenders," said David Lane, deputy district director for the Tennessee Department of Correction's Chattanooga office. "These are offenders whose victim was under the age of 18, offenders who are homeless, or offenders that the probation or parole officer has deemed necessary due to other reasons or concerns."

Authorities hope to ensure that offenders won't commit new crimes on a night when droves of children are out.

State officers will team up with sheriff's offices to complete about 165 home checks tonight across Hamilton, Sequatchie, Marion, Bledsoe and Rhea counties, Lane said.

There are rules for sex offenders in Tennessee on Halloween:

• Offenders can't leave their homes between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Porch lights must remain out.

• Offenders cannot answer the door for trick-or-treaters.

• Offenders cannot display any type of decorations or dress in costumes.

Georgia has similar rules. In some cases, sex offenders are ordered to report to a facility and stay there during trick or treating, according to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

About 28 percent of sex offenders released from prison commit new crimes and are jailed again, according to a 2007 TBI study.

"It is important to show members of the communities where these offenders reside that we are committed to their safety and the safety of their family members," Lane said. But although the operation brings awareness to the public about sex offenses involving children, most cases of child sex abuse aren't by strangers, said Shelley McGraw, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County. The nonprofit agency helps conduct forensic interviews, perform medical exams and offer counseling to victims 17 years of age or younger. Of the 612 children the organization served last year, about 80 percent were sexually abused, McGraw said. "Most people are abused by somebody they know. By drawing so much attention to 'stranger danger,' that tends to draw attention away from the fact that 90 percent of kids are abused by somebody they know and coerced or threatened into keeping that a secret from their parents or caregivers," she said. Last year, when investigators completed about 100 compliance checks on sex offenders locally, there were two minor violations.

McGraw said it's unlikely that strangers will prey upon children on Halloween, but added that the night does present a unique chance to interact with children. "I don't want to perpetuate the myth that stranger danger is the number one way that children are preyed upon, but yes, absolutely, perpetrators are often drawn to situations where children are present," she said. "That certainly does make Halloween an opportunity." Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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