Are Sex Offender Laws Tough Enough to Keep Our Kids Safe? - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

04/25/07

Are Sex Offender Laws Tough Enough to Keep Our Kids Safe?

A picture of Christopher Barrios hangs at an outdoor memorial. A picture of Christopher Barrios hangs at an outdoor memorial.
The Edenfields are accused of the murder. George is already a convicted sex offender. The Edenfields are accused of the murder. George is already a convicted sex offender.
Georgia Rep. Jerry Keen at his Atlanta office. Georgia Rep. Jerry Keen at his Atlanta office.

Christopher Barrios, Jessica Lunsford...we could name dozens more children who have been killed, police say, at the hands of convicted sex offenders.

There are more than 20,000 sex offenders living just in our Georgia and South Carolina neighborhoods. They often go unnoticed in our communities. The question is, what can we do to keep our kids safe?

Last year, when Lunsford was killed by a convicted child molester in Florida, Georgia lawmakers did take notice and passed new, tough legislation. Then last month, Barrios was molested and murdered here in the Coastal Empire, leaving us to wonder if the laws are tough enough.

Police say 6-year-old Christopher Barrios was killed by a convicted sex offender who lived in the same Glynn County mobile home park. George Edenfield and his parents David and Peggy Edenfield are all awaiting trial for capital murder.

The hundreds who searched for the little boy and his family were sickened and sadden to learn how he died: molested, strangled and stuffed in a garbage bag.

Barrios' grandmother, Sue Rodriguez said there is no excuse for what the Edefields are accused of doing. "Monsters from hell, monsters from hell, they are monsters that prey on children and kill them" Rodriguez said. "They are not sick, they are not mentally challenged, they are monsters."

Law enforcement and lawmakers say Barrios' death is just the latest example of the pedophiles who are preying on our children in our communities.

Georgia Rep. Jerry Keen (R-GA Dist. 179) is from Glynn County. He has six grandchildren, all of them close to Barrios' age. Keen spent many hours in his office at the state capitol helping to write new sex offender laws.

"House Bill 1059 in Georgia is now the toughest sex offender law in the country," Keen said. "It has by far the toughest punishment standard, a very high degree of restrictions on those who offend and minimum mandated sentences."

While Keen is proud of what he and fellow lawmakers put on the books, he realizes it does have some limitations.

For example, lawmakers wrote a provision in the law that would restrict sex offenders from living within a 1,000 feet of school bus stops. The mobile home park where Barrios and the Edenfields lived is just up the road from a school bus stop. But the Georgia courts would not allow that part of the law to be enforced.

While that angers Rep. Keen, he said it's important to focus on the many other ways the new law can make a difference. The new law has mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders who hurt children and who've been arrested since July, 2006.

"The primary suspect in the Christopher Barrios case, had he committed the crime that he was convicted of ten years ago under this new law, he would still be in prison," said Keen. "He would be in prison a minimum of 25 years."

The law also forces sex offenders who are released from prison to wear electronic monitors, so police can keep track of them.

"Had Edenfield been wearing one of these devices, they would have been able to bring up in a matter of seconds where he was at the exact moment that Christopher was reported missing," Keen said.

Some say the laws need to be even tougher. Sam Lyons helped search for Christopher Barrios and created the "Justice for Christopher Foundation." Lyons wants the public and our children to be more educated about the sex offenders who live among us.

"In this society, I dream of a day when our children can go in the yard and play and play with their neighbors and play in their communities without fear of who is out there, who is going to grab them," Lyons said.

Lyons wants legislators to amend the law, requiring first-time sex offenders who hurt children to be put away for life without parole. And if they kill a child, Lyons wants prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

"I personally am always open, if we can find a way to strengthen the law or make it better in protecting our children, then I'm open to that," said Keen. "But right now, we have a law that will do what we need it to do, and we need to give it a little time to work."

It didn't save young Barrios, but hopefully it will spare other children from suffering a similar tragic fate.

"I'm convinced in ten, 15, 20 years from now, the true measure and success of House Bill 1059 will not be in the number of people who are arrested or apprehended, but will be in the number of children who grow up into adulthood without ever being the victim of one of these crimes," said Keen.

You can read Georgia's sex offender law and learn more about the laws in other states, including South Carolina, by logging on these web sites:

House Bill 1059
http://www.legis.state.ga.us/legis/2005_06/fulltext/hb1059.htm

Sex offender registries, sex offenders search, news, info and discussion
http://www.sexcriminals.com

There is no one law that can completely protect our children. It only takes the blink of an eye for a pedophile to snatch a child and do the unthinkable to him or her.

Coming up tomorrow on Tracking a Predator: Keeping Our Kids Safe, WTOC will introduce you to one Savannah mom who's become a real watchdog for her two kids. This after a child molester moved into her neighborhood. That's Thursday on THE News at Six.

Reported by: Michelle Paynter, mpaynter@wtoc.com

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