Feds estimate that 2,000 evacuees are registered sex offenders
WASHINGTON – Governors in states that accepted Katrina evacuees are being urged to locate about 2,000 registered sex offenders who fled the Gulf region during the hurricane’s mayhem and may have vanished from legally required tracking.”When sex offenders know they’re being watched, when they know they’re being monitored, they are less likely to offend again,” said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Health and Human Services Department. “When they no longer believe they are being monitored or watched, they can be tempted to offend again.”The Administration for Children and Families estimated that about 30 states are affected. In November, agency officials matched the names on sex offender registries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with the names of evacuees who applied for disaster assistance.The agency came up with more than 2,000 matches. The find led Horn to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a system that would allow state law enforcement agencies to find registered sex offenders who are receiving disaster assistance.All states are required to have sex offender registries, and people convicted of sexually violent offenses are required to register their current addresses.Horn wrote to the nation’s 50 governors in late November to alert them to the new search they could undertake with FEMA, and the process they were to use.”I am greatly concerned that known sex offenders who may have relocated to your State may take advantage of their anonymity and harm children once again,” Horn wrote in a letter to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.The letter indicated that Texas law enforcement officials had already done a cross-check, but that it was the only state that had at that point.Federal authorities told Texas of 304 known sex offenders who had relocated to the state. Only 14 are known to have registered and provided their contact information to law enforcement, said Jerry Strickland, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.An additional inquiry that Texas authorities conducted with the National Crime Information Center found 188 people wanted in connection with other crimes. The attorney general’s fugitive unit identified 29 Louisiana fugitives on the FEMA list who were wanted for or convicted of violent crimes. Those fugitives included three wanted for homicide, seven for assault and aggravated assault, and seven for rape or sexual offenses.States were not required to report back to the agency with their findings, so it’s unclear how many have acted on the federal government’s initiative. Some, however, had previously acted on their own.Alabama ran criminal background checks on Katrina evacuees living in temporary housing in Alabama’s 13 state parks.In West Virginia, officials said the State Police fingerprinted evacuees when they arrived. They found three people who were ordered to put their names on the state’s sex offender registry.”That was the situation we were mindful of from the very beginning,” said Lara Ramburg, spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin. “That’s one of the reasons we kept track of people entering West Virginia.”Massachusetts conducted criminal background checks and found one man wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant for rape. Two other men would have been required to register but opted to leave the state instead.Paula Stitz, manager of Arkansas’ sex offender registry, said she did not know of a state-led initiative to gain access to FEMA records. However, she said, local law enforcement officials had sought information from the federal disaster agency.Stitz said the problem in Arkansas was minimal, but knowing that 2,000 evacuees were believed to be registered sex offenders was alarming.”It makes my hair stand on end,” she said. “I really believe that registering sex offenders and notifying communities about their whereabouts is important. I think it works. If they can fall through the crack, they will jump through that crack and try to disappear.”Some states said they didn’t realize there was potentially a problem with sex offenders from the Gulf Coast coming into their state.”If there are sex offenders who have come into California and haven’t registered, that is cause for concern,” said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. “We’ll work with law enforcement to try to track them down, but it’s a tough task.”Florida officials wrote to FEMA in mid-December requesting information on evacuated sexual offenders and predators who may have relocated in Florida during the past year’s hurricanes. The letter noted that sex offenders’ failure to register upon establishing residence in Florida is a felony. The state has yet to get a response on its request.