Where can we find safe house in our cities for sex offenders?
What are we to do with our perverts? It’s a question that regularly surfaces in the headlines usually after protests by concerned householders who’ve been alarmed to discover that they (and their children) are living just down the street from convicted paedophiles.
The thing is, these boys (offenders still are in the majority of cases, male) have to live somewhere.
But should that somewhere be down your street or mine?
In recent days, residents in the Sandy Row, the Village and Donegall Pass areas, angry at sex offenders being housed in a local hostel, have blocked the roads around Shaftesbury Square.
Their argument is that there are schools and parks in the vicinity and that they’re loathe to let their children out for fear of what may happen to them.
They’re hardly likely to be the only parents in the city (and beyond) to harbour such concerns.
In another part of south Belfast for example, miss-spelt graffiti adorns the walls near another hostel advising the removal from it of what is termed “peadoes.”
The Shaftesbury Square protest which attracted around 500 people has certainly caught attention. Apart from bringing traffic to a halt, it has elicited statements from both police and the Probation Board.
A spokesperson for the former says: “We take on board the community's concerns and will continue to work with them to find appropriate solutions.”
A spokesperson for the latter adds: “We understand the public’s concerns and we are responding to them.”
Put briefly, both are saying much the same thing. “We know you’re worried and we’re taking that on board.”
But what are they going to do?
That remains the big question.
One suggestion is that hostels should be sited away from residential areas, on industrial estates for example.
But would this really make much difference? If a sex offender is looking for a victim he (or she) will always find one somehow.
And in terms of reintegrating offenders back into society, a billet between the builder’s yard and the cash and carry is not exactly what most of us would term “living in the community”.
The fears of parents however, are very real and very understandable.
As much as anything else, it’s the not knowing just who exactly is housed so close to your child’s playground or your child’s bus-stop.
It’s the not being able to quantify just what the danger is.
Vigilantes threatening to take the law into their own hands are no part of the answer. They only make matters much, much worse.
But the genuine worries of parents frightened for the safety of their precious children shouldn’t be brushed aside as irrelevant or “unhelpful” (to use a word that gets bandied about so much in official jargon.)
Some sort of solution needs to be found that ensures ex-offenders are housed in a place suitable to their rehabilitation. But which, most importantly, ensures the safety of children and others who could become victims.
How the authorities deal with this is up to them. But they should remember that local people aren’t fools. Being open with local residents, talking to them — that would be a good first move.