By ROCCO LaDUCA
UTICA - Anyone who spends a night at a motel accepts the fact that they know little about the guests who are staying in surrounding rooms.
So there’s always the possibility that a convicted criminal – such as a registered sex offender – might occasionally be sleeping next door.
But when sex offenders and child molesters are among the homeless people temporarily placed by the Oneida County Department of Social Services in a cluster of local motels just off the state Thruway exit, questions can arise whether any child’s safety is being systemically put at risk.
This practice comes as news to some authorities, including the Utica Police Department where offenders are required to register any changes in address within the city.
Within the past two weeks, at least eight Level 2 and Level 3 registered sex offenders have reported living at the Scottish Inns, Happy Journey and Super 8 motels along North Genesee Street, according to the state’s public sex offender registry.
“I think you would want to know that you’re safe and your family is safe, and I think any reasonable person would want to know if a sex offender is staying next to them for a week,” said Utica police Sgt. Steven Hauck. “We’re not looking to brand people with a scarlet letter, but the most important thing is to keep people safe.”
A homeless sex offender is able to apply for public assistance and temporary housing like anybody else, officials said. The issue, however, is that sex offenders are not required to disclose their criminal past when applying.
That means motel staff might never know they are hosting a sex offender, and neither would any guests with children who might be staying in the neighboring rooms.
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2 sides weigh in
Despite these worries, two typically opposing voices at least agree on one thing: It would not be fair to “paint with a broad brush” all sex offenders as a public risk in motel settings.
Shana Rowan, executive director of USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry, or FAIR, said sex offenders already struggle to find jobs and housing, so disclosing this information would likely only make it more difficult to move on with their lives.
“It’s understandable that people would feel empowered to know information like that, but there’s no research to suggest a sex offender would abduct a child they don’t know to molest them,” Rowan said. “I don’t see any positive outcome in making them even bigger targets.”
The Oneida County Child Advocacy Center investigates sex abuse against children, but its director, Chief Deputy Dean Obernesser, agrees that the label of being a sex offender does not necessarily mean the person is a threat to children.
“You have to look at each one individually,” Obernesser said. “I don’t think you can randomly say that if there are 10 sex offenders living at a particular place that you put the community at risk.”