When offender moved in, two mothers got serious
They started Tampa's move to ban sex convicts. The new man in the neighborhood inspired their push to ban sex convicts from the city.
By BILL COATS
Published January 29, 2007
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Heather Allred and Lynn Chernin are New Tampa mothers who led an effort to get a convicted sexual offender to move out of their neighborhood.
TAMPA - Lynn Chernin had a message for her 6-year-old daughter that was too grim for the younger siblings to hear: A man new to their neighborhood had hurt another little girl.
The unspoken details: Michael Jones, 22, had sexually abused a 6-year-old girl in Alabama. Now he was living in a tidy green house directly facing a neighborhood playground.
For Chernin, 36, being on the lookout was a wholly inadequate response. She and a fellow mom from her New Tampa subdivision, Heather Allred, 35, began calling authorities.
They were aghast to learn there was no slipup. Jones had every legal right to gaze from his garage onto the playground across the street. He was entitled to roam the sidewalks on his bicycle and the streets in his aged white Buick.
Last week, concerns raised by Chernin and Allred sparked a two-hour discussion before the Tampa City Council. By the time it ended, the city was considering banning sex offenders from moving into Tampa altogether.
"When young, educated, intelligent mothers show up and can argue a cause forcefully, they're very powerful," said City Council member Shawn Harrison, who represents New Tampa.
Jones moved away Nov. 7. Kids began trickling back to the playgrounds of Arbor Greene.
"You could sense that there was a collective sigh of relief," Chernin said.
But Chernin and Allred decided their efforts were only beginning. They want leakproof child-protection laws at every level of government.
"Michael Jones was kind of the catalyst to us," Chernin said. "He was kind of our learning experience."
Chernin moved to Arbor Greene in 2005 from nearby Cross Creek, with her husband, two children and a third on the way.
Allred, a physical therapist with a master's degree, had moved to Arbor Greene for her husband's job transfer from Chicago 41/2 years ago. They soon had two children.
Like Chernin, Allred became a full-time mom. And like other neighborhood moms, they occasionally typed their New Tampa ZIP code into sex offender Web sites and clicked "search."
That was how someone discovered in early September that Jones had just arrived on Arbor Crest Drive. The news swept across mass e-mails and neighborhood blogs, through elementary schools, play groups and aerobics classes.
Allred kept her toddlers inside. Parks emptied of unaccompanied children. On the tennis courts, Chernin followed her kids into the bathrooms, even through they were in full view of the courts.
Police stepped up patrols. They urged parents to report any suspicious behavior by Jones but not to bother him.
Florida bans certain sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, park or day care center. But the ban covers those who broke Florida laws, not someone like Jones, convicted under Alabama laws.
And like most criminal laws, the 1,000-foot rule applies only to people convicted after it took effect, on Oct. 1, 2004. Jones was convicted two years earlier.
"Wow," Allred told herself. "There's really nothing we can do."
Allred and Chernin didn't know each other until a mutual friend suggested they team up. Allred offered to work the Internet. Chernin contacted politicians.
One of those politicians, City Council member Harrison, had already heard the clamor. He lives in next door Hunter's Green; his wife was getting the e-mails.
Eventually, Allred and Chernin landed a conference with the police chief, city attorney and other top city officials. That led to last Thursday's meeting before the City Council.
Nobody wanted to appear soft on sex offenders. The council directed a dubious City Attorney David Smith to research whether the city can legally prevent offenders from moving into Tampa, or even further, from moving within Tampa. Smith said he expects such rules would be found unconstitutional, and short of that, might expose the city to civil rights lawsuits.
"Political zeal has kind of run away with this thing," Smith said.
But Chernin and Allred impressed him.
"They're not vindictive," he said. "They weren't malicious. Their attitude was, 'We need to pass an ordinance that's effective.' "
The women say they worry that unreasonable rules might provoke an offender to hide rather than register his address.
"We would rather have 90 percent compliance with people registering within 1,500 feet, rather than, say, 2,500 feet or banishment, and we don't know where they are," Chernin said.
Meanwhile, television coverage of the Arbor Greene complaints led to Jones' departure two months ago. His mother, who had leased the house, moved out a few weeks later. Neighbors watched new tenants arrive.
"A nice young family with a pregnant mom," Allred said. "We're thrilled. That's our ideal neighbor."
Jones picked an apartment about 1-mile north of the Lowry Park Zoo entrance. He declined to be interviewed.
"I'm not at all happy that he lives by the zoo," Allred said. "That's part of what's fueling our fire."
Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or firstname.lastname@example.org
How they would change the law
Lynn Chernin and Heather Allred say they would like to see sex-offender residency limits reformed so:
- Bus stops and other places where children spend time are added to the standard list of schools, parks and day care centers.
- Parks are defined to include private parks.
- The limits apply to offenders who were convicted before the limits were enacted.
- The limits cover offenders who harmed children, but not those who were prosecuted for consensual teen sex.
- Landlords are required to ban sex offenders from leasing inside the limits.
[Last modified January 29, 2007, 00:38:40]
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