May 30, 2001 -- The Virgin Islands will soon have a sexual offender web site, linked to a national registry, and the territory's new Sex Offender Board is gearing up to monitor the registration of convicted offenders, as required by federal and local law.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron, in the company of local behavioral experts, announced the website launch at a press conference Wednesday morning on St. Thomas.
The federal law mandating the registration of convicted sex offenders -- the Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act -- was passed in 1994. But it was not until 1997 that the territory, threatened with losing federal funds, enacted legislation making such registration mandatory here. Then-senator Allie-Allison Petrus pushed the bill through in the 22nd Legislature.
Michal Rhymer, executive director of Family Resource Center, expressed appreciation at the press conference Wednesday for Petrus's efforts. However, she said, because he "rushed the bill through" in order to meet a federal deadline for funds, the measure needs a lot of fine tuning.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull created the territory's Sex Offender Board late last year and named Rhymer as one of its members. The board has five positions, three of them now filled. Rhymer holds the position of victim advocate; Ione Kitnurse, director of intake and emergency at the Human Services Department, is the master social worker; Dr. Brent Woodard, with Human Services' Mental Health Division, is the sex offender expert. The board still needs a law enforcement expert and a child therapist.
Rhymer said the board has a lot of "catching up" to do. Since 1997, with the change of administration and lack of a board to monitor enforcement of the law, the registry has fallen by the wayside.
The board will monitor the registration of convicted sex offenders, both those already living in the territory and those moving here from other jurisdictions. Federal law required a sex offender to register within five days of moving to a new jurisdiction, or face what Stridiron called "draconian penalties." Rhymer noted that since the Virgin Islands is an "open port," it is especially vulnerable to such persons coming into the territory.
The board is mounting a public information campaign. Stridiron and the members of his assembled panel said that any agency having contact with newcomers moving to the territory must let them know that offenders must register with the Attorney General's Office within five days of their arrival. Such entities, they said, include schools, day camps, child-care centers, other agencies dealing with children, licensing agencies and public utility companies.
Rhymer said signs will be posted in appropriate offices, and there will be broadcast and print media announcements -- plus a red and white bumper sticker reading "Tell, tell, tell. There is no excuse for child sexual abuse."
Protection of children has to begin with their parents or guardians, she said. "Parents must teach their children what to do, what tactics to use, if they should encounter a sexual predator," she added. "There is no guarantee that there won't be a sex offender in your neighborhood."
A revised offender registry bill that the board is working on gives the Attorney General's Office a lot of responsibility, Rhymer said. Funds from the National Sex Offender Registry program come through the Law Enforcement Planning Commission. Former senator Judy Gomez, an assistant attorney general, will work with the board to enforce the registrations.
Rhymer said Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has shown interest in supporting the bill, and the board is working with his office.
Roy Ward, Justice Department webmaster, said the site is partially up now and should be complete in about five weeks. "We're trying to do it as soon as possible, but we want to do it the right way," he said. "The site must be totally secure."
For the registry to be effective, Rhymer and Stridiron emphasized, the community must participate. That means schools, businesses, community organizations, government offices and any other entities which deal with newcomers to the territory must take on the responsibility of posting offender information where it will be seen.
Stridiron said his office is set up to handle the actual registration process."We have the equipment, cameras and fingerprinting apparatus, in four locations here and on St. Croix," he said. "We have already registered three sexual offenders from other jurisdictions. The law is a good one."