As costumed kiddies take to the streets tonight, thousands of sex offenders across the country will be forced to turn off their lights and refuse to answer the door. Some will be required to also post "no candy" signs and refrain from decorating their yards. Some counties round them up for a mandatory movie night or an evening in jail. In some areas with prohibitively strict residency requirements, police will be rounding up several hundred transient sex offenders.
Year after year, new measures are introduced to keep registered sex offenders of all stripes from coming into contact with trick-or-treaters -- and yet there is zero evidence to support the legislative trend. In fact, the available data suggest it's a useless diversion of resources that creates a false sense of security. Just take a look at this absurdly misleading headline from a Fox News affiliate: "Police Work to Keep Halloween Free From Sexual Predators." (Because all sex offenders faithfully register and offenses are only committed by those with previous records?) Meanwhile, other outlets are playing up the danger: Albuquerque's KRQE advises readers to "beware of real monsters on Halloween," and talks to a 12-year-old girl who is "excited to go Trick-or-Treating" -- but only because her family has no idea that they live "in a neighborhood full of secrets." Dun-dun-dun.
It isn't just law enforcement that is joining in the Halloween paranoia: Tech entrepreneurs are hyping new smartphone apps -- including a brand-new one for Facebook -- as tools to steer kids clear of sex offenders' homes and even allow parents to track their kids by GPS, instead of actually accompanying them in person. (Why parent in person when you can do so virtually!)
Here's the truth: There are no documented cases where a registered sex offender abused a trick-or-treater on Halloween. The truth is that kids are most likely to be abused at home and by adults they know, not strangers -- and even less so by strangers handing out mini-Milky Ways. A whopping 90 percent of child victims of sexual abuse are targeted by someone they know; nearly half of those cases involve a relative. It's also the case that the recidivism rate among sex offenders is roughly 9 percent, according to the Department of Justice.
The urban legend of poisoned candy perfectly illustrates the misplaced and outsize concern: As Benjamin Radford of the Skeptical Enquirer pointed out several years ago, there are only two known instances where children died from tainted Halloween candy, and in both cases the child's own parent was responsible for the intentional poisoning.
As I've written about in the past, a 2009 study that looked at nearly a decade of data found "no significant increase in risk for nonfamilial child sexual abuse on or just prior to Halloween." It's no surprise then that the data remained unchanged after the emergence of measures to keep sex offenders away from kids on Halloween. The common argument is that all this legal effort is worth it even if it only saves one child from being victimized. But, as the authors of the study noted, these initiatives cost money and take up resources that could be directed toward much greater risks. "For example, a particularly salient threat to children on Halloween comes from motor vehicle accidents," according to the report. "Children aged 5 to 14 years are four times more likely to be killed in a pedestrian–motor vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year."
Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist who has long railed against the Halloween crackdown, calls it "security theater" and "the Halloween boogeyman." She says "the scare feeds into a deep-rooted cultural fear of the boogeyman stranger." Just as with scary movies, this holiday allows us the thrill of confronting our fears in a controlled manner. Similarly, the inevitable spate of stories about stranger danger each October both exploit and assuage parental nightmares. Canny entrepreneurs sell parents ways to protect their kids from "real monsters" – as though safety and control were but an app away -- while local politicians and sheriff's departments circulate press releases to celebrate their own valiant efforts fighting, in the words of the study mentioned above, "a problem that does not appear to exist." All of which is to say: Kids aren't the only ones who get caught up in the illusions of the holiday.