Parents used to worry about razorblades in their children's trick-or-treat candy, but these days registered sex offenders handing out Halloween treats are the ultimate bogeymen.
Measures regulating what registered sex offenders can and can't do on Halloween have become increasingly popular across the country over the past several years. But researchers have found that Halloween is no riskier than any other autumn day when it comes to sex crimes against children.
What started with special Halloween rules for sex offenders on parole or probation -- such as mandatory Halloween night education programs or curfews -- has expanded in some communities to include all registered sex offenders.
Missouri passed a law in 2008 requiring registered sex offenders to avoid all "Halloween-related contact with children," to post signs outside their homes stating that no candy or treats are available, to leave all their outdoor lights off and to stay inside their homes between the hours of 5 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Halloween except in emergencies or as required for their employment.
The law has prompted legal challenges from several sex offenders.
A study published last year examining nine years of crime statistics in 30 states showed no spike in sex crimes against children on or around Halloween.
A group of university professors and a Washington state prosecutor researched the issue in response to the flurry of Halloween-specific restrictions on sex offenders.
The trend toward Halloween policies targeting sex offenders "combats a nonexistent problem."
"Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned," they wrote.
For more than 15 years, the California Department of Corrections has imposed special restrictions on sex offenders who are still on parole. As part of "Operation Boo," parole agents check on sex offenders to make sure they are complying with a Halloween curfew and are answering their doors only to law enforcement officers.
Focusing on registered sex offenders, while well-intentioned, might distract police from other more probable threats to children, said Mark Chaffin, a University of Oklahoma professor of pediatrics and the study's lead author.
For example, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed in vehicle-pedestrian crashes on Halloween than on any other day of the year, the authors pointed out.
Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said it makes sense that communities would want to do whatever they can to reduce the risk to children on Halloween.
But ordinances restricting registered sex offenders, she said, "really should not give anybody a false sense of security."
McBride said she did not know of any cases in which trick-or-treaters have been abducted by registered sex offenders.
Given the inherent risk of letting children run the streets and approach unfamiliar homes, McBride suggests organized trick-or-treating alternatives -- such as events offered at several Inland churches in which trusted adults hand out candy from their cars or wholesome city-sponsored Halloween festivals which typically feature costume contests, candy and carnival games.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)