Albany -- "Please be careful, don't run over each other," Stephanie Whitcomb hollered at a dozen or so children about to play a game of Red Light, Green Light in a fenced-in yard behind her day care center. Stephanie has her hands full, but she wouldn't have it any other way. "I get to be a child all my life. That's what I keep telling everybody. I never grow up."
As owner of Kidsworld, she cares for 48 children every weekday. "I'm protective of them, very protective of any of these kids around here. They're mine when they're here, and I'm very protective of them," Whitcomb said. A few months back, she questioned her ability to protect them when police officers showed up on her doorstep. "They told us we had a sex offender in the neighborhood."
A man convicted of enticing a child for indecent purposes and sexual battery moved into a duplex on Whispering Pines Road a few doors down from Kidsworld and across the street from another day care. Whitcomb compared sex offenders to recovering alcoholics. "Put them in a bar setting, it's just temptation. And that's the way I feel about offenders, especially around children. It's just a temptation right there."
We mapped day care centers, schools, parks, and registered sex offenders' addresses in Dougherty County. The sheriff's investigator in charge of keeping track of offenders asked us for that map, and we delivered. "We certainly want to make the public aware that we are doing everything we can to make their neighborhoods safer," said Lt. Rebecca Williamson.
We compared notes with Lt. Williamson and found the Sheriff's Office had already taken care of most of the violators we turned up. "The majority of our sex offenders do not want to go back to prison, so therefore, they do try to maintain compliance with the law," Williamson said.
Here are some examples: a man convicted of enticing a child lived in the same south Albany apartment building where a day care is located. That's against the rules, so now he's back in jail. A child molester who lived in an apartment near a day care center on Gillespie Avenue was forced to move.
"Let the satellite find us," Lt. Williamson said as she fiddled with a handheld global positioning satellite system. She uses it to make sure offenders don't live any closer to day cares or schools than the law allows.
There are some problems. We approached a man outside a home on Colquitt Avenue where a convicted child molester claims to live. The man told us the offender moved out a couple of months ago. Sheriff's investigators are aware he's not where he's supposed to be, but they haven't been able to track him down.
We found another child molester who lives down the block from Jackson Heights Elementary and near a day care center. He has permission from a judge to be here. "We already checked on this one, and he's been granted approval to live there," Williamson told us.
The old law prohibited offenders from living within a thousand feet of day care centers, schools, and parks. The new law adds churches, bus stops, and any place children gather. Also, offenders can no longer work near those areas. Lt. Williamson said, "It's gonna be hard for them to find a place to live a place to work."
The law creates a lot more work for sheriff's offices with no extra help or money from the state, and critics worry it will drive offenders underground. "Their only option would be to move out into the rural areas which is actually making it tougher for law enforcement to keep up with them."
Even before the new law takes effect, the news is good at Kidsworld. "It's where you can relax and not panic every time a child walks out the door," said owner Stephanie Whitcomb. Even though the sex offender in their neighborhood had court permission to live nearby, complaints that he tried to talk to children led the court to revoke that approval. "That's a comforting thought that he's not there," Whitcomb said.
He is living somewhere else, not near a day care center, but in another Dougherty County neighborhood. A thought that may make you want to go searching for sex offenders.