The allegations still seem incredible: An 11-year-old girl abducted in broad daylight, then raped and held captive for 18 years by a sociopath who fathered two children by his victim. And no one noticed anything amiss until an alert campus police officer, following up on an intuition, sounded the alarm that ultimately led to the arrest of Phillip Garrido, the 51-year-old convicted sex offender now charged in the case.
As details of the crime in California came out last week, the nation looked on in horrified fascination. Investigators are still trying to sort out how the alleged perpetrator - who was on parole for a previous rape when Jaycee Dugard, now 29, was abducted in 1991 as she walked to a bus stop near her home - got away with it for so long, despite being on a state registry of sex offenders and attending regular meetings with his parole officer.
Yet what happened to Ms. Dugard in California could have happened anywhere, including Maryland, where sexual offenses against children remain among the most under-reported types of crime. Like California, Maryland has a law requiring convicted sex offenders to register on a statewide list when they are released from prison and to report any change of address so that neighbors can be aware of their presence in the community. Offenders who are on probation or parole are subject to aggressive, long-term supervision by corrections officials, and in recent years Maryland has passed increasingly tougher laws to ensure they adhere strictly to the terms of their release.
But tougher laws alone aren't enough to protect vulnerable children from sexual abuse, exploitation and the physical and emotional trauma that marks victims' lives for years afterward. That requires a willingness on the part of people in the community to be alert to suspicious behavior and report it to the authorities. Neighborhoods must take a pro-active attitude toward prevention - notwithstanding the fact that sex offenses remain a taboo subject in many communities and that people often say nothing even when they suspect something amiss simply because they'd rather not get involved. But when decent folk fail to come forward, even the toughest laws are meaningless.
Over the last decade, Maryland has made a concerted effort to raise public awareness of the problem through media campaigns designed to let people know what to look for and to remind them they can contact police and child welfare officials anonymously if necessary. Unlike Ms. Dugard's abductors, most sex offenders who prey on children know their victims; they are caretakers, relatives or family friends, and they depend on other people's silence both to keep their crimes from being exposed and to make it harder for prosecutors to obtain convictions when cases do go to trial.
Lawmakers have steadily ratcheted up the severity of criminal penalties for sexual offenses against children. But Maryland is still not in full compliance with the 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act passed by Congress, which requires all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories to adopt uniform standards for reporting and keeping track of convicted sex offenders or risk losing federal funding. That should be a priority for legislators when the General Assembly convenes in Annapolis next year. But all the laws in existence won't solve the problem unless communities recognize that it is ultimately up to them to play the most important role in preventing the kind of tragedy that was revealed in California this summer - and thousands of less sensational but nonetheless devastating crimes that go on all around us.