News Briefs for December 2002 – January 2003

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Pedestrian Death Decline May Hide Unhealthy News

While the number of child pedestrians killed in auto accidents has been cut in half over the past decade, the drop may signal another youth problem: obesity.

Traffic-related pedestrian deaths among children decreased by 49 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign’s “Report to the Nation on Child Pedestrian Safety.” But child safety advocates say the decrease doesn’t necessarily mean safer conditions. Instead, they suggest that kids do not walk as much as they used to.

In 1969 nearly half of elementary school children walked or biked to school, a number that had diminished to 10 percent by 1995, the report says.

“As the child pedestrian safety statistics have improved, some health indicators have worsened dramatically. Over the past two decades the adolescent obesity rate has nearly tripled, an increase that many observers attribute in part to a decline in physical activities such as walking to school and participating in physical education classes,” said Angela Mickalide, research director at the D.C.-based National Safe Kids Campaign.

“Kids are heavier than ever before, and walking to and from school safely is one way to get children physically active again.”

The report indicates that long distances, unsafe walking conditions and fear of crime top the list of reasons that parents don’t want their children commuting on foot.

The Safe Kids Campaign has partnered with FedEx in an effort to improve pedestrian environments and teach kids about pedestrian safety. At 121 sites around the country they have implemented the Walk This Way program to encourage walking to and from elementary schools.

“There needs to be a collaborative effort from parents, children, drivers and police to improve the walking environment for our children,” Mickalide said.

The pedestrian safety data show some broad differences by gender and race.

The pedestrian-related death rate for boys is 57 percent higher than that for girls.

“Boys are at an incredibly disproportionate risk,” said Mickalide. She said this may be because boys are more impulsive and take more risks, or parents are generally less restrictive of boys’ activities.

Black youth are also at a higher risk, with a pedestrian injury rate double that of white youth.

Contact: National Safe Kids Campaign, (202) 662-0600; report available at

– Della Mosley

Are Sex Offender Registries Legal?

Youth agencies that rely on state-sponsored sex offender Internet sites to screen potential employees and volunteers may lose a valuable resource, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court decides two cases.

The court heard arguments on two “Megan’s Law” cases last month. One, Smith v. Doe, concerns whether the registry in Alaska is punitive. The second, Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, concerns whether offenders should have a court hearing to determine whether they pose a danger before their names are added to the registry.

Megan’s Law is named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who was murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street. New Jersey, and later Congress, enacted the law to require police to notify the public about where convicted sex offenders live outside of prison.

Every state has some form of Megan’s Law. Some registries include a photo, address and workplace of the offender as well as descriptions of convictions.

About 35 states, including Connecticut and Alaska, provide the information for free on websites. Connecticut’s website has been
disabled until the court reaches a decision.

The two cases mark the first time the court will determine whether Megan’s Laws are constitutional, which could affect groups like Little League of America. The organization announced in October it would require all of its 1 million volunteers to be checked against state sex offender registries (“National Agencies Click on Fast, Cheap Methods for Screening Volunteers,” Youth Today, Nov. 2002).

The Alaska case was brought by two sex offenders sentenced before the state enacted its Megan’s Law in 1996. The law required them to register, which they argued was a violation of the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause protects people from being punished by a law enacted after the commission of their crimes.

The Supreme Court must be convinced that being added to the registry is a punitive action. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, ruled in April 2001 that the law was punitive, “inherently retributive” and subjects offenders to “community obloquy and scorn.”

Attorney Darryl L. Thompson, representing the men from Alaska, told the Supreme Court that failure to comply with the registration law is a felony, and the law is part of the state’s criminal, not civil, code. When taken together, the registry has a stigmatizing effect on his clients that amounts to additional punishment.

“They’re telling the public these people are dangerous now,” Thompson told the court.

Attorney John G. Roberts Jr., representing Alaska, said the statute is not punitive because it requires little of the offenders other than keeping their registrations current for a period of time and frequency determined by their offenses.

Several justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, questioned whether only publishing the criminal record – and not supplemental material such as whether the offender had successfully been rehabilitated – was fair.

“It is not the whole truth,” Ginsburg said. “The public is getting only the bad, not the good. Its judgment is being skewed.”
Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Antonin Scalia both questioned how publishing facts could be considered punishment, especially if it concerned criminal behavior that is associated with high recidivism rates.

In the second case, attorney Shelley R. Sadin argued on behalf of a group of offenders that placing their names on the Connecticut registry violated their rights to due process. Offenders are not given an opportunity for a hearing to determine if they pose a danger to society before their names are added to the list.

The public knows that Megan’s Law was enacted in memory of a little girl who was raped and murdered by a sex offender, Sadin said. “In the eyes of the concerned public, every person named on Connecticut’s sex offender registry” is dangerous, she said.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal argued that the convicts’ criminal trials served as their hearings and noted that the website included a disclaimer that not everyone on the list is a threat.

Justice David Souter said he could understand why the public would believe everyone on the list is a danger. The fact the registries exist at all suggests the states consider those people to be dangerous, despite any disclaimer, he said.

Several justices noted that there is a difference between a 17-year-old male convicted of statutory rape for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend and a serial child rapist, yet the two are treated equally on the registries.

“People aren’t idiots,” Breyer said. The public can decide if an individual is a danger based on the case information contained in the registry, he said.

Court opinions may be released any time after the case is heard through the end of the annual session in June.

Contact: U.S. Supreme Court,

– Andrew D. Beadle

Congressional Roundup: Immigrant Youth, ‘Safe’ Websites for Kids

Foreign children in the country illegally who are detained without their parents will no longer be placed in the care of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a policy shift that partially mollifies youth and immigrant advocates.

The new policy, which moves responsibility for the youth to the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Administration for Children and Families, stems from the creation last month of the Department of Homeland Security. Legislation that created the new department abolished the INS, moving its responsibilities to different agencies.

President Bush signed the bill on Nov. 25, but it could take from five months to several years to implement the changes.

The INS detains unaccompanied youth and is responsible for providing them with services and implementing deportation procedures. Critics have likened the system to having prosecutors run a prison system and try the suspects.

The INS has also detained many unaccompanied youth in juvenile detention facilities, violating federal policy that requires such youth to be placed in the least restrictive settings.

Advocates for the youth, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the American Bar Association (ABA), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center, encouraged Congress to consider legislation (S 121, HR 1904) that would have changed how unaccompanied youth are treated. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration held a hearing in February that included the testimony of a youth who had been detained for six months (“Horror Stories Prompt Calls for Reform,” Youth Today, April 2002).

Congressional sponsors and advocates from the nonprofit sector sought to have the children removed from INS custody and to be guaranteed free counsel and guardians ad litem to protect their interests. The Homeland Security Act changed the custody jurisdiction, but did not address free counsel or guardians.

“It’s a good first step,” said Susan Baukhages, director of communications for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, based in Baltimore. “The prosecutor is no longer the caretaker.”

Supporters of the change say the Office of Refugee Resettlement is in a better position to ensure the youth are moved to foster homes or other less restrictive settings. The office served more than 12,000 children in the past year.

The homeland security law also requires the refugee office to maintain a list of attorneys, by state, who are willing to represent the children in immigration hearings for free.

The ABA and the Lutheran services will continue to push for guaranteed representation and guardians in the 108th Congress.
“The stars are lining up on it,” said ABA President A.P. Carlton Jr.In one of its last acts before adjourning, Congress cleared legislation to create an Internet domain to host sites that are child-friendly. The bill, which President Bush was expected to sign into law, directs the U.S. Department of Commerce to establish the new domain as a part of the United States’ country code.

In addition to screening all sites before they can use the domain name, the legislation prohibits sites from including chatrooms, instant messaging or hyperlinks unless “they can be done safely,” according to bill sponsor Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

Inclusion in the domain is voluntary. Web sites that are approved for the inclusion would have a web address ending in “”

The Senate ended its second session of the 107th Congress on Nov. 20, the House on Nov. 22. The 108th Congress convenes Jan. 7.

– Andrew D. Beadle

Briefly …

Kinship Care Agreement: Bowing to a court settlement and pressure from child advocates, California has agreed to monitor the homes of relatives caring for foster children and provide families with money to bring the homes within federal standards. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families had withheld more than $75 million because the state’s Children and Family Services Division did not require relatives who care for foster children to meet the same standards as unrelated foster families.

Suit Blames Fast Food for Fat: Lawyers in New York filed a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s and Burger King last month, alleging that the fast food chains knowingly cause obesity among 13 percent of young people. Plaintiffs in the case include a teenager who says he ate every meal at McDonald’s for three years while in a homeless shelter, and a 278-pound, 13-year-old boy who ate there three to four times a week.

Atheist Scout Booted: Darrell Lambert, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout from Port Orchard, Wash., was dismissed as an assistant scoutmaster by the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts of America for being an atheist. Lambert has been fighting his dismissal.

New Child Welfare Law Program: The National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) announced the creation of a child welfare law certification program for attorneys, funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau. The program aims to improve child and family court outcomes by enhancing the skills of children’s lawyers. Contact: NACC at

More Teens Marry: While U.S. Census data indicate that Americans are waiting longer to get married, the percentage of 15- to 19-year-old teenagers getting married increased by half over the past decade. The numbers remain low – only 4.5 percent of teens in that age group are married – and some experts point to growing rates of conservatism among teens and a growing fear of sexually transmitted diseases as possible explanations. “From a social policy perspective, it’s probably not a good thing,”
Barbara Risman, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, told the Charlotte News Observer. “The more younger people marry, the more likely they are to divorce.”

Passengers Distract Teen Drivers:
Noting that teens driving with passengers are five times more likely to get in an accident than adults, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended limiting young drivers to one passenger under age 20, unless accompanied by an adult over 21. Because 87 percent of the NTSB’s suggestions are adopted by states, passenger restrictions may not be far off.

Kentucky Wins Accreditation:
Kentucky’s Cabinet for Families and Children has met the standards for reaching full accreditation from the New York-based Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services. Illinois is the only other state with the accreditation.