Governors in states that accepted Hurricane Katrina evacuees are being urged to locate about 2,000 registered sex offenders who fled the Gulf region during the hurricane's mayhem and may have vanished from legally required tracking.
"When sex offenders know they're being watched, when they know they're being monitored, they are less likely to offend again," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services. "When they no longer believe they are being monitored or watched, they can be tempted to offend again."
The Administration for Children and Families estimated that about 30 states are affected. In November, agency officials matched the names of sex offender registries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with the names of evacuees who applied for disaster assistance.
The agency came up with more than 2,000 matches. The find led Horn to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a system that would allow state law enforcement agencies to find registered sex offenders who are receiving disaster assistance.
All states are required to have sex offender registries, and people convicted of sexually violent offenses are required to register their current addresses.
Horn wrote the nation's 50 governors in late November to alert them to the new search they could undertake with FEMA, and the process they were to use.
"I am greatly concerned that known sex offenders who may have relocated to your State may take advantage of their anonymity and harm children once again," Horn wrote in a letter to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
The letter indicated that Texas law enforcement officials had already done a cross-check, and that it was the only state at that time which had.
Federal authorities told Texas of 304 known sex offenders who had relocated to the state, of which they know of 14 who have registered and provided contact information to law enforcement, said Jerry Strickland, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Also, an additional inquiry that Texas authorities conducted with the National Crime Information Center found 188 people wanted in connection with other crimes, said Grant Collins, who also works in the federal Administration for Children and Families.
States were not required to report back to the agency with their findings, so it's unclear how many have acted on the federal government's initiative.
Paula Stitz, manager of Arkansas' sex offender registry, said she did not know of a state-led initiative to gain access to FEMA records. However, she said, local law enforcement officials had sought information from the federal disaster agency.
Stitz said the problem in Arkansas was minimal, but knowing that 2,000 evacuees were believed to be registered sex offenders was alarming.
"It makes my hair stand on end," she said. "I really believe that registering sex offenders and notifying communities about their whereabouts is important. I think it works. If they can fall through the crack, they will jump through that crack and try to disappear."