He was a typical, baseball-obsessed 6-year-old boy, tagging along with his mom to a Florida shopping mall on a hot summer day. He asked for permission to check out some video games one aisle over at the Sears store while she shopped for lamps. Then he vanished.
His frantic parents, John and Revé Walsh, had to conduct their own search for their son, Adam. Back then, on July 27, 1981, there were no 24/7 hotlines, no AMBER Alerts, no rapid-response teams, no geo-targeted missing child posters, no National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Two weeks later, Adam’s severed head was found in a canal 100 miles away.
Although stranger abductions are rare, missing children are not. Over the next 40 years, Adam’s parents channeled their rage and grief into helping other families of missing children. They co-founded NCMEC, they pushed for new child safety laws on Capitol Hill, and they always spoke out for child protection measures that most people take for granted today. Now Adam’s parents fear a little-known non-profit organization comprised of judges, attorneys and law professors is about to set back decades of child protection laws.
“I need you to speak out against this effort to strip existing protections for children,” John Walsh, longtime host of America’s Most Wanted and, now, In Pursuit with John Walsh, said in a recent video message alerting the public. “Let your legislators know how you feel about this injustice.”
On May 17, the American Law Institute, or ALI, will vote on sweeping revisions to the Model Penal Code which, if adopted by state legislatures, would roll back child safety laws championed by NCMEC over the last 38 years.
Initial outrage from NCMEC, the Justice Department, state attorneys general and many others, prompted some adjustments. But several egregious proposals remain unaddressed, including something many people depend on to decide where they live and who to allow their children to be with. Under ALI’s recommendation, the public would no longer have access to state sex-offender registry websites or any information about registered sex offenders in their communities.
Not only would the public lose access to registry information, but those convicted of sharing images and videos of children being sexually abused, exploited, even raped on the internet would no longer have to register as sex offenders. And people who purchase children for sex would be immune from state sex trafficking charges and wouldn’t be listed on the sex offender registry.
“Buying kids for sex and trading images online of children being sexually abused and raped are 21st century forms of sexual assault of children,” said Yiota Souras, general counsel of NCMEC. “ALI’s efforts to diminish these laws ignore the reality of how these horrific sex crimes are perpetrated against children today.”
If these recommendations are approved by ALI, and adopted by state legislatures, this means that convicted sex offenders could be living in your neighborhood, coaching your children’s sports team or applying to be your child care provider and you’d be prohibited from finding out about it. You wouldn’t be able to determine the safest places for your children to play outside or trick-or-treat or the best routes for them to walk to the school bus.
Daycare providers, youth organizations, schools, volunteer groups and businesses that use the registries when hiring staff or looking for volunteers would be blocked from critical information about who sex offenders are, where they live and work and if they’ve committed crimes against children.
ALI’s recommendations also go against federal law in place since 2015 and would exclude buyers of children for sex from liability under state trafficking charges. As a rationale for these changes, ALI indicated it has difficulty treating a buyer as participating in the trafficking crime, in part because “the buyer’s encounter with a victim is usually brief.” ALI also thinks it’s unfair to attach “the stigma and sanctions” of sex trafficking to a buyer of sex with children.
“No matter how they try to justify it, ALI’s rationale is unacceptable and puts the perceived rights of criminals before children victimized by the atrocities of sexual abuse,” John Walsh said. “We cannot allow this to go on.”
Last year alone, NCMEC’s CyberTipline received more than 29 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation, nearly all involving abusive images and videos. Of children seen in child sexual abuse imagery reported multiple times to NCMEC, 8% depict infants/toddlers and 59% depict prepubescent children. With the explosion of CSAM being shared on the internet and child sex trafficking occurring in every corner of America, why is ALI proposing changes to exclude these horrific crimes from the sex offender registry?
The authors of the revised Model Penal Code, which many states rely on to enact and update their criminal laws, have said these revisions are needed to correct the impact of the public’s “emotions and intuitions” relating to sexual offenses.
Yet they acknowledge that many of their recommendations – a culmination of an almost decade long project – represent a “major departure” from current U.S. law.
In the face of unfathomable grief and loss, John and Revé Walsh have dedicated their lives to building legal safeguards to keep children in this country safer. Child protection has been at the center of all of their efforts. ALI has no right to dismantle decades of work to protect our children in the name of modernizing the law.
On behalf of child victims, the Walshes call on you to express your outrage if ALI approves the revised Model Penal Code. Join NCMEC in opposing adoption of this model code in every state legislature.
We hope that you are as concerned about these developments as we are and encourage you to share this blog with your friends, family and colleagues. Stay tuned to this blog and NCMEC social media for updates on this topic.