Generation Next

Search and ProtectUsing the Web to Protect Your Child Against Sex Offenders

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

Splashed across the morning paper and the evening news, we see their innocent smiles beaming in recent school pictures, read about the last time they were seen, and hear a litany of the horrifying fates they already may have met. They are the missing children, abducted from playgrounds, parking lots and even their own homes.

And as we have seen repeatedly in Florida over the past three years, a child’s tragic disappearance is all too often linked to a sexual offender.

Our children are under siege, and with each victim’s abduction, we are losing this war. However, one of the best defenses a parent can have is readily available in the form of state and county Web sites.

After the passing of the Public Safety Information Act 10 years ago, Florida was the first state to provide names of sexual predators and offenders on the Internet. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Web site, (click on “Sexual Predators Database” for the link), allows two options for parents to take a proactive stance in safeguarding their families.

By choosing the “Neighborhood Search” option, a visitor to the site can input his or her home address and instantly receive a detailed list of registered convicted offenders currently living within a five-mile radius. By selecting two random locations on the Emerald Coast, we found three offenders/predators registered in Walton County and 106 in Okaloosa County.

Surprisingly to many parents, there is no law in Florida that prohibits a sexual offender from living near areas where children frequent. So input the address of your local school, playground, mall or any other location your child may visit.

The “Offender Search” link allows visitors to check the database by a person’s name, a valuable tool allowing you to input names of individuals who may have contact with your child but do not live in your neighborhood.

Last January, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office became the first law-enforcement agency to launch an online sexual-offender database in Northwest Florida. The county currently has approximately 285 sexual offenders/predators registered within its jurisdiction.

Michele Nicholson, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said the program – at – was spearheaded by Sheriff Charlie Morris “as an educational tool for residents to protect themselves and their children.”

The site allows for searches similar to the state’s site, as well as an e-mail alert option and useful tips on how to talk with your children about protecting themselves.

Surf, Sun and Safety

This summer, the South Walton Fire District is introducing the South Walton Junior Life Guard Program for kids between the ages of 8 and 15. This beachside camp, held every Sunday, will teach children important lifesaving skills, as well as allow children to compete in swimming, board-paddling and beach-running events. The program, which cost $100 per child, also can be a family affair, as parents are welcome to participate through administrative activities. Early registration is encouraged, as enrollment is limited to 30 children. For more information, call the South Walton Fire District at (850) 699-5627.

Parking with Purpose

Over the past three years, Destin Commons has raised more than $300,000 for the “Coins for a Cause” program. The lifestyle center has donated 95 percent of the funds to charities that aid children on the Emerald Coast. Collected from 63 parking meters posted at premium parking places directly in front of Destin Commons’ 80 stores, the money is used to benefit numerous local charities, including the Destin Family YMCA, Children in Crisis and the Children’s Advocacy Center. So on your next shopping trip to Destin Commons, share your spare change. You’ll save some steps while taking steps to make a difference in the lives of some very special children.