August 10, 2014
Much of Maureen Kanka’s life has been a blur of activity since July 29, 1994.
That was the day her 7-year-old daughter Megan went out for a bike ride in their Hamilton Township neighborhood and never came home. After a massive daylong search, the quiet man who lived across the street confessed to police that he lured the soon-to-be second-grader into an upstairs bedroom of his house, raped her and strangled her.
Maureen and her husband had no idea their neighbor was a twice-convicted sex offender.
The couple responded by lobbying lawmakers to enact Megan’s Law: landmark legislation signed just months after the girl’s death that required sex offenders released from prison to register their whereabouts, and for communities to be alerted when offenders move in.
But the Kankas weren’t done. In the years that followed, Maureen traveled across New Jersey and the country speaking to parents and community leaders at schools and churches, educating them about the dangers of pedophiles. When that slowed down, she devoted her time to the foundation named for her daughter, using federal grant money to fund background checks for volunteers working with children.
It wasn’t until last year, when the federal money ran out, that Kanka finally took a break. And then, she said, the depression she’d fought for years really set in.
"I’ve had a really rough year battling with depression," Kanka, 54, said. "I think what happens is: I was so busy that once I stopped, things that didn’t hit me because I was active suddenly did.
"I know everybody loses loved ones," she added. "For me, it’s very difficult because it’s very brutal. I feel responsible. As her mother, I should have been able to save her. But I didn’t know. That’s difficult. I live with that every day."
In the two decades that have passed since the Kankas’ story made national headlines, laws were changed across the country. In 1996, two years after New Jersey passed Megan’s Law, President Bill Clinton signed a federal version, requiring all states to warn the public of sex offenders or lose federal funding. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now have a version in place.
But the debate rages on as to whether the law is effective. Some legal experts and civil rights advocates say it can keep offenders from advancing their lives, lead them to commit more crimes and cause others to harass them.
Fletcher Duddy, an attorney in the state’s public defender’s office, said the law is "the product of good intentions" but does more harm than good.
"Megan’s Law is just putting a scarlet letter on someone, making them a pariah in modern-day society so they can’t function in that society," he said. "It really has a counterproductive effect."
Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), whose district includes Hamilton, said the need for Megan’s Law is simple.
"As a parent, the most important individuals we need to protect are our children," he said. "There is not enough we can do to make things safe enough for them."
Former Gov. Christie Whitman, who signed Megan’s Law, noted its limitations but called it an "important safeguard."
"Are there problems with the way it’s implemented in places? Yes," Whitman said. "Do we have to carefully remind parents to know where their children are and to watch? Yes. But this is one instance where it’s better to be safe than sorry."
Whitman, who met with the Kankas in Hamilton to pledge her support for the legislation several times that year, said she’s rarely seen the kind of outrage that was sparked by Megan’s murder. ..Continued.. by Brent Johnson