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Project 351 Looks to Protect Children
By Ann Needle

    The recent passage of Melissa’s Law has brought the issue of protecting the public from sexual predators into the spotlight. Now, a group that helped put through the legislation is looking to expand its mission in each of Massachusetts’s 351 towns, including Stow. 
    Protect Mass Children terms itself a “grass-roots” organization dedicated to guarding children against sexual offenders through stronger laws and public education. In the next year, the group is looking to further its work through its new 351 Project. This involves recruiting someone within each of the state’s cities and towns to build a Facebook page devoted solely to educating and informing residents about protecting against sexual abuse in their communities, according to PMC President Joe DiPietro. 
    “We’re a big group in terms of what we do, but small in terms of who runs it,” said DiPietro. With only a few volunteer administrators, 20 additional volunteers, and only about $12,000 in donations last year, DiPietro explained that he views the Facebook pages as a cost-efficient way to put out the latest news on sex offenders, and to educate the public about how to keep children out of danger. 
     DiPietro was quick to point out that he advocates utilizing the sex offender registry as an awareness tool, staying within the parameters of the law regarding what can be done with the information. “We don’t let on specifically who they are. We don’t want harassing comments. We don’t want people throwing cherry bombs at their front doors. Out intent is to work with law enforcement.” 
      However, he noted that PMC is pledged to pointing residents in the right direction for finding this information, if desired.
     Each PMC town page should provide the link to the MA Sex Offender Registry Board, where residents can find out how many offenders are living in their community, DiPietro said. Though the Registry does not publish these names, residents can apply to the Registry or their police departments for this information, which includes offenders’ addresses. Once obtained, it is illegal to harass offenders.
    Registry records show Stow currently has six Level 2 registered offenders living in town. Of the three levels of offenders, Level 2s are viewed as having moderate risk for offending again.  Level 3s are considered high risk, while Level 1s are classified as low risk for offending again. The Registry does not publish the number of Level 1s in a community.
The Fine Line
     Given the rules surrounding how sex offenders’ information can be published, DiPietro assured PMC carefully selects and trains volunteer administrators to assemble its Facebook pages. In researching potential administrators’ criminal backgrounds — whether involving children or otherwise — he reported that PMC routinely runs CORI checks first on these candidates. 
    “We have to verify everything before we post anything,” DiPietro stressed. And administrators are supposed to accept friend requests — granting full access to comments — only from those connected to the community. 
    A glance at a few of the approximately 11 PMC town pages now in existence reveals a variety of information posted, from advice on how to recognize potential sexual abuse of a child, to statistics on predator-related crimes. Friends of the Lunenburg page also have posted links to news articles that name, and sometimes picture, convicted child molesters. This information could be valuable to surrounding towns. 
    “Molesters don’t typically abuse in their communities,” DiPietro emphasized. “So, if 40 [abusers] live next door, then it’s time to get worried.”
    Given laws controlling what the state can publish regarding predators, it remains to be seen how this information will hold up legally on social media, noted Stow Police Chief Bill Bosworth. “In this day and age with the social media, you have to walk that fine line,” he remarked. 
   As for Stow, Bosworth said, “I would be willing to assist with any web page, to get the predator information out to parents and their kids. Obviously, anything we provide, I would want to check with the Town Administrator and Town Counsel first.” 
   This accent on information goes back to PMC’s founding in 2008 when, according to DiPietro, he and a friend were shaking their heads over the then-recent passage of Jessica’s Law, which mandated minimum mandatory sentences for certain sexual crimes against children. “Compared to other states, it’s very light,” DiPietro maintained. This got the friends to talking about the generally light court sentences handed down to convicted molesters in Massachusetts, leading full-time finance director and father DiPietro and his friend to eventually help found PMC. 
    While Melissa’s Law represents some progress on the legal front, DiPietro stressed that some things still need to change. 
    Last week, sentences were handed down in three Massachusetts predator cases. Though the plaintiffs were convicted of crimes that included child rape and attempted rape of a toddler, DiPietro lamented, “No one got more than 10 months’ probation. We live in a state where child abuse is not taken seriously. All three are still on the street. Those are the reasons why we exist.” 
    For more information on Protect Mass Children and Project 351, please visit protectmasschildren.org, or facebook.com/groups/ProtectMassChildren.