Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sex Offender Database as Genealogy Source?

Recently while I was working on a research project for a client, I found myself in an awkward situation: the only way I could verify the date of birth for a relative was by using that person's entry on a state database listing current sex offenders.

In most states and some localities, it is a requirement that those convicted of sex-related crimes must register and have their information publicly accessible on a registry.  Citizens are then able to look up such information either using their own Internet connection or can walk into a local law enforcement office and use a public terminal.

While the person I located on one such registry is not a direct relative, these are the questions that using such information posed:
  • the information was for a living individual so what are my duties in terms of privacy? Does it matter that the information such as date of birth is available to anyone with Internet access?
  • what is my duty as a professional genealogist to disclose the source of such information, especially if it cannot be verified in any other manner?  In this case, the person was too young to have appeared on the 1930 United States Federal Census.
  • should I have simply entered an estimated date of birth or left the field blank?
  • should I have entered the exact date of birth without a proper source citation?
  • do these registries get updated especially if an offender dies? How permanent is the information accessed?
What is your take on sex offender registries as a genealogy source?

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee


Elyse said...

Wow - who knew this problem would ever show up in genealogy?

Well, honestly, I think the idea of privacy doesn't apply. But I am not a lawyer, so I am not the best opinion to follow.

Apple said...

I check the local registry often as part of my job. It never occurred to me that it might come up in a genealogical search. If I found it I'd record it; as you pointed out, this is information they could stumble across on their own. How permanent is any online reference?

vschicho said...

You bring up several interesting questions here- my thought is that your ethical obligation is toward your client to provide the most accurate information available. Sex offender registries are a matter of public record and like all such records their status as such doesn't expire, even upon death. Also, with the way websites ate caches and projects such as the Internet archives Wayback Machine you can assume that if isomething is avail now online now it will always be available.

But, this is obviously sensative territory and not the sort of family history most people will want to brag on. Therefor I think if you are preparing a book, site, cd, etc I think the best thing to do is contact your client with your findings and allow him/her to make the final decision on citation/inclusion as a courtesy.

Finally, your questions highlight broader questions I don't think that we as genealogist talk about enough. These are the questions about when and how much of the dark side of family history do we include in our work. From my perspective there are several reasons that it is important to, at least consider, thorough and accurate information about people and events that many wish did not exist:
1. As genealogist our work is essentially that of a public historian. By it's nature all history is interpretive (or "revisionist" to take back from the nuts who toss it around pajoratively). However, as historians and genealogist I believe our ethical obligation is to organize, frame, and present people rather than sanitize or censor. I think negleting the reality that all families are filled with joy and pain we become gatekeepers of information a role that is often dangerous.
2. Much of why people seek to know their family history and genealogy is to better understand their own story and experiences. When we leave out the dark side (especially something like a sexual offender's actions that deeply impact a family in profound overt and covert ways) we eliminate important opportunities for the understanding and healing that are fundamental to genealogy.
3. With the growth of the geneogram and other genealogical techniques aimed at understanding family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and generational memory, all aspects of the society, values, individual's action, inaction are all essential to the ways we as genealogist bring value to our clients and ourselves.

Ultimately the question becomes, what is genealogy, why do we it, and what is it that we offer with our unique skills and experience. Obviously, from a business perspective I believe that the customer's desire is the guiding force. But, I also think that as professionals our role is to educate, enlighten, and hopefully show our clients why a full uncensored family history is ultimately more valuable than any discomfort facing it may initially bring.

Thank you so much for posing these questions- it is great to participate in a talk about some of the hard questions we all face, in some form or another, as we dig into a family system. Awesome post as always!

- Valerie AKA @RilkeGal

John said...

My first thought is not to assume anything. I know that people have been put into sex offender databases for drunken collegiate public urination during Mardi Gras celebrations. I know teenagers are questionably being prosecuted for what would have been considered experimentation in the past. And I suspect some states may not have cleared their databases completely of consensual activities that are no longer illegal.

Of course, you may know what the database said the charges were, but that is irrelevant to the genealogy search. So indicating where you found the date of birth actually says very little about what the client's relative did to end up there. And if your client is curious what the relative did, they can look that up themselves.

Texicanwife said...

This is a touchy situation. However, it is one that I have recently had to deal with as well!
First of all, the Sex Offender Registry clearly states that the information found on their site[s] is not for publication, so you must be certain that if you list that site as a source that the research does not later end up in someone's personally printed volume! [Today with POD books, who's to say?]

Personally, what I did was to utilize the information I found on the site, and then paid the $1.95 fee for Intellius and had it corroborate the information. It's a small amount to pay to confirm, and allows me to use Intelius as my source rather than the Sex Offender Registry. [It's a people search program found at ]

Incidentally, Sex Offender Registries are updated on a yearly basis. Most will list the statute of the law broken, but do not list specifics. I would keep the info I find there entirely confidential and not include in my report. As previously stated, some of the registers are listed for nothing more than college pranks, while others may be listed for serious offense.

Sheri said...


I suggest a visit to these sites:

NGS Standards and Guidlines

APG Code of Ethics

BCG Code of Ethics and Conduct

I really do not see any gray area here, you need to cite your source in your report to your client.