Borough eyeing new approach with child safety zones

Legal questions have left adopted ordinance on the shelf

NAUGATUCK — Seventeen months have passed since the Board of Mayor and Burgesses approved an ordinance that banned registered sex offenders from designated child safety zones, but officials have yet to put the law into effect due to the threat of potential legal action and say a new approach is needed to meet constitutional standards.

“Issues are being raised — constitutional issues — that we have to consider before we finalize an ordinance,” Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said July 2 during the continuation of a hearing on an amendment to the ordinance. “We’ve got to do it lawfully, and we will do it lawfully, but it’s got to be done in accordance with the Constitution.”

The board unanimously approved the child safety zone ordinance in January 2018. The ordinance prohibits registered sex offenders from specific areas like borough-owned or borough-operated parks, schools, playgrounds, sports fields and facilities, trails and open space areas. The ordinance allows for a few exceptions for sex offenders, including dropping off or picking up their child at school, and established penalties for those who violate the ordinance.

In April 2018, officials introduced an amendment to ordinance that would allow a sex offender to receive a waiver from the ordinance from the police chief, granted the offender meets certain criteria.

The state’s sex offender registry listed 35 registered offenders with Naugatuck addresses as of last week.

Officials have yet to enforce the ordinance or take action on the amendment, hoping that legal questions about the ordinance would have been resolved through a lawsuit filed against Windsor Locks or new state legislation.

Windsor Locks had a similar child safety zones ordinance in place. An unnamed Windsor Locks resident and One Standard of Justice, a volunteer group that advocates for people accused or convicted of sex offenses, filed a federal lawsuit against the town over the ordinance last year. In March, Windsor Locks voters voted a town meeting to repeal the ordinance, according to published reports.

New state legislation was proposed to make changes to the state’s public sex offender registry. The changes focused on making the registry based on the risk an offender poses to reoffend sexually or violently rather than the offenses. The proposed legislation would establish a sexual offender registration board to determine an offender’s risk level.

The proposed bill made it out of committee this past session but wasn’t acted on by the legislature, Borough Attorney Edward “Ned” Fitzpatrick said.

“It is a municipal issue but it’s not something that 169 towns should be addressing differently,” Fitzpatrick said.

Without the answers officials had hoped for from a court ruling on the lawsuit against Windsor Locks or state legislation, Hess said the borough will have to make its own legal determination and work to develop a “bulletproof” ordinance that protects children and insulates the borough from legal claims.

Fitzpatrick said that would probably require redrafting the ordinance to be based on risk factors, similar to the proposed state legislation. He said he wouldn’t have difficulty recommending a risk-based ordinance, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be challenged in court.

As officials work on a new approach to the ordinance, supporters of the regulation said it’s needed to help protect children in Naugatuck.

“I believe everyone here can agree on one thing, and that is we want to keep children of Naugatuck safe,” said Tina Dambowsky, a Waterbury resident who grew up in Naugatuck.

Supporters said that it appeared the rights of convicted sex offenders were being given priority over the safety of children. They argued that sex offenders committed a crime, which has consequences.

Frank Finkle, a Naugatuck resident, asked the board to vote against the amendment and to repeal the ordinance. He said it targeted sex offenders while giving people convicted of other crimes involving children, like murder, a pass.

“I don’t believe this ordinance goes far enough,” he said. “It’s a sex offender ordinance, it’s not a child safety ordinance.”

Donna Palomba, a Woodbury resident and founder of Jane Doe No More, Inc., a national nonprofit organization based in Naugatuck that provides support for victims of sexual violence, said it’s disturbing to know that the ordinance isn’t in effect, even though the board passed it unanimously over a year ago.

Palomba said she understands the legal issues the borough is facing, but asked officials to remember that the trauma a child victim of a sex crime deals with is lifelong.

“Protecting our children has to be a priority,” she said.