Until now, Westwood police had no recourse if a registered sex offender chose to hang out near places where children were likely to gather.
But with a Town Meeting bylaw approved in May, the town joined dozens of other communities in enacting protections for children in such places as parks, schools, camps, swimming pools, youth centers, and public libraries.
Now, registered sex offenders, whether they live in town or not, who are found in specified “child safety zones” in Westwood can be legally removed or arrested, Police Chief Jeffrey Silva said.
Some psychologists and civil libertarians question the effectiveness of this approach. But in Westwood, the quest to establish these protected areas gained momentum when residents learned that two Level 2 or 3 sex offenders live and work in town, Silva said. But he added that this is not his primary worry.
“I’m more concerned with people who come from other towns that we don’t know,” Silva said.
Silva was on the New Bedford Police Department in 2008 when a registered sex offender lured a 6-year-old boy from his mother in the New Bedford Public Library and raped him just steps away.
After that, the city established the first child safety zone bylaw in the state. Today, the chief said, 30 to 50 Massachusetts communities have comparable bylaws on the books, and they can include such regulations as the distance a registered sex offender can live from a day-care center, school, church, or other designated area.
“The object is to protect children,” Silva said. “You want the least intervention to get the desired result.”
Westwood’s law must be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office before it can take effect. It calls for fines ranging from $150 for the first violation to $300 for subsequent offenses. There are exceptions for offenders to attend worship services, vote, and patronize government offices, all during regular hours.
The bylaw would not apply to those who were on the Sex Offender Registry or a similar list at one time but have since had their names removed.
Every community has reported incidents, Silva said, “but the point of the bylaw is to provide a prophylactic approach, rather than a reactive approach.”
South of Boston, communities that have imposed bans on where sex offenders can live include Pembroke and Rockland, while communities that have put restrictions into place both on where such offenders can live, and where they can spend their time, include Dedham, Hanover, Hanson, Mansfield, and Norwood, according to a list compiled by Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley.
One town that might soon consider heightened restrictions is Foxborough, which has been grappling with sexual abuse allegations for two years. Dozens of men have alleged that they were sexually abused as boys by William E. Sheehan, a former teacher, Boy Scout leader, and town swim director.
Sheehan, 75, has never been charged, and a psychological examination last fall determined that he is too ill with dementia to be prosecuted.
In November, the town established a temporary child safety committee to design local protocols and training policies for volunteers who work with children. Town Meeting members made the Foxborough Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Committee permanent last month. It is the first such municipal body in the state, said Selectman James DeVellis.
Last week, DeVellis said that he is open to the idea of child safety zones and would volunteer to get it in front of town boards and committees, and eventually to Town Meeting.
“If there is a way to do it, I would personally spearhead it,’’ DeVellis said. “I will make it a point to look at it.”
But the concept of child safety zones has many skeptics.
Dr. Laurie Guidry, a clinical and forensic psychologist and the president of the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, said research has not found that approaches like child safety zones are effective in reducing sex-offender recidivism.
“If they worked, professionals in the field like myself and others would support them,’’ she said. “The better answer is prevention.’’
John Reinstein, the former legal director for the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also says such bylaws are largely ineffective.
Data show a propensity among child sex offenders to abuse family members, not strangers, Reinstein said, so the probability of someone lurking in town to find children is “moot.’’
It’s “speculative,” at best, to think child safety zones really protect anyone, he said.
He noted that crimes do occur, and when they do, they evoke a powerful response. “But whether the safety zone is justified is another matter,’’ he said.
Reinstein said the rate of recidivism with child sex offenders is not significantly different from the perpetrators of other crimes. And in public debates on the issue, people who oppose child safety zone bylaws may be unwilling to stand up for sex offenders’ rights.
“People who go to Town Meeting and vote look like they are being responsible,’’ he said. “But down the line, it’s not likely to do anything in Westwood other than ban two people from going to the library.”
Westwood Town Administrator Mike Jaillet disagreed. “Children are different,’’ he said. “They are trusting and open, and need another level of protection. I think we did something good with this one.”
Jaillet said he was surprised to hear arguments at Town Meeting about the rights of offenders to be in public spaces.
“I think the answer is, by virtue of what they did and what they are capable of doing, that they took the right away from themselves,’’ Jaillet said. “We didn’t take that right away.”Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.