Sheltering a Sex Offender in Texas? Check the Database!

With hotline, shelter operators can check evacuees against state registry.

by / September 12, 2008

Photo: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces hotline for shelter operators to check evacuees against. (Credit: Texas Attorney General's Office)

With Hurricane Ike moving rapidly toward Texas, multiple counties have issued evacuation orders and shelters across the state are expected to provide refuge to thousands of fleeing Gulf Coast residents. To aid emergency shelters, raise awareness and protect evacuees, the office of the Texas Attorney General has established a 24-hour, toll-free emergency hotline that will allow shelter personnel to inquire whether evacuees are registered sex offenders. Shelter operators can also fax and e-mail the information to the hotline.

"As our fellow Texans are coming here from the Gulf Coast, It's critically important that when they check in to a shelter, when they check in to a church, when they check in to someone's home that they are in a place that is a safe environment," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Thursday at a news conference announcing the program. "These people need to ensure that the person checking in to their home, checking in to the church, checking in to their shelter, is not a registered sex offender. We don't want to see anyone harmed or victimized as a result of the evacuees who may come here," he said. "We saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that inherently, amongst the approximately 1 million people who will be evacuated from the Gulf Coast there will be a large number of these people who will be registered sex offenders," he said.

"When evacuation shelters contact the Safe Shelter Hotline at (866) 385-0333, law enforcement officials with the Office of the Attorney General will access and share information from the state's registered sex offender database," Abbott explained. "To ensure thorough database searches, callers need to provide evacuees' names, addresses and dates of birth," he added.

With this information, shelter managers can coordinate specialized housing or make other arrangements as appropriate.

In December of 2007, Texas began using a new statewide citizen-evacuation management system. The tracking system, which was successfully deployed in 2006 and 2007 during state evacuation simulations, is intended to help safely evacuate citizens in the event of any large-scale man-made or natural disaster.

In the event of an emergency evacuation, evacuees are registered on-site and issued a bar-coded RFID wristband. An evacuee's wristband will be scanned with a wireless device as the evacuee boards a state-contracted vehicle. The information is then added to the bus boarding log. Evacuee intake information and location will then be sent wirelessly to The University of Texas Center for Space Research data center.

The buses are equipped with GPS systems to track their location along the evacuation route. Upon reaching the destination, the system will update evacuee profiles and provide real-time information. This will enable state employees to respond to inquiries from the public about the safety of evacuated family members and to reunite families that have been separated during a large-scale disaster.

Rugged hand-held computers are used for the enrollment and tracking of evacuees throughout the process. In addition, bar-code scanners and RFID readers are used in the registration and final destination check-in process for evacuees.

"We wanted to enhance our existing emergency evacuation planning strategy with a new system for tracking and locating evacuees," Jack Colley, chief, Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management, said in a news release, at the time of the systems launch. "We are confident that the statewide emergency- evacuation tracking system will not only help save lives and effectively ascertain the location of the displaced citizens, but it will also provide the state with the ability to update the families of the evacuees and effectively allocate search-and-rescue resources. The RFID solution will improve the GDEM's command and control management of large-scale disasters within the state by enabling officials to efficiently allocate valuable emergency resources."

In December 2007, Colley told the Houston Chronicle that Texans seeking to escape the next hurricane would be subject to a criminal background check. The idea is to keep sex offenders and other people convicted of felonies off the buses used by the general population, he said.

The names of passengers seeking to board evacuation buses would be checked against sex offender registries and criminal background databases. Colley said officials were only interested in individuals with outstanding warrants, sex offenders or parolees.

Colley confirmed that all of those names will be checked against existing sex offender registries and other criminal background databases. Colley said officials are not interested in evacuees' past criminal convictions, only if they have outstanding warrants, are sex offenders or parolees.

After Hurricane Katrina, nearly 1,700 parolees failed to check in with authorities in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, according to the Chronicle.