By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Tech-savvy parents worried about more than costumed ghouls and goblins this Halloween can use GPS technology to keep tabs on their children.
Once upon a Halloween, parents feared razors in their children's candy and took piles of it to hospitals for X-rays. Now those scared that sex offenders could grab their children while trick or treating can turn to cell phone services to map offenders' addresses.
Family Watchdog, a free service that locates the addresses of registered sex offenders, joined with Sprint in July to put the software on cell phones, and also posts information on its Web site, www.familywatchdog.us.
The sex offender scare has also prompted the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to notify offenders still on parole or probation to put "no candy at this residence" signs outside their homes and adhere to a 6 p.m. curfew on Halloween, said Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for the Division of Parole and Probation.
Maryland has 4,700 registered sex offenders, and the department also has a sex offender mapping system which can pinpoint the 2,000 who are registered but not under the state's control because they have already completed their sentence.
"Our Web site allows parents to see all of the offenders in their neighborhood and map a route for Halloween so they know which houses to avoid," Bartholomew said. "Parents are going to want to know where the other ones are who are not required to stay in for the evening."
But Bartholomew cautioned against substituting technology for parental care.
"There are limits to all technologies, including the sex offender registry, and nothing can replace the presence of adult supervision," she said.
Sprint also pitched its Family Locator as a tool to follow trick or treating routes by linking a child's cell phone to another cell phone or a computer, said Laura Porter, Sprint's Maryland communications manager.
Verizon Wireless' Chaperone Child Locator Service allows parents to locate their children's phones, or to time arrivals for children at, say, ballet practice or school for a monthly fee said John Johnson, Verizon Wireless spokesman.
Halloween would be an opportune time to use the service, he said.
"You can check on your child if your child is not home at the agreed upon time," he said. "Or, you could also just call to keep in touch."
Through Sprint, parents can keep an eye on their children with an additional monthly fee, and not just on Halloween, Porter said. Subscribers can notify children once a month through a text message that they are locatable or children can receive notification each time they are tracked.
The technology is a way for parents to communicate with their children, and allow them to "do things that can sometimes be scary," Porter said.
But Mark Brady, Prince George's County Fire Department spokesman, said parental supervision for children under 12 is the key to a safe Halloween.
"There are some things that could happen under the watch of GPS technology," on Halloween that would not happen if an adult was present, Brady said. "I do not believe firmly that it supplants adult supervision."
Tracking older children through GPS technology might be helpful on Halloween, he said.
"The young children still enjoy going door-to-door, but there are other children under 18 that might go out and not do that," Brady said. "While they may not appreciate it as they get older, it's a good communication tool."
Teenagers are looking for more freedoms, said Susan Shaffer, executive director of the Maryland State Parental Information Resource Center in Bethesda. As long as parents have an understanding with their teens, the technology should be helpful, she said.
"Especially at Halloween where, as they get older, there is a lot of potential for drinking, as long as children understand where their parents are coming from, it's a good solution," Shaffer said.
Ultimately, parents will decide what is right for their children this Halloween, Porter said.
"We believe education and awareness are the most important things for parents. It's important for parents to be with their children especially if they're younger," she said.
"Why not use all of the tools at your disposal to try to keep your child safe?"