Sex offenders are people, too.
You probably won’t see that on bumper stickers soon, but it is the sentiment I try to convey when explaining my views of how our society should respond to sexual offenses committed by children. It’s one thing to tell an audience that research studies show young sex offenders respond well to treatment and — when reached with appropriate therapy — are not likely to offend again. But research and data don’t carry the impact of a personal story.
As part of the follow up to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s recent report on juvenile sex offenses, we have begun interviewing young people who have been adjudicated for a sex offense to see how conviction and registration statutes have changed their lives. We also want to know more about how the victims have been affected.
What follows is the story of one young male, his sister and their family. Of course, their names, locations and current employments have been disguised. The mother heard some news coverage at the time of our report release and called us to offer help and to tell their story as representative of the harm that can be done by sex offender registries. Let’s call the participants Mike, Mary, Mother and Father.
According to Mother, the marriage fell apart due to Father’s anger issues and the messy divorce dragged on for three years in the courts. They had loud arguments, and the tension in the home was palpable. Everyone was affected, and Mike was in counseling to help him cope. The long battle had taken its toll on a 12-year-old boy with issues of his own. He was ADHD, introverted and socially isolated at school and had been in special education since the first grade.
About the time that the divorce was final, Mother found photos of naked children on Mike’s computer, and one of those children was Mary. Greatly alarmed, she immediately made an appointment for Mike with his therapist. Mike revealed that he had found his father’s pornography when he was 8-years-old and became addicted to Internet porn. He didn’t know that it was wrong and at that age, he was not attracted to adult women and gravitated to pictures of kids closer to his own age. Under state law, the counselor was a “Mandated Reporter” and called the police who came to the home very quickly. They asked to see Mike’s computer, and he gave them permission. By this time, he was quite tech savvy and felt that the police could not find his stash of porn. They did.
Mike was arrested and taken to detention for a few days, but his adjudication came months later because he was arrested for a new crime. He broke into an unoccupied house and used the computer to access web porn. He was discovered when the owners arrived to show the house to a prospective buyer. Mike ran out the door, left his bike in the front yard and headed for home. An hour later, A SWAT team arrived to arrest him. Mike was placed in detention for a week but was transferred to a private psychiatric hospital when he became suicidal. He survived. By this time, his school district had sent him to an alternative high school where he was surrounded by chronic drug users and other bad influences.
Mother determined the only way to save him would be placement in a residential treatment program. She looked unsuccessfully for affordable and effective residential treatment nearby. It would nearly bankrupt her, but she decided an expensive and distant facility was the only way to save Mike’s life. Mother sent both siblings — separately — to a teen nature treatment facility out of state. Mike stayed 16 weeks, and Mary stayed 12. Although each reported that it was tough, Mike now thinks that it was a turning point. He stayed in the other state and attended boarding school after the nature program. These facilities cost a fortune, and Mother’s sacrifice included all of her retirement savings and selling the family home. Friends helped some, but she teeters on bankruptcy today.
When Mike returned home, the local police discovered he had a Facebook page and arrested him for a felony violation of failure to include the Facebook information on the registry form. He had done so many times in the past but just forgot during his most recent registration with local police. When he was arrested, the police turned it into a public spectacle by parading him out of his workplace at the busiest time of day. Nothing inappropriate was found on his computer, phone or camera, and he has passed all of his drug tests while on probation. He pleaded to a misdemeanor, but because he was now 19, it became a public criminal record. Although his juvenile court record is confidential, this new charge must be explained each time he applies for a job, college admission or for an apartment.
Needless to say, his job record is spotty. He is attending college part time and working low wage jobs when he can get them. He cannot petition to be removed from the registry because his violation was within five years of adjudication. Mike is now 22 and has complied with all probation requirements and is eligible for discharge from probation in a few months. But he still will have to abide by the registry requirements, and his misdemeanor at age 19 still will be a public record. He is thinking a move to a state without a registry may be the only way he will be able to live a normal life.
And what about Mary? She is enrolled in a university and is doing well. She is happy, well adjusted and appreciates the therapy which she received. And she loves her brother. I do not describe this situation as a victimless crime. Life has been far from perfect for Mary, and other children in the Internet photos likely did not receive the kind of support and counseling that helped Mary.
In Mike’s case, no risk assessment instrument was used nor was any juvenile sex offender specific treatment provided. Had Mike been assessed early and given good treatment, this case may have had a shorter life. Instead, his actions at age 12 have left him deeply depressed, ashamed and fearful 10 years later.
This is just one of many, many poignant stories about young offenders and their victims. Along with data and research, they can help explain to the public why registries do not make us safer. Registries do create thousands of outcasts without connections to normative environments, and that damages public safety. By stepping forward to explain their experiences, Mike, his mother and sister hope to encourage changes that will benefit other families in the future. Changing public attitudes will take a combination of time, research, public education, and retelling of similar stories about youngsters like Mike, who are people, too.