Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Sex Offender Registries Ruin the Lives of Teenagers

Two news reports of how draconian sex offender laws have ruined the lives of two young teenagers: No longer a registered sex offender, but the stigma remains.

Stilwell, Oklahoma (CNN) -- As a teenager, Ricky Blackman carried an Oklahoma driver's license with the words "sex offender" stamped in red below his picture. His crime? Having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 16. The offense occurred when he lived in Iowa, and the label followed him to Oklahoma.
Blackman pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse for having sex with the 13-year-old. The age of consent in Iowa is 14.

As a Tier 3 offender on Oklahoma's sex offender registry, Blackman could not attend high school, visit the town library, or go to his younger brother's football games. But the label did more than limit where Blackman could go. It transformed him from an outgoing, sociable jock into an introvert who has trouble trusting people, his mother says.

Taking into account the circumstances of the case, an Iowa judge accepted Blackman's plea and ordered that his record be expunged if he successfully completed probation and sex offender treatment. At that time, his name would be removed from Iowa's sex offender registry.

After his conviction, Blackman's family moved to Oklahoma to get a fresh start. He finished his probation and sex offender treatment, and his record in Iowa was expunged in October 2008, according to court documents.

But the action did not carry over to Oklahoma, where Blackman continued to be listed on that state's sex offender registry. The stigma followed him to his new home and the harassment continued, the family said.

A neighbor who found out he was on the registry videotaped him when he went outside, Blackman said. His picture and address were posted on a vigilante Web site, and a gas station attendant refused to sell him cigarettes, one time taking his license and throwing it across the store.

To comply with state residency restrictions that prevent registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center, the family moved onto a small plot of land in the rural southeastern Oklahoma community of Stilwell, population 3,500.

Having a son on the registry also made a lasting impression on his mother. She now devotes most of her time to reforming sex offender legislation --specifically, the registry -- as chief operating officer of Sex Offender Solutions And Education Network.

Blackman's story comes at a time of increased push-back against sex offender policies that some see as overly broad. Many states have been resisting toughening their sex offender policies. Only one state, Ohio, has complied with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which lists sex offenders as young as 14 on a uniform registry.

In Georgia, the Southern Center for Human Rights is challenging a state law prohibiting sex offenders from living and working within 1,000 feet of a school, church or day care. Georgia's laws go so far as to ban sex offenders from living near bus stops. The case is still pending.

Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County, alleging the county's 2,500-foot residency restriction interfered with Florida's ability to monitor and supervise released offenders. With nowhere to live, dozens of homeless sex offenders clustered under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The lawsuit was dismissed in September 2009.

Meanwhile, Blackman was just trying to graduate from high school. He attempted to enroll but was told that he was considered a danger to the rest of the students. He couldn't take GED classes at the vocational school in town because of an on-campus day care center.

His mother persuaded the school board to provide him with a tutor and private classes at the local police department, under the supervision of an officer.

Finding a job presented its own challenges. He says he was turned down by Wal-Mart, McDonald's and another fast food outlet that told him he was considered a liability. He spent most days at home learning to build Web sites and helping his mother and brother.

Due in large part to the efforts of his mother, the Oklahoma Legislature last year passed the law that makes expungements of certain sex offenses in other jurisdictions applicable in Oklahoma.

"I know what I did was wrong and I deserved to be punished for it. But this destroyed my life. Took it away from me," he said. "You never forget about it. I know I'm off the registry but it's taking a long time for it to settle in."

In November, Blackman received a letter from the Oklahoma Board of Probation and Parole. It said he had been removed from the state's sex offender registry, where he had been designated the highest level of risk possible.

His return to a "normal" life has been slow. He still is reluctant to go to his brother's football games, and the thought of going to places where children convene makes him nervous.

"I know I'm off the registry but others may not know," he said. "I don't want to go somewhere and cause a scene 'cause people may not know that I'm allowed to be there and get upset."
--------------------------------------------------------------- A long wait to get past crime - Kids as young as age 10 can be registered as sex offenders, a label lasting a decade.

Samantha Portwood is marking the days on her calendar until Sept. 30. That's the day her 24-year-old son's name and picture is expected to be removed from the state's sex offender registry.

For the past decade, her son Dale has lived under public scrutiny for a crime he committed when he was 12. He inappropriately touched a 7-year-old girl at his baby sitter's house and was charged with aggravated sexual assault. After completing two years of therapy and probation, he had to register as a sex offender, which shocked his parents.

“It frustrates me,” said Portwood, of Pinehurst in Montgomery County. “He was 12 years old when it happened. He's not a threat to society.”

Her son isn't alone. About 3,600 people on the state's registry were added as juveniles, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which administers the registry. Eleven were 10 years old when they registered.

The registry has 26 juveniles who are currently 13 to 16 years old, according to state records. Of the more than 340 juvenile registrants who live in Harris County, three are currently 16 years old, records show.

Many people are not aware that juveniles can be registered as sex offenders in Texas. State legislators made registration mandatory for adults and juveniles when they established the sex offender registry in 1991. Texas does not have a minimum age for juvenile registration, but the minimum age for prosecution is 10.

Juvenile registration has been debated by lawmakers, child advocates and crime victim proponents for the past decade. Those who support it contend the community has a right to know about dangerous sex offenders — adult or juvenile. Critics argue that the negative consequences on juveniles and their families far outweigh any benefits to the community. No research suggests registration makes communities safer, they said.

Access to court records for juveniles with delinquent backgrounds are generally restricted to protect them from shame and to give them a fresh start. But anyone can access the state's online sex offender registry and see the juvenile's criminal charge. The registry, which went online in 1997, also makes available the juvenile's address, where he attends schools and annual mug shots.

“I feel like this is totally inconsistent with the way we as a society have determined is the right way to deal with juvenile behavior,” said Theresa Tod, director of the Texas Network of Youth Services. “To protect juveniles from public derision is our job.”

Unlike adult sex offenders who must register for life, juvenile sex offenders are required to register for 10 years after they leave the juvenile system. The vast majority of juvenile sex offenses are against other children, and the juvenile generally knows the victim, said juvenile justice experts.

In some cases, juvenile sex offenders have safety zone stipulations as part of their probation and can't go to certain places, such as parks or community centers. The restrictions can limit their social activities and job opportunities, which are key to rehabilitation, McLaughlin said.

Allison Taylor, executive director of the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment, said“Anytime you destabilize adults or juveniles, you increase the risk of recidivism” . “That is a public concern.”

Portwood has spent 10 years trying to protect her son from being bullied and ostracized. She said she helplessly watched as Dale's self-esteem diminished. She believes her once mild-mannered son intentionally misbehaved in school so he would be disciplined and not have to attend.

In high school, classmates called him a rapist and child molester behind his back, she said. He eventually dropped out in 10th grade. “He came to me and said, ‘Mom, I can't take it anymore,'” she said. “He said, ‘Do people look at me and think I'm a monster?' What do you tell him?”

Portwood said she knows her son's actions were morally wrong but believes it didn't merit him being labeled a sex offender.

Failure to report a change of address, a registry rule, landed him in prison last year. He was released on parole in March and is living outside of Austin, trying to get his life back on track.

Dale, who did not want his last name used to protect his identity, said he did not realize at 12 what he did was wrong. He said he never was a sexual predator and feels like registration robbed him of his childhood because his life was filled with constant embarrassment.

As many as 32 states require juvenile registration, and as many as 20 states have special juvenile procedures that can terminate a juvenile's duty to register, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the U.S. Justice Department.

But judicial discretion, the one element that makes juvenile registration palatable for some critics, would be stripped under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The law sets new standards for registering sex offenders. All states were required to comply with the act by this year. Many states, however, have objected to a requirement for all juveniles 14 and older who have committed aggravated sexual assaults to register for 25 years. The U.S. attorney general recently issued all states a one-year extension for compliance.