The List: Juveniles and the Sex Offender Registry

Sarah Stillman, The List. The New Yorker, 14 March 2016. “When juveniles are found guilty of sexual misconduct, the sex-offender registry can be a life sentence.” When juveniles are charged with and found guilty of sexual misconduct, should they be on the registry of sex-offenders for decades?

Childhood sexual abuse is troublingly widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, and in a third of such cases, the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth says, the offenses were committed by other juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” a study sponsored by the Department of Justice notes.

Often, these incidents go unreported. But the devastation that may result from childhood sexual assault can last a lifetime, fuelling depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and other signs of post-traumatic stress. Compounding the original trauma is the fact that victims’ voices are often silenced, sometimes by those in positions of trust or power.

Kids who sexually harm other kids seldom target strangers. A very small number have committed violent rapes. More typical is the crime for which Josh Gravens, of Abilene, Texas, was sent away, more than a decade ago, at the age of thirteen. Gravens was twelve when his mother learned that he had inappropriately touched his eight-year-old sister on two occasions; she sought help from a Christian counselling center, and a staffer there was legally obliged to inform the police. Gravens was arrested, placed on the public registry, and sent to juvenile detention for nearly four years. Now, at twenty-nine, he’s become a leading figure in the movement to strike juveniles from the registry and to challenge broader restrictions that he believes are ineffectual. He has counselled more than a hundred youths who are on public registries, some as young as nine. He says that their experiences routinely mirror his own: “Homelessness; getting fired from jobs; taking jobs below minimum wage, with predatory employers; not being able to provide for your kids; losing your kids; relationship problems; deep inner problems connecting with people; deep depression and hopelessness; this fear of your own name; the terror of being Googled.”…

Many politicians still won’t go near the issue, but a growing number of parents—along with legal advocates, scholars, and even law-enforcement officials—are beginning to ask whether the registry is truly serving the children whom it was designed to protect….

…most youths who are charged with a sex offense—upward of ninety-five per cent, [Dr. Elizabeth] Letourneau [director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health] told me—don’t reoffend sexually. The motives behind their crimes, too, are different from those of most adults who sexually offend. In many cases of early adolescents who sexually touch younger kids in their families, the best treatment may not be “sex offender” treatment at all; some children have never been taught that such touching is unacceptable, and providing training in sexual boundaries will suffice. For kids with more serious sexual-behavior problems, a family-based model known as “multi-systemic therapy” has proved its worth, combining individualized treatment of a child with programming that involves the child’s parents or caretakers. “We now have an effective treatment,” Letourneau said, referring to this more holistic approach, “but it’s just not available to ninety-nine per cent of kids.”

What is available, too often, is a form of commercial treatment that can be abusive in its own right. In my interviews with registrants and their families, one question came up repeatedly: “Have you looked into the therapy industry?” Many treatment programs have dedicated, well-trained staff members who engage with families and seem to help children thrive. But some providers lack the resources that would allow them to separate offenders of various risk levels. And, in some parts of the country, I found a cottage industry of court-authorized but poorly regulated therapy providers subjecting kids and teens to widely debunked interventions or controversial invasive technologies. Juveniles undergoing treatment for sex offenses have been exposed to severe verbal abuse, beatings, and even sexual predation at residential facilities. Not a few people have been placed in dubious but costly treatment programs for actions that many believe should never have been criminalized in the first place. These experiences are hardly exclusive to juveniles; they extend to many youths over eighteen, whose journeys through the justice system can be equally alarming. The most surprising instances are known as the “Romeo and Juliet” cases, involving consensual sex between teens….

In at least twenty-nine states, Human Rights Watch reports, consensual sex between teen-agers can trigger registration….

The reform movement’s efforts have started to see gains. In recent years, many institutions—from district attorneys’ offices to detention facilities—have improved the way they deal with youths who have committed sexual offenses. The broader justice system, too, has shifted, acknowledging that juveniles aren’t just mini-adults; not long ago, the Supreme Court affirmed that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”…

One of the movement’s best hopes for advancing legislative change is an attorney named Nicole Pittman. In the early two-thousands, Pittman worked as a public defender on the juvenile docket in New Orleans, where she first noticed the long-term toll that the registry took on convicted offenders. (In Louisiana, teen-agers’ licenses are stamped in red with “SEX OFFENDER.”) In 2011, she embarked on a cross-country trek to interview youth registrants and their families. Her findings were released in a hundred-plus-page Human Rights Watch report, which she was sure would inspire changes in policy. On the road, Pittman met with members of local government to present her findings, and most politicians listened politely. But few, if any, were moved to action.

Last summer, Pittman and [Eli] Lehrer [president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.] drafted a plan of action that focussed on revising a single clause of the Adam Walsh Act. Instead of mandating that states include certain kids on the public registry, they proposed that the law stipulate the opposite: that states failing to eliminate the practice of juvenile registration would fall afoul of federal law, and lose funds. Any savings could be put toward programs that took a preventive approach to childhood sexual assault. Pittman and Lehrer contacted Stacie Rumenap, the head of Stop Child Predators, who agreed to help push the proposal nationwide and to work with them on state-level reforms. “Over the years,” Rumenap told me, “I’ve become more sympathetic and more aware that, as we draft our sex-offender laws, we need to be very careful about how we insure young kids’ lives aren’t being ruined.”