Kindness and protection are qualities society must offer children. We believe that distance from danger is the best way to keep people safe. Then we identify certain people as dangerous, and make it illegal for those people to be near children.
Perhaps we need to gain a healthy fear of those who promise safety for children if a particular plan is followed. Stop those who have an offense record from living in the community. Don’t let them be around children. Instead, they should trust their families, their friends, neighbors (as long as they are not on the registry), and others they know. Trust good, moral people like teachers, and protectors such as the police. Trust those who help pass the laws that protect children (even if those laws do little good). People feel safer when prior offenders do not live nearby. They always return to crime, don’t they?
Very few do so, it turns out. Someone who has committed a sex crime usually receives therapy in jail and prison, and once outside they get another heavy dose of therapy in the community. If they take the task seriously, and most do, therapists are likely to make former abusers safe to the community. They may end up being safer than friends, family members, ministers, and a wide variety of others who live near children and seem like nice people.
And yet families feel safe when those who have offended sexually are excluded from the neighborhood. The assumption seems to be that they can never change; that they will repeat their subhuman actions with children; they are monsters who supposedly never change. Yet, they almost never commit another sexual crime. People can and do change.
Thus, the harsh laws are at best irrelevant to future happiness or harm of children. The rules that restrict registrants make parents complacent because the supposed perpetrators are removed from the community. The truth is that those most likely to offend are still there. They have not yet been caught. And they are not on the registry.
If we really love children, we will look for those strategies that are most likely to keep them safe. Following the notions of prominent legislators certainly increases the number of “crimes”, but those crimes have little or nothing to do with children. Rather they are crimes of reporting where a registrant lives. They are crimes related to whether a registrant gets home before curfew; 15 minutes late and he can get several years sentence as a result (see the documentary “Untouchable”). The crimes are by those who have poor memories and forget to report to the sheriff twice or four times a year. Their crimes are from failing to report to a parole or probation officer. These are crimes that have nothing to do with child safety, but often they are brought out as evidence of registrants not being self-controlled. But they can equally be used as evidence that registrants can forget things, just like most people. They are so human they can be late for appointments.
In the community where I once lived, I never presented a problem. I had seen therapists, I had received spiritual help for wrong thoughts, I stopped looking at questionable images on the Internet. I had reformed, I had become penitent, regretting looking at images on the Internet. My therapists helped me think differently, act differently, and concentrated upon change. Their work facilitated repentance. And I did change. It was a deeply moving and motivating change, but I knew I did not want that wayward life again. I may well have been the safest person to move into any community that had children.
But people did not take it that way. Instead, they relied upon old prejudices that claimed “once an offender, always an offender.” The exclusion hurt me and my loved ones personally. Meanwhile those who are statistically more likely to hurt children moved freely among youngsters. People felt safer without me being around, but the truth was that it produced a false sense of security. They were unaware of the real source of danger to children, and instead blamed it on the minority that had been prosecuted. Those who received therapy and learned to be healthy emotionally were seen as the most likely to repeat their crimes. Again, the data simply does not support that. Thus, the false assurance of safety came from misinformation about who is safe and who is not. It is easy to demonize those we do not know.
There is a rigorous procedure that prior offenders must go through to prove they are no longer harmful to children or others. This procedure is central to what is received in therapy. People learn to act differently, to take extra precautions, to change their way of thinking. The danger is not registrants, for the most part, it is from those who are not registrants because they have not been caught, those who are hidden from public view. Healthy parents are valued for supporting their families, giving needed attention to children, and realizing the limits of what they can and cannot do without compromise. Some healthy parents are registrants.
Children should be a major concern. We should be concerned about their physical and mental development. We should be concerned about their spiritual development. But when do you hear about children in the news? Two places: when something tragic happens to them, usually something that no law could have prevented. The other time they make the news is when there is a sweet story of a child doing a nice thing. The sweet stories make us feel good about the world again.
But what about some stories about tragedies that could be prevented? Stories about parents that are restricted by law from attending their child’s graduation, visiting with teachers at open house, or sometimes not being permitted to pick up their child at school? What about parents barred from living with their children even when the parent poses no threat to the child? Do we even think of the harm such things do to children? Even governors may appear not to give it any thought.
We need to be concerned about children, love them, care for them, and prevent harm to them. But that does not mean passing laws that seem to be for the welfare of children, but are more likely to do harm than good. We pass laws before we even look at the evidence for whether the law will hurt more than help. Do we really care about families? Then look at the evidence. There are hundreds of laws that have been examined by good researchers, and been found to harm people—especially children—yet we continue to believe the lies that they are somehow good for families and children.
It is time to stand up for families and children, and time to oppose unjust and unfair laws that destroy families, including the children. It is time we see what terrible consequences there are for laws that hurt people of all ages.
What are the consequences? Researchers Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury identify many in their work: (1) difficulties finding a job, bringing significant financial hardship for the family, (2) being forced to leave their homes by the community and irrational laws, (3) harassment and threats to the family and registrant as well as property damage, (4) ridicule and violence to children of registrants by other children, (5) registrant children feeling left out and depressed, (6) anxiety and fear by children of registrants, and most of all (7) deep anger by these children. While less common than the above, 13% of the children of registrants are reported to have suicidal tendencies. Are the ineffective laws and related prejudices worth such collateral damage?
One day our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren will look back on how we treated people on the registry. They will see how families were devastated by laws that were passed. They will see how good men and women had their lives destroyed because of those laws. Our descendants will ask, “Why did you not look at the research of such laws? Why were you so indifferent to the pain such laws created? How could you turn your back on the suffering those laws brought?”
And we will have no answer. We didn’t see them as people. We saw them as subhuman, dangerous, and devious.
We made a mistake with one million Americans on the sex offender registry, and several million American children and spouses who have been affected by the registry. They are “collateral damage,” innocent child victims and other family members. And some of the victims are registrants who have paid for their actions by serving extreme sentences. They continue to pay by unfair and unjust laws that hurt them and their children and their families. It is time to end the suffering and waste of human lives. It is time to end the public registry. It is time to remove absurd laws that do far more harm than good. It is time society, legislators, and other leaders gained a conscience and acted upon real knowledge, not guesses as to what might help people. It is time we became real Americans, who believe in freedom and justice. Not just for the prosperous, not just for those who pretend they never do anything wrong, not just for those who are comfortably complacent. But freedom and justice for all. Everyone. Absolutely everyone. No exceptions.
For more on the vicious effects upon the families of registrants, read the important research study, “Collateral Damage: Family Members of Registered Sex Offenders,” by Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury, in American Journal of Criminal Justice, 2009.