How the registry harms families

In 1996, California enacted Megan’s Law, which informed communities of people who were convicted of a sex offense. As a new mom, I wanted to prevent my child from being abused. My understanding then was that only pedophiles abuse children, and I had the mentality that a lot of society still has today—that we should eliminate anyone convicted of a sex offense and lock up anyone who had a “perverse” sexual attraction.

I voted in favor of tougher laws on those with a sex offense conviction, such as banning them from parks, and schools, or living anywhere near children, believing this would help stop and prevent crime. But this all changed when my world came crashing all around me. I found out that everything I had thought would keep my children safe didn’t do anything, aside from giving me a false sense of security. That was the day that I found out that someone our family knew and trusted was sexually abusing my teenage daughter, and had been doing so under my nose for years.

I know that telling me was a hard thing for my daughter to do. She didn’t know if she would be believed, or if we would take the side of her abuser. She just knew that she could no longer bear keeping this secret. She suffered in silence for years, wishing and praying that the person harming her would stop on their own. She didn’t want harm to come to them, and didn’t want to harm her family, knowing the betrayal we would feel once her abuse was disclosed. She simply wanted them to stop and to get help—a desire that actually isn’t uncommon among many sexual abuse survivors. Many, in fact, don’t believe that the criminal system does anything to help either the victim or the offender.

What I learned

I have learned a lot since that fateful day. I learned that sexual abuse prevention isn’t really being addressed by our legislators. They claim that the punitive nature of the laws they impose will prevent abuse—but in reality they only fool society into thinking that. They don’t fund programs that will educate society on the warning signs of what to look for—signs of grooming, and ways parents can help prevent their child from being a target of potential abuse by family members, church leaders, coaches, teachers, scout leaders, other juveniles, close friends….and the list goes on.

We don’t push for more organizations like Stop it Now, or B4UAct that allow people to reach out for help, to either prevent them crossing the line, or to stop with the illegal actions they have been engaging in. I learned that having people support others who identify as a Minor Attracted Person (MAP) can help in their quest of not acting on their attraction. Feeling accepted can actually help them remain offense free, rather than being treated as the next person who will commit a violent offense against a child like Megan Kanka, Jacob Wetterling, or Jacyee Dugard.

We as a society need to stand up and tell our legislators that waiting until an offense has occurred isn’t helping anyone. We must demand better from them. We must push them to invest in sexual abuse education and prevention. Why provide justice for just one child, when by preventing abuse we can help save them all?

The registry’s effects on families

Families affected by CSA can also be further harmed by the registry, especially in the common situation when the abuser is a family member. The rest of the family end up becoming secondary victims. They receive the same treatment as the victim, especially if they share the same name (such as father and son). Even the victim themselves ends up being punished simply because they are related to the abuser. People often don’t realize that the victim was the one abused, but see that the person’s sibling, parent, grandparent, etc. are on the registry, and their harassment and verbal abuse extends to the whole household and family. This is one reason why some states don’t list the abuser if it is an intrafamilial offense—because the perpetrator’s registry status will also punish the victim.

Family members have been physically assaulted and murdered simply because they were with the person who committed the sexual offense when a vigilante decides to enact their own sense of justice. Children get excluded from parties, aren’t allowed to join play dates, friends stop being friends, they are bullied at school. Spouses are blamed, told that they are weak or stupid to stay in a committed relationship or even to get into a relationship with someone on the registry. Spouses have been fired because the employer finds out about their spouse’s conviction (and there is no law that protects them from being fired).

The registry and community

Communities are also harmed simply because of the registry, as housing values drop when someone is on the registry in the neighborhood.

Yet in the past 20+ years that the registry has been in effect nationwide (since the 1930’s in California), there has been no change on the rates in which people who commit sexual offenses reoffend. We also know that 95% of sexual offenses are committed by individuals that are known and trusted by the victim and family and aren’t on the registry. So the registry actually does the community a disservice as we are told the registry will keep our families safe, but it doesn’t.

We can do more to actually help stop and prevent sexual harm by investing in sexual offense education and prevention. This can be as simple as a public service announcement (PSA) with a website that parents can visit to learn about who is most likely to be the abuser, what are the warning signs, and what things parents can do to help minimize risk. Also having a PSA for those who are struggling with thoughts or addictions they know are wrong, but don’t know how to get help—groups like Stop It Now and B4UAct are two great organizations in the US that allow anyone to call in anonymously and talk to someone to get help before they act or help with an illegal image addiction.

Registry requirements

Registry requirements vary from state to state, even county by county. In California, people on the registry have to register yearly unless they are homeless, then they have to register every 30 days. And those deemed high risk (or classified as Tier 3 starting in 2021), will also have to register every 30 days. No one can enter a school property without prior written approval—even the trash man, or if your dog runs onto campus when no school is in session—otherwise they are subject to arrest. Many states have restrictions on where people on the registry can travel or live. If there is a school or park nearby, or a fast food joint has a playground inside, the person can’t visit or be within a certain distance without risk of being arrested.

We know that these laws don’t do anything to keep society safe—if anything they make society less safe, as insecure housing and family life increases the risk of recidivism (arrest for any crime). These laws are based on the premise of stranger danger, but there is a very small percentage of stranger abduction, and these laws won’t stop someone from committing a crime if they are wanting to do it (remember that Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped and transported 200 miles away—none of the laws would have stopped that).

It’s very hard for individuals on the registry to find employment, even if they apply to jobs that will hire people with a felony record, but will not hire anyone on the registry. We all get that some crimes should disqualify someone from certain jobs—you don’t want someone who committed a sex crime against a minor to work in a daycare for example, but it shouldn’t keep them from getting a job in a call center, or working at Lowe’s, or the local grocery store. 

Despite the challenges the registry poses, some have been able to still have a reasonable quality of life, but they still worry about their lives and families’ lives, worry about being pulled over and harassed by law enforcement because their plates say they are on the registry, worry about a new law being passed that strips them of more of their rights, or fear the dire consequences of forgetting to register.

Impact of the registry on victims of CSA

For many victims, the conviction, prison and subsequent requirement to register doesn’t bring the healing they want & need. My daughter told the prosecutor what she saw as justice when they asked her—no more than four years (a year of imprisonment for each year of her abuse), only to be told that as a teen who was old enough to drive and hold a job, she was “too young to know what she wanted.” The prosecutor used threats to intimidate her into testifying for a maximum punishment of 30 years imprisonment, all while her assigned “victim advocate” sat there and allowed her to be threatened. The prosecutor’s actions and the trial actually caused my daughter more harm than the actual abuse. And the prosecutor didn’t want to have victim services pay for the counseling session her therapist needed to help undo that trauma. We wished that we knew about restorative justice, and that it was even available to those with a sex offense charge being offered to help both victim and defendant. 

I truly get the impulse to make people suffer for their crimes, because I have felt those same feelings myself. But when it happened in my own family, I got to experience first hand how little vengeance does for anyone. Victims and their families aren’t speaking out against the excessive cruelty of the criminal justice system because they want to be soft on child sexual abuse. They are doing so because it hurts them too, while doing nothing to prevent future acts of abuse. I believe that we can do better as a society—and unlearning our beliefs about the effectiveness of sex offense registries is a vital first step.

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