Age Inappropriate

A casual fling can earn a lifetime label as a sex offender.

People say you make your own luck. That seems to apply to bad luck, too, and Curtis Franks has made more than his share. His mother, Jamie, believes that her son's losing streak began when his father left home, in 1990. Curtis was ten at the time; he started doing drugs two years later. It was always low-level, but he didn't really outgrow it, either. By the time he left school, he'd been busted for theft and had even spent a few nights in jail for a motor-vehicle offense. But his big weakness was drugs. The habit kept him down.

A few years back, it looked as though Curtis might get a new start. A car accident left him with a tidy settlement, and he used it to buy his own townhouse in Aurora. Jamie found him a job at the airport, where she worked. But Curtis discovered the cruel thrill of crystal meth, and the townhouse became a party pit. People were always around, playing video games, watching the tube.

In late 2000, a new girl started hanging around the place. Curtis says he didn't know all that much about her, but she quickly became a regular. "She had short blond hair, nice body," he says. "She seemed like a nice girl." She lived nearby, and she'd stop by at all hours, sometimes well after midnight.

Anthony Camera
Jill McFadden is program administrator for the state's 
Sex Offender Management Board.
Anthony Camera
Jill McFadden is program administrator for the state's Sex Offender Management Board.
Greig Veeder, executive director of Teaching Humane 
Existence, a private treatment program for sex 
offenders.
Anthony Camera
Greig Veeder, executive director of Teaching Humane Existence, a private treatment program for sex offenders.

"She told me she lived on her own," Curtis remembers. "We'd just hang out. We were mostly with a bunch of people, listening to music. I was never really all that into her."

In mid-February, however, one thing led to another, and the relationship changed. On the night of February 17, 2001, they had sex, downstairs in Curtis's room. Curtis says she even planned it, setting up the tryst close to Valentine's Day to make it seem more romantic. She brought over flowers, he recalls.

He says he began having doubts about the relationship almost immediately, though, and he called the girl the following weekend to break it off. "At first she seemed cool with it," he says. "Then she was all passive-aggressive, like, 'Whatever.' And then she got mad and hung up."

At around 9 p.m. on the night of February 21, there was a knock on Curtis's door. Behind the knock were five cops who had an unpleasant surprise for him: The girl had claimed that Curtis raped her. But the bigger surprise was that she was only fourteen years old.

"I flipped out," Curtis says. "I didn't believe it at first. I thought they were lying. I assumed she was nineteen or twenty, maybe eighteen. I usually go for older women; that's why I wasn't interested at first. But fourteen?" Curtis was 21 years old at the time.

The Aurora cops started their investigation. The girl's story was clear-cut: Curtis had dragged her down to his room and forcibly assaulted her. But as the police conducted more interviews, the events of the evening became fuzzier. For example, the girl had insisted that she fought Curtis off, at one point biting him on the shoulder in protest. Yet there were no marks on his body. Recollections of other witnesses also conflicted with the girl's version of events.

An interview with a child sexual-assault specialist in early March was pivotal. At first the girl stuck with her story. "I was raped," she said simply. But as she talked, the inconsistencies piled up. Her body language, tight and withdrawn, suggested lies. The interviewer took a break, conferred with the detective watching from behind the one-way glass, then re-entered the room. She asked the girl to tell the truth, and that's when her story changed.

By the time the girl left the interview, the events of the evening in question were much less black and white. Yes, she admitted, she'd flirted with Curtis and made out with him. She might even have permitted him to rub his naked penis against her bare vagina; it could have slipped in, too.

In early April, the police finished their investigation. In his report, the lead detective concluded that the sex between Curtis and the girl most likely was not rape. He wrote that the girl "originally stated that the sexual intercourse was forced as a result of being embarrassed and not wanting to get in trouble with her mother. However, later statements indicate that the intercourse was non-forcible." Rape charges, in other words, would never stick.

Then again, they didn't have to.

Because of the girl's young age and the difference between her age and Curtis's, the charge that Curtis would face was sexual assault on a minor, also known as statutory rape. Even though he'd had consensual sex with a girl whose age he did not know -- a girl whose age he'd simply assumed was close to his -- Curtis would now be regarded as a child sexual offender. It was the same as if he'd grabbed a four-year-old girl he met on a playground.

The next two years were a blur of bizarre accusations, Orwellian self-examination and, ultimately, prison. "I've done a lot of soul-searching to see if I am this awful person," Curtis would regularly tell his mother during the legal journey. "And I don't think I am."

"I look back on the past two years and just wonder what happened," Curtis, a tall man with a long face and well-trimmed goatee, says today from his current place of residence, the Fremont Correctional Facility. "I wasn't in a right state of mind, I admit that. But for making a bad judgment, I'm supposed to be a sexual offender who's attracted to little kids? It just kills me that they've put me in the category they have."


The term "sex offender" conjures up disturbing images of leering, trenchcoat-wearing perverts lurking around playgrounds. Legally, though, it's a broad term. In 1992, Colorado formed the Sex Offender Management Board to oversee treatment of the state's sex criminals. The board lists nineteen separate laws that, if violated, can get one labeled as a sex offender. These range from rape -- a forcible sexual assault -- to incest, keeping a place of child prostitution, sex assault on a client by a psychotherapist, and indecent exposure.

That said, most of the listed sex offenses are aimed at those who commit crimes against children. Of the nineteen laws, fifteen specifically mention children in their titles. Still, even the word "child" can be confusing when trying to legislate sexual behavior.

The law says a child is a person under the age of eighteen. But at a certain age, children can legally give their permission to have sex, although there is no firm agreement on what that age should be. The so-called age of consent varies from state to state, with fourteen being the youngest and eighteen the oldest. In Colorado, the age of consent currently rests at seventeen.

Additional laws try to control who children may have sex with by threatening to punish those it considers inappropriate partners. Generally speaking, these criminal statutes aim to protect young teenagers from the potential abuse of power by an older person in a "position of trust." In Colorado, it is considered sexual assault on a child when a man or woman who is eighteen years old or older has sex with a child who is fourteen years old or younger. When the child turns fifteen, another set of rules kicks in. At that point the sex becomes illegal only if the age gap is ten years or greater.


All laws must make distinctions. But the lines can seem arbitrary. What makes a fifteen-year-old girl mature enough to give her permission to have sex with a 24-year-old man -- but not a 25-year-old?

Individual maturity levels vary, too. Some fourteen-year-old girls know what they're doing when it comes to having sex -- and some seventeen-year-olds have no business consenting to an intimate relationship. Cultural differences, too, can complicate matters. In some countries, the age of sexual maturity is younger than it is in the United States.

How about differences between the sexes? Even with statutory rape that involves two willing parties, it can be easy to categorize cases like Curtis's as sexual assault. Young girls have complex and often contradictory views on sex; they can also get pregnant. When an older boy or young man gets into an intimate relationship with a girl, there is also the very real issue of physical power to consider. Curtis is nearly six feet tall and 160 pounds -- bigger by far than the girl he was arrested for having sex with.

Yet not all statutory rape cases involve Lolitas. The same age restrictions on sexual partners apply to boys as well as girls -- even though it is probably safe to say that relatively few fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys would refuse the chance to have sex with an older woman. Still, it's a crime.


In 1998, Tina Martin, a handsome black woman with big eyes and a wide smile, was living in an Aurora duplex. She was 28 years old and lonely. She'd married young and in short order had given birth to three daughters. Tina had been a single mother almost from the start.

"Their father was a disaster," she says. "I had to take care of him; he needed another mama. I needed a partner, not a son. He's a little punk." The family split up for good when Tina followed one of several short-lived boyfriends from Texas to Colorado.

At the time, her daughters were nine, ten and eleven. Tina's house was one of the few in the area that had cable, so neighborhood kids came over all the time to watch TV or play video games. One of them was Timothy, who lived next door with his aunt.

"He was more mature than the other kids hanging around," Tina remembers. "The others were kids, but he hung around with adults." Legally, though, Timothy still had a few years to go. By the time he and Tina had begun having sex, he was a few weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday.

Tina says that Timothy started it. They'd known each other for a couple of months by then, and he and Tina had already become physical. "We'd play around all the time; he'd body-slam me and I'd poke punches at him, or he'd tickle me," she recalls. "But that night was different. I was lying on the couch. He bent down and kissed me. And I let him.

"He came over every night after that for a couple of weeks. It worked out fine until he was busted by his aunt sneaking out." The boy's family also found explicit letters. Although the writer signed them only with a 'T,' it didn't take a genius to figure out who it was.

All of Tina's previous boyfriends had been her age or older. A few had been abusive. (The only blot on her criminal record involved a misdemeanor assault on a boyfriend in 1991. She says she was defending herself, and the courts seem to have agreed; she never served any time for the incident.) Even while the relationship with her teenage neighbor was happening, she knew Timothy was awfully young. But that was part of the appeal, too.

"I think I decided to go with him because he was safe," Tina says from her residence in the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Cañon City, where she will spend the next four years. "He wasn't abusive, and he'd never be able to be abusive."


Although statutory-rape cases are not common, they do come up regularly. "We get one or two a year, at least," says Kevin Flesch, an Englewood attorney. State public defenders confirm that rate. Both say the Internet, where liaisons can be arranged under false pretenses, has accelerated the number of cases.

Prosecutors are often sympathetic toward young defendants. Lawyers agree that an eighteen-year-old with a fourteen-year-old girlfriend whose mother discovers their relationship will probably not be charged with a felony sexual assault on a child. Many cases are pleaded down to misdemeanors, at which point the defendant is more likely to receive a sentence of probation than prison.

Yet defense attorneys point out that such good-looking deals can be insidious. That's because even after agreeing to be charged with a lesser sex crime, young people who participated in consensual sex -- whose only real error, in some instances, was not checking identification -- are still labeled as sex offenders.

The designation is loaded. For starters, it usually means the person must register as a sexual offender, placing his name on a public list that paints him as a social deviant, no matter the details of his crime. Being tagged a sex offender almost always guarantees mandatory participation in a sex-offender treatment program. (While the facts that appear in this story -- times, dates, details of incidents -- are all true, the names of people accused of sexual abuse have been changed. This was done at the request of state Department of Corrections officials, who explain, convincingly, that other inmates often assault or kill convicted sex offenders once their offense is known among the general prison population.)

As more research is done into the psychology of sexual offenders, their treatment has become increasingly restrictive. The first of thirteen Guiding Principles for the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board's handbook is stark: "Sexual offending is a behavioral disorder which cannot be 'cured.'" Even "successful treatment," the handbook continues, "cannot permanently eliminate the risk that sex offenders may repeat their offenses."

As a result, the treatment of sex offenders has become more like managing a chronic disease, such as alcohol or diabetes, than setting a broken leg. There is no rehabilitation; the sex offender is always considered to be on the verge of committing another crime. The treatment has many facets, but the first rule of managing the sex offender is simple: Don't let him out of your sight.

With that in mind, treatment programs are rigorous and time-consuming by design. Defense lawyers argue that they are also nearly impossible to get out of. "It's horrible," says Flesch. "I've never actually seen anyone go through a program." Failure to comply with the program often means failure to complete probation -- which, in turn, lands the defendant in prison.

Another complaint is that the treatments are blunt instruments. Although the programs are referred to by providers and the courts as "offense-specific treatments" -- that is, the therapy is supposed to address a convict's specific deviance -- in reality, there is little variation in treatment.

Experts say there is good reason for this. Jill McFadden, program administrator for the Sex Offender Management Board, explains that studies show that a person who commits a sex crime against a child is more likely to also commit an offense against an adult, and vice-versa. Because a deviant's urges can go in more than one direction, the treatment must be broad: A sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender.

But the therapy can also seem misapplied. A young man who's had sex with a girl he assumed was his peer can find himself comparing stories with a middle-aged man who rapes kindergarten students -- even although there is an obvious difference between the severity of the crimes.

In July 2002, Tony Rodriguez had just turned nineteen. Already a juvenile offender -- mostly drug charges -- with a long history in the social-services system, he was being held in the Foote Center, a juvenile facility in Arapahoe County. While there, he hooked up with a girl who was also being held at the center.

He'd actually known the girl from the outside; in fact, they'd had sex before, a couple of years earlier. This time, Tony says, it was a spontaneous coupling. He was in a room by himself, saw her walk by and motioned her to come in. They kissed, and Tony inserted his fingers into her vagina. "This sort of thing goes on a lot in those places," he says. They were caught when a staff member noticed them walking out of the room.

"I didn't know how old the girl was," Tony says. Unfortunately, she turned out to be fourteen. Tony was transferred to the county jail and held on sexual-assault charges, even though there was no indication that the sex had been anything but consensual.

In late 2002, Tony accepted a deal. He pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In exchange, he received probation and a four-year deferred sentence: If he stayed out of trouble, the charge would be erased from his record.

He didn't, though, and was picked up for drug possession three months later. That violated the conditions of his probation, and he was sent to prison on the original sex charges. Still, he has declined to participate in the prison's sexual-offender treatment program.

"I just don't want to go in with all kinds of rapists and child molesters," he says. "I messed up, but I'm not in the same category as they are."

The idea that all sex offenders are rarely to be trusted is exemplified in the way the state has managed its inmate population. In November 1998, Colorado legislators passed a law designed to keep a tighter grip on convicted sex offenders. Called the Lifetime Supervision statute, it differs from fixed, or "determinate" sentences, which specify the number of years a prisoner will be incarcerated.

Under the law, the question of whether the offender will ever be released depends on whether corrections officials think he is ready to re-enter society. It could be as little as two years. It could be as long as never.

So far, prison officials have decided to err on the side of caution. In the five years between November 1, 1998, when the law was enacted, and November 2003, when the latest Department of Correction figures were available, 454 sexual offenders had been sentenced under the new law. During that time, a total of two were released. Once you are designated a sex offender, it seems, the die is cast.


On April 5, 2002, Curtis took an offer from the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office and pleaded guilty to sex assault on a child. "I wasn't happy with it, but his attorney assured us that if Curtis did what he had to do, he would have no problem," says Jamie. "And Curtis was just so tired and sick of the courts by then." He was sentenced to four years of probation -- a deal that included mandatory attendance in the sexual-offender program.

As required by state law, Curtis had to register with the local police department as a sexual offender. "It killed him to do that," says Jamie. Curtis waited until the last possible moment before walking into the police station and asking to be placed on the list.

Curtis's therapy began soon after his sentencing. Accepting responsibility for one's crimes and deviant behavior is a mandatory first step before any progress can be made. Treatment providers and offenders often wage fierce battles, especially early in treatment, over denial.

For Curtis, though, accepting responsibility was a problem. After all, he felt he was in trouble because of a poor judgment call, not a sexual deviation. His group therapy sessions were run by T.H.E., or Teaching Humane Existence, one of several private companies that contract with the state to provide treatment for convicted sex offenders ("Arrested Development," December 5, 2002).

Curtis was required to receive counseling every other week and to attend group therapy sessions at T.H.E. once a week. He was also encouraged to show up at "study halls" on the weekends. "I would have to say, 'My name is Curtis, and I sexually assaulted so-and-so on February 17, 2001,'" he remembers. "But I couldn't then say that she lied to me about her age, because that wouldn't be taking responsibility. But if it hadn't been for her age, it wouldn't have been assault!

"Or the counselor would say, 'In your disclosure, you didn't say how you forced this girl to have sex.' And I'd say, 'I didn't!' Then he would say, 'Well, you did, in a sense, because she was only fourteen.'"

In between sessions, Curtis was given homework assignments designed to focus his entire life on addressing his unnatural attraction to young girls. "I had to describe how I wanted little girls," he remembers. "I had to make a safety plan -- like a safe place to go when I coveted little girls, or all the high-risk situations I might encounter. Like, say, what if I was leaving work and stopped off to eat in a restaurant and saw a young girl? I'd have to explain how I'd 'fire drill,' or turn around and go out the opposite side of the restaurant."

He also had to keep a journal every night, as well as a sexual-thought log every day, which detailed each sexual notion that popped into his head. He says his lack of entries proved troubling to the counselors. "They wouldn't believe that I would go through a day without a sexual thought," he says. "They'd say, 'That's not possible.' So I'd make a lot of it up -- like, 'I saw a girl on the street today, and I was aroused.'"

In fact, Curtis began fabricating a lot of his stories. He wasn't stupid, and he soon figured out that it was easy enough to say what the counselors wanted to hear -- stories and thoughts that fit his conviction. After all, if he'd been found guilty of sexual assault on a child, he must then desire children.

The lies highlighted his dilemma. If he continued to insist he wasn't a sexual offender or tried to point out that his crime was different than that of a pedophile's, he was judged to be in denial. Yet if he cooperated and said what he was expected to say, he was a confirmed sex offender, a stalker of little girls.

In late 2002, Curtis's counselors noted that he was not participating well in his therapy -- missing sessions, not accepting responsibility for his actions, and acting resentful of staff members. One day in December, while attending a group session, he was arrested for violating his probation by not complying with his treatment plan.

Curtis was released from jail in early February 2003. Because he'd failed to follow the program, though, this time he was placed on an even more restrictive schedule: two group sessions a week and two study halls on weekends. He resolved to do better ' which, in his case, meant lying more convincingly.

"I was trying my hardest to find things to say that would put me in their category [of child sexual predator], but I just couldn't," he says. "They wanted me to tell them stuff that wasn't there. So my counselor kept saying that I was 'unaccountable.'"

Money was a big problem, too. T.H.E. charges clients for its court-ordered services, and they aren't cheap. Curtis says his counseling and therapy sessions ran about $700 a month. (A billing statement confirms that he and his family paid about $5,000 to T.H.E. over the course of his treatment.) And, with his schedule of required meetings, he was finding it hard to hold down his full-time construction job. He began to fall behind on his payments -- which, at T.H.E., is reason enough to be written up for non-compliance and thrown back into jail.

But all of that was simple compared to what both Curtis and Jamie considered the harshest condition of Curtis's designation as a sex offender of minors: the prohibition against any contact with anybody under the age of eighteen. The rule is standard for most child sex offenders.

Curtis's sister, Erin, was fourteen when her brother was arrested. There had never been any suggestion that Curtis had acted inappropriately around her. In fact, their mother says, now that both were older, they were becoming close friends. After Curtis's conviction, however, they couldn't be in the same room together.

"It was a nightmare," Jamie recalls. "Before Curtis came over, he'd have to call and ask if his sister was going to be here. She'd either have to leave or go into her room and shut the door. Holidays were especially bad. At Christmas, first my older son, daughter and I would open our presents. Then they'd leave, and Curtis would come over and open his by himself."

T.H.E. refused to make any exceptions for the Franks family; in fact, it clamped down further. In early 2003, Jamie recalls, Curtis was at her house watching a movie. Suddenly, Erin walked in the house.

"Curtis panicked," she says. "He didn't even look at her." He bolted into another room. Still, he told his counselor about the incident. According to Jamie, the therapist was unsympathetic: From that point, in addition to the prohibition against seeing his sister, T.H.E. also banned Curtis from seeing his mother. "They said he needed a 'time out' from me," she remembers.

Because sex offenders are thought to have a lifetime curse, like alcoholism, T.H.E., like Alcoholics Anonymous, offers support for the family members of sex offenders. Jamie was told that T.H.E. had an eight-week course that would qualify her to become an official "supervisor" for her son's interactions with Erin. After the course, the family could be reunited again for short, monitored visits.

Jamie quickly signed up with her son. Curtis's stepdad also registered for the classes. The four of them paid nearly $1,000 for the sessions. About halfway through the course, though, Jamie says she was told that it was only the first step toward qualifying as a supervisor. Although she and her family members finished the sessions, they never were designated as supervisors.

Separated from his family, Curtis was sliding downhill in his own program. Judged once again to be "non-compliant," in the summer of 2003 he was fitted with an ankle bracelet. Paired with a Global Positioning System, the bracelet allowed Curtis's counselors to keep tabs on him at all times.

The unit also came with a text-message box. If the GPS was not getting a signal, the box would beep and tell Curtis to walk outside and look at the sky. It also alerted him if he strayed too close to a forbidden area. For example, a message warning him to "Stay away from your mother's house!" would flash on if he drove or walked too close to Jamie's home.

On November 2, Curtis was arrested and sent to prison for violating the conditions of his probation by leaving the state. His construction boss had asked him to do an overnight job in southern Wyoming.

Since that time, he has been out of prison once. At Thanksgiving, Curtis was given permission to attend his grandmother's funeral in Minnesota. He was allowed to sit next to his sister on the plane to and from the event. "He got to spend time with Erin, and there were plenty of children at the family gathering," Jamie notes. "For a while, we were able to pretend everything was okay."

Everything seemed so normal, in fact, that she toyed with the idea of helping her son escape: "I thought more than once, 'Should we just give him some money and tell him to disappear, to Canada or Hawaii? He could work on a farm..."

This past January 12, Curtis agreed to another plea bargain, one that reflected an even lesser crime than the one he'd pleaded guilty to nearly two years before: attempted sex assault on a child. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Although the new sentence relieves Curtis of further sexual-offender treatment when he is released, Jamie says she will struggle with her son's label for the rest of her life. "He's not a sex offender in my eyes," she insists. "And he never will be."


For reasons that are not entirely clear, Tina Martin wasn't arrested for her sexual dalliance with Timothy until nearly two years after their relationship had been discovered and terminated. Lawyers involved in the case say that Timothy had gotten into legal trouble and may have blamed his behavior on his relationship with Tina. In mid-2000, she was charged with forcible sexual assault -- rape -- and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charge was later reduced to sexual assault on a child, or statutory rape. Tina's trial began on October 22, 2001.

At her trial, Tina's behavior was volatile. The day after it began, she suddenly agreed to plead guilty to the statutory-rape charges. Then, at a post-conviction evaluation, she just as suddenly refused to admit to having had sex with Timothy. Sensing a big denial problem, probation officials ordered Tina to stand trial again, in June 2002.

This time the trial proceeded to the end, when Tina was found guilty of engaging in a pattern of sexual assault on a child. Like Curtis, she'd participated in a consensual relationship, only to find herself labeled a child molester. For her indiscretion, Tina was looking at 64 years in prison. (Because her crime had occurred before November 1998, she was not a candidate for the Lifetime Supervision option.)

Then, in an extremely unusual move, the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office offered Tina a rare -- and compassionate -- deal. Prosecutors said that they would ignore the jury's guilty verdict if Tina would agree to plead guilty to a single instance of sexual assault on Timothy. That would drop her sentence down to a mere six years of probation.

All Tina would have to do for the extraordinary offer, they said, is go through sex-offender treatment. The conditions were standard: group therapy, some counseling, register as a sex offender. Also, Tina was not to have any contact whatsoever with anyone under the age of eighteen. Her probation began on July 30, 2002.

The reality of her sentence, though, was far from easy. Tina soon began experiencing all the standard problems of sex-offender treatment. Already on public assistance (a probation report shows her collecting $801 a month), she had difficulty making her therapy payments, about $40 a class for therapy.

As a sex offender, she was also required to tell all potential employers about her conviction -- a bit of conversation, she discovered, that was not the best way to sell herself to a potential boss. She quickly learned when a job interview was going to be fruitless: "Men would hire me, women would not." She eventually found work as a flagger on a highway crew.

Like Curtis, Tina also struggled with her sex-offender classes. She couldn't see how she fit in with the molesters and pedophiles she was forced to associate with. "There were people in there who had assaulted four-year-olds, who'd had twelve or thirteen victims," she recalls. "I would go home and cry after each session. It was hard to hear what had happened to those kids. Those people scared me."

She found the tests she was given to determine her sexual deviances a mixture of strange and laughable. "One question asked whether I'd ever flashed somebody without their permission," she recalls. "I said, 'Does mooning somebody count?' And they told me, 'Yes, because the person had not given his permission.' The tests also asked me about bestiality, sadomasochism, frottage -- things I'd never even heard of."

Tina also had difficulty being treated as if she were a constant threat to children. "If I got on a bus and there was a kid in front of the bus, I had to go in the back. If I went into a grocery store and there was a kid in one aisle, I had to move to another," she says. "I was supposed to admit that I was dangerous to these children. I said, 'When I'm in a grocery store, I don't even notice the kids unless their parents aren't controlling them. And even then, I look at the parents."

A December 2001 report details her treatment failings: "Denial, lack of empathy and remorse.... She places community at risk.... She can mitigate her risk factors by admitting to her unlawful deviant sexual behavior."

For Tina, however, the real punishment was the restriction that she not have contact with anyone under the age of eighteen -- which, of course, included her three daughters, now ages twelve, fourteen and fifteen. There had never been a hint of improper or illegal behavior between Tina and her girls. Still, according to the Sex Offender Management Board's published standards for treatment, once a person is labeled a sex criminal, it becomes up to the offender to prove that she can handle being alone with her children without molesting them.

"The goal of family reunification shall never take precedence over the safety of any former or potential victim," the manual reads. "Even when indicated, family reunification is a process that is potentially dangerous and should be approached with great consideration and over an extended period of time."

A single mother with no real local support system, Tina sent her daughters to Nebraska to live with a friend. The arrangement soon fell apart. Two of Tina's daughters were incorrigible, and the friend sent them back to Colorado. With no other place to go, they moved back in with Tina, into her rented motel room on East Colfax Avenue.

In late October 2002, a probation officer was tipped off that Tina might be seeing her children, a violation of her status as a sex offender. He drove to her motel, where he saw her twelve-year-old daughter playing out front. On October 29, a warrant was issued for Tina's arrest. In it, her therapist noted Tina's problems, citing Tina's anger at being labeled a sex offender, as well as an unpaid bill of just over $300 for her treatment.

After being reminded that she could not be alone with any person under the age of eighteen, Tina was released. But two weeks later, she was arrested again after a probation officer made another surprise visit to the motel and once again found Tina's daughters living with their mother.

"I was so tired of hiding my kids," she explains today. "I just couldn't do it anymore. What am I supposed to do, abandon my children? If I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing." Two days before Christmas 2002, Tina was sent to the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility. She is scheduled to be released in 2008.

Her three girls now live in separate group homes in Colorado. Tina wonders about them every day: "Do they have boyfriends? Do they go to church? Do they pray?"

In late May, Tina was given permission to exchange letters with her children for the first time since she was sent to prison. Before that, she'd had to rely on an attorney for reports.

The eighteen-year-old, she hears, earned her GED and is working as a veterinary assistant. The two younger girls are having problems -- one with anorexia, the other with promiscuity. "I'd give a million dollars to talk to my kids for five minutes on the phone," she says. "I miss them so much."

"I know what I did was wrong," Tina adds. "But I didn't deserve this."

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