Checking It Twice

When the Colorado Legislature passed laws requiring sex offenders to register with the police and to make that information available to the public, it lifted a veil of secrecy surrounding sexual abuse and sex crimes. But some professionals argue that those laws -- which were designed to reduce risk to the community -- have proved a mixed blessing, particularly when it comes to juvenile offenders.

Communities are no less safe today than when they were blissfully ignorant of the offenders' status, notes Gail Ryan, director of the Perpetration Prevention Program at Denver's Kempe Children's Center. Now, however, "we're faced with the community knowing they're there and being afraid of them," she says. Ryan and others fear that the registry and the public's reaction to it could undo what the juvenile-justice system and mental-health advocates have been trying to do for the past twenty years -- identify, intervene and treat sex offenders as early as possible.

The danger, says Ryan, lies with families who are aware that once a sexual incident has been identified as a crime, the offender will be placed on a registry and listed there for many years. "You have to ask what kind of deterrent effect this will have on families reaching out and getting help when they discover this behavior," she says.

Arlene Martinez Meads of the Lost and Found child-placement agency has already seen the backlash.

"I saw on TV that a man in Fort Collins was putting [juvenile sex offenders'] names and pictures on the Internet," Meads says. "He thinks he's doing a public service. But I had a mom of a sex offender call me, and she was hysterical. She said she had no idea this kind of thing could happen. I can't do a thing about it, but I understand she's trying to keep her family together and work through incestual issues. But look at what it's costing them."

Offenders live with the constant fear that their criminal status will be discovered and that their classmates will somehow learn that they fondled their sister six or eight or ten years ago, Meads says. "They may be eighteen, they may never have reoffended, never relapsed, but they're still stuck on the registry.

"Every place they go, they have this hanging over their heads," she continues. "What is the potential for them to join the military, become a teacher, get a government job?"

Sean is a good example of shortsightedness in the registry process.

When Sean was twelve, his family discovered that he had been abusing a younger sister. He was adjudicated as a sex offender, placed on probation and made to register his name and address with the local police department. Since then, he has received years of therapy. He's now eighteen, has recently graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade-point average and hopes to join the military.

For Sean, however, a semblance of normalcy is not likely to come for some time -- if ever.

When city officials learned that Sean and two other registered sex offenders were living in Juliana Ibarra's foster home in Northglenn, the city attorney moved to have two of the three boys evicted.

Even though Sean's probation ends this fall, his name will stay on the sex registry for fifteen more years, branding him until age 33 for a crime he committed when he was twelve.

The only hope for him to change his status is to petition a judge and ask that his name be removed from the registry, says Harl Hargett, executive director of Lost and Found. And it's very unusual for such a request to be granted, he says.

A person's behavior at age twelve should not define who he is years later, says Leah Wicks, former supervisor of Jefferson County's juvenile probation unit.

"With registration laws, kids who are ten could have to register for the next twenty years of their life," she says. "I'm concerned that we are labeling them sex offenders and that that's what they'll be all their lives. These are kids with sex-offender problems. The large majority of them are not going to go on to be adult offenders." Unlike adult sex offenders, whose sexual fantasies and desires become ingrained as they mature, juveniles' sexual proclivities are more malleable, therapists say. Therefore, the adolescents are more amenable to therapy.

A more basic problem with the registry is that it may provide the community with a false sense of security. In its draft of criteria for community notification regarding sexually violent predators, the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board pointed out that "notification can lead citizens to believe that they are aware of all sex-offending risk once they have been notified regarding convicted sexually violent predators. In fact, research has shown that approximately 85 percent of all sexual assaults are never reported and that the greatest risk for both women and children is from potential offenders who have never been identified by the system and whom they already know and trust."

And if public safety is so important, wonders Meads, why is it that only sex offenders are forced to register?

"There is more aggravated assault, crimes with weapons, parricide, kids killing kids, maiming kids -- but is there a [registry] law to address that?" she asks. "And that seems to be the pending danger.

"If you kill a kid...there's no registry for them."

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Karen Bowers