Stoneleigh Fellow Nicole Pittman is featured by The Youth Project.
We all think we know what a sex offender looks like: a serial pedophile, likely male and middle-aged, who lurks in Internet chat rooms or hides behind church authority or children’s programs to prey on little kids.
But an estimated 200,000 registered sex offenders in the United States are children, many as young as eight years old. Most never come off the registry and many end up committing suicide. The few who don’t have trouble finding jobs as adults and face violent attacks wherever they go, even though they haven’t touched a child since and don’t want to.
None of them should be on the list, experts say.
“Things that we used to call playing doctor are now registerable offenses,” said the National Council of Crime and Delinquency’s Nicole Pittman, a leading expert on registration laws and youth sex offenders.
“We’re using all of the adult models used for people that were diagnosed with pedophilia, where there was a compulsion, an obsession with having sex with children, and we’re tacking them on to our treatment of children and our labeling of children. We’re not really recognizing that these are children.”
New research shows the majority of youth sex offenders are prosecuted for normal adolescent sexual behaviors or mistakenly plead guilty to a greater charge, while the extreme few who re-offend respond well to treatment. Registering youth as sex offenders is not only useless, according to research, but causes a lifetime of severe psychological trauma and societal stigma for the offender, their family, and the victim, while making it even harder to catch actual predators.
In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act required juvenile sex offenders 14 and over to register under the same Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act restrictions as adults for the first time. Since most states, including Illinois, have their own requirements, children as young as eight can be registered for acts like sexting (production and dissemination of child pornography), public urination or streaking (indecent exposure).
Community notification laws list their information on public websites and residency restrictions prevent them from living near locations with children, like schools.
“The misconception is that youth who commit sex offenses are mini-adult offenders, that once a sex offender always a sex offender, “said Ryan Shields, a sex crime policy expert at Johns Hopkins University’s Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “The way we think about it in terms of a national dialogue, is that in applying harsh, restrictive, punitive, adult policies to kids, we’re sort of stopping future sex offending, sort of nipping it in the bud. But that doesn’t stand up to the empirical research that’s being done.”
The Youth Sex Offender
Research shows youth sex offenders are too different from adults for registries to work.
A 2013 study co-authored by Moore Center director Elizabeth Letourneau showed children are prone to risk-taking and “inappropriate” sexual behavior that is actually normative, and which most children outgrow. These are mostly one-time incidents driven by opportunity, experimentation, or trauma instead of predatory urges, it found.
Youth sex offenders cannot be considered pedophiles, a 2009 study said, because while adult pedophiles can’t change their aggressive sexual preferences, youth sex offenders can.
A 2008 study showed youth considered sex offenders are diverse, ranging from sexually abused young girls re-enacting their trauma to teens in consensual relationships to seriously mentally ill youth. Some are sexually exploited children (or child prostitutes), charged despite being victims themselves, Shields said.
Unlike adults, the majority never commit another offense.
Studies consistently say only 4 percent to 7 percent re-offend, compared to 13 percent of adult sex offenders. Most adult sex offenders did not commit sex offenses in their youth, multiple studies found. If youth sex offenses were used to predict adult behavior, they would be wrong nine times out of 10, a 2004 study said.
This makes it pointless to register and track youth for decades, especially since children’s brains are still developing, making them much more responsive to treatment than adults, Shields said.
Meanwhile, research suggests registries don’t work—period.
Letourneau’s 2008 study on youth offenders in South Carolina found registries had no deterrent effect, and may have actually increased their likelihood to re-offend. A 2011 study on adult sex offenders in 15 states had similar results.
And many of those who commit sex crimes are not on the registry, Pittman said.
The Problem with Sex Offender Registries
But 35 states put youth on the sex offender registry, while seven keep them there for life, according to Pittman’s 2011 overview of laws across the U.S. And these are just youth who go through juvenile court.
Pittman’s landmark 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “Raised on the Registry,” analyzed 517 cases of people who committed sex offenses as children, most registered before they turned 18. Their interviews revealed the irreparable harm and human rights violations caused by SORNA.
Almost 85 percent of interviewees experienced depression, isolation, suicidal ideation, and other psychological issues from registering. Almost a fifth had attempted suicide, often when they realized the label sticks forever.
“Almost all of the parents who had a child on the registry said, ‘I think it would have been easier on our family if my child had killed themselves or killed another person,’” Pittman said about a group she went back to interview.
SORNA requirements bring offenders a lifetime of vigilante attacks and threats, job discrimination and unemployment, homelessness, constant harassment, restricted movement, and imprisonment for failing to register, the report discovered. Their education rapidly deteriorates from a young age, because they are often expelled or banned from schools by residency restrictions, then later denied by colleges who request their juvenile sex offense records.
Worst of all, registration makes youth sex offenders – especially girls – easy targets for adult pedophiles, Pittman said. Youth have to register unaccompanied by parents or attorneys at the same place as adults, and pedophiles can easily find their information online.
“You’re in a small space when you register, you have to give your address, and the person next to you can hear that,” she said. “They’ve been followed home, they’ve been stalked, they’ve been called not just by people in the area but by people trolling on the Internet, thinking this is an easy person to get sex from, since they’re a 14 year old girl on the registry.”
These problems don’t end with the offender.
“A lot of people don’t know that when you place a person on the registry, you put an entire family on the registry,” Pittman said.
This often includes the victim, since most abuse cases happen in families. Families not only become targets for harassment as well, but also are frequently forced to break up because the offender cannot live with another child. And the harassment and discrimination continue for the offenders’ own children.
But 90 percent of youth aren’t told about registration requirements when offered a plea bargain, Pittman said, so they mistakenly plead guilty to the top charge, such as a forcible rape charge for a 14-year-old dating a 13-year-old – and find out later the registration extends beyond the jurisdiction of juvenile court.
Many times, even judges, court staff, and prosecutors have no idea the registration extends beyond the offenders’ 18th birthday, she said. And even if registration was not on the table at the time, it can be retroactively applied.
“We’re treating children who are handled in juvenile court as if they are convicted as adults,” she said.
Pittman also said policies often overreach, with many keeping youth sex offenders on registries for much longer than they are supposed to, and are inconsistent from state to state, making it difficult for registrants to move.
Oklahoma, often praised for its public health approach, requires a three-step risk-assessment process and such narrow qualifications that in 2011, only 10 youth had ever registered. Registration expires when they’re 21, and registration on the adult list requires a petition, hearing, and judicial determination.
But many states resemble Texas, which lies on the other end of the spectrum with broad qualifications, no risk assessment, a 10-year registration requirement, and has 6,000 youth registrants by Pittman’s estimate. The Texas number has remained about the same as they aged.
These states waste taxpayers’ money and actually make registries less effective, all experts said. Registering no-risk youth floods law enforcement workloads with cases that don’t need monitoring and diverts already strained resources from catching actual predators.
Pittman gave the example of Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted and held captive for 18 years by a level three, or high-risk adult offender.
“This man was subjected to frequent, frequent, frequent visits by law enforcement to check his house,” she said. “But because they had so many people on their list to check, they couldn’t actually go do a full search. She’s being held captive in his backyard for 18 years because they have too many people to look at.”
The solution is to remove youth offenders entirely from the registry, Pittman said. Then, we should move toward a public health model, which emphasizes prevention and treatment in three stages —primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary intervention focuses on education and providing opportunities for individuals to seek help.
Shields said a good model was Germany’s Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, which provides free, confidential treatment to pedophiles seeking help. Nothing similar exists in the United States, but Shields and Letourneau are currently working on a primary intervention resource for youth called “Help Wanted.” It was inspired by the profile of a 16-year-old pedophile who had never hurt a child and sought help to prevent it from happening.
Secondary intervention focuses on screening for signs, improving access to social services, and reducing
Schools and parents should identify and reach at-risk youth early on using science-based tools, said David Prescott, a social worker and expert who treats both adult and youth sex offenders. Risk-assessment tools often look for social isolation, repeat law-breaking, and anti-social personality disorder traits, he said.
These children should be monitored by a “smart adult” who can check in with them frequently without isolating them further, Prescott said.
Tertiary intervention happens after the harm is done. But while society focuses heavily on punishments, what’s needed is improved treatment, experts said.
Prescott said current tactics focus too much on the sexual deviance. Instead, he recommends focusing on the offenders’ strengths, getting them to follow rules, improving their social skills, involving as many people as possible, and making offending undesirable. Community-based and family-based treatment models prove the most effective, Letourneau found in a 2013 study.
“The safest sex offender is someone who is stable with their behavior, who is occupied with a job or education, who has supportive people in their life to whom they’re accountable, and who has everything to lose by doing it again,” Prescott said
But our society’s current views on sexual abuse make it hard to adopt this model, he said. So a good first step might be to require risk-assessment for registration or reduce the required time.
But states may not want to make these changes if they don’t comply with SORNA, Pittman said. SORNA incentivizes compliance by giving states 10 percent of their Byrne Grant money, which states generally use for drug laws and to support law enforcement. This money varies from state to state, ranging in the hundreds of thousands yearly, but is often outweighed by the cost of implementing SORNA itself, a fact sheet from the Justice Policy Institute showed.
But as Illinois shows, there are ways around this. In 2007, Senate Bill 121 allowed youth felony sex offenders to petition for removal after five years and misdemeanors after two, which does not comply with SORNA. But the General Assembly charged the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission to examine youth sex offender laws and make policy recommendations, which they published in a 2014 report. Because a study like this shows efforts towards compliance and better understanding, Pittman said, Illinois still receives its Adam Walsh funding.
This is the first step all states should take, Pittman said.
“Basically stop and breathe,” she said. “Actually stop and do a moratorium on placing children on the registry and do a study on what is the effect…on the state, on lives, on incidences of sexual violence. Every single state will find that it’s not doing anything helpful, putting children on the registries.”
And taking them off entirely is not an unrealistic goal, she said.
“The world will not fall apart,” Pittman said. “We will not have an explosion of sexual offending. We will actually be starting to treat children as children.”
Originally published by The Youth Project.