Branded for life
March 22, 2009Branded for Life
Anne Stanton 3/23/09
This is the last in a series of articles on sex offenders. This week, the Express focuses on the sex offender registry, which publicly lists convicted sex offenders on the Internet.
Jim is not proud of the fact that five years ago he inappropriately touched his cousin on the outside of her underwear. He had just turned 10 and his cousin was 11. He then threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
His cousin was deeply upset by the experience and still refuses to talk to him. He doesnt blame her.
Yet Jim, 15, -- whose name has been changed for this article -- has decided to talk publicly about the crime because he was in the fourth grade when it happened. When he turns 18, his name will appear on the public sex offender registry for the rest of his life. The sex offender registry does not reflect when a sex crime was committed. So anyone looking at this when Im an adult will think I was a pervert adult having sex with an 11-year-old, he said.
His case is extreme, but here is the reality for all juveniles: if a youth is convicted or pleads to criminal sexual assault in the first or second degree, he or she will end up on the public sex offender registry list for 25 years, or even for life long after the youth has completed probation or served his or her sentence.
If convicted of a lesser sex offense, the juvenile will be on a sex offender registry that is not public, but available to police and other authorities.
The judge has no choice. The sex offender registry is mandatory for all ages.
The consequences for Jim is grave. A convicted sex offender is not allowed to adopt children. He cannot be involved in his childrens school or extracurricular activities.
A juvenile convicted of a sex crime is not allowed to participate on a school sports team. He must notify college officials if hes on a sex registry, jeopardizing his chance of getting into the college. Sex offenders are often denied entrance into the military. A registered sex offender cannot become a police officer, teacher, coach, or work with children. Some employers would naturally feel uncomfortable hiring a registered sex offender. Neighbors definitely dont feel good about having a sex offender living on their street.
If a sex offender fails to register, he can be imprisoned for a felony.
Yet a sex offender might have been guilty of a Romeo and Juliet affair in which both partners consensually had sex, but were under the legal age of consent, which is 16. In one survey, nearly 40 percent of Michigan tenth graders said they had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 16. That statistic was included in a 2007 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey in which students voluntarily and anonymously answered survey questions.
So given that consensual albeit illegal, sexual activity is fairly common, prosecution is actually rare. It depends on two things: the zeal of the county prosecutor and whether a parent wants to pursue prosecution.
The problem is were lumping all the kids with the worst of the worst sex offenders, said Traverse City attorney Jim Aprea, who frequently defends juveniles. The public doesnt know what theyre looking at when they call up the states sex offender website. It describes the conviction, but certainly not the circumstances or the age of the offender when it was committed.
This kid (Jim) will show up on the registry for his entire lifetime for something he did when he was 10 years old. Thats just absurd. I havent seen a case like this involving a kid that young. I just havent seen it, and the whole thing troubles me. It might be a good test casea challenge all the way to the Supreme Court on the sex offender registration. To me, the facts are outrageous and this poor kid is a prime example of the inequities in the statute.
Jim transfered to a new school where he now gets good grades, studies cello, performs in plays, and has a lot of friends. He has a close relationship with his mom and holds a steady job at a restaurant. But life wasnt always this good. Although he was intelligent, learning how to read at the age of four, he was also lonely, angry and often violent.
Jim got a rough start in life. His mother Sandy (not her real name) said she was a serious alcoholic who fought bitterly and often with her sons father. One afternoon, she drove her station wagon into him, squishing his leg between her car and an old Malibu. Sandy went to jail and rehab over a period of seven months. Meanwhile, Jim, who was two-and-a-half years old, stayed with his dad. When Sandy finally collected him, he stood filthy in the driveway with a few clothes shoved into a garbage bag. Jim never saw his dad again.
Jim said his memory of that time is fuzzy, but he remembers being scared all the time. He had a bunch of drinking buddies, and theyd get really drunk on the weekends and thought it would be a good idea to mess with all four of us (Jim and his three stepsisters) in another room.
Sandy became alarmed by his discussion of sex acts, so she took him to Child Protective Services. The CPS worker was afraid an exam would traumatize the three-year-old. He received counseling at the Northwest Child Guidance Center until the age of six, but then funding for therapy was cut off without explanation. When he was in kindergarten, he played doctor with the other kids. Later in grade school, nobody wanted him in the Boy Scout troop. He touched a boy on an overnight stay. Child Protective Services workers came into the school to talk to him, but Sandy said she didnt learn the specific complaints until much later.
The mother of the abused cousin, said that her sister, Sandy, never drank again after rehab in 1995: If she would have drank, she would have been as big a mess as before. But Sandys past has haunted her when it comes to how authorities treat her.
Indeed Sandy is a fireplug, and doesnt mince words. Her conversation is often hard to track because she goes off on tangents. Although shes never broken the law since her assault with a car, Sandy fears that people havent treated her son very well because of her own past.
Jim was 10 1/2 when he touched his 11-year-old cousin. The girl didnt tell her mother until seven months later, when it was reported immediately to the police chief who had been mentoring Jim. Jim was questioned by police without an attorney (not uncommon in these cases). He eventually admitted what hed done. The case went to Antrim County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Fett, who charged Jim with a criminal sexual conduct, second degree (CSC 2). Its the second highest sex offense and was due to the victims age and the threat of violence.
Sandy met briefly with Fett, but most of her conversations were with the court administrator William Hefferan. She claims that he never told her that a guilty plea would mean that Jim would go on the public sex offender registry. Hefferan said he cant remember whether he told her that or not.
I cant assure that every time someone pleads to a CSC, I tell them this is a 25-year registerable offense, Hefferan said.
The sex registry was not cited in the plea agreement but was included in the ajudication (Jims sentence). Sandy missed it.
Sandy quickly agreed to the plea to CSC two without a lawyer. She remembers being told that a plea would expedite the process, which was important to her. She couldnt have her younger child reinstated in her home until her son was removed. Secondly, she believed a plea was the only way to get her son state-funded counseling and residential treatment, which she could not afford. (She still owes $12,038 to the county).
But the plea bargain was no bargain, Aprea said.
Most prosecutors want to achieve relative justice without a trial. But theres nothing worse than a charge of CSC one or two. In this case, the boy pled exactly to what he was charged with. Yes, he made a threat, but a threat coming from a 10-year-old is a lot different than a threat coming from a 15-year-old or an adult. That kid was victimized by the system.
Immediately after Sandy signed the adjudication papers in April of 2004, Jim, 11, was taken to a lockdown wing at the Muskegon River Youth Home where he was given an orange uniform to wear.
A juvenile justice worker visited him and told him that if he didnt hurry up and finish treatment he would be sent to Wackenhut (a youth prison), where, he said, a group of boys dragged another boy into a room and sodomized him until his rectum fell out and he bled to death.
Jim was shaken, hearing about sodomy for the first time. He stayed in Muskegon until August, when a space opened up at Havenwyck Psychiatric Hospital in Auburn Hills for which the minimum age was 11.
He began a sexual aversion therapy, which involved sniffing three ammonia pills after listening to a story of a deviant sex act.
NO PLACE FOR A CHILD
Jim said he has mixed feelings about his treatment. He felt that without intervention he might have become a serial molester. Now a very articulate and pleasant young man, he feels like a success case. But he believes that Havenwyck is no place for a child. He attended group therapy sessions with men who were as old as 19. If you werent bad, youd know how to be bad now.
I worked hard to reach the top level in my treatment. I really wanted out of there, he said.
They smash you down to nothing and then you rebuild yourself. It gets rid of a lot of negative behavior, but it gets rid of everything. I was an empty shell.
After I got out, I had no social skills, Jim said. For two years, I wasnt allowed to talk to girls. When I got out, my age group was largely different than me. I cried a lot.
When I got back to high school, I was treated like a sex offender even though Id just gone through one-and-a-half years of treatment. I wasnt allowed to participate in gym or use the bathroom. They wanted me to use the teachers bathroom, and I didnt want to be embarrassed, so I just held it all day.
The same kids who picked on him before picked on him again, so he transferred to his current school. The group of kids at the new school is small; they know his history and respect him; so Jim, who recently broke up with his girlfriend, said he believes this article wont affect their opinion of him.
Jim was home for nine days in January of 2006, when the juvenile justice worker called to inform Sandy that she had only until the next day to get her son registered as a sex offender.
This was the first Id heard of such a thing. When I questioned her, she said that she could tell the judge, Oops, my bad! but it probably wouldnt do Jim any good.
Sandy thought she had to only register her son once. That is until May of 2007, when the Michigan State Police showed up at the house and said hed have to register quarterly. They took his prints on the trunk of a police cruiser while kids, across the street, were in a football practice.
We live across the street from the school and they were broadcasting Jims name and our address on the scanner. Were contacting Jim for his failure to register as a sex offender. Everyone with a scanner knows now, Sandy said.
Since then, Sandy has confronted the reality of the sex offender registry. The law regarding juveniles is so vague, it was hard for the Express to get clear-cut answers to such questions from professionals: How long will Jim remain on the sex offender registry after becoming an adult (conflicting answers of 25 years and lifetime)? Even if Jim had the crime expunged, does he still have to register on the sex offender registry (yes, but its a start)? How often does he have to register as a juvenile (conflicting answers)?
When Sandy called assistant prosecutor Mark Fett with questions, she says he screamed at her -- Im telling you now. Register your kid! -- and slammed down the phone. Fett did not return a call for comment.
Is There a Better Way?
Michigan has the third largest sex offender registry in the nationat least it did in 2004 when there were 33,000 people. Today there are 43,964.
The registrys growth might falsely indicate to people outside of the state that Michigan is teeming with child molesters and rapists . , reads a 2004 legislative analysis of a bill written by Julie Koval.
Some other states take a more nuanced approach to sex offender registration, and do not require juveniles under a certain age to register, and others do not require that juveniles register at all.
When working with juvenile sex offenders, the focus should be on rehabilitation to help them stop their abusive behaviors. Adolescence is often a difficult time for many young people; publicly labeling them as dangerous criminals can have devastating effects as they try to develop their identities, she wrote.
Professionals specializing in the fieldcounselors Barb Cross and John Ulrich to Todd Heller, a computer cop who snags sex offenders, and Noelle Moeggenberg who prosecutes them, all agree: A judge needs discretion on whether to put a juvenile on a public sex offender registry.
I never take any sexual offense lightly, however, 10-year-old children can and do engage in youthful experimentation, exploring their own bodies and the bodies of their playmates. Its not acceptable, but its far, far different than predatory behavior, said Kenneth Tacoma, chief probate and family division judge of the 28th circuit court in Wexford County.
Therapist Barb Cross said theres a lot of difference between a one-time offender versus a teenage boy who molests multiple times. These two should not be treated the same.
The way the system is set up, the prosecutornot the judgedetermines a childs fate, Tacoma said.
Kalkaska County Prosecutor Brian Donnelly said there might be room for discretion within narrow confines, but he believes the public sex offender registry makes sense.
Im a believer that once this kid has demonstrated hes capable of this, we place him in a different class as the rest of us. Harsh as it may be, I like the system. We as a society have already discovered that its very dangerous not to know when a sex offender is moving about us. Theres not much worse than talking to parents of a kid who was molested by a kid. Ive been in that position. The look of shock and horror and disbelief on the faces of parents when they find this out. What? This kid who moved in next door, this kid who is a babysitter, and now my little junior must have years of therapy.
The thing Ive come to realize about sex offenders, particularly those who molest children is they are, by nature, liars. They carry on for years unknown. They masquerade as normal people and pull it off. Theyre good at fooling everybody. Thats a common characteristic. And thats how they gain opportunity with kids.
Professionals point out that if you sexually abuse someone as a child, chances are very high that you yourself were abused. But what society doesnt know is, if you were sexually abused as a child, what is the chance that you will go onto abuse someone? One study followed convicted juveniles for five years, and discovered a very low percentage of the kids were convicted of another crime. But critics say that five years wasnt long enough.
John Ulrich, a counselor who treats sex offenders, said that a new problem has cropped up with the sex offender registry; some parents have become reluctant to get counseling for their kids. Thats because a therapist is mandated to report any sexually illegal behavior to police; a conviction could mean a permanent place on a public or private sex offender registry.
In the past, Ive persuaded people to take CSC convictions to get their child into residential treatment. It was a standard in the field to do it.
Would you do it now?
Im grieved that its a problem that we have to make our children registered sex offenders in order to get help. Im much more aware of the lifelong impact on the child. But on the other hand, their risk of being convicted of another sex offense more than doubles if they dont get treatment.
HOPE FOR JIM?
Does Jim, the ten-year-old convicted of a CSC two have any way of getting off the public sex offender registry?
His mom, Sandy, has told her story to anyone who would listen: the ACLU, the state attorney general, the governor, attorneys, and media. She gets legal advice from an online free service called e-advocate. Sandy furiously objected to her sons confinement at Havenwyck Psychiatric Hospital, believing kids shouldnt mingle with older youth and adults. She believes her son needed therapy, but was, in fact, tortured with ammonia pills that burn nostrils and cause nosebleeds. She notes that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush deemed the use of ammonia capsules to be torture and signed a bill banning its use by juveniles. She alleged that North Country Community Mental Health, which oversaw his treatment, failed to ensure that the assigned treatment suited her sons condition. Her allegation was substantiated, and the agency amended its procedures in July of 2008.
But what about the sex offender registry?
A juvenile can petition the court to shorten the registry period, but the defendant must have been between the ages of 13 and 17 when it happened, and there cannot be more than a three year age spread than the victim and offender, Traverse City attorney Jim Aprea said.
Since Jim was 10, he is not eligible.
Aprea recommended that Sandy go to a state appellate defender, who might take on the case. Jim could petition the court to vacate the conviction based on the fact he didnt know the full ramifications of his admission to guilt, he said.
There are a lot of steps, it would take a lot of work. The odds of achieving the desired results are fairly low. But theres a lot at stake, Aprea said.
The mother of the girl who was touched, said that what Jim did was wrong and unacceptable; her daughter still wants an apology. But she also believes that Jim should not be on the public sex offender registry for life.
He was 10 years old and he needed help. He wasnt given help; he was punished. I dont think juveniles should be placed in the same sex offender registry as adults. The whole thing needs to be revamped, said the mom.