I often wonder why we don’t dress our kids up as sex offenders. We dress them up as serial killers, witches, goblins, and other horrible monsters. We let our little girls dress up in fishnet stockings, short skirts, and heavy makeup. My own child wants to be a fallen angel. What is a fallen angel but a devil?
At first, the sex offender comment makes me a big jerk, highly offensive, yet if one calms down and thinks about it, why do we celebrate Halloween at all? And why are sex offenders worse than serial killers?
Isn’t Halloween about death? In our culture, people don’t die. They pass away. They depart. Or they come back to life as monsters. Making children monsters and zombies has a way of beautifying death, making it more fun and childish. Then there is the myth of the monster sex offender.
The Tragedy of Lisa French and the Fear of the Bogie Man
Yet, the last several years, just like clockwork, someone always publishes the Lisa French story, as Sandy Rozek communications director for the National Association for Reasonable Sex Offense Laws (NARSOL) notes. A horrible event that took place over 46 years ago, 9-year old Lisa French was trick or treating in Wisconsin. Gerald Turner abducted, raped, and murdered her. Ever since then, parents have been in fear. This is before sex offender registries. Yet, Rozek argues that when we look at the murderer’s history there would have been nothing that put him on a current-day registry.
Yet, every Halloween, several states require that those on the sex offender registry put signs up in their yards notifying children that a sex offender lives there. There are even sex offender maps, and police departments and parole offices have “lock-in” events to make sure these vicious diabolical monsters stay imprisoned in their houses, much like vampires in their coffins.
It’s not all that bad really since our “safe” neighbors have huge spiders, skulls, and bodies hanged from trees. The scary sex offender sign gives a nice, expected backdrop from a more deadly reality. It’s not the sex offender that is a danger to your child. Maybe Halloween is real after all.
Research Proves There is No Such Thing as a Sex Offender Bogie Man
In 2014, Jill Levenson wrote an article discrediting this Halloween-predator fixation. Such is important because Levenson has spent years as a researcher and advocate for child sex abuse victims. She knows better than anyone what risks children face, yet in her study of Halloween and crimes against children, she found less than 1% of crime was child-related.
In fact, according to NARSOL and Michael McKay from The Registry Report, they could not find one documented case since the French killing where a sex offender abducted or abused a child. Even if some of these cases were missed, we are addressing a 46-year period. Missed or not, such offending is very rare.
Yet, Levenson noted that children are “5-times more likely” to be hit by a car on Halloween and that burglary and vandalism are much higher during Halloween than any crime against a child. She notes her concern that pulling police away to watch for imaginary crimes keeps officers from real dangers such as kids being struck by vehicles.
If we consider the tragedy in Wisconsin way back in 1974 and how there was not a Halloween child murder since then, I could not help but think why our society panics so much about sex offenders. Why don’t we simply look at the data that study after study, as Levenson notes, proves that sex offender registries do not work and are a waste of time and resources. It also gives a false sense of safety because most offenders do no re-offend. There are nearly 1 million on the registry, and if we count their kids and other family, millions of people are affected.
Man’s Best Friend Is More Deadly
Let’s do a comparison. One child was raped and killed in a 46-year span in Wisconsin. Yet, according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 408 children were killed by guns in that state alone from 1999-2014, in 15 years.
As noted in Pediatrics, almost 1,300 children are killed by guns per year and nearly 5,800 are wounded nationally. 1,400 kids die of neglect per year, 4 per day, according to the National Children’s Alliance. They also show that 683,000 kids are neglected and abused each year. Four out of five of abusers are the child’s parents. I am going to write that again; four out of five abuse cases involve parents. Sex abuse accounts for about 8% of the total abuse. Though most agree that sex abuse cases are higher than reported, we also know that these abuse cases almost always involve a family member or close friend, not the sex offender down the street. Even man’s best friend is more deadly, accounting for 15 child deaths annually.
Why do people consistently ignore these alarming numbers? Why do even the “experts” continue to inflate and mislead the public, using unnecessary fear and stigma, to distract parents from the real dangers kids may face? As Levenson shows, the real toll that the registry has is on the offender and their families. What if an offender has a child? Can she or he trick or treat? Is the child not at best a friendly neighborhood Frankenstein?
It’s simply more popular to stigmatize a hated group, not our beloved guns, troubled families, or even our dogs, so some of our news media, lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors play the game of misinformation. No one wants to be the bogie man after all. Anything sex related in our culture is seen as negative or overly sexualized. This really has to change.
Sex Offenders Don’t Have Families, Right?
Such registries take little consideration for a former offender’s family, his kids, and limits him from serving his community in a positive way. He cannot get good housing, a job, even go to school, and is constantly targeted, even though the men on the registry, and they are almost all men, only have a 3.5% recidivism rate. The recidivism rate for burglary or grand theft auto is around 80%.
In the State of Delaware, a person with a former sex offense, even when he completed treatment, his sentence, and parole, will be forced to repeat sex offender treatment again if he gets any charge, even a DUI or shoplifting. Sex offense laws are making less and less sense and seem more like a decades-long torture.
In closing, I would like to address a very disturbing story a psychologist, an expert on offending, shared on Twitter. He noted that a 12-year-old boy, who was sexually abused and finally in a caring foster care home, told his foster parents that he felt he had an “inappropriate” attraction to young kids. The child was removed from his secure home, put in another where there were no children. His internet was taken away from him, and every time family comes over, he must pack up and leave since children are present, as if he is going to lunge at the children like a venomous serpent.
As I heard this story, I became sick to my stomach. The psychologist was championing this. Here was a child that was being treated like a sex offender on a sex offender registry, yet he never touched a child.
What will happen to him? In my social work training, what the family and psychologists were doing equates to child abuse, but that’s what happens when we make children monsters. They become our friendly neighborhood Frankensteins.
In Part II, I will address the impact that the “sex offender” for life stigma has on families and on those trying to change their lives for the better.
In Part I, I addressed the efforts by lawmakers, the media, police, and other organizations that further stigmatize those on the registry (SORNA) though data that runs contrary to their fears.
The label of “sex offender” is encouraging modern-day witch trials. SORNA is years or decades-long double jeopardy that extends from the former sex offender to that of his family. For them, SORNA has become a monster. It is harming the very children it was supposed to protect.
Child Sex Offender Children
In 2012, Marcus Galeste, Henry Fradella, and Brenda Vogal published an article in the Western Criminology Review that uncovered how the news media created myths of sex offenders: brutal, manipulative child killers and rapists that were beyond treatment. Such created these sex offender witch trials, spread fear, and panic among concerned parents, and thus lawmakers hastily passed legislation that would satisfy parent voters.
What is most troubling is that newspapers influenced policy that ran contrary to empirical evidence on sex offenders. We have seen the number of men on the registry nearly double between 2008 to 2019. It is now nearing one million. On SORNA are minors.
In 2007 The Washington Post reported that Edgar Coker Jr. was charged with raping a 14-year old girl. He was 15. His attorney told him to plead guilty as a juvenile because if he took it to trial in Virginia and maintained his innocence, he could be sentenced as an adult and have a long person term. He pled guilty.
After serving 17 months in juvenile prison, the girl came forward and said she lied. Though Edgar Jr. was innocent, he would spend seven years on SORNA until the Washington Post later reported that in 2014 a judge removed him from the registry. The judge noted that the state-appointed attorney did “little or no investigation of the facts of the case.”
Such, in fact, is not unusual but only a partial story. In my experience, the prosecutors also scare those accused into admitting guilt to a lesser charge. Such is extremely common. In this case, guilty does not always mean guilty, and rarely to we see jury trials anymore.
Often, the accused is told that “everyone in the court hates them” and if they go to trial, they will get many more years in prison. In Edgar’s and the 12-year-old boy’s case, both children are being abused for the sake of protecting children, one by those fearful of monsters, the other by the court system.
Witch Hunting the “Sex Offender’s” Children
Edgar Jr’s family had to move because they worried about the harassment they faced in their Virginia community, and such is not limited to kids like Edgar Jr.
For the children whose family member is on SORNA, Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury studied the effects that SORNA had on family members and found the following results:
Nearly 80% of kids were depressed and angry; 73% had anxiety; 65% felt excluded from other kids and activities, 60% were ridiculed; 47% were harassed by other kids; 22% were physically attacked, and 13% had suicidal ideation.
The result of such negative factors is that the family unit is severely compromised or destroyed, the very thing those with a prior sex offense really need not to recidivate (this is not limited to a sex offense and can include drug use or other violations).
Keeping those with a prior sex offense locked up during Halloween contrary to any valid data sends a clear message: “such a person” will never be part of a community and even a family member’s kids will be targeted and punished by SORNA. If one is a sex offender’s kid, then that kid is just another Frankenstein.
Mental Health and Trauma is the Manic Elephant in the Room
Yet a factor that is often ignored is mental health. Another case involves a 19-year old male that has a spectrum disorder. He downloaded child pornography that was part of a county police sting operation. He was told to plead guilty in a similar way to that of Edgar and got a questionable evaluation, where the psychologist noted that the defendant’s real problem was that he needed a girlfriend. He got nearly 6 years in prison and many years parole.
When on parole, he looked at more images. Though correctly diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, he got 15 years in prison and 25 on probation. He will be over 65 before he is cleared. When asked why he looked at child pornography, he said, “It calms me down.” He has never had a girlfriend and says he is still a virgin.
Though children do get hurt in child pornography and it is all our duties to protect children from harm, there is more to this story than labeling this man a child predator. His father was killed when he was young, and his father also faced a child sex abuse charge that was later dropped. Sometimes the cycle of abuse repeats because the victim/offender has angry, confusing, and mixed feelings.
It’s Not Just Halloween Scares, SORNA Sets Families Up to Fail
For those on SORNA, Danielle Bailey and Jennifer Klein studied how shame affected those with sex offenses and their families. They found that SORNA may be doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. The long-term punishment that many registrants face on the registry hinders and destroys prosocial relationships between the one with the offense and the family.
Those men that get out of prison and wish for a relationship with their kids can find that they cannot live with their own children. The family may live in public housing or the house is close to a park, school, or “child-friendly place.”
The authors explain that preventing a parent from trick or treating or other positive family events at child-friendly sites, punishes the former offender with something they already paid for in prison and/or probation. The family is punished for having a parent on the registry. Again, as noted, there is no data suggesting that those on SORNA offend at parks, schools, or other child-friendly places.
In fact, Levenson and Tewksbury found that of the 224 recidivistic offenses involving children, none happened in such places, and in looking at 16 cases of abuse in Minnesota, none of the victims were strangers. They were well known to the offending adult.
Years and years of harsh stigma, including federal laws and a push for international laws that further criminalize inanimate objects or “non-existent victims,” can overwhelm the registry with offenders of “non-existent” crimes (such as buying a child sex doll or watching a graphic cartoon) and with others that pose little danger to actual kids.
Police have limited resources, and as Bailey and Klein argue, such unnecessary focus with little data to support it can leave more dangerous and serial abusers unchecked. Such laws also minimize actual CSA and downgrade real survivors and victims to that of offensive fiction.
The Invisible Toll
Paul Christiano according to B4U-ACT was a talented dancer and choreographer whose performance in “Miracle Interrupted” gave him the Chicago Tribune’s 2001 Chicagoans of the Year in Arts. Unknown to the Tribune, Christiano was convicted in 1999 with obtaining child pornography through the postal service. Christiano served several years in prison and was required to be placed on the registry.
As more found out online, his dance career continued to fail. Though he taught children, he was never accused of inappropriate behavior with children. Christiano became an advocate for B4U-ACT, an organization that helps those attracted to minors advocate for better therapeutic approaches. B4U-ACT also serves to support members and encourages better communication and research from experts interested in minor attraction (pedophilia is not the only category).
Christiano pushed on through these struggles. However, one day, he was notified that he was in violation of SORNA, a technical violation involving his residency and children. He was facing years in prison.
At 39, a long sentence would be the end of his pursuit of dance. It would be an end to his work with B4U-ACT. In 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported that he poisoned himself. Christiano was open about his attraction to children, and he was doing everything right. No child was harmed with this technical violation. It’s not a stretch to think that SORNA played a role in killing him. For Christiano, SORNA was the bogie man.
The Human Connection
Such stories paint a human face on our monsters and Frankensteins. Many reading this may have little empathy. Yes, many of these men did something to hurt children. Yes, there needs to be retribution for compromising a minor, but crimes don’t fall out of the sky.
Some of these men fought in brutal combat and faced awful abuse as children. Some are battling attraction to kids and harm, some battle that same attraction and don’t harm an actual child but get in trouble via the internet. Others never harm. Others do it to self-harm. As cultural studies expert Jackson Katz once said, “When men hurt, they hurt others.”
Guy Hamilton-Smith knows this well. Originally, he never considered law school until after he was caught with child pornography and charged. He recalls on Twitter the day he entered jail. The booking officer asked Hamilton-Smith if he was suicidal. While the officer was asking the question, he seemed to anticipate Hamilton-Smith saying yes. The officer shook his head no. Hamilton-Smith recognized this gesture by the officer as an act of mercy.
Suicide watch involves being stripped naked, being put in a cell alone with nothing but a pad to lie on, and a recorder is assigned to sit and watch you 24 hours. Later he almost committed suicide, but his friend, another that got a child pornography charge, killed himself. Both men may have done something wrong, but they are (were) talented and can give back to society in a positive way.
To Child Sex Abuse Survivors
I want to take a moment to address child sex abuse victims. I am one, and I understand that reading this may really upset those whose lives were and still are compromised. Why don’t I discuss children, how they are victims? What about their livelong suffering? I read the victim’s letter from the Misty Series, and I watched several girls struggle lifelong due to the sexual abuse they encountered. I also learned that in order to move forward, I had to work through my own anger and my desire to see those that hurt me get what’s owed to them.
I had two people molest me, a man and a woman. I also faced 17 years of domestic, emotional and psychological abuse from my father, who was a child molester. He never spent a day in jail though I reported him.
If my time working with those that had sex offenses in prison told me anything is that these guys do suffer. They do pay a price. I saw it every day. Yet my real hope for those that molested me is that they recognize the harm they caused, why the caused it, meaningfully apologize, and then I want their lives to get better. I want them to take what is bad about their past actions and do good with it.
They cannot do that if SORNA never lets them, if they can never trick or treat with their kids.
SORNA and the Sex Offender Myth Must RIP
Levenson, Tweksbury, Bailey, Grady, and Klein and many other experts all come to the same conclusion that NARSOL has: it’s time that states, lawmakers, and our federal government rethink how they are handling men (and women) that sex offend against children in contact, solicitation, and virtual offenses.
Moreover, banning objects (drawings, dolls, cartoons, and some narratives) may prove especially dangerous, not only to our constitution, but to our human rights and to possible offending. Being disgusting or offensive does not mean illegal.
It’s not outrageous to consider that lobbying and money, political success, plays no small role in further stigmatizing offenders. Michael McKay wrote a piece on how the lie-detector business is big business in the U.S. with offenders, making well over $3 billion per year, and such companies as TriBridge make $130 million annually.
Watch Systems, another “offender-focused” group spent $130,000 lobbying in Washington DC in 2017. I would add that as our prisons, including for-profits, release those for drug offenses on a lost drug war, there is a need for more bodies. The drug war failed like the sex offender witch trials will, but it will make some a ton of money.
Sex offenders might be the next group to fill the “money-making” ranks. As a cynic, it’s tough for me not to conclude that the sex offender myth is all about making money and has never been about protecting kids. Wasn’t it the FBI that was letting Epstein off the hook the first time?
If we tell investors that for-profits are locking up monsters that will harm our children, they can feel good investing in that “though-on-crime” politician or that stock that tracks Frankensteins on Halloween. Just as Halloween has become a consumer business, so is the making of monsters, the bogie man.
If we want to help children, we have to catch them before they fall, not after. Better unbiased research and responsible reporting can do just that. That way, fallen angels don’t ever have to become real and men can be fathers, not monsters.