Kid Running
A boy runs down a sand dune in this file photograph. Reuters/Mike Blake

What happens when you mark a child as a monster for the rest of his life?

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released the results of an exhaustive new study on the long-term impact of placing minors on sex-offender registries in the U.S. “Raised on the Registry,” examining 517 cases of youth sex offenders across 20 states, reveals an almost incomprehensible reality in which children as young as 9 are being added to sex-offender databases, sometimes for life, and often as a result of sketchy plea deals or faulty juvenile-court proceedings.

If you are surprised to learn that children as young as 9 can be registered as sex offenders, you might be even more surprised to know that inclusion of minors on sex-offender registries has been federally mandated since 2006, when the Amie Zyla Expansion -- an amendment to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act -- broadened the definition of “conviction” to include certain juvenile adjudications.

Nicole Pittman, a Human Rights Watch advocacy fellow and the study’s primary researcher, said the mandate, while well-intentioned, is causing irreparable harm to countless children and families who would be better served not by forces of ostracization but by methods to reintroduce offenders back into society.

“In a lot of cases, inclusion in the registry starts in therapy,” Pittman said in a phone interview from Washington, where she was meeting with the U.S. Justice Department to discuss the findings of her research. “Young children may go into therapy because they’re touching their younger sister or cousin, and the therapist calls the authorities.”

Entering therapy doesn't place a child on a sex-offender list, but therapists in most states are required to contact the authorities when there is a possibility a patient may be a danger to himself or someone else. At that point, it’s up to the authorities to determine whether an offense has taken place.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the Adam Walsh Act authorized the creation of a national sex-offender registry, which links to state-run online databases. The most serious offenders stay on the registry for life, while lesser offenders may be taken out of the system in 15 or 25 years. Meanwhile, the specific requirements of registration vary by state, with many charging hundreds of dollars in annual mandatory registration fees. In Louisiana and Oklahoma, sex offenders are required to carry a state-issued driver’s license or identification card with the words “Sex Offender” printed in boldface type.

An identification card that must be updated yearly and carried at all times by registered sex offenders in Oklahoma. Human Rights Watch

Even after many offenders are no longer in the registry, however, they find it difficult to leave their pasts in the past. Pittman, who conducted in-person interviews with 281 youth sex offenders over 18 months, said inclusion in the online registry frequently leaves behind a trail of digital footprints almost impossible to extinguish.

“Because of the Internet, the information never really goes away,” she said.

And that lifetime of stigma can have dire consequences, Pittman said, particularly when it begins in childhood. Throughout the course of her research, she said she was contacted by many families whose loved ones had committed suicide as a result of not being able to escape the stigmatizing sex-offender label.

“They did it because their [lives] didn’t change, even once they were officially off the list,” she said.

For obvious reasons, drumming up sympathy for registered sex offenders is no easy task, but Pittman’s research suggests that that lack of sympathy is based largely on misconceptions. While characterizations of sex offenders as rabid perverts lurking outside schools are common, the reality is much more complex, as the term “sex offender” includes a broad range of offenses. Despite a widespread belief that all sex offenders have high rates of recidivism, only about 13 percent are repeat offenders (according to the Center for Sex Offender Management), compared with roughly 68 percent of criminals overall (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics). For youth sex offenders, the rate is even lower -- as low as 7 percent, depending on the study.

One problem is that youth offenders grow up, which then changes our perception of their offenses. Log into your state’s sex-offender registry, and chances are you will see rows and rows of mug shots of glassy-eyed adults prominently on display. What may be more difficult to find are the specifics of the offense: the date it took place and the ages of those involved. In some states -- Virginia, for example -- sex offenders are required to be photographed by a local law-enforcement agency every two years. The idea is that residents would be able to recognize sex offenders living in their neighborhood, but that also means that the images of the offenders age along with them. It’s for this reason, Pittman said, that vigilante violence against registered sex offenders tends to increase as the offenders age.

“It can be really deceptive,” she said. “You log in and see a picture of a 27-year-old who molested an underage girl, and of course you think, 'Pedophile.' What you might not notice is that the incident took place when the offender himself was a child.”

Pittman said that judgments in many cases involving youth sex offenders are the result of plea deals, offered in bad faith to frightened children who have no real concept of their consequences. In some cases, children may not even be told that a judgment will require them to register as a sex offender. One case involved an 11-year-old child who admitted under interrogation that he had molested his 3-year-old sister. As an adult, he told Human Rights Watch that he did not realize at the time that he was allowed to disagree with a police officer.

“It’s really devastating to hear,” Pittman said. “You have all these decisions being based on misunderstandings. It follows them around for life.”

Read the entire Human Rights Watch report here.

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