Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

“How Long Can a 17-Year-Old Be Punished?” (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 2)

In May 1996, after the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey, the U.S. Congress rushed through an amendment to the Wetterling Act. Called Megan’s Law, it required that states put their lists of those convicted of sex crimes, previously available only to police, up on the Internet.

That meant Jason Norman’s photo, name, and address would appear on Texas’ public sex offender registry. Jason couldn’t believe it—none of that was part of his 1993 plea deal. The state had changed the rules after the fact.

Still, early in the life of the Texas registry in the late nineties, relatively few people were paying attention. In 2002, he met Lisa through mutual friends. A few months later, they moved in together, and in 2004 they got married. Their first son was born in 2005, and a second boy in 2009.

But that’s when reporters for local dailies around the country–looking to pull in readers by salting their stories with words like “creeps,” “perverts,” and “sex fiends”—started drawing the public’s attention to those on the state registry.

Now the effects of Jason’s 1993 plea deal began forcing their way into every facet of his family’s life. Finding a decent place to live was next to impossible—apartment managers in and around San Antonio wouldn’t rent to them.

So they crowded in with family, found houses and single-wide trailers in bad neighborhoods or far out in the country where landlords were desperate for tenants, stayed in weekly and monthly extended-stay motels. During one particularly bad stretch, they were staying in a house where roaches were everywhere, and Lisa wondered how she’d ended up here. Here they were in highly skilled jobs—a nurse and a plumber–and this wasn’t the life she’d envisioned.

Those good jobs were the reason that up to that point they had enough money. By 2012, they’d bought a house—a three-bedroom, one bath ranch with a big yard in a neighborhood that Lisa’s grandfather grew up in and where they knew all the neighbors.

Then trouble started at Jason’s job. He worked out of a local union shop as a pipefitter and had a contract installing medical gas plumbing in hospitals. A local rag called Busted—one of those cheap magazines on rough paper that sell for a buck in gas stations–had listed his photo and address, pulling the information straight off the state registry.

One of the guys at the shop found it. He took a photo of the page and sent it to all of his coworkers. Jason started getting calls from them. “Hey man, I can’t believe you did this,” one told him. Some of the foremen told Jason they could no longer hire him because he was a child rapist. Nobody seemed to listen when he told them the alleged incident that landed him on the list happened 23 years before and involved his girlfriend who was only a year younger than him.

When Jason’s last hospital job ended, he stopped being sent out on assignments. The work slowed to a trickle, then nothing. He got no pipefitting work at all for a year. Instead he took an off-and-on job with his brother glazing windows. It paid $15 an hour when there was work–less than half of the $29 he was making as a pipefitter.

That pinched the family’s finances for the first time. They got behind on their mortgage payments. The foreclosure notices started coming, and they thought they were going to lose the house. So Lisa started clocking 60-hour weeks and pulled them out of their financial hole.

Jason applied to job after job. He should have been able to find work—he’s got a sought-after set of skills: journeyman plumber’s certification, medical gas plumber certification, an orbital welding certificate. He can do detailing—3-D drawings of where pipe will be placed. But time and again, his application was turned down after interviewers ran background checks.

The lack of money kept them from moving into their house. It needed a lot—it was practically a gut job, and Jason did a lot of the work himself. But they couldn’t afford the materials to move the project along.

Without money to pay both rent and a mortgage, they stayed in a house where Lisa’s parents and her brother’s family live. Nine of them crowded into four bedrooms, with Jason and Lisa and their two boys sharing one together.

Making it all worse, from the beginning Jason had been ordered to attend a sex offender treatment program once a week that cost $35. Over seven years, he estimates that he paid about $13,000.

Not being able to support themselves is perhaps the worst part for Jason.” I’m a plumber and she’s a nurse. We went to school, we did what we had to do,” he says. “The mental stress is that that we have to depend on other people when we could do it ourselves.”

Even when they’re able to move, they could have a crop of new problems. Police will come to the house to verify Jason’s address. When that happens, the neighbors will find out that Jason is on the registry—and Lisa wonders how they’ll react, even though she knows many of them.

Outside of family, Jason and Lisa keep themselves isolated. It can go really well or very badly when they tell people about their situation, and they don’t want to risk it. Bringing new people into their lives means having to explain why Jason is on the registry. That means no play dates for their kids—what if a parent got curious and found Jason on the registry?

Until not long ago, the Dehoyos were friends with the family of a childhood friend of Lisa’s in San Antonio. The father was a coworker of Jason’s, and they were at each other’s houses every couple of weeks. But when the coworker found out Jason was on the registry, he called and got Lisa on the phone. He came right out with it when she answered—he didn’t want to spend time with them because he had a daughter. “Whoa,” said Lisa. “This happened 23 years ago.”

But the two families have never visited since.

Jason avoids kids’ activities—his oldest son is in the Boy Scouts, and another father asked him whether he could help out as a volunteer. Jason turned it down. Other parents asked him if he could coach Little League. “Sorry, hey, I can’t coach,” he told them. “Why not?” “I just can’t,” he responds.

When Lisa talks, it’s like she’s on the registry herself. “You’re not allowed to move on. You are worse than drug dealer, you’re worse than a murderer, worse than anybody else out there—we need to make you suffer for the rest of your life.”

And now they’re keeping their kids out of school activities. When their oldest son went to kindergarten, in 2009, Jason started driving him to and from school. But on one of the first days he came in to school for pickup, the school secretary sitting at the table asked for his license. She ran it through a scanner and then gave him a funny look. “Can you stay here? I’ll be right back,” she said.

When she returned, she had two school security officers with her. He told them about his situation and got the feeling they didn’t think he was a bad guy. Still, they asked him to call ahead every day before he came to school for pickup. That was too much for Jason–he never went back. Lisa took over the pickup, and when her work interfered, her mother helped out. It wasn’t worth the embarrassment to their son.

Jason has been asked to volunteer to be on field trips and he has to say no. “We would love to go on a field trip. We’d love to be involved in school functions. But we pretty much gave that up in kindergarten,” says Lisa.

They’ve also given up on the idea of taking their children to Disney World or Six Flags Over Texas. Disney began barring sex offenders in 2013, and Six Flags in 2005. Both amusement parks ban those on sex offender registries from entry, even if they’re bringing their own children.

But what they fear most is their kids growing up in a kind of exile. Lisa sees movies in which kids are having sleepovers. “I’m thinking when we get our new house I’d love to be that mom who has other kids over,” she says. But the registry has her paranoid. “I honestly don’t even want kids at my house since one of them could make an accusation. When your husband’s is on the registry, you feel like your whole family is,” she says.

The registry has changed how she raises her boys. She doesn’t want them to date anyone until they turn 18 and the girl is 18. Not long ago, her 5-year old told her that a girl liked him. “You know, she touched my hair,” he told her. “If I’d be like any other parent, I’d be like ‘oh how cute.’” Instead I’m like ‘stay away from that girl,’” she says.

Until two or three years ago, Lisa had a naturally sunny disposition. She’s used to the etiquette that when you’re raising kids, you have to keep a positive attitude. But for the first time, she’s feeling depressed. Her doctor has her on anti-anxiety drugs for the first time in her life.

“We’ve already been married for 10 years, and I’m wondering when is this going to stop,” she says. “I have anxiety over my kids, like are the laws going to get worse? I imagine us as an 80-year old couple, taking Jason up to the registration department and him having to register as a sex offender. Will we be 90 years old in our wheelchairs at the registry office having his picture taken to be placed on the Internet? I just can’t see us doing that…. I don’t see life going on like this. How long can a 17-year-old be punished? He’s already 41. When he’s 51, will that be enough?”

Jason is depressed much of the time too, though he keeps going. “I’m starting to see that now my attitude is changing. I’m not feeling right. I’m hurting my kids and my wife. I did probation up until 2003. I’ve done everything they wanted me to do–I’ve done it. I haven’t gotten into any kind of trouble. But yet this is still affecting my life.”

When his birthday rolls around each year, it’s no celebration but something like the descent into another cold winter—Jason has to annually register in the weeks before his birthday.

Lisa has gone to the registration office with Jason. When they get there, “you can cut the tension with a knife,” she says. No one’s talking–everybody’s embarrassed. “The detectives treat you like you’re dirt,” says Jason. “They’re just real cold about what they’re doing. Just cold. They’re not like ‘how you doing?’ They order you to sit down, and don’t look over there–talk to me–don’t look over there.”

They treat Lisa no better. She says hello, tries to be friendly. They ignore her.

Lisa has learned to respond in kind—for the first time, she’s developed a negative attitude about cops. “When I grew up, my family respected police. My parents were like ‘you know the police are our friends.’ But now I find myself suspicious of officers, and you never know which of them you can trust.” And I hate it so much that I’m paranoid and suspicious. I pray that I will one day I’ll change. I don’t trust anybody anymore.”

Next: No More Taking the Kids to the Park (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 3)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.