Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

How One Teen’s Placement on the Registry Lost His Mom Their Apartment and Her Job

While it lasted, the affordable housing complex that “Tracey” and her son lived in was a small slice of nirvana. Located in a wealthy city in California, most of the families who lived there were friends. They had dinners together, met on the sidewalk to chat, watched each other’s kids.

That last one was especially important to Tracey. In the late nineties, she was a single mom. She worked in a nearby city while going to night school. When she was away at night classes, she’d leave her son “Lee” with other parents. Money was tight, and she supplemented her income by working a second job as the part-time assistant manager for the apartment complex.

The kids all got along too. Lee was 15 and good friends with a neighbor’s set of 15-year-old twins.

The trouble started when Lee and the twins were hanging out one afternoon alone with a neighbor’s 7-year-old. The twins and Lee began experimenting sexually. There was no coercion, but there was exhibitionism and touching. The 7-year-old saw it all.

One of the boys told another neighbor boy what had happened. That boy’s uncle was under investigation for abusing him. During the investigation, that boy told the authorities about what he’d heard happened that afternoon. It was second-hand information, but it was enough to set the stage for what was to come.

One afternoon, Tracey heard a knock on her door, and a police officer stepped in. She asked Tracey to come down to the station house with Lee. “Is there a problem? Is he in trouble?” she asked. “No, there’s no problem—we just need to ask him about something that some boys in the neighborhood were involved in.” She asked Lee if he knew something—whether he’d used drugs or stolen something—he said hadn’t done anything wrong he could think of.

Tracey and Lee got on their bikes and rode to the station house. The officers asked Tracey to stay in the waiting room while they asked Lee some questions. She had no lawyer and didn’t know she had the right to refuse to let Lee talk to them. “I was so naïve,” she says.

The police let Lee leave, and he and Tracey rode home without incident. Tracey thought nothing more of it. That is, until the first day of school rolled around the following month.  Her phone rang, and a police officer was on the other end. Lee had been arrested at school.

Tracey called the police station to find out what was going on. The officer who answered was vague, wouldn’t tell her much. When Tracey persisted, she cut Tracey off: “Your son,” she said, “is a monster.”

Lee and the twins had been charged with forcible oral copulation and forcible sodomy for what had happened that afternoon. That didn’t remotely resemble what the boys reported had actually happened. On the charging sheets, they were each listed two ways—as both victims and perpetrators.

Tracey talked to the other two sets of parents—the parents of the twins and the 7-year-old. They were all friends and thought that if they told police that they wanted to handle the issue among themselves by getting counseling for all four boys, the police might drop the case. The 7-year-old’s parents got him counseling and had him examined. His report of what happened matched that of the older boys.

None of that mattered to the police—the three older boys were going to be sentenced to several years in the California Youth Authority (the juvenile corrections system) unless they pled guilty. In the meantime, all three would be held in a juvenile corrections facility.

Tracey was deciding whether Lee should take the plea when she got a letter from complex’s management. She was being evicted immediately. The parents of the twins also got eviction notices. The boys’ arrests, housing authority higher-ups had decided, put other children in the complex at risk—even though the case hadn’t even been adjudicated. Tracey also lost her part-time job as the complex’s assistant manager.

Now she had to move fast. Suddenly she’d seen her income cut from the loss of the part-time job, and she had to find housing immediately. On top of that, it was Christmas.

She found a room in an apartment in the city, sharing it with someone who understood her situation. Now she was paying triple what she had in the affordable housing complex. But at least she’d found a place to live.

The close-knit group of friends who were her community was no more. Even the parents of the 7-year-old were so upset by how the police had handled the case that they moved out of state, and stayed there.

Tracey also lost family members. Tracey’s mother was on her side and wanted to fight to get Lee out. Tracey’s sister, who lived out of state, had initially been supportive, expressing shock at what had happened to Lee. But after he pled guilty, she mostly cut them off. A brother reacted similarly.

Eventually Tracey graduated from law school and got a government job.

Lee was released from juvenile corrections after several years of sex offender therapy. But as an adult, his name, photo, and address would be listed on the state’s sex offender registry for the rest of his life, and he’d be banned under state law from living near parks, day care, centers, and schools.

Those two restrictions have changed the course of his life. For years, he moved from hostel to hostel. As a registrant, he was banned from most shelters, post-incarceration treatment and job programs, and housing. Today he’s homeless. Worst, his offense is listed as involving a child, although Lee was a child too at the time of his arrest and all the people involved, including the 7- year-old, are now well into adulthood.

Lee’s offense would follow Tracey too. In 2008, 12 years after that fateful afternoon, Tracey had to undergo a security clearance review as part of her job. Two hours into the interview, one of the security officials said, “You mentioned your son. How’s he doing?” “I didn’t mention a son,” replied Tracey, “but since you’re asking you must know how he’s doing.”

The officers told her that it would be a problem if Lee ever visited her at work. Tracey had heard stories like this before and knew this was a subtle message—she’d not be promoted and would get the least desirable assignments in her agency.

All of that turned out to be true—she never moved up the ladder and got only the toughest assignments. So a few years later, she quit and began working elsewhere. Her career was over, and all because of an episode involving three teenage boys 16 years earlier—the kind of inappropriate behavior that she and her fellow parents would have been happy to resolve themselves with a little outside professional help.

Recently, the owner of the property where Tracey was renting found out about her son’s past. Lee had visited his mother infrequently and never lived at the property. It didn’t matter–the property owner asked Tracey to leave.

So long is the reach of their state’s sex registry that events from 1996 continue to resonate in Lee and Tracey’s lives to their detriment, 20 years later.

But Tracey can’t go back, so she’s moving forward. Every few weeks she goes to her local sex offender registration office to hand out information to registrants to get them involved in efforts to change her state laws. She lobbies legislators. She comments on news stories about current sex crime laws. “I didn’t have the sense, the courage, or the clarity to do something more back then,” she says. “But I do now.”

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