Life changed forever for Loni Brooks (not her real name), 51, on the night of December 10, 2006.
A resident of Dallas, she was away on business in Illinois when she learned that her husband had landed in jail. Then the news got worse–when she landed at Dallas Fort-Worth airport, her mother-in-law called to tell her that he’d been arrested for online solicitation of a minor. She fell to the floor in the middle of the airport, phone in hand, weeping. Strangers approached her to offer Kleenex and help.
It turned out that her husband Eric had been unfaithful for years with adult women he’d met on the Internet. But that wasn’t the real trouble–a Denton County detective had also groomed him, posing as a 16-year-old girl. Eric took the bait, and cops soon swooped in and arrested him.
He got 5 years of probation and mandatory registration on Texas’ sex offender registry.
Loni says it wasn’t just Eric who was put on the Texas registry—so were she and her two sons, who were ages 14 and 9 at the time. “I think we were pretty much mainstream America,” she says. “We were a pretty normal perfect little family, and then all hell broke loose.”
She and her boys lost a few friends the first year after her husband’s sentencing. The terms of his probation meant he couldn’t be around children, so they couldn’t have friends over. That meant no birthday parties or sleepovers.
A few times, Eric left the house and they could did have a few friends there. But it was risky, says Loni. “If a parent had found out that someone on the registry lived there, they’d have had trouble,” she says. “People have such a perception that sex offender registry equals pedophile equals dangerous pedophile.”
So they don’t do that anymore—they’re vigilant not to allow Eric around children, “not because I believe he is dangerous, but because I understand in a way few can, the misperception that all sex offenders are pedophiles and predators,” says Loni.
Eric’s presence on the registry also meant Loni lost most of the relationships in her large, extended family. “There were about 20 to 25 of us that that did everything together–every birthday, every special occasion,” Howard says. That changed the Christmas after Eric’s arrest. Loni’s sister-in-law canceled their regular Christmas gathering, and that was one of the last times she saw everyone. “Almost every one of them pulled away when they found out that Eric was on the registry,” she says. “Only a very small percentage loved and supported us,” she says.
Eric also was prohibited from going to church, so they stopped attending. She and her two boys missed the funerals of two great-grandmothers and of close friends. They stopped going to weddings and parties.
The also began to feel “the look” from neighbors. “People just sort of look at you and look away row quickly and don’t say anything,” says Howard.
Perhaps worse was dealing with the criminal justice system. After Eric was convicted, Loni met with his probation officer to get into a chaperone program that would allow him to be around the children when Loni was present. The officer, a woman, kept them waiting almost an hour. When she did finally have them in, she fired questions at Loni. “How do you feel having a husband who prefers having sex with a 16-year-old girls? How does it make you feel as a woman? How do you forgive him for this? How will you ever trust you? You’re obviously not attractive to him anymore.”
Loni says she and Eric had to “sit there and take it”—she held the power over their future. After the first session, the officer asked her to write her a letter e explaining what Eric had done. Loni had to do three versions before the officer would accept it: “She didn’t like the way I wrote it,” Loni says. “And so I don’t know if I had bullets or didn’t have bullets but she had me do the opposite of that.”
Then in 2013, the registry finally came to the last place it hadn’t affected–her youngest son’s school, a nondenominational Christian academy. Before the 2013−2014 school year, school authorities checked the registry and came across Eric’s name and address. School officials recognized him as the father of a student and told the Howards that they felt it was their obligation to let the school know his status. After several meetings, with the Howards, school officials told them that they wanted to send a letter to parents that announced that a parent was on the registry.
With that reality looming, Loni Brooks wanted to get Ethan some counseling to prepare him. So she took him to several therapists. All three said that the school’s decision wasn’t in his best interest. But there was no way to change the school’s decision.
In key respects, the Howards are luckier than others with a family member on the registry. Court, legal, and treatment fees cost them between $30,000 and $40,000, but they’re fairly well off. And Eric worked in his family business and so was able to keep his job—with his name on the registry, there’s no way he’d have kept it otherwise—and no way he’d have gotten another one, says Loni.
Still, the stress has gotten to Loni. She got shingles in 2011 and lost part of the vision in her left eye, leaving her partially blind–her doctors told her it was stress related. “They told me to reduce my stress. I’m like okay, I’m on it,” she says sardonically.
The experience with the probation officer left her angry. “I will not let this negative woman take one more ounce of my joy and happiness,” she told herself. So she got online and started looking for other families in her situation. She sent out 200 letters to families with family members on the list but got no replies. But soon she found group Texas Voices—an advocacy and support group for those in Texas on the registry and their families—and she’s been involved ever since.
“I believed what everyone else believed,” she says of her attitudes before Eric’s arrest. “I thought the registry was all those crazy sick pedophiles that would expose themselves or molest my kids. Now I know that it just sort of can happen to anyone.”