Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Early Findings of New Study Indicate Sex Offender Policies Are Creating New Child Victims

Family members of those on sex offender registries contend that registry laws punish not just registrants but their wives, children, and sometimes parents and siblings. A new study is trying to quantify those effects.

Researchers Chrysanthi Leon and Ashley Kilmer of the University of Delaware are working on a study about the impacts of sex offender laws on family members. Specifically, they’re looking at how the statutes affect loved ones’ social and family relationships, employment, housing, community involvement, social support, emotional well-being, and finances.

Leon and Kilmer’s study may well bring Americans face to face with the alternate universe that the wives and children of registrants traverse daily. In a presentation last month, the researchers offered examples of stories they’re hearing from study participants.

“After my son was arrested, I lost the apartment we had lived in. I was the assistant manager at a housing complex and was told to leave as soon as the arrest occurred and before a conviction or a plea was entered. I also lost my job as the assistant manager. More recently, in seeking housing I told a potential landlady that my son would be visiting who was a registered sex offender. I told her because this was an affluent community with an active neighborhood watch. Since my son is on parole, I expected parole would be visiting also if my son spent any time at the new home. My potential landlady checked the registry and declined to rent to me. I’m a professional, a homeowner, credit score of 840, with a stable employment residence history.”

“My husband is on supervised release for the rest of his life, and the probation officer said he couldn’t live with us. The harsh interpretation of my husband’s release conditions is our biggest problem. My husband has to rent a house or apartment, and we have to pay for two households. We’re fortunate because our friend rents to us at a discount, but it is a huge burden.”

“Most on the registry have restrictions on where they can live. It’s difficult to find housing when you can’t live within so many feet of parks, schools, and daycares. It’s almost impossible to find a place inside city limits where housing is cheapest and affordable, and for some on the registry there is nothing they can afford because they can’t find anyone to hire them. For sex offenders, jobs and housing go hand-in-hand–you can’t have one without the other.”

“When [employers] ask for a background check, I know what I’m in store for and I just give up.”

“My significant other was charged with second degree statutory rape and second-degree statutory sodomy. He was told that he’s not allowed to work anywhere that employs a minor, even if it’s during the hours when minors are not allowed to work by law, such as from 11 p.m. to 5:59 a.m. like McDonald’s, Taco Bell etc. My significant other was told by his probation officer in one state that he couldn’t have a job where the word “supervisor,” “manager,” “caregiver,” or “caretaker” were in the title, even if it was to do regular landscaping on an isolated ranch where there were no children or any people who could be considered vulnerable. My significant other also was told that he couldn’t obtain a job anywhere that sold liquor, including gas stations and convenience stores. In rural, isolated communities, most jobs involve some type of caretaking or are some kind of food establishment that serve alcohol. The only job he was able to apply for the in the town where we live and he was convicted was working as a trash collector, but [the collection company] stated that they don’t hire felons. He can’t leave the county even for a job search.”

“My son finally found employment, and after he had been there a few weeks someone called his boss and told him all about my son. Fortunately his boss didn’t fire him.”

One family member also talked about what motivates them to advocate for change:

“I hate doing this kind of work [advocacy], but I keep getting angry when I see how these laws and registries destroy families and their ability to survive. I also find it overwhelming and difficult to speak up about this at times because the very nature of the crime brings shame, judgment, etc.”

Leon reported that one initial study finding is that for the family members, being part of advocacy and reform efforts creates emotional support and “resilience.” Advocacy, a sense of purpose, and improvements in well-being seem to go hand-in-hand, she said.

Leon is an associate professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, with secondary appointments in Women and Gender Studies and Legal Studies at the university. In fall 2014, she was also chair of the university’s Department of Women and Gender Studies. Kilmer is a graduate student specializing in criminal justice-related legislation and policy.

Leon and Kilmer are still looking for study participants, and the researchers will protect participants’ identities on request. Those interested should visit this link.

Once published, their study will make at least the second on this topic. In a 2009 study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice many family members surveyed reported that sex offender laws tore apart their lives in some way. Fifty-nine percent said that they’d experienced ridicule, 44 percent that they’d been threatened or harassed by neighbors because of their family member’s status, 27 percent that their property had been damaged, and 7 percent that they’d been physically assaulted or injured. Almost 80 percent experienced depression, and 13 percent had developed suicidal tendencies.

History abounds with policies that call to mind the snake eating its own tail because they bring initial benefits and long-term ruin—witness our overreliance on fossil fuels, which made possible economic growth and are now quickly moving us toward a climate crisis. Similarly, a pile of evidence now indicates that American sex offender policies have ceased to be a way to protect kids. Instead they’re creating new victims.

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