Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Pitchfork Populism Meets the Family (Ann’s Story)

Frank is a 35-year-old with a developmental disability who was arrested in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Fortunately, he has what some politicians say is the answer to all manner of social ills–a tight, committed family who have cared for him his whole life.*

His parents wanted to get him the best help they could, and they did what many parents would not have. They used their life savings–$60,000—to get the best attorney they could afford. His bond was set at $100,000. Knowing that he’d be a target in jail as a person with a disability, his parents used their house as collateral and borrowed from other family members to get the money to bail him out.

Their lawyer paid dividends—she was able to get Frank legally declared a “vulnerable adult”– that kept him out of prison. Still, she couldn’t prevent his being placed on the state sex offender registry and having to wear an ankle monitor for the rest of his life. (See this new white paper from a national disability rights organization about the troubling consequences of applying sex-crime laws to adults with developmental disabilities.)

The judge stipulated in his probation that Frank would be required to live with his parents so that he’d have a support system and someone to monitor his behavior.

All went well until August 2013.

That month, a neighbor found his photo on the state sex offender registry. She printed his registry page and turned it into fliers that she passed out to others. Angry parents contacted the school to demand that Frank be forced to move.

On the first day of school, the neighbors held a protest on the family’s front lawn and invited reporters. The local paper made no pretense of objectivity: “Parents are outraged that a convicted sex offender lives near their children’s elementary school,” the reporter wrote. “What makes them angrier is that there is nothing they can do about it.”

They were determined to change that. They peppered the judge on Frank’s case and Frank’s probation officer with calls demanding to have the terms of probation changed so that he could be kicked out of the neighborhood.

The law didn’t allow the terms to be changed just because the neighbors were unhappy—his probation would only be breached if Frank violated the terms.

But there were ways to make that happen. A few days into September, the probation officer did a random inspection of Frank’s parents’ home. In the garage, he found a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. There was no indication who had bought it or who it belonged to. No matter—the officer decided on the spot that it constituted pornography.

That violated Frank’s probation, and he was ordered to move out.

His family found him an apartment across town. Now the costs skyrocketed—his rent, utility bills, and fees for probation and counseling came to about $1000 a month. Frank would have to get a job, but being on the registry meant that it took him three months to land one at a gas station. So for those three months, the family pawned “basically everything we had” says Frank’s sister Ann. Worse, their father had died suddenly of leukemia.

Today, the family feels like they’re sinking in quicksand. “Many times, my mom, my brother, and I have sat down and come to the conclusion that this life is no longer worth living,” says Ann. But somehow they keep going—“Our religion,” she says, “frowns on suicide.”

Pushed to the margins, the family has figured out whom they can count on—and it’s flipped Ann’s worldview on its head. “I never knew any sex offenders before this,” says Ann. “Since this happened, it has been registrants who have suffered themselves who have helped us the most.”

“When our story was first in the news,” she says, “members of Reform Sex Offender Laws [a national organization that works to change sex-crime policies] would leave their contact info in the comments section of news stories for us to call them. Some of the kindest and most loyal people are in fact registrants and their family members.”

Their experience has also turned her into an activist—she’s written letters to many of her state representatives to tell their story and demand reform.

Before all of this happened, “I believed what the media told me….” She says. “The registry has been a real awakening.”

*While viewing child pornography constitutes noncontact sexual abuse, there’s as yet no clear consensus in the research literature about whether viewing child pornography makes a person more likely to commit a contact crime against a child.

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