In 2007 “Bryan,” a 37-year-old father and husband, was accused by a 14-year-old niece of inappropriately touching her. After a trial that pitted her word against his, he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 10 years probation—and life on his state’s sex offender registry.*
Bryan’s wife “Lela” and daughter “Molly” feel certain that he’s innocent. Four of the niece’s own friends testified against her on the stand. After the sentencing, some jury members in the case wrote letters to the judge and the district attorney telling them they thought they’d made a mistake–they’d felt pressure not to reach a “not guilty” verdict even though they weren’t sure from the trial testimony what had actually happened.
Bryan’s sentence wasn’t prison, but it was close. After the conviction, he and Lela became pariahs. A few close friends stuck by, but everyone else shunned them. At church and in public, they’d hear people tell each other to keep their children away. The couple stopped taking their evening walks or even going out in the backyard. Finally a year later, they moved to a bigger city where no one would know them.
That’s just meant more isolation—they don’t want to make friends in their new place because someone might get curious and find Bryan’s name on the registry. For now they’re trying to stay as invisible as possible. And that means keeping to themselves.
Still, the way Bryan’s probation officers do their jobs makes it impossible for him and Lela to blend in. Once a month, an officer from the city’s sex offender registration unit comes to their house and parks in the driveway. The car is helpfully emblazoned with the department’s name, making Bryan’s status obvious to the neighbors. Every six months, an officer with the state Department of Public Safety shows up for a monitoring visit. If Bryan and Lela aren’t home, the officer leaves a big red sign on the door noting that the sex offender compliance unit has been by to check on him.
Bryan and Lela also can’t travel together. As a registrant, Bryan is prohibited from leaving the country. He can’t even leave his own county without special permission. When he travels for work within the state, he has to notify both the county were he lives and the one he’s visiting a few days in advance.
And then there’s the practice, unique to the United States, of charging those convicted of crimes for the cost of their own probation terms. Bryan attends mandatory sex offender therapy sessions, for which the state charges him $300 a month. He also ponies up $200 a month for the costs of his probation officers. And he takes a mandatory polygraph every six months that runs $500 a pop. To date, Bryan and Lela have paid a total of $700,000 between those costs and legal fees. By the time Bryan is off probation in 2021, they will have laid out about a million dollars.
It’s lucky that Bryan owns his own business and does well or they’d have declared bankruptcy long ago. Even so, it’s a challenge to keep up with monthly bills. When Molly graduated from high school, she wanted to go to a four-year college. But Bryan and Lela didn’t have the money and Molly didn’t qualify for financial aid. So she instead chose a technical 6-month esthetician program that would allow her to start working quickly.
Molly got married in 2011, and she and her husband had wanted to have a child of their own. But Molly says they couldn’t—they’d wanted their child to have grandparents. That would have been impossible because the terms of Bryan’s probation forbid him from being with kids.
And then there are the Christmas decorations. Bizarrely, people on the state registry can’t set foot in a house with so much as a plastic candy cane on the door–never mind that no study has ever linked Christmas decorations and sex offenses. So neither Molly nor her parents ever decorate. Halloween is worse—Lela and Bryan are required to turn off the lights in their house and leave for the night. (And no, there have been no studies linking Halloween to a heightened incidence of sex crimes.)
Lela had no history of depression before 2007. Now she’s on anti-depressants, and both she and Molly are in therapy.
Lela could have avoided all of this by leaving Bryan. But she never considered it and says that the stress and pressure have, weirdly, brought them closer.
“I used to believe what the rest of society did,” says daughter Molly. “But now I’m skeptical anytime someone is accused of something. It’s changed my view of everything in life.”
*All names have been changed to prevent harassment or worse.