Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

What “Secondary Registration” Looks Like in Real Life

It’s not every day you hear someone say they’re ecstatic to have been diagnosed with having a brain cyst.

Then again, until the mid-nineties it would have been hard to imagine that a system of public sex registries could exist outside a Kafka novel.

Scott is on one of those registries for the rest of his life. In 1997 at age 25, he pled guilty to exposing a minor to obscene material after a neighborhood boy was in Scott’s house when he was playing a pornographic video. Scott was arrested, and his plea deal included four years in prison and lifetime on his state’s sex offender registry.

In 1999, he got out of prison after two years for good behavior. In 2002 he met his wife, and they had a little girl named Abby, who’s now age 13. But Scott has barely worked since he left prison. When he does apply for jobs, in the section that asks about a criminal record he writes that he’ll “explain at the time of the interview.” But he hardly ever gets to an interview. That’s because the person accepting the application usually asks for details, and when he reveals he’s on the state sex registry, he’s told the company can’t hire him.

After a bout of headaches in 2005, he went to the doctor and eventually had a biopsy done. When the results came back showing he had a cyst in his brain, he was “so excited”–it meant that he could draw a disability check and would have a source of income for the first time since he went to prison.

So far, his cyst has remained benign. But his family’s life is haunted by having his name, photo, and address up on the state’s Internet sex registry. His daughter Abby has perhaps had it worst.

In 2008, Abby’s best friend told her that her father had found Scott’s name on the registry. The father told her she could no longer see Abby outside school. Scott went to the father’s house and talked to him, explaining the circumstances. He told Scott he appreciated him coming over but that his decision wouldn’t change. That was the end of Abby’s friendship.

In 2009, Abby signed up for a cheerleading squad run by the town’s recreation department. But the first couple of practices were painful—Scott would take her and would try to sit and watch with the other parents, but they’d move conspicuously to other seats, keeping their distance. None of the girls would talk to Abby either. Scott and Abby felt completely isolated, and after two practices Abby quit. (Scott’s wife has a physical disability that doesn’t let her easily leave the house to take Abby herself.)

Then there was the year Abby was kicked out of the YMCA summer camp. The summer camp’s policies required that an adult accompany any children younger than 14 onto the premises to be dropped off and signed in. But a few weeks in, the organizers found out about Scott’s status and barred him from setting foot in the facility. That ended Abby’s participation.

Scott leans Republican and for all he’s been through has a remarkably nuanced view of sex registries. “The registry is both good and bad. If someone is a child molester, they need to be monitored,” he says. “But come on, you can’t put them in the same group as someone convicted for an offense like mine or someone busted for public urination.” The cops he’s talked to have told him the same thing—the state is spending a lot of money maintaining current photos and address records for people who don’t need to be on the list.

Scott might have added that his daughter has essentially been put on the list herself. He says he fears things will get worse for her.

So common is their story—a registrant on the list, family members paying the price—that University of Delaware sociologist Chrysanthi Leon has devised a name for it. It’s called “secondary registration,” and the parallels with the health impacts of secondhand smoke are hard to miss.

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