Do Sex Offender Registries Work?

Recently, I had a conversation with a group of mothers about a recent (and heinous) child abuse case in Arkansas. We debated whether or not one should ever feel sympathy for child abusers and I was reminded of this post I wrote several years ago on Salt & Nectar. 

Last week, my husband and I were watching Our America with Lisa Ling. In an episode titled “State of Sex Offenders,” Ling spent time in Florida, a state with some of the toughest sex offender registry laws in the country. She interviewed men forced to live in tents in the woods due to zoning laws, a sex offender who helps other sex offenders find places to live, a sex offender recently released from prison, and Lauren Book, one of the state’s high profile survivors of sexual molestation and the driving force behind many of Florida’s registry laws.

During the show, I found myself feeling something that as a mother you are never supposed to feel—sympathy for sex offenders.

It all started with Randy Young, the sex offender who helps newly released offenders find places to live. As he explained his reasons for doing what he does, I expected to hear that as a registered offender himself he knew the difficulties these men and women would encounter upon release from prison. Instead, he spoke about his mother and how she would drive him into dangerous neighborhoods desperately trying to find him a place to live. He could not live with her due to the registry laws that prevent a sex offender from living within 2000 feet of a place children congregate. He said he wanted to prevent the families of other sex offenders from going through the pain his own mother experienced.

There it was. Staring me right in the face. These men were sons and their mothers loved them as much as I loved my own son. And for me, nothing makes me feel someone else’s humanity more profoundly than realizing a mother once held that person—as a tiny, helpless infant—in her arms and loved them unconditionally.

As a society, we have gone out of our way to strip all humanity from this group—to the point where many are forced to live like the animals we believe them to be. We call them monsters because what they do is indeed monstrous. We call them predators because they prey on the most vulnerable of victims. But no matter what we call them or how we treat them, the difficult reality is that they are still human beings. They are someone’s son, someone’s wife, someone’s father, someone’s sister.

In a way, I think it makes us all feel better. If we don’t think of them as people, then we don’t have to worry about the people in our own lives. Of course, our doctor/neighbor/babysitter wouldn’t be capable of something like this. We would never invite a monster in to our home or our lives. If we can get on the Internet and find out where the real monsters live, then we can keep our kids safe.

The truth is most studies estimate 80-90% of molestation victims know their perpetrator and the same percentage of perpetrators have never been convicted of a sexual offense before. And according to some recent studies, the popular idea that all sexual offenders are likely to re-offend is unrealistic if not downright wrong. Unless, you factor in the opinion of many law enforcement agencies that feel that registry laws actually make a sex offender more likely to re-offend because it removes them from their support system and encourages them to disappear. So, what this tells me is these registry laws are not protecting children from the actual threat—a trusted member of their community who in all likelihood wouldn't be on the registry to begin with. Not only that, but that by continuing to punish the offenders after they are out of prison we might in fact be increasing the chances that they will harm a child.

So, what are we to do?

As a mother, I’m realizing that I can’t protect Griffin from everything. I can’t read the mind of every person he comes in contact with to determine whether it holds my worst fear. And I can’t help but feel that if I focus my energy on controlling everyone else I’m fighting a losing battle. Instead, I try to focus my energy on Griffin. We’ve already started talking about body parts and, as he grows older, I plan to continue that discussion to include appropriate and inappropriate touching. I never want him to feel like the subject of his body or sex is something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.

But beyond that there is a message that I want Griffin to get loud and clear. A message I plan to repeat as often as humanly possible—which is there is NOTHING he can’t tell me. Nothing. I want him to understand that no matter what anyone else says there is nothing he could do or say that would make me stop loving him. I think as parents we feel this so profoundly we think it can go unsaid but it can’t.

At the end of the day, I know that if the unthinkable did happen, it wouldn’t be the police or a registry or even the offender I would blame—it would be myself. So, it’s up to me to do everything in my power to protect my son, including—and perhaps most importantly—giving him the tools and skills to protect himself.

P.S. Safety and risk and leaving children unattended.