Is a Registry for Juvenile Sex Offenders a Form of ‘Child Abuse’?

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Thomas Arrowwood, 38, has been on Oregon’s sex offenders’ registry for a crime adjudicated when he was 12. He’s likely to be on it for the rest of his life because he committed the offense before a 2014 state law giving judges more discretion for juveniles who commit sex crimes. Photo by Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard.

Thomas Arrowwood has been on Oregon’s registered sex offender list for over two decades, for an offense committed when he was 12 years old.

Now 38, Arrowwood can’t take advantage of a 2014 law that allowed judges discretion to determine whether child sex offenders should remain on the sex offenders’ registry under the supervision of Oregon State Police, or be allowed to start over.

That’s because his offense—sodomy—was adjudicated before the law took effect, with the result that he appears destined to live with the “sex offender” label for the rest of his life.

“It’s worse than being a convicted felon,” said Arrowwood. “Any job I applied to when I got out, they said, ‘Oh, I see you’ve got a record, but I can’t see what happened because it’s a juvenile case, so it’s sealed; but you are a registered sex offender so ….’

“And that was that.”

He’s not alone. Hundreds of Oregon adults who committed their offenses as children before the law was enacted are caught in the same legal limbo, with little chance of escaping.

Some juvenile justice advocates say the practice of keeping child sex offenders on the sex offender registry illustrates serious shortcomings in the nationwide approach to individuals who committed such crimes as children, and amounts to a form of “child abuse.”

According to Nicole Pittman, vice president and director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform, children adjudicated for sex crimes and required to register as sex offenders are four times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex—even though national statistics suggest they only have a 2 percent rate of re-offending.

“Placing children on the registry has to stop because it’s child abuse,” Pittman said.

Oregon has 25,000 registered sex offenders, the highest number of sex offenders per capita in the nation. About 3,400 are registered for crimes committed as juveniles, about 11 percent of the total.

Before the law was changed, sex offenders had a small window of time in which they were eligible to apply for relief, a costly effort that can include hiring a lawyer, filing paperwork in court and attending hearings.

Juvenile sex offenders could apply no less than two years before and no more than five years after their adjudication, or they’d remain on the list forever.

“It was worded pretty poorly and strangely back then,” said Tim O’Donnell, Deputy District Attorney for Oregon’s Marion County. O’Donnell, who works in the county’s juvenile division, cautioned he spoke only for himself and not on behalf of the district attorney’s office.

Arrowwood said he missed that window because he didn’t know about it until it was too late.

“I’ve been registering for 18 years,” he said. “Now, I guess, they say I can never get off the list. I’ll be on it forever. I missed my opportunity, and I won’t ever be removed.”

But not everyone feels that he, or others, should be removed from the registry.

“I think oftentimes in our culture we spend a lot of time ruminating and thinking what happens to an offender and the impact that it has on them,” said BB Beltran, executive director for Sexual Assault Support Services of Oregon’s Lane County, where an estimated 187 offenders who committed crimes as children remain on the sex offenders’ registry.

“What we don’t think about is the impact it has on not just the individual survivors, but their partners and their families. … It’s a domino effect.”

Beltran added that while there is a lot of empathy or pity for a person who made a mistake as a juvenile, “I would like to see the same consideration for both sides.”

A 22-year-old Eugene man named Robert, who The Register-Guard is only identifying by his middle name because he is eligible for relief from registering in the coming months, said he hopes he will be granted a reprieve so he can garner a fresh start.

He was adjudicated for a first-degree sodomy charge at the age of 10.

“I will be the first person to say I don’t feel like anybody who would (sexually abuse) a kid, like they should know what is right and wrong, they deserve to be on that list,” he said.

“As a kid, though, we’re supposed to be in a new millennium, and I feel like there should be some other option out there than just throwing everyone under the bus and under the same label.”

“I am pretty sure that if (my case) was taken care of before I turned 18, or if it never would have happened, I would be in a house with my family, instead of living with my wife and child in a room at my mother-in-law’s house, sharing a room with my wife’s sister. I’ve lived with this label since I was 10 years old,” Robert said.

“I’d be in my own house. My boy would have his own bedroom, and I would be, well, different.”

Federal Requirements

Sex offenders have been federally required to register with local law enforcement agencies since 1994, when the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was enacted.

The Act was named for an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped in 1989, molested and murdered.

Under the law, each state had discretion on what registration information was made public, but dissemination of that information was not required. Two years later, however, Congress amended the act in 1996 with the so-called Megan’s Law — which required law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders that the agencies deemed necessary in the interest of public safety.

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — named for the 6-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981 — further increased federal registration requirements by categorizing sex offenders into three tiers, with Tier 3 being the most severe and with the most requirements.

Tier 3 offenders are required to update their whereabouts every three months for life. Furthermore, failing to register or update information became a felony under the law.

However, Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of Campaign for Youth Justice, thinks the 2006 law does not do enough to protect children who have offended.

She sees legislation that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed with certain tweaks to the Walsh Act as flawed, in that it doesn’t exclude child offenders from proposed increased sanctions.

While some of the proposed changes benefit juvenile offenders — including a reduction in the number of years juveniles would be required to register and exempting certain adults registered as sex offenders for crimes committed as juveniles from from disclosure — the bill has been packaged with other bills that unnecessarily increase sanctions around sex offenses in general and don’t exclude juveniles, Mistrett said.

“Our concern is that teens who are sexting could get caught up in (the new proposed laws). We are working to pull Adam Walsh from the rest of the package,” Mistrett said.

 Consequences of a Lifetime Label

There are real consequences for living with the label for the offender and the public.

A 22-year-old Eugene, Ore., man who asked to be identified by his middle name of James in order to keep his employment, which is a condition of his probation, was adjudicated for inappropriately touching and exposing himself to a family member at the age of 14.

“There is an outside impact of treating everyone with the ‘sex offender’ label the same,” said James, who can apply for relief in a year.

“They’re treating everyone as predatory, when I didn’t go out and attack someone. I was curious, and I broke rules that I didn’t know existed. I am deeply regretful of what I did to this day, but I can’t change that.”

Nationwide, more than 200,000 of the roughly 900,000 people currently listed on sex offender registries were added to those lists as children, some as young as 8 years old.

Dr. Elizabeth LeTourneau, a researcher and expert on child sexual abuse, testified to the Oregon Legislature in 2013 that the registration of juveniles “fails, in any way, to improve community safety.”

Among the evidence she cited were rates of re-offense for juvenile sex offenses, as measured by arrests, charges or convictions.

Those rates are very low across the country, whether or not youth are required to register, LeTourneau said, adding that “the vast majority — 88 percent to 98 percent, depending upon the study — of registered youth do not reoffend.”

But it does happen, which is why some authorities say even the relatively small number of individuals who re-offend is an argument for continued monitoring.

“I don’t think sex offenders can be fixed, period,” said Springfield, Ore., police sgt. Dave Lewis. “It’s strictly my opinion, but having worked my entire career around this, I don’t think sex offenders can be rehabbed.

“One of the only things we can do besides incarceration is to monitor them in some way. And any time someone repeats a sex offense, from a community safety standpoint, we’ve let the people down. I come at it from the side of the victims.

“They are stigmatized forever by what has happened to them. Why shouldn’t the perpetrator be stigmatized in some way?”

Chelsea Deffenbacher, a staff reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., is a 2018 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of an article prepared as part of her fellowship project. The complete story, along with sidebars and videos, can be accessed here.

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