One morning in 2007, Leah DuBuc, a twenty-two-year-old college student in Kalamazoo, began writing an essay for English class that she hoped would save her life. She knew that people like her had been beaten, bombed, shot at, killed. The essay aired details about her past that she’d long tried to suppress; by posting it on her class’s server, where anyone who Googled her name could find it, she thought she might be able to quiet the whispers, the threats, and possibly make it easier to find a job. Her story, she warned, “is not a nice one, but hopefully it will have a happy ending.”
DuBuc had grown up in Howell, Michigan, a small town of berry and melon farmers. In high school, she had thrived. She had earned straight A’s, written for the school newspaper, led Students Against Driving Drunk (she voted to change the name to Students Against Destructive Decisions, she says, to stress that “there are lots of bad decisions that can get you killed”), and performed in “Grease” and “Once Upon a Mattress,” while working part time as a cashier at Mary’s Fabulous Chicken & Fish. “High school was bliss for me,” DuBuc said recently. “I tried not to dwell on the stuff that wasn’t good.” But, as she was about to start her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she got a call from a close childhood friend, Victoria, who asked, “Did you know you’re on the public sex-offender registry?”
Her friend, who had just given birth to a baby girl, had logged on to the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry Web site to search for local predators. She had entered her Zip Code, and there was Leah’s face—her copper bangs, her wide cheeks, her brown eyes staring blankly from the photograph. Her name, weight, and height were listed; so was the address where she’d grown up, playing beneath tall pines and selling five-cent rocks that she’d painted with nail polish. Something DuBuc had done at the age of ten had caught up with her. Victoria knew the story, which DuBuc described as “play-acting sex,” in elementary school, with her younger step-siblings. Online browsers would see only the words on the page: “CRIMINAL SEXUAL CONDUCT.”
A senior in college now, DuBuc was tired of hiding. She wanted everyone to know what it was like to join the many thousands of people across the country who are on the registry—often decades into adulthood—for crimes they committed as children. “After reading my very condensed life story,” she wrote, “I am convinced you will agree that I am a strong, determined young woman, who has risen above the obstacles which have been set in my path.” On an April morning, she published the essay, titled “So, Who is Leah DuBuc Anyway?,” and prayed for relief.
When I visited DuBuc in Howell last summer, I had already spoken to a number of people who had been accused of sex offenses as juveniles and ended up on a public registry. Some, like DuBuc, had been placed on the registry for things they’d done before they reached their teens.
In Charla Roberts’s living room, not far from Paris, Texas, I learned how, at the age of ten, Roberts had pulled down the pants of a male classmate at her public elementary school. She was prosecuted for “indecency with a child,” and added to the state’s online offender database for the next ten years. The terms of her probation barred her from leaving her mother’s house after six in the evening, leaving the county, or living in proximity to “minor children,” which ruled out most apartments. When I spoke to the victim, he was shocked to learn of Roberts’s fate. He described the playground offense as an act of “public humiliation, instead of a sexual act”—a hurtful prank, but hardly a sex crime. Roberts can still be found on a commercial database online, her photo featured below a banner that reads, “PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEX OFFENDERS.”
New technologies in the hands of teens are another route to the registry. In Prince William County, Virginia, two years ago, a seventeen-year-old high-school junior sent a sexual video to his teen-age girlfriend, and found himself charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. The county prosecutor obtained a search warrant to photograph “the erect penis of the defendant.” (Pursuit of the photo was abandoned only after there was a public outcry.) In Fayetteville, North Carolina, a sixteen-year-old girl faced multiple felony charges for “sexting” a picture of herself to her boyfriend. According to the county sheriff’s warrant, she was both the adult perpetrator of the crime at hand—“sexual exploitation of a minor”—and its child victim. Her boyfriend faced similar charges.
Most juveniles on the sex-offender registry pose a more daunting public-policy challenge: they have caused sexual harm to other children, through non-consensual touch and other abusive behaviors. Childhood sexual abuse is troublingly widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, and in a third of such cases, the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth says, the offenses were committed by other juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” a study sponsored by the Department of Justice notes.
Often, these incidents go unreported. But the devastation that may result from childhood sexual assault can last a lifetime, fuelling depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and other signs of post-traumatic stress. Compounding the original trauma is the fact that victims’ voices are often silenced, sometimes by those in positions of trust or power.
Kids who sexually harm other kids seldom target strangers. A very small number have committed violent rapes. More typical is the crime for which Josh Gravens, of Abilene, Texas, was sent away, more than a decade ago, at the age of thirteen. Gravens was twelve when his mother learned that he had inappropriately touched his eight-year-old sister on two occasions; she sought help from a Christian counselling center, and a staffer there was legally obliged to inform the police. Gravens was arrested, placed on the public registry, and sent to juvenile detention for nearly four years. Now, at twenty-nine, he’s become a leading figure in the movement to strike juveniles from the registry and to challenge broader restrictions that he believes are ineffectual. He has counselled more than a hundred youths who are on public registries, some as young as nine. He says that their experiences routinely mirror his own: “Homelessness; getting fired from jobs; taking jobs below minimum wage, with predatory employers; not being able to provide for your kids; losing your kids; relationship problems; deep inner problems connecting with people; deep depression and hopelessness; this fear of your own name; the terror of being Googled.” [cartoon id="a19772"]
Often, juvenile defendants aren’t seen as juveniles before the law. At the age of thirteen, Moroni Nuttall was charged as an adult, in Montana, for sexual misconduct with relatives; after pleading guilty, he was sentenced to forty years in prison, thirty-six of which were suspended, and placed on a lifetime sex-offender registry. In detention, the teen-ager was sexually assaulted and physically abused. Upon his release, his mother, Heidi, went online in search of guidance. “I’m trying to be hopeful,” she wrote on an online bulletin board, but “I wonder if he even stands a chance.”
Last fall, she contacted a national group called Women Against Registry, joining the ranks of mothers who are calling into question what a previous group of parents, those of victimized children, fought hard to achieve. Recently, common ground between the two groups has emerged. Many politicians still won’t go near the issue, but a growing number of parents—along with legal advocates, scholars, and even law-enforcement officials—are beginning to ask whether the registry is truly serving the children whom it was designed to protect.
If the sex-offender registry is a modern development, the impulse behind it—to prevent crimes by keeping tabs on “bad actors”—is not. In 1937, after the sexualized murders of several young girls in New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called for the police to keep a secret list of “all known degenerates.” A decade later, California built the first database of sex offenders, for private use by the police. But the practice of regulation took off only in the nineteen-nineties, when a tragedy changed the public’s sense of the stakes involved.
One evening in 1989, in the quiet town of St. Joseph, Minnesota, Patty and Jerry Wetterling set out for dinner at a friend’s house, leaving their eleven-year-old son, Jacob, at home with two of his siblings and a friend. Just after sundown, three of them left on their bikes and scooters to rent movies. Returning home, the kids came upon a masked gunman, who grabbed Jacob and chased off the others with death threats. Frantic searches followed, to no avail. Investigators didn’t know the abductor’s motivation, but feared that it was sexual. Afterward, Patty Wetterling kept returning to the question of what might have helped the police find her son’s abductor during those critical early hours. Officials told her that what they needed was a unified database of local residents who had sex-crime convictions. Wetterling went on to fight for such a registry—first in Minnesota, and then nationally. In 1994, she helped win the first federal mandate that all states create a database of people convicted of violent sex crimes or crimes against children. It was known as the Jacob Wetterling Act. “Initially, this was supposed to be a private law-enforcement tool,” Patty Wetterling told me. “I was one of those people who thought, Once a sex offender, always a sex offender, and my view was: Lock ’em up and send ’em away, forever and ever.”
The act marked the first in a series of sex-registry laws, mostly named after nightmarish “stranger danger” cases. Megan’s Law, passed in 1996, required that states make their registries accessible to the public. Jessica’s Law, and its variants, established long mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders convicted of sex crimes against children, and stipulated that certain offenders be subject to lifetime electronic monitoring after their release. Particularly consequential was the crusade of John Walsh, the host of “America’s Most Wanted” and the father of a six-year-old boy who, in 1981, was abducted inside a shopping mall and beheaded. Walsh lobbied for the most sweeping set of changes to date: the Adam Walsh Act. It broadened the scope of the sex-offender registry, mandating the full disclosure of a former offender’s address, along with a photograph, and more; promulgated a form of indefinite detention, known as “civil commitment”; and, in a late addition to the bill, required that children as young as fourteen who had committed certain sex offenses be placed on the public registry. Jurisdictions that refused to comply would lose federal funds.
In 2005, Patty Wetterling travelled to Washington, D.C., with other grieving parents, to support an early version of the bill. “We will not tolerate sexual violence against our children,” she said at a press conference. An amendment adding certain juvenile offenders to the federal bill had been spurred by the devastating testimony of a teen-ager named Amie Zyla; at the age of eight, Zyla had been sexually abused by another youth, who had gone on to reoffend years later. “We cannot sit back and allow kids to continue to be hurt,” Zyla told Congress. “The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators.” On July 27, 2006, George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Act into law.
Leah DuBuc was a gregarious child. Plump and pleasant-looking, with ginger hair and freckles, she took the crown at the Little Miss Summer pageant, in lakeside Pentwater, Michigan, belting out “You Are My Sunshine”; she brought the same gusto to gardening and tap-dance recitals. Leah’s troubles began when she was eight and her parents got divorced. Her father remarried and won custody of her and her little sister; her mom, mired in personal issues, was granted supervised visits with the girls at the local Dairy Queen. DuBuc was now sharing her old home with her stepmother and her four children—three boys and a girl.
“I’d never had brothers before, and I was curious,” DuBuc told me. One afternoon, after watching movies with her new step-siblings, ten-year-old Leah mimicked having sex with them—“like we’d seen in the movies,” she says—and then, by her account, exposed herself to the younger kids. It happened several more times, she said.
Later that year, DuBuc recounts, a law-enforcement officer visited her elementary-school class and told the students to inform a trusted adult if they had been subject to abuse. DuBuc remembers complaining to him about mistreatment at home; when authorities arrived to investigate, she says, they learned of her sexual misbehavior. According to another family member, however, one of DuBuc’s step-siblings talked about her actions to a therapist, who then alerted the authorities. (As is often true in such cases, the details may be impossible to establish definitively.)
Amid extensive therapeutic interventions, DuBuc was charged with eight counts of criminal sexual conduct, in the first and second degree. The prosecutor, Marilyn Bradford, insists, “There were a lot of scary things that happened to the victims in the case—ongoing things that happened to the little siblings.” But DuBuc’s court-appointed clinical social worker, Wendy Kunce, noted that at the time “there was a history of ‘charging large.’ ”
At the age of twelve, DuBuc arrived in juvenile court for a series of hearings. Her father, a mechanic, drove her to the courthouse, but he didn’t fully grasp the implication of the charges. (DuBuc’s interviews with authorities often occurred without the presence of a parent or a guardian.) Moments before stepping in front of a judge, DuBuc met with her court-appointed attorney, alone. She remembers giggling when she had to say the words “penis” and “vagina,” and when her fingerprints were taken, she told me, “I felt like I was in a movie.”
DuBuc recalls the court-appointed attorney explaining that if she pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal sexual conduct—a graver crime than the one that she says she committed, because it involved penetration—she’d be taken from her home. Given that she wanted to escape the difficult conditions there, she agreed. DuBuc’s investigating officer, Deputy Sheriff Mike Capra, told me, “I think she was hoping to make it easier on everybody by avoiding a long, drawn-out process and saying, ‘O.K., I goofed up, I’m a kid, I’ll learn from it and move on.”
In April, 1997, the judge ordered that DuBuc be sent to a residential juvenile-sex-offender treatment facility in Manteno, Illinois, called Indian Oaks Academy, where she stayed for nearly two years. An adult could have gone to prison for life, the judge warned, and, as she recalls it, proclaimed her a “lucky girl.” [cartoon id="a19043"]
She was the youngest child in her program at Indian Oaks, a facility surrounded by cornfields and a golf course. Many of the girls there were sixteen or seventeen, with histories of trauma that surfaced as rage. The older girls—Leah roomed with three others—verbally and physically abused one another, and occasionally her. A staffer sometimes sat on top of girls to restrain them, DuBuc recalls. “There was this padded room, and I’d take a book in there and read,” she told me. “I felt safe there.”
Five days a week, she went to sex-offender treatment with the girls from her unit. The program borrowed heavily from addiction theory. “Your identity is you’re a sex offender,” DuBuc recalls the girls being told. They’d never be cured, but they could learn to refrain from harming people in the future. To graduate, DuBuc would have to admit to acts that she says she never committed (such as the contested claims of penetration) but to which she’d pleaded guilty, under conditions that she has come to view as coercion. The daily treatment was exhausting, though she did have one therapist who seemed to believe in her. She was grateful, too, for a pastor who arrived one day, teaching the Gospel, and gave her a Bible. “From that point forward,” she recalls, “I had hope.”
For some youths convicted of sex offenses, treatment is a chance to escape a turbulent home life, or to reroute a warped trajectory. “But this idea that a ten-year-old kid who does something sexually inappropriate needs residential treatment is completely insane,” Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me. In the early two-thousands, when Letourneau first began to research juveniles who sexually offend, she discovered that there was little rigorous scholarship about effective treatment. “These offenses do cause harm, and we can never lose sight of that,” she said. “But I believe we can do a much, much better job of targeting the kids who commit these behaviors, and preventing them.” Writing in the journal Ethics & Behavior, in 2008, she and another psychology professor, Charles Borduin, lamented “the research community’s failure—our failure—to subject the most widely used models of treatment to empirical investigation.”
Letourneau and her colleagues set about to address this. Their findings have been significant. Despite what Amie Zyla told Congress in 2005, researchers had already observed that most youths who are charged with a sex offense—upward of ninety-five per cent, Letourneau told me—don’t reoffend sexually. The motives behind their crimes, too, are different from those of most adults who sexually offend. In many cases of early adolescents who sexually touch younger kids in their families, the best treatment may not be “sex offender” treatment at all; some children have never been taught that such touching is unacceptable, and providing training in sexual boundaries will suffice. For kids with more serious sexual-behavior problems, a family-based model known as “multi-systemic therapy” has proved its worth, combining individualized treatment of a child with programming that involves the child’s parents or caretakers. “We now have an effective treatment,” Letourneau said, referring to this more holistic approach, “but it’s just not available to ninety-nine per cent of kids.”
What is available, too often, is a form of commercial treatment that can be abusive in its own right. In my interviews with registrants and their families, one question came up repeatedly: “Have you looked into the therapy industry?” Many treatment programs have dedicated, well-trained staff members who engage with families and seem to help children thrive. But some providers lack the resources that would allow them to separate offenders of various risk levels. And, in some parts of the country, I found a cottage industry of court-authorized but poorly regulated therapy providers subjecting kids and teens to widely debunked interventions or controversial invasive technologies. Juveniles undergoing treatment for sex offenses have been exposed to severe verbal abuse, beatings, and even sexual predation at residential facilities. Not a few people have been placed in dubious but costly treatment programs for actions that many believe should never have been criminalized in the first place. These experiences are hardly exclusive to juveniles; they extend to many youths over eighteen, whose journeys through the justice system can be equally alarming. The most surprising instances are known as the “Romeo and Juliet” cases, involving consensual sex between teens.
In July of 2003, not long after his senior year of high school, Anthony Metts got a summer job at the lakeside camp where he’d once been a camper. Metts, who grew up in Midland, Texas, was adopted; at school, where he was one of its few Mexican-Americans, he’d been taunted for being a “wetback.” But things were different at the camp, and as a counsellor he was in heaven. He ran archery sessions and visits to the Blob, the camp’s famous floating trampoline. Then, one afternoon, a Texas Ranger and a Midland cop arrived at the camp and asked to speak with him. After driving him to a local police station, the officers told him that they were investigating the illegal sale of items from a Midland Police Department evidence room, and an informant had tossed out his name as a potential source of information.
Officers noted that Metts had been keenly coöperative. But he knew nothing about the theft, which, it later emerged, had been perpetrated by a rogue employee of the police department. Eager to get a confession, and seemingly convinced of his association with the crime, the officers pressed him on another tip they’d heard: Hadn’t Metts been hanging out with younger girls the previous year? Was it possible that he’d had sex with them?
Metts told them that when he was eighteen he dated a girl who was three years younger. And he’d also had a brief sexual relationship with a girl more than three years younger, whom he met during his junior year of high school, when she was a freshman. Metts helped the officers proofread his statement, oblivious of its significance. When the officers turned the information over to the Midland District Attorney’s Office, the D.A. filed two felony indictments for sexual assault of a child, based on the age-of-consent laws in Texas at the time. (A third charge of sexual assault of a child was raised, then dropped.)
Consent was irrelevant—in fact, impossible—before the law. Not too far away, in the town of Caldwell, a young man had been convicted, at nineteen, for a consensual relationship with a girl who was four years younger, and who later became his wife. Metts’s case was messier; it involved more than one relationship, and he’d left a trail of adolescent misbehavior—speeding tickets, pot, and pranks. His lawyer told him that he would face life in prison if the case went to trial. He decided to take a plea deal: a suspended sentence and ten years of probation.
Metts, who was twenty-one by then, read the terms of his post-plea life. For the next decade, he’d be barred from alcohol and the Internet; from entering the vicinity of schools, parks, bus stops, malls, and movie theatres; and from living within a thousand feet of a “child-safety zone.” A mugshot of his curly-haired, round-cheeked face would appear for life on the Texas sex-offender registry, beside the phrase “Sexual Assault of a Child.” And he would have to start sex-offender treatment.
The treatment plan was extensive. He was told to write up a detailed sexual history, and then to discuss it with a room full of adults, some of whom had repeatedly committed child assaults. On his first day of class, he recalls, he entered a group circle beside a dentist who had violated several patients while they were under anesthesia. To graduate, he would have to narrate his “assaults” in detail: “How many buttons on her shirt did you unbutton?” [cartoon id="a19717"]
The plan also included a monthly polygraph (a hundred and fifty dollars) and a computerized test that measured how long his eyes lingered on deviant imagery (three hundred and twenty-five dollars). He would also have to submit to a “penile plethysmograph,” or PPG. According to documents produced by the state of Texas, the PPG—known jokingly to some patients as a “peter meter”—is “a sophisticated computerized instrument capable of measuring slight changes in the circumference of the penis.” A gauge is wrapped around the shaft of the penis, with wires hooked up to a laptop, while a client is presented with “sexually inappropriate” imagery and, often, “deviant” sexual audio. Metts would be billed around two hundred dollars per test.
In parts of the country, including New York, judges have banned the PPG; one federal ruling noted “the obviously substantial humiliation of having the size and rigidity of one’s penis measured and monitored by the government.” (The PPG was invented in the nineteen-fifties by a sexologist from Czechoslovakia, and used by the Czech military to expose soldiers suspected of pretending to be gay in order to avoid service.) But Texas’s Council on Sex Offender Treatment says that the test is capable of “breaking through the offender’s denial,” helping to tailor treatments that can “address all of the offender’s sexual interests.”
When Metts balked at what felt to him like technological invasions—not least the prospect of having a stranger measure his penis—he was jailed for ten days. A new round of weekly therapy sessions (thirty dollars for group, and fifty dollars for one-on-one) then commenced.
When I reviewed half a dozen sex-offender-treatment workbooks, I found that most elicit a thorough sexual history. (“Describe and discuss, in detail, a repeated masturbatory fantasy.”) Then come the exercises. One workbook instructs patients to masturbate to an illicit scene, then sniff an “ammonia inhalant” until their “state of sexual arousal is completely removed.” Another manual introduces children and teens to the practice of “aversive scenes.” Youths must masturbate to a deviant thought, then, at peak arousal, switch to an image of “something that you find disgusting . . . e.g. Brussels sprouts.” A third requires patients to imagine a “punishment scene,” conjuring up unbearable shame as a prophylactic, much as gay youths were once taught, in conversion therapy, to use the fear of familial judgment as a corrective.
Several scholars told me that the notion of shaming youths into compliance is itself a fantasy. In the journal Child Maltreatment, the pediatric psychologist Mark Chaffin describes polygraphs, masturbation logs, and other such methods as “coercive techniques of doubtful accuracy, untested benefit, and considerable potential for harm.” But therapeutic failures can be lucrative for providers: the longer someone stays in treatment, the longer the person provides a steady income.
“There’s an awful lot of money involved in prosecuting, locking up, treating, and registering these folks,” Phil Taylor, a former therapist for men convicted of sex offenses in Texas, told me. Under contract with the state, he spent some ten years treating hundreds of adults convicted of violent sex crimes, along with young adults who had had consensual relationships with other teens. A decade ago, in 2006, Taylor’s faith in the treatment protocols was shaken by new research. He renounced the field and began working for legislative reform of the registry. “It’s hard for people to change their minds when their livelihood depends upon this money stream,” he told me.
In Midland, Anthony Metts continued to struggle with treatment. He acknowledged that his behavior as a teen had been reckless. He told me, “Do I think I needed some sort of therapy? Yes. But do I think I needed sex-offender therapy? Hell, no.” Still, the rules left few options. Eventually, he agreed to acknowledge how he’d “groomed” his “victims”: in one case, they’d gone to dinner, a movie, and—for a Halloween date—to a local haunted house.
His life, meanwhile, increasingly felt like a series of derailments. He had been fired from a job he loved at a local radio station when an advertiser learned of his status on the registry and protested. The best gig he could find was in Midland’s oil fields, working dispatch. His mother began to worry about whether he’d make it through a decade of probation. She recalled the judge’s warning, on the day that Metts took the plea: “It’s a good deal if you make it, or else it’s a pretty lousy deal if you don’t.”
At Indian Oaks, Leah DuBuc told me, “I did what I had to do to save my own skin.” She was released on a summer morning, and her father, who had divorced her stepmother, drove her to a campsite, where three of her childhood friends celebrated her return from “boarding school.” DuBuc flourished in high school. Her occasional check-ins with her probation officer weren’t onerous. Victoria was one of the few classmates who knew about her secret.
But, not long after DuBuc’s time at Indian Oaks, the Michigan legislature passed a new sex-offender law creating an online registry that was available to anyone with an Internet connection. DuBuc was required to register privately with the local authorities; when she was eighteen, her name and personal information would be made public online. The law set a mandatory minimum of twenty-five years on the registry—based on a template that was spreading across the country.
At first, the requirements were easily met. Each year, DuBuc’s dad would send in her latest weight, height, and address. In school, meanwhile, DuBuc earned a reputation as Little Miss Civics; she ran the Diversity Club and, after graduation, went to Guatemala with church friends to build an orphanage. But when she got Victoria’s call she learned that strangers could now map an easy route to her childhood home, using the state’s online sex-offender database. “This is where my life became a living hell all over again,” she later wrote.
Throughout her first semester in college, she was dogged by fears of being outed. During winter break, her boyfriend invited her home to Brighton, Michigan. DuBuc agreed, but sheepishly explained that their first stop in town would have to be the police station. Her understanding was that she had to check in with local cops within forty-eight hours of arriving in a new town or face a felony charge.
Her boyfriend parked in the lot of the Brighton Police Post. “I’m here to fill out the paperwork,” DuBuc told the trooper at the front desk. “I’m a registered sex offender.”
“We don’t serve your kind here,” he replied. “You better leave before I take you out back and shoot you myself.”
Back at the car, DuBuc wept. Her boyfriend filed a formal complaint, and eventually a letter arrived from the station’s lieutenant, apologizing for the trooper’s “unacceptable” behavior.
DuBuc felt increasingly unsettled. “I didn’t really have people I could talk to who understood my situation,” she recalls. “I couldn’t talk to my mom—she was going through her own issues—and my dad would feel too guilty. I fell into a deep depression.” She made an effort to stay engaged in the world she still hoped to build, marching with the local living-wage campaign, travelling with her church group to Japan for the summer. At college, where she pursued a double major in comparative religion and social work, she racked up accolades: a Presidential Scholar award, a steady spot on the dean’s list. But, outside of her academics, things seemed only to get worse. As shows like “To Catch a Predator” débuted and awareness grew, registrant-shaming became a popular pastime. Soon, the state legislature voted to require registrants to report their place of work, volunteer activity, and education; new “Predator-Free Zones” were also introduced, prohibiting convicted sex offenders from going within a thousand feet of a school. Many such laws were applied retroactively, lumping juvenile offenses with those of adults. [cartoon id="a19826"]
One morning during her junior year, DuBuc returned to her room from psychology class to find a yellow Post-it on her door: “We know you’re a sex offender. GET OUT OF OUR DORM. You’re not wanted here.” She tore it up, and told no one. A few days later, as she sat in her room working on a paper for class, she heard a ping from her AOL Instant Messenger account. The sender was anonymous. “We know you’re a sex offender,” DuBuc read. “Get out.”
She no longer felt safe in the dorm. But in order to rent her own apartment she’d need a decent income. She applied for jobs that interested her—working with the homeless, helping out an urban ministry—without success. Then McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway turned her down because of her offender status. For a while, she dropped out of school, returning to Howell and working as a home-health-care aide. But she knew that her best chance of becoming independent was to complete her education. She moved into a homeless shelter in Kalamazoo and returned to class. Eventually, a church friend with whom she’d gone on a mission trip to Japan took her in, letting her sleep on the sofa.
Unable to escape the public registry, DuBuc decided to study it, and then take it on. She bought a thick green binder and began to compile research: notes on the historical development of the juvenile-justice system, and studies of the registry’s impact on public safety. Finally, she began to write her story. “I’m a loving sister. . . . I’m an intern for the Kalamazoo City Commission,” she wrote in “So, Who Is Leah DuBuc Anyway?,” uploading the essay, along with friendly photographs (Leah with a campus Christian group, Leah arm in arm with her siblings). “I’m an advocate for the homeless, and disenfranchised. . . . Do I sound like a violent, predatory sex offender to you?”
But vigilantism, too, has found opportunity in transparency. Most state registries publish an explicit warning against using the database for so-called citizen justice. To judge from my conversations with more than forty youth registrants and their families, however, these warnings have done little to prevent threats and violent attacks. Mike Grottalio, in Weatherford, Texas, told me how his daughter, who was sexually abused by her brothers when they were ten and twelve (and she was seven), had suffered further because of her siblings’ registration. After the boys returned from two years of detention, the family dog was shot to death by a neighbor. Then the local paper ran their names and address under the headlines “County Sex-Offender Roundup” and, later, for Halloween, “Know Where the Monsters Are.” More recently, a Molotov cocktail spilled flames across the family’s driveway, and BB-gun pellets were fired at their home’s vinyl siding after a neighbor passed out warning flyers. “It’s made outcasts of our whole family,” Grottalio said of the registry. “The damage has been done. There’s no repairing it.”
In a small, religious neighborhood of Pinesdale, Montana, Heidi Nuttall described how locals held a meeting about her son—a registrant since the age of fourteen—that amounted to something “just short of a lynch mob.” Soon afterward, someone fired a BB gun at the door of the home where her son slept. A third mother, from Missouri, showed me photographs sent to her by local registrants who had apparently been singled out for retribution. She’d blown the pictures up to poster size, showing them to anyone who would look. One featured a registrant’s face that resembled a smashed tomato: two men had broken into his home and bashed him with a tire iron.
In recent years, mothers like these have come together in groups like Women Against Registry, and they’ve begun showing up at the same events as Stacie Rumenap’s Stop Child Predators, sharing their own stories. Rumenap, for one, has little sympathy for those in the group advocating for husbands or adult sons who have been convicted of harming children; she isn’t convinced that most convicted adults should get a second chance. But the stories of juveniles on the registry have increasingly swayed her. “Never in our wildest dreams were we going state by state asking lawmakers to punish juveniles,” she told me, of her early years of lobbying for registry laws. “You can’t handle these types of kids—and they’re kids—in the same way you handle an adult and expect them to be rehabilitated.”
Back in 2006, she helped bring a Florida father, Mark Lunsford, to Capitol Hill, to tell the story of how his daughter, Jessica, had been kidnapped, raped, killed, and buried by a man with a long history of abusing children. Together, they lobbied for the passage of Jessica’s Law, in Florida and beyond. But, soon afterward, Rumenap learned that Lunsford’s eighteen-year-old son had been arrested in Ohio, for heavy petting with a fourteen-year-old. Now the teen faced inclusion on the very registry that his father had fought to bolster in his murdered sister’s name. “When these laws started getting implemented and enforced, we didn’t realize what would happen,” Rumenap told me. “Now here we are, stuck asking, How do we solve this problem?”
Leah DuBuc’s study of the registry evolved into an encyclopedia on juvenile registration. Under the tab “Definitions, History, and Origins,” she charted the creation of the Adam Walsh Act and how use of the registry varied from state to state. In South Carolina, she noted, a nine-year-old could be placed on the registry for life. Other states, including New York and Georgia, defied the act’s requirements and declined to place children in their online databases, at the risk of losing funds.
DuBuc had come from a tight-lipped family—even today, some of her relatives have no idea why she was suddenly whisked away from home in sixth grade. But she began writing letters to every local power broker she could think of, asking for a second chance and pleading for the same consideration to be extended to others who faced charges as juveniles. She took her story to the state legislature and urged legal reform, calling for juveniles to be removed from public registries. “I am not alone,” she testified. At the very least, she told the state Senate, youthful offenders deserved a chance to have their cases reviewed for risk and fairness.
Then she waited. In Lansing, a reform bill stalled, then failed. A letter came from a judge, apologizing that her record couldn’t be expunged under current law. In 2008, when DuBuc graduated with a master’s degree in social work, she had earned academic honors but her efforts to either clear or seal her juvenile record had gone nowhere, and she could find few decent prospects for employment.
So DuBuc left her green binder at her father’s house, gave away much of what she owned, and stuffed her favorite sweaters, a Bible, and her CD collection into two duffel bags. America no longer had a place for her, she decided. And, although she didn’t want to separate herself from her friends and her family, she felt that she had no choice but to leave the country.
In rural Minnesota, Patty Wetterling had, by the late two-thousands, devoted more than two decades of her life to keeping young people safe. First, she and her husband established a child-advocacy group, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Then came a brief foray into politics—she ran for Congress in 2006, as a Democrat against Michele Bachmann, touting her years of fighting for “tough penalties for those who harm children”—and a long period of service as the chair of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
With each passing year, Wetterling learned more about the costs and the causes of sexual harm. She studied the prevalence of the problem (vast), its perpetrators (trusted familiars far more often than strangers), and its most effective remedies (programs centered on open lines of communication in households, schools, and communities). Her first major clue that juvenile registration might demand closer scrutiny came in the nineteen-nineties. She had been touring the country, speaking out against the sexual exploitation of children, when she got an invitation to visit a juvenile-sex-offender treatment facility in Alabama. There she met a child who had just spent his tenth birthday at the institution. “He was nine when he first went into treatment,” she told me. “I was overwhelmed by that. I kept thinking about this kid, who goes away, gets sex-offender treatment, then goes back to his junior high school, and is on the public registry—this young person who really wants to return to school, to learn, to make friends, but can’t have a second chance. That’s a life sentence for this kid.” Still, she focussed on child sex-crime victims, and it was easy to understand the common thirst for retribution among fellow-parents: “You can see the fear and anger, as a parent. I get that.”
In 2007, Wetterling took a job with the Sexual Violence Prevention Program, at the Minnesota Department of Health. She received a call from a Minneapolis mother who wanted to tell the story of her son, and soon followed up with a letter from him. “My name is Ricky,” it began, “and I’m a 19-year-old Registered Sex Offender.” The letter described how, at sixteen, Ricky had met a girl at a teen club who said she was nearly sixteen. They’d had consensual sex on two occasions, according to the note. Later, Ricky wrote, it came out that the girl was thirteen, and he was prosecuted for “Sexual Abuse, 3rd degree,” and placed on the public sex-offender registry; it left him and his family “shattered.”
By then, Wetterling had watched the registry evolve into something very different from what she’d fought to create. The database was no longer for the private use of law enforcement. Nor was it confined to high-risk offenders or adults who targeted kids. (In some states, the registry pooled juveniles and those charged with public urination together with adults who had repeatedly raped children.) It also imposed a costly burden on law enforcement—time and money that might have gone for supervision of the highest-risk offenders and the training of officers in preventive measures.
Wetterling began to talk to Ricky. He was “a young man with so much to contribute to the world,” she told me, but his attempts to lead a better life had time and again been thwarted by registration. Ricky’s letter also raised questions, for Wetterling, about the “Romeo and Juliet” problem—consensual teen-sex prosecutions. These included not just juveniles but also young adults, eighteen and older, who could be tried and sentenced accordingly. In at least twenty-nine states, Human Rights Watch reports, consensual sex between teen-agers can trigger registration. There have been scattered efforts at reform, including in Texas. But for many people found guilty of sex offenses, including Anthony Metts, in Midland, they came too late.
Metts settled into his new life in the oil fields, reluctantly accommodating an array of strictures that he regarded as pointless. Each Halloween, for instance, he reported to the county probation office with dozens of other local sex offenders, and was held from 6 to 10 p.m. and shown movies like “Iron Man 2,” until trick-or-treating was over. “If someone’s that dangerous that they need to be locked up, what about all of the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year?” he asked me.
In 2006, he fell in love with a deputy sheriff’s daughter. One night, he took her out to his favorite Italian place in Odessa, ordered two steaks with risotto, and arranged for the waiter to bring out a dessert menu that read, among the à-la-carte selections, “Will you marry me?” She said yes, and a baby girl soon followed. “My daughter was a blessing and a miracle to me,” Metts told me. But it also introduced him to a troubling new aspect of his life on the registry.
Metts, then twenty-four, learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to see his daughter. His status banned him from living with her, and thus with his wife. Still, Metts sneaked visits, breaking the rules. His mother, Mary Helen, obtained formal certification as a chaperon so that he could see his daughter in her presence, spending Saturday mornings by the duck pond or having brunch at Fuddruckers. Eventually, as his daughter grew, Metts says that his probation officer granted him approval for simple, unchaperoned outings, like crafting trips to Hobby Lobby, with a stop for doughnuts.
One night, a former classmate saw Metts buying a sandwich at Walmart and shouted a slur at him; she’d seen his face on the registry for “Sexual Assault of a Child.” Rattled, he went to Buffalo Wild Wings to down a beer, and got busted. Metts had a record of technical violations, so a judge ordered him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, administered by a private monitoring company that charged several hundred dollars a month. The device would notify the authorities of any infractions—stepping too close to a mall, park, bar, or church, or leaving the county without permission.
The circumference of permissible life kept shrinking. “A flame inside of me just went out,” Metts told me. In the darkness that followed, he recalls, “I hermited myself.” He moved back in with his parents, to save money for his child and for his electronic-monitoring bills. Most days, he’d drive straight home from work to play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on his Xbox. Within a year and a half, he had gained a hundred pounds. He didn’t want his scarlet letter to further affect his wife and child; the couple got divorced.
In the eighth year of his ten-year probation term, Metts decided to reënter the world. He returned to college, began to party, and made friends for the first time in years. On a warm afternoon in May during his final year of probation, he invited some of those new friends over to his parents’ swimming pool. He tossed back several beers and took a dip. He’d failed to charge his ankle bracelet properly, and the battery died at around 5 P.M. Shortly before midnight, his probation officer arrived at his door: she’d be filing to revoke his probation. A few weeks later, Metts was led into a courtroom in hand-cuffs, leg cuffs, and a chain around his waist connecting them. “I looked like Hannibal Lecter without the mask,” he told me. The judge’s name sounded familiar: she had helped prosecute his original case. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has since agreed to consider whether her involvement in the earlier proceedings disqualified her from presiding over Metts’s fate.)
Although childhood sexual abuse (CSA) was an unacknowledged and rarely studied phenomenon until approximately thirty years ago, research has now firmly established that it is a significant public health concern (e.g. Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990). Many victims experience pervasive developmental problems such as enuresis, somatic complaints, sexually reactive behavior, and academic delays (Beitchman, Zucker, Hood, da Casta, & Ackman, 1991; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993; Trickett & McBride-Chang, 1995), and sexual abuse victims are especially at risk for psychopathology (Putnam, 2003; Trickett & McBride-Chang, 1995). While estimates vary widely, it is likely that around 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victimized prior to age 18 (Centers for Disease Control, 1997). However, despite evidence that a substantial number of victims are boys, sexual abuse research findings are based disproportionately on female samples. Consequently, the extent to which findings generalize to male victims is unclear. In addition, the clinical utility of much of the existing literature is limited by heavy reliance on adult retrospective reports of childhood abuse, and on case studies or qualitative studies whose findings have not been empirically validated with quantitative research. The objectives of the present study are to briefly review these limitations, and then to test empirically in a national sample whether 1) there are sex differences in four childhood sexual abuse characteristics---penetration versus non-penetration, substantiation status, perpetrator familial status, and experiencing multiple forms of maltreatment, and 2) whether there are sex differences in how these sexual abuse characteristics are associated with victims’ emotional and behavioral problems (as measured by internalizing, externalizing, and trauma symptoms).
Limitations to the extant literature
Preponderance of female samples
Much of what is known about the developmental correlates and sequelae of childhood sexual abuse is based on samples of exclusively female victims (Bailey & McCloskey, 2005; Finkelhor, 1984; Valente, 2005). Due in large part to the historical under-reporting and subsequent lack of awareness of male CSA, it was not until the 1980s that researchers began to make concerted efforts to include male victims in their samples (Finkelhor, 1984). Most sexual abuse researchers agree that the sexual abuse of boys is still grossly under-reported (Briggs & Hawkins, 1995; Cermak & Molidor, 1996; Porter, 1986). At least three factors likely contribute to this under-reporting. First, when the abuser is male, boys may not report the abuse for fear they will be identified as gay (Cermak & Molidor, 1996; Valente, 2005). Second, if the abuser is female, boys might interpret the abuse as a culturally condoned sexual initiation experience for which they should feel “lucky” rather than victimized (Dimock, 1988; Hunter, 1990). Third, sexual offenders typically utilize more force and threats of violence with male than with female victims when warning them not to report the abuse (Pierce & Pierce, 1985), so boys might feel more intimidated than girls about reporting.
Although studies of sexually abused boys are becoming more common, exclusively male samples are rare, usually consist of fewer than thirty participants (Feiring, Taska, & Lewis, 1999), and typically comprise adult men reporting retrospectively on their childhood abuse experiences (Briggs & Hawkins, 1995; Dhaliwal, Gauzas, Antonowicz, & Ross, 1996; Etherington, 1995). Furthermore, due to the low frequency with which males report sexual abuse outside of a therapeutic or research setting (Valente, 2005), male sexual abuse samples often comprise specialized groups such as incarcerated pedophiles, prison inmates, and members of institutions such as the armed forces or boarding schools (Darves-Bornoz, Choquet, Ledoux, Gasquet, & Manfredi, 1998), which are not necessarily representative of the population of male victims.
Finally, due to small sample sizes of male victims, many current theories about how sexual abuse affects boys and how various features of the abuse experience affect girls and boys differently have been generated from case studies, anecdotal reports, and qualitative studies (Dimock, 1988; Durham, 2003; Gilgun & Reiser, 1990; Krug, 1989). This important, in-depth work has generated many useful observations and hypotheses; however, complementary quantitative research is needed to test these hypotheses empirically.
Retrospective reporting of childhood sexual abuse
Many studies of CSA and its negative developmental sequelae have involved adults retrospectively reporting childhood abuse (Finkelhor et al., 1990). Although these studies are valuable because they may include individuals who never reported abuse as children (Kendall-Tackett & Becker-Blease, 2004), Widom and others have highlighted the importance of also conducting research with youth samples because findings often differ from those of retrospective studies (Raphael, Widom, & Lange, 2001; Widom, Weiler, & Cottler, 1999). Moreover, Hardt and Rutter (2004) identified significant measurement error in retrospective studies, particularly when individuals were asked to recall how they felt about events at the time they were happening. As many studies aim to identify associations between the experience of CSA and psychological well-being, there is clearly a need for additional studies in this field that utilize youth samples.
Current research needs
Some evidence suggests that sexual abuse might affect boys and girls differently, and that the prevalence of certain characteristics of the sexual abuse experience might differ for boys and girls (Bauserman & Rind, 1997; Darves-Bornoz et al., 1998; Feiring et al., 1999; Finkelhor et al., 1990; Fontanella, Harrington, & Zuravin, 2000; Friedrich, Urquiza, & Beilke, 1986; Gold, Elhai, Lucenko, & Swingle, 1998; Kendall-Tackett & Simon, 1992). For example, female adolescent sexual abuse victims have been shown to display more somatic complaints and mood disorders than male victims, whereas males have been shown to display more behavioral problems than females (Darves-Bornoz et al., 1998). However, some researchers have not found sex differences in the effects of CSA (Calam, Horne, Glasgow, & Cox, 1998; Young, Bergandi, & Titus, 1994), and at least one study has found that male adolescent victims tend to exhibit more emotional, behavioral, and suicidal problems than their female counterparts (Garnefski & Diekstra, 1997).
Characteristics of the abuse experience have also been shown to differ for girls and boys. One review paper found that the estimated percentage of male victims’ perpetrators who are themselves male ranges from 18 to 97, depending on the study, and that the estimated percentage of male perpetrators for female victims ranges from 80 to 100 (Dhaliwal et al., 1996). Another study of early childhood victims found that boys were more likely to experience fondling and oral intercourse than girls, whereas girls were more likely to experience penetrative abuse (Fontanella et al., 2000). Finally, girls may be more likely to be sexually abused by family members, whereas boys may be more likely to be abused by strangers (Finkelhor et al., 1990; Gold et al., 1998). Existing studies suggest that certain characteristics of the abuse experience, including the use of force and coercion, penetration, familial perpetrators, and longer duration of abuse, are associated with more negative outcomes (Beitchman et al., 1991; Browne & Finkelhor, 1986; Estes & Tidwell, 2002; Friedrich et al., 1986; Molnar, Buka, & Kessler, 2001).
In short, given how little is known about male sexual abuse victims in general, and how little is known about sex differences in the experience and consequences of childhood sexual abuse, it is important to test empirically whether potentially important abuse characteristics differ in their rates and consequences for males and females in a national sample of victims still in their youth. Social workers and clinicians working with sexually abused children within the confines of limited time and resources need a solid body of evidence to which they can refer in order to implement the most empirically-grounded assessments and treatments possible. Furthermore, some researchers and clinicians continue to operate on the assumption that boys are, in general, less adversely affected by childhood sexual abuse than are girls, but this may be a potentially dangerous assumption to operate on without solid empirical supporting evidence.
While it is important to examine how abuse characteristics affect boys and girls differently across childhood, it may be especially important to focus on the subpopulation of adolescents, as it is during this stage of life that youth experience the normative emergence of sexuality and sexual identity. These processes may be compromised and complicated by sexual abuse, leading to symptoms of psychopathology (Berliner & Conte, 1990; Durham, 2003). Furthermore, adolescence is a time of emerging self-identity and self-awareness (Erikson, 1968), and adolescents may question their own motives more and experience more self-blame for abuse than younger children (Celano, 1992; Myers, 1989).
The current study addresses the questions of whether the prevalence of different abuse characteristics differs for male and female victims, and whether there are sex differences in the association between sexual abuse characteristics and youth emotional and behavioral problems. We first examine these questions in a sample of children ranging in age from 4 to 16 years, and then focus on youth aged 11 years and older. In light of the existing literature, we predict that girls will experience higher rates of penetrative abuse and will more frequently have familial perpetrators than boys, and that because these are the characteristics most associated with psychopathology, girls will have higher rates of psychopathology symptoms than boys. However, we also predict that child sex will not moderate the association between different abuse characteristics and children’s difficulties (i.e., that these characteristics will be equally associated with psychopathology in boys and girls). Nonetheless, given the limitations to the existing literature in this field, this study is largely exploratory.