Vicki Henry sits at the desk in her two-bedroom duplex on a recent Sunday morning and adjusts her phone headset, which she has nestled on hair with a deep magenta tinge, a rare bit of pizazz for the 72-year-old grandmother of three.
Everyone else in Henry’s working-class neighborhood of Arnold, a southern suburb of St. Louis, is probably at church or finishing up a pancake breakfast with the family. But Henry is on the clock for a job that pays her nothing.
She wears a baggy red T-shirt with “Women Against Registry” and the acronym “WAR” embroidered on it in white thread. Henry runs WAR, an organization whose goal is to abolish the public sex offender registries that exist in every state.
She dials a phone number that showed up as a missed call on WAR’s support line, which receives dozens of calls each month from registrants and families who are in search of emotional and practical support. A woman named Ramona answers. She has spoken with Henry before. Henry asks Ramona for permission to put her on speakerphone so I can ask her questions, and Ramona agrees, asking that I use only her first name to protect the identity of her family.
Her son was a good boy, Ramona tells Henry, but he is serving a 25-year sentence. In 2018, he bought what he thought was a video of a father having sex with his 9-year-old daughter, according to court records. It was an internet sting operation. The “father” was an FBI agent. Ramona’s son already had a 2010 conviction for possessing child pornography.
When her son gets out of prison, he will be 73. Ramona, 85, probably won’t be alive to see it. “It has been the worst experience of my life,” she says. She sounds tired, her voice slightly raspy with age, as she recalls taking out a second mortgage on her home to pay for the lawyer to appeal her son’s sentence.
Once Ramona starts talking, she doesn’t want to stop. She is stuck in a holding pattern of disbelief, frustration, and confusion. Henry finally interjects, wrapping up the conversation with a promise to connect Ramona with the WAR chapter in her state. “They’re going to get together and have dinner and that kind of thing.”
The WAR support line, Henry says, provides a rare, judgment-free opportunity for family members to verbally process the mixed emotions they have after a loved one is convicted of a sex crime. Other callers are registrants themselves, like the military veteran who was distraught because he feared his children would be bullied if their school friends discovered his name on Virginia’s registry. Another asked for legal advice after an airline refused to let him, his wife, and his children board ahead of a long-planned vacation because of his sex offender status.
Henry listens because she has her own story to tell. In 2007, her son was charged with possessing child pornography. He ended up with a four-year sentence and was put on Missouri’s sex offender registry. “It destroyed me,” she says. Henry says she has watched her son’s life collapse periodically because of the registry — fired from a job, denied housing — just as it did with his initial conviction.
America’s sex offender registries have existed in their modern-day form since 1994. Since then, more than 900,000 names have been added to such lists across the United States, according to 2018 figures from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Each state registry lists the names of convicted sex offenders online, along with information such as their home addresses, photos, and criminal histories. Federal law requires registrations for those convicted of crimes such as child abuse; sex trafficking; and creating, distributing, or possessing child pornography. Individual states might add infractions such as public urination and consensual sex between teenagers to that list.
Many registrants are on lifetime probation. Depending on the state, probation rules can govern everything from how close to schools registrants can live to whether they must wear an ankle monitor and if they will have a curfew.
Many on registries have caused indescribable pain to their victims, scrambling lives into giant knots that can take a lifetime to untie. But as the number and severity of rules for convicted sex offenders has grown, so has the chorus of academics, lawyers, and advocates arguing that registries do little to prevent sex crimes. Instead, the stigma of being publicly branded a sex offender, they say, can result in job and housing discrimination, denying registrants the stability and support networks vital in preventing recidivism. Advocates such as Henry say they’re attempting to secure a redemptive path back to society for those who’ve been convicted of a sex crime, a category that has long been considered uniquely wicked.
“At its heart, the registry doesn’t work,” says Catherine Carpenter, a professor at Southwestern Law School who is also on the board of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, an advocacy organization for registrants. “It is a failed experiment.”
Registries’ purpose isn’t to deter sex crimes, but rather to offer a form of transparency, “giving the public information they have a right to know,” says Camille Cooper, the vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Parents can research what offenders live in the area surrounding a home they want to purchase or the route their child might walk to school, Cooper says. More than 90 percent of perpetrators in sex crimes are known to the child, making those on registries “the very tippy-top of the iceberg in terms of scale for this problem that we have,” she says, “so parents need to be cautious.”
The day before I met with Henry at her home, she had returned from a Las Vegas conference of criminal defense lawyers that focused on sex crimes. There, she ran WAR’s information stand and had 60 seconds to rattle off the organization’s elevator pitch. “Attorneys ... were taken aback at the concept of women being against a list of men, women, and children who, per the media, law enforcement, and public warnings, would harm them,” Henry says.
On the desk in her living room, a WAR sign summarizes her pitch: “Destroying Families Does Not Protect Children.” It’s a message geared toward women. WAR argues that the registry can prevent registrants from living with supporting relatives; it can bankrupt families and invites vigilante attacks. “The public doesn’t care about sex offenders,” Henry says. “They hope they rot because they think they are all repeat rapists or repeat molesters.”
For much of her life, Henry attended a Southern Baptist church. When the notion of redemption for all sins wasn’t extended to people convicted of a sex offense, like her son, she says, she stopped going. “That’s one of the problems we have is there seems to be no forgiveness,” says Henry, who still identifies as a Christian. “We’re not saying that people shouldn’t be punished. We’re just saying that they shouldn’t be annihilated.”
To reach those who might need their help, Henry and WAR use a mail campaign with names and addresses pulled from public registries to notify people about the support line. Some callers are suspicious that it is a sting operation or a trick from a vigilante group out to shame a registrant. “One guy held on to the letter for a year” before he called, Henry says. “That’s how beaten down these people are.”
Calls come in through an 800 number that rings on Henry’s phone and those of two other volunteers. If a call goes to voicemail or if a message comes through WAR’s Facebook account or email, they are grouped according to need: emotional, legal, housing, employment, or those looking to get involved in WAR. Returning emotional support calls takes priority.
Pam C., 70, a retired teacher, follows up on calls that come from Arizona, where she lives. In 1998, her husband was arrested in a sting operation; he was corresponding online with a police officer posing as a teenage girl. She didn’t tell anyone until he went to prison a year later. “I was ashamed,” she says of her husband, a former Marine who received a purple heart in Vietnam and who she says suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Pam requested that her full name not be used for fear of retribution from law enforcement.
Pam describes herself as too shy to be a vocal advocate like Henry, so instead, she answers support line calls. She speaks slowly in short, clear sentences with a slight quiver in her words. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a counselor. But everyone needs a friend,” she says. “I try to listen. I care. I understand.”
During her husband’s five-year prison sentence, Pam divorced him. They stayed in contact, and when she saw how he threw himself into his rehabilitation, they remarried in 2009. She now lives, she says, as the “collateral damage” of Arizona’s sex offender registry and the labyrinthine rules attached to her husband’s probation. They rarely travel because he can’t leave the county without permission from his probation officer. Their new neighbors were notified about her husband’s crime when the couple moved homes. “That’s the kiss of death if you want to make friends,” she says.
Women who take up the mantle of defending a loved one on the registry do so partly to have their own experiences heard, according to Ashley Kilmer, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Towson University who has studied how registries affect families. “They are often invisible victims of these sex offender policies,” she wrote in an email. While society might see their loved ones as monsters incapable of change, in the eyes of relatives, “They are husbands, fathers, sons who happen to have a sex offense conviction,” Kilmer wrote, adding that the tangle of complex sex offender laws was “developed out of fear instead of evidence.”
Registries are a relatively recent phenomenon. Few existed before 1994, the year a federal law — named after Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old whose disappearance in 1989 haunted parents across the nation — was passed, requiring each state to keep a private database of convicted sex offenders to aid law enforcement.
The rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994 spurred another law that led to public registries in 1996. And the Adam Walsh Act in 2006 mandated, among many other requirements, that states register juvenile sex offenders and meet a baseline of information that is made public, such as address and photo. States have been slow in adopting the act. Currently, only 18 are compliant. (Some states, such as New York and Texas, have formally opted out of implementation, citing cost as a major factor.)
Some states and counties have also added their own laws. Florida has some of the toughest in the country. A powerful lawyer and lobbyist named Ron Book can take a lot of credit for that. In 2001, his daughter Lauren revealed that the family nanny, Waldina Flores, had emotionally, physically, and sexually abused her.
Flores is now serving a 25-year sentence, and Lauren Book is a state senator. Between her and her father, they have almost two dozen legislative victories relating to sex offenders, including a ban on some registrants in Miami-Dade County living within 2,500 feet of places where children gather like parks, schools, and day care centers.
There isn’t much warmth between Ron Book and Henry. The two have met on at least one occasion and were both subjects in the documentary Untouchable. Book told Vox that he finds the organization’s family-focused messaging “obnoxious and insensitive to the individuals who have had their lives destroyed by their loved ones.”
But he says he believes there is value in assisting felons on their release from prison. That includes the support line run by WAR. “I feel bad for people who cannot live with their full family intact, but let’s be clear about one thing: I didn’t cause that, my daughter didn’t cause that, and the lawmakers didn’t cause that,” Book says. “What caused that was [the registrant’s] behavior.”
The drive for a public registry and the increasingly tough probation rules such as residency restrictions sprang largely out of fear over recidivism. Early on, including in a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, the term “frightening and high” was used to describe recidivism rates pinned as high as 80 percent for some sex offenders.
But researchers have traced the source of that statistic not to a scientific study, but to a 1986 Psychology Today article written by a treatment provider claiming he could cure sex offenders, according to the New York Times. Numerous studies now put that figure at between 5 percent and 24 percent over a 15-year period, according to a report from the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. There are many variables, including whether the sex offender is male or female (women typically have a lower recidivism rate) and what their original offense was (for example, child molesters whose victims are boys have a higher reoffense rate of 35 percent after 15 years).
However, any crime estimate is inherently flawed due to what goes unreported. This is especially true for sex crimes, and even more so for sex crimes with child victims, according to Richard McCleary, a professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California.
But registrants’ crimes and reasons for offending are diverse, Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Florida’s Barry University who studies sex offenders and works in programs treating them, points out. “Is it true that there might be some offenders who should not be living in an apartment overlooking a playground? Yes,” she says. The rules that govern registrants, Levenson argues, should be nuanced to reflect that.
Ryan Tarasuik and his family have been swept up in what he says is an overly broad rule. He called WAR’s support line in September for advice on how to get off the Florida registry. In 2018, his fiancée was denied a housing voucher through the Section 8 program because he is part of her household. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development bans lifetime registrants from its housing programs, including Section 8, for public safety reasons.
More than 20 years ago, Tarasuik, 45, had a relationship with someone he thought was over the age of consent. He later learned the girl was 15; he was convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child in Florida, and his name was added to the state’s registry. In Florida, registration is typically for life, putting Tarasuik within HUD’s ban. “This has put me and my family in jeopardy of housing,” Tarasuik says. He and his fiancée have eight children between them. Three have a disability.
Such cases show why these laws are counterproductive, according to Levenson. The stigma of being publicly branded a sex offender, compounded with many other factors such as unstable housing and unemployment, can open doors to recidivism. “If we make them feel like they have nothing to lose, that is not in the interest of public safety,” Levenson says.
After years of increasingly tough laws, a thaw might be imminent, according to Carpenter, the professor at Southwestern Law School. This is being driven by a more accurate understanding of why people offend sexually, less sensational media coverage, and some key victories in the legislatures and in the courts. Some states are moving away from registering juveniles convicted of sex crimes. In March, a US district court judge ruled Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry Act — among other restrictions, it prevents registrants from standing within 1,000 feet of a school — as unconstitutional (although the state has yet to repeal the law).
“Often [registrants and their families] have no idea that cases like these are happening,” Henry says. She collects these examples to encourage down-and-out support-line callers who see no end to their situation.
After Henry’s morning shift, WAR holds a support group. Among the attendees is Judy Burke, 65 and a support-line volunteer, who recalls her own rare victory: Burke’s name was taken off the Missouri registry. In 2005, she was charged and later convicted with misdemeanor child molestation. Her victim was a 16-year-old male student at the school where she taught. Missouri moved to a tiered registry in 2018, and Burke was placed in tier one with other offenders with less severe offenses. Tier one registrants can petition a judge to have their names removed after 10 years.
During the support group, Burke is passionate in her encouragement of another registrant, a military veteran who broke down in tears as he spoke about wanting to die. She suggested he try owning a dog or look for opportunities to add meaning to his life. That’s what she did. In the years after her offense, she worked minimum-wage jobs at 7-Eleven and J.C. Penney but was fired when her registry status was discovered. Burke now volunteers for a housing organization. Donating plasma twice a week provides a small but steady income.
Burke describes her crime as a one-off instance when she was worn down by an emotionally abusive relationship. It was a decision, a mistake, Burke says, that has reverberated through her life for almost 15 years. Knowing her name no longer shows up on Missouri’s sex offender registry has opened a door to move on.
“Every time I talk to somebody and impart my personal story,” said Burke of the support line calls she takes, “it strengthens me. It helps me be stronger.”
Serena Solomon is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, and the Guardian.