Collateral damage: Harsh sex offender laws may put whole families at risk

Research says that registries and residency bans leave children of sex offenders vulnerable to bullying, homelessness

No studies have looked at what proportion of the country’s nearly 850,000 people on state sex offender registries are providing for families of their own. But activists say that thousands of female partners and children are being hurt by laws that aim to protect kids.
Sam Ward for Al Jazeera America

When William Quarles, 38, bolts from his desk around 5:30 most weeknights, he’s up against his most important deadline of the day. Quarles is an audiovisual editor and social media manager at a Christian television studio in St. Petersburg, Florida. By the time he gets home, he and Ashley, his wife of nine years, have just over three hours to make dinner for their three children, squeeze in a half-hour of playtime, get the kids bathed and dressed for bed, and read to them for a few minutes.

At 9:30 p.m. sharp, William kisses Ashley, walks out the door and drives his van 12 miles to a spot at the end of a dirt road off Interstate 275. From there he calls her, and they read and pray together from the devotional Our Daily Bread before they fall asleep — Ashley at home and William in the back of the van. Every couple of hours, William wakes up sweating and turns on the engine to run the air conditioner.

William’s name and photo appear on Florida’s public sex offender registry. A state law bans him and most others on the list from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and child care facilities. The house the family rents lies inside a banned zone, so William can’t stay there between 10 at night and 6 in the morning.

With finances always tight and much of the city off limits, the Quarleses have struggled to find an affordable place to live. From May 2013 to May 2014, Ashley and the kids lived with Ashley’s sister in Lakeland, 60 miles from St. Petersburg. Ashley drove to the city every day for a job she had at the time. William stayed behind in St. Pete, sleeping in the van — a 2,500-foot residency ban for registrants in Lakeland and the surrounding county forbade him from living with the rest of the family.

When the commute became untenable, Ashley and the children moved back to the city into their current house, which belongs to their pastor. The pastor’s daughter lived there but was away on vacation for several months. That worked until October, when the daughter returned.  

This time, the Quarleses wanted to find a place where William could live with them. They estimate that they researched 100 to 150 addresses. All either fell inside a forbidden zone or were rented by the time they applied. So after spending a week in a motel, from October to March of this year, they all became homeless. Ashley and the kids — ages, 7, 4 and 2 — camped out in the sanctuary of the church where William works, taking showers every other day at the YMCA.

They got a break in the spring when their pastor’s house again became available. He charges them only $800 a month, well below market. But because it’s inside a banned area, William still can’t live with them.

In 1996, Congress passed Megan’s Law, which allowed states to publicize the names of those convicted of sex offenses. A wave of federal and state laws followed that created online sex offender registries, broadened who is listed and restricted where registrants can live.

But today there’s a growing body of research and court opinions questioning those laws’ effectiveness and constitutionality. No studies have looked at what proportion of the country’s nearly 850,000 people on state registries are providing for families of their own. Activists say, however, that thousands of female partners and children are being hurt by laws that aim to protect kids.

In a survey of nearly 600 immediate family members of sex offender registrants, 40 percent said they’d found it hard to find an affordable place to live.
Sam Ward for Al Jazeera America

Bullying and threats

William Quarles committed a serious crime. Fifteen years ago, as a 23-year-old living in Tennessee, he molested two boys ages 6 and 8. He spent almost three years in prison, and there he participated in an intensive sex offender treatment program — four hours a day, five days a week, he says. (A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction wrote in an email that because participation in sex offender treatment is protected information, she could not confirm Quarles’ involvement.)

The program forced him to contemplate the consequences of his actions for the victims, as well as his own past, he says. As an 11-year-old growing up in Baltimore, he says, he was raped by two teenagers. His therapy made him confront how he’d allowed his own abuse to warp his perceptions. “I literally had to learn that I’m a man. I’m not a kid trapped in man’s body,” he says. “It was a miracle — my mind was completely opened and I finally realized, Wow, I actually did something wrong.”

Ashley knew William’s history when they married in August 2006 after meeting in church. She says he has been a model citizen, works full time and is a good father. But the registry and residency laws are a rip current dragging them to sea. “I feel like I’ve been to hell and back,” she says.

Vicki Henry, who runs Women Against the Registry, a group trying to roll back registration and residency laws nationwide, says there are many more stories like the Quarleses’. She and her volunteers operate a hotline for family members of registrants seeking help in dealing with the consequences of those laws. They field about 100 calls a month, Henry says.

The only quantitative study to date suggests how serious those consequences may be. In the American Journal of Criminal Justice in January 2009, researchers Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury reported on their survey of nearly 600 immediate family members of registrants. More than 20 percent said they had to move out of a rental because their landlord found their relative’s name on the registry, and 40 percent said they found it hard to find an affordable place to live.

Respondents said that their kids didn’t fare well either. Two-thirds reported that their children felt left out of activities because of their parent’s status, more than three-quarters said their children were depressed, and almost half reported that their children were harassed.

Take “Kat,” a 16-year-old who left the United States with her family for a country she won’t name for fear that she will become a target of intimidation or worse.

Her father is on a state sex offender registry after being found guilty 31 years ago of molesting a 10-year-old boy. In February 2007 when she was 8, Kat’s school district sent out a pamphlet with the names, photos and addresses of all registrants in the area, including her father’s.

It didn’t take long for her to feel the fallout. She was disinvited from a birthday party that weekend, she says. The following week, a friend’s mother stopped her daughter from talking to Kat on the street and told her never again to go near Kat or her house. From that point forward, she lost nearly all her friends, she says.

When she hit middle school in fall 2009, the isolation turned into sexual harassment. Boys would approach her in the hall and on the street with lewd suggestions, she says. A group of boys crowded her up against a wall one day in school. “Since you’re screwing your dad, you shouldn’t mind screwing us,” she says one of them told her.

After more isolation and bullying, in March 2013 the family uprooted and left the country. The neighborhood they live in now is poor and dirty, Kat says. But “unlike at home,” she adds, “people here treat us with respect.” 

‘When your husband is on the registry,
you feel like your whole family is.’

Neisha DeHoyos

wife of sex offender registrant

For other children, having a parent on the registry means missing some classic markers of childhood. Daniel and Neisha DeHoyos, a San Antonio couple, have been married since 2004 and have two boys ages 10 and 6. On the advice of his lawyer, Daniel pleaded guilty in 1993 to raping his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 17. (Daniel denies that it happened and says he took a plea to avoid jail.)

In December 2013, the city council passed an ordinance banning those on the registry from the city’s parks. The DeHoyos’ older son had his Little League games in a city park, and Daniel had always been the one to take him because Neisha, a nurse, works 12-hour shifts and usually couldn’t. So they’ve pulled their son out of the league. They’ve also given up the idea of taking their kids to Disney World or Six Flags Over Texas because both parks ban registrants. (A Disney spokesman confirmed that registrants are not allowed. Six Flags added wording to its season passes in 2005 reserving the right to deny admission to anyone convicted of a sex crime, and the park didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification of their current policy.)

“When your husband is on the registry, you feel like your whole family is,” Neisha DeHoyos says.

A small number of families are targets of something worse. While 44 percent of the 2009 study respondents said they’d been threatened or harassed by neighbors, 7 percent said they’d actually been assaulted or injured.

Consider South Carolina couple Charles and Gretchen Parker. Charles Parker, a 59-year-old mechanic, served five years in prison for having sex with a mentally challenged 31-year-old woman in 2003 and was placed on the state registry.

In July 2013 a couple in a car pulled up to the Parkers’ house and popped the hood to signal engine trouble. When Charles Parker came out to help, they marched him inside, where they shot and stabbed both him and his wife to death.

The killers turned out to be white supremacist couple Jeremy and Christine Moody. They told police they’d gotten the victims’ address from the registry. Had they not been caught, said Jeremy Moody, they would have used the list to hunt down another registrant. Moody called Gretchen Parker a “casualty of war.” The pair got a 30-year prison sentence

Two new qualitative studies provide more backing for the 2009 study findings. From 2010 to 2012, a team of researchers from four universities surveyed almost 450 registrants about the consequences for their families of their being on the list. Their report on the study ran in the October 2014 Justice Policy Journal. Another by two University of Delaware researchers involved surveys last year of 36 family members and interviews with 16 of them; it’s still under review for publication. Both studies asked open-ended questions, so the researchers couldn’t crunch any numbers. But key themes run through the responses — children being shunned and harassed, families struggling to find a place to live, wives losing friends and jobs because a husband is on the list.

Given the risks, why do the women stay? Chrysanthi Leon, co-author of the University of Delaware study and the acting chair of the university’s women’s studies department, says that’s the wrong question. Decades of work on reentry show that what keeps ex-prisoners on the right path are social bonds, she says. Registrants’ partners “are doing the unpaid work of making reentry possible,” she says. “We should be recognizing the work they are doing and making it easier, not harder.” 

Effectiveness questioned

Those families may be the collateral damage in a war on sex crimes that’s been underway since passage of Megan’s Law. But it’s far from clear that the chief weapons politicians have employed — registries and residency bans — are helping to protect children or the public.

None of the six studies on sex offender registries conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that registries lowered recidivism, according to a meta-analysis of 20 years of research in the November 2012 Journal of Crime and Justice. “Over the last 15 years, sex offender registries have been established in all empirical forums not to reduce sexual offending behavior, violence, or the number of victims,” Kristen Zgoba, coauthor of that study, wrote in an email.

There’s an even broader consensus on residency restrictions. A U.S. Department of Justice brief released last month concluded that “research has demonstrated that residence restrictions do not decrease and are not a deterrent for sexual recidivism.” And a December 2013 study report in the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review noted that Florida’s residency laws likely play a “significant role” in homelessness and transience among sex offenders.

In Florida, the person perhaps most responsible for the residency bans rejects those findings. Ron Book is a powerful lobbyist in Tallahassee and president of Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit that aims to end sexual abuse. It’s run by his daughter Lauren Book, who endured six years of terrible sexual abuse by a nanny. During the 2000s, the Books spearheaded a campaign to pass dozens of local residency restrictions around the state.

Book says he’s somewhat familiar with the Quarleses’ case and has no qualms about making life harder for registrants. “We’re not a very friendly state to predators and pedophiles, and I don’t have any shame in having helped lead that effort,” he says. And he dismisses the research that residency bans don’t prevent sex crimes, arguing that those studies can’t capture data on what’s not known: “I don’t know that I need a study — the vast majority of [sexual] crimes against kids are not reported,” he says.

In April, Lauren’s Kids held a celebration in Tallahassee to mark the end of a 1,500-mile walk that the group sponsored to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. As Ron and Lauren Book crossed the finish line, hundreds of supporters were there to greet them, including political heavyweights such as the governor, the Senate president and the lieutenant governor.

Ashley Quarles was there too with her oldest son, who held a sign protesting Lauren’s Kids’ role in passing laws that she says have created such havoc in their lives.

Quarles supports the organization’s mission to prevent sexual abuse, she says. But as all the runners passed and the crowd cheered and applauded, she was crying. “I wanted to tell them, ‘You think what you’re doing is all good and it’s helping everybody, but it’s not,’” she says. “You have no idea of the damage that you’re doing.” 

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