(CNN) -- Christine Smith will never forget the moment she watched her 21-year-old son being led out of a Florida courtroom in handcuffs.
"This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening," she recalls thinking at the time. "Take me instead."
She sobbed because there was nothing she could do. Matthew, the second of her three children, was going to prison after pleading guilty to 10 counts of possession of child pornography. A judge in Duval County sentenced him in April 2010 to 18 months in state prison and one year of probation, with the requirement that he register as a sex offender.
She told herself that they were lucky, that he could have received a longer prison sentence. But her worries extended far beyond prison. Under Florida law, he would likely remain on the registry for life, with the opportunity to appeal for good conduct. Where would he live after being released? How would he find a job? What about harassment? Would he ever date again? Who would want to marry a sex offender?
Smith is one of many mothers preoccupied with these questions on a daily basis. These women embody the notion that a mother's love is unconditional as they're often forced to look beyond horrific crimes that have left their children branded for life as sex offenders.
What's a mom to do?
"Mothers want to deal with everything, no matter what happens," Smith said. "It doesn't matter how old they are or if they do something stupid. You're there to pick them up and help them get through."
That devotion comes at a high price, as parents often assume some of the responsibility and burden of the sex offender designation. They mortgage their homes so they can buy a new place for their child beyond residency restrictions. It has ended marriages and friendships and divided families.
Like Smith, many fear that their sons will forever be lumped in the same category as child molesters and rapists, and channel their grief through activism.
Dozens of parents of sex offenders declined to discuss their experience for this article, fearing that doing so would bring harm to their families.
"My son and I have just started to experience some level of peace and stability. ... It's not worth digging up the harassment again," one woman said in an e-mail calling off an interview with CNN. "No one understands the threats, harassment, loss of income and dignity. I hope you find someone that can better take the risk. [We] have suffered enough humiliation."
Fighting depression with support
There's no way to tell how many of the country's 747,408 registered sex offenders have the support of families, friends or otherwise. But research shows that a strong support system greatly improves their chances of rehabilitation and decreases the likelihood of re-offending, sex offender treatment professional Nancy Irwin said.
"Isolation can be a breeding ground for depression and deviancy," said Irwin, a psychotherapist who works with court-mandated parolees and probationers in California.
"If we're alone and feel isolated or alienated by those we are closest to, then we start feeling like we're unlovable and worthless and life doesn't matter," she said. "It's healthy to have a strong support system and it also helps to have meaningful work, healthy spiritual pursuit, or a hobby or two to enjoy. These are the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle for anyone, really. But they're especially important for sex offenders."
Lora Morgan of Arkansas took that notion to heart when her 20-year-old son went to prison in April 2011 on 10 counts of possession of child pornography. She visited Rusty whenever she could during his prison stint. At least in prison, she could sit with him at a table for a few hours instead of having to settle for a few minutes of conversation behind a thick glass partition at the county jail, she said.
"There is no way to describe seeing your son behind a window so thick that it has barbed wire in it and you can't give him a hug," Morgan, a stay-at-home mom with a strong Southern accent, said in a phone interview.
"I don't care how old he is. It just breaks your heart."
Morgan asked to change her name out of fear of reprisals against her family. Within the online support groups that help her get through each day, members share stories of offenders on the public registry being targets of community efforts to force them to move. Because of his crime, Morgan's son has to register with law enforcement but his name does not appear on the public register, a blessing for which she is thankful.
He also was "darn lucky" to parole out of prison after 10 months in January, she said, but then the real struggle to integrate into society as a sex offender began. The conditions of his 15-year probation prevent him from living in a home with Internet access; for the sake of her family, including her 19-year-old daughter, Morgan refused to get rid of their computer. Instead, the family spent $12,000 on an RV for him to live in on his grandparents' property.
She worries about him, but tries to maintain an encouraging outlook, she said. He is fortunate that he doesn't have to appear on a public registry, but his sex offender status limits his options, as does being unable to use a computer, she said.
She makes no excuses for the fact that he downloaded images of child pornography in his college dorm. But she doesn't believe that the shy, introverted young man should carry the sex offender label for the next 15 years.
"Yes, what my son did was bad. Yes, he should be punished," she said. "But he doesn't need to be punished for the rest of his life."
The horrific crimes that make national headlines often create activists out of parents of like Mark Lunsford and Mark Klaas, leading to laws named for their children. But the cycle of outrage works both ways.
Morgan's desire to help create the best possible quality of life for her son has sparked an activist streak in this 46-year-old housewife, who struggled with dyslexia in high school and never aspired to be anything other than a PTA and band booster mom.
Now, she says she is not afraid to write letters to congressmen or call them to give voice to the other side of this issue. Her husband teases her for always managing to work the topic into conversations with strangers.
"This whole experience has given me lots of courage and strength. It has opened my eyes to so many things that I never thought of as far as our laws," she said.
"People can't understand why I keep fighting for my son. But what kind of parent would I be if I didn't stand up for my child's rights? I run into that quite a bit. Am I supposed to leave my son at the doorstep?"
Linda Walker is the mother of Dru Sjodin, who was killed in 2003 by a sex offender and for whom the Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Public Website is named. Too often, sex offenders are portrayed sympathetically while the victims are forgotten, she said.
"What are we telling the victims that are still out there and alive when we keep giving [sex offenders] second and third chances?" Walker wondered.
She said she sympathized with some mothers, but not when they refuse to acknowledge what their child has done.
"As long as a parent feels horrible about the actions of their child, yes, I'm sympathetic toward them," Walker said. "But not toward the ones that continuously keep their heads in the sand."
Not all sex offenders are subject to the same requirements. The federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was passed in 2006 with the goal of creating a national set of standards for dealing with sex offenders and predators. Among its provisions was the creation of a three-tiered system that designates varying levels of requirements for registration and public notification. To date, 15 states, two territories, and 27 tribes have implemented those provisions of the Adam Walsh Act, known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, according to the Justice Department.
"We are very sensitive to the burdens that these kinds of restrictions place on offenders and their families. However, sex offender registry requirements are not imposed because of who somebody is, but because of what they've done," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which pushed for the Adam Walsh Act.
It's a balancing act between the rights of convicted felons and the responsibility of the government to ensure public safety, he said, emphasizing that the restrictions are determined by risk assessment.
"Congress and virtually every state have taken very careful steps to ensure that all sex offenders are not treated alike," he said. "There is a determination of level of risk and only the most serious offenders -- based upon what they have been convicted of and the nature of their crimes and number of offenses and likelihood to re-offend -- are subject to the most rigorous requirements."
The blame game
With parents often the targets of blame for the sins of their children, parents of sex offenders can experience just as much fear, shame and paranoia as their children, social worker David Prescott said.
"Moms often feel terrible that they didn't recognize the signs sooner or weren't able to provide a better environment for their kids to prevent whatever offense occurred," said Prescott, former president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and current clinical director of the Becket Programs of Maine, which provide treatment for troubled youth in Maine and New Hampshire.
"The whole rest of society only sees the flashbulb moment of the sex crime and mug shot and very few people understand the person who does the crime as a person," he said. "Even after someone is arrested and convicted, everyone else distances themselves from the sex offender, there's often the mom trying to figure out what's going to be right for their boy."
When it comes to violent sexual offenses, or offenses that involve physical contact, there is often a history of abuse or neglect in the offender's background. Often, the mother was a victim of abuse that was witnessed by her children, he said.
"The vast majority of people who are sexually abused do not go on to become sex offenders or repeat sex offenders," he said, "but those who do get arrested for sex crimes very often have been abused in some form."
Mothers, if they're around and up to the task, tend to be more involved in the process of reintegrating their sex offender offspring back into society than fathers, Illinois-based family therapist Becky Palmer said.
Especially when prisoners are released after years or even decades of incarceration, there's often a desire to heal the relationship, she said. The trick is not to minimize what happened or brush aside the offense, especially when other relatives are uncomfortable having a sex offender around their children.
"Everyone has to be willing to be honest about what happened and talk about it and not minimize it and be in denial," she said. "Sometimes, that means recognizing that some of the past family dynamics might have been contributing factors to the offense and those have to change."
Morgan, the mother in Arkansas, and Smith, the mother in Florida, said their children did not experience sexual or physical abuse. Like many mothers, they both said they stepped up because they felt they had no choice.
Smith left her husband and daughter in Delaware and moved back to Florida to help her son before his release in May 2011, three months early for good behavior. They lived near the expressway, where he could live beyond residency restrictions preventing him from being near a school, playground or daycare center.
The more details she learned about her son's release, the more outraged she became. She took up the activist banner, writing letters to politicians and visiting the state capitol to speak out against bills that would tighten restrictions for sex offenders or create harsher penalties.
Meanwhile, at home, she began to clash with her son as he struggled to adjust to some of the conditions of his probation. He hasn't used a computer in three years and still can't use one. He can't leave the county without permission and has to keep a driving log wherever he goes. Every six months, he pays $25 to register as a sex offender with the county.
His electronic monitoring is a constant source of anxiety, she said. He wears an ankle bracelet 24 hours a day and keeps a GPS tracker close by at all times. He wears pants every day, regardless of the weather, to cover up the bracelet. He worries constantly about being somewhere where children are known to "regularly congregate," in violation of his probation.
After his release, he holed up in his room for hours at a time and emerged in a depressed state. If he went out, she'd call or text him constantly to keep track of his whereabouts and remind him to come home in time for his 10 p.m. curfew.
"I'd smother him because I did not want him to go back to prison for something stupid like being 5 minutes late for curfew or leaving his (ankle) monitor at home -- stupid things that could violate him," she said. "It was a constant battle of me mothering him too much and I started to realize it."
After a little soul-searching and some advice from her son's probation officer, she decided it was time to leave him to live on his own in Florida. In January, less than a year after his release, she returned to Delaware, where her husband had taken a job two years before.
She still worries about him, of course, just as she worries about her other children. But there's an inner peace that comes with learning to let him be his own person, she said.
"I was always a mom that dotes and protects. It's not that I'm not there for them now, but I'm going to let them make their own mistake," she said. "I trust them and they know I still love them."