- Mothers say label prevents sex offenders from being productive members of society
- Support of family, community reduces chances of re-offending, clinicians say
- Only most serious offenders subjected to most rigorous requirements, group says
- Murder victim's mother says she's tired of sex offenders getting second chances
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 rigorou