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Hi Readers — This is a candid letter from the mom of a sex offender who is on the registry for life. Read it and see if our sex offender laws are doing the job they were intended to do: keep our kids safe from predators. — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: My son was recently subjected to a death threat when a neighbor discovered that he was listed on the sex offender registry. What heinous crime had my son committed that our neighbor deemed worthy of death? “Falling in love.”

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He was 17, she told him she was 16. At the time he had no reason to doubt her. A short time later he learned a harsh life lesson. They never got beyond kissing or hand holding, but she wrote in her diary that they had made love. When her mother read the entry in her 14-year-old daughter’s diary she quite justifiably became angry. Without talking with either one of them, she called the police and had my son arrested. He spent 45 days in jail awaiting trial.

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Had the mother taken her daughter to the doctor, she would have found out that her daughter was simply voicing a private fantasy. The girl begged her mother to stop the proceedings, but the wheels of “justice” were already in motion.

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The girl was so distraught about the situation that she constantly sought to contact my son to apologize and beg him not to hate her. She finally convinced her older sister to help her get in touch with him. One day shortly after sentencing and being put on a strict 3-year probation mandating no contact with his “victim,” my son was walking home from the store a block from our house. A car pulled up behind him and he heard a familiar voice beg, “Please stop and talk to me for a minute, we won’t tell anyone, please!”

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His only reaction was to break into a full run. He burst through the front door of our home and collapsed into a pale, quivering heap of fear in the middle of the floor.  He managed to shakily mumble enough for me to realize what had just happened.  I immediately took him to the police station and had them document exactly what had happened. Only with their assurance that he had done the right thing and that everything would be OK, could he finally calm down enough to breathe.
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My son was quite shy around girls to begin with and she was his first love. As things stand right now, he may very well never have another. He never finished high school due to his probation rules, and will be required to register twice a year for the rest of his life. He has lost every job he has been able to find, due to his listing on the registry.  He can never join the military, or even follow his lifelong dream of a career in music, even though he is a talented singer/songwriter and drummer.
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Why not? The laws work this way: His sentence was 3 years’ probation and 25 years on the registry in his state of conviction, Michigan. He couldn’t keep a job in Michigan, he kept losing them because of the registry, resulting in homelessness. Homelessness and joblessness are parole violations, so he was sent to jail for six months. After two more trips to jail for failure to register — resulting in three more months in jail —  he came here to South Carolina to live with us.  As long as he can keep a roof over his head and registers when required, he will be safe. A third failure to register could send him  to prison for a mandatory 5 year sentence. Unfortunately, in our state, sex offender registration is lifetime for everyone.

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He cannot pursue his musical career because it costs money (which neither he nor we have), for his instruments and upkeep, advertising, etc. Plus, if you are on the registry you have to  go in and report everywhere you are employed. Which means if he had a gig in, say, Seattle, he would have to report the address of his performance, the length of time he will be there, where he would be staying for the duration, etc. This is required for each and every change, notwithstanding the fact that anytime he leaves his home address for more than 3 days, it has to be approved with both the sheriff’s department here and the sheriff’s department at his destination, and either of them are at liberty to deny his request at any time.
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I also wanted to mention, that although he does not have a driver’s license, he is required to register OUR car on his registry listing, which makes public, the make, model, color and plates of our car. This may seem trivial to some, but to a vigilante our car becomes a target, regardless of who is driving it.
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The whole thing makes for a very complicated and many times hopeless existence. — Lila Folster

Beware of young love.

Hi Readers! Ever look at a map of the local sex offenders, the ones with little dots showing where the guys live who prey upon helpless little children? Well, as of this week, there are two dots that won’t come off until the guys die of old age — which could be quite a while.

Right now, they’re both 16.

The boys committed their crime at age 14. And just what was it?

Horseplay. Stupid, disgusting horseplay. According to NJ.com, the kids pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-olds’ faces for the simple reason that they “thought it was funny” and were trying to get their “friends to laugh.”

That’s how one of the teens explained himself to a Somerset County, N.J., judge back in 2008. (His friend headed off a trial by pleading guilty to the same act.)

The judge then considered what he had in front of him, and rather than think, “These punks could use some community service time and maybe a suspension from school — plus an in-person apology to the kids they sat on,” he thought, “These two are sex offenders.”

After all, what they had done was, technically, “criminal sexual contact” with intent to humiliate or degrade. And so sex offenders he ruled they were. That meant they were subject to Megan’s Law. In New Jersey, such offenders, even as young as 13, have to register for life.

This past week, the young men appealed their sentence and lost.

What does it mean to be on the sex offender list? First of all, the public knows where you live. Websites and newspapers can publish your photo. So can TV news. Parents can warn their kids never to go near you.

In many states, registered sex offenders have to live a certain distance from where kids congregate, be that a school, day care center, park or bus stop. So these young men may have to move to the sticks.

When they get a job (Good luck! Not many places are dying to hire registered sex offenders), they have to notify the authorities of where they’re working.

They also have to re-register four times a year, and if they miss an appointment, they can go to jail. In some communities, they have to turn their lights off on Halloween. In others, they have to answer the door saying, “I’m a registered sex offender.” All because of this stupid prank they pulled at age 14.

And meantime, their presence as a dot on the map is terrifying everyone in their neighborhood. After all, they’re on the sex offender list!

“These lists were originally conceived by most of the voters who cheered them on as lists of people who had some sort of psychological compulsion to sexual predation,” explains Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. People assume anyone on it is “a permanent menace.”

These guys are more like Dennis the Menace, which is why we have to change the criteria that land folks on the registry. These young men were never “predators.” And as the years go by, the idea that they pose a danger to children will become even more ridiculous. When you’re 20, 30, 40 — 80! — you don’t do the things you did as a 14-year-old trying to impress your buddies. Why is Megan’s Law blind to human nature?

If it were making kids safer, maybe we could overlook how obtuse it is. But a 2008 study found that, in New Jersey at least — where little Megan Kanka, for whom the law is named, was murdered — the law showed no effect in reducing the number of sexual re-offenses or reducing the number of victims.

It’s time to change the law and the registry. Otherwise, too many of the dots on a sex offender map will be victims, not criminals. — L

Hi Readers! Let us pause to celebrate a moment of sweet sanity. Remember Anne Bruscino, the young woman was put on New York State’s Child Abuse Registry for up to 25 years for the crime of accidentally leaving a toddler at a fenced-in, security-camera-monitored, daycare center playground for less than six minutes? (Here’s the original story, as reported by the Times Union.) Well now she has been officially taken off that list! She is free to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher!

Read the tale of this fantastic turn-around, just granted by a state appellate court. As the Times Union summed it up:

The state appellate panel’s decision [to de-criminalize the woman] underscores what some critics say is an inherently rigid system that can leave a person listed on a child-abuse registry for arguably minor errors involving children.

It was not just the the idea of minor errors getting a major punishment that appalled me, it was the reasoning behind this harshness. The original judge, Susan Lyn Preston, had argued this:

Clearly, Caitlin [the girl left behind] was at imminent risk of harm in this situation. The fact that the playground was surrounded by a chain-link fence does not eliminate the risk that Caitlin could have been abducted. A person with an evil intent could have easily gotten over the fence or lured Caitlin to the fence.

Easily?! As I wrote at the time:

Let’s see. What would it actually have taken for the girl to have been spontaneously abducted in the span of five minutes, as the judge so clearly believes was a distinct possibility?

First of all, a child abductor would have had to have been passing by the center at the precise time Caitlin was unchaperoned. Since, according to FBI statistics, there are only about 115 “stereotypical” abductions in the whole country each year (that is, abductions by strangers, intending to transport the child), this already would have been SOME rotten luck.

Then, that abductor would have had to immediately scale the fence, hide from the security cameras, avoid detection on the part of  anyone glancing out the office window, and pray that the child did not utter a single peep that might call attention to the crime. He’d also have to be out of there within about a minute, climbing back over the fence again.

This time while holding a 3-year-old.

Now, I’m not saying this could NEVER happen. If all the stars aligned AND the planets AND the world’s worst luck (and best fence-climber), there’s an extremely slight chance it could. Just like there’s a slight chance of getting hit by lightning in any 5  minutes you sit on your porch. But to say the child was in “imminent risk of harm in this situation” is the equivalent of saying that no matter how many fences, monitors and safeguards we put up, every child is at risk every single second an adult isn’t serving as a physical bodyguard. That’s a perception that is very common and really off-base.

Thank goodness the appellate court panel brought this case back to reality. The only unfortunate coda? Bruscino’s lawyer,  Kevin A Luibrand,  says he has seen at least  four similar cases in the past two years!

And so we fight on, for a world that does not believe our children are in terrible danger every time they are in public without an adult, no matter how briefly, no matter what the circumstances. — Lenore

Hi Readers: Two important things today. The first, and saddest, is that Mary Duval has passed away. I wrote about her here. She was the mom-turned-activist after her 16-year-old son Ricky was put on the sex offender registry — for life — for having consensual sex (twice) with a 13-year-old girl he thought was his own age.

Mary fought first for him, and then for all the folks on the ever-expanding registry who pose no threat to children. She leaves behind her two beloved sons, a movement for more just and rational sex offender laws, and barely enough money to pay for her funeral. If you would like to make a contribution, please write it out to Ricky’s aunt, D. Logan, and send it to: D Logan,  765 Mesa View Drive,  Space 24,  Arroyo Grande, CA   93240.

One of the things Mary fought for was to help our country get a grip. None of us want predators preying on children – I mean, really, that’s pretty obvious — but as our fears for our children grow (inflamed by everything from Law & Order to Nancy Grace), politicians pander by creating “tougher and tougher” laws against sex offenders. Sometimes those laws end up going overboard, taking with them all common sense. For a prime example of where this can lead,  check out this article, about a California high school yearbook that was recalled because, according to CBS:

The background of a school dance photo shows a 17-year-old boy’s hand inside the clothing of a 15-year-old girl in a way that suggests sexual penetration.

“The photo was taken at a dance and the suspect and victim are not the focus of the photo. They are in the background and likely didn’t know they were in the photo,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Cynthia Bachman.

In fact, even the high school yearbook advisor didn’t notice this naughty bit. Nonetheless, now students are being asked to bring the books back to school for a refund. And what happens to the kids who hang onto them? 

THEY COULD BE CHARGED WITH POSSESSION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. For real!

That’s why Mary Duval will be so missed. She fought the dumbing down of the terms “child abuse” and “child porn” to the point where normal, non-violent activities could qualify as crimes. She fought so that normal, non-violent folks like  teens who have sex with their girlfriends, or send sexts, or HOLD ONTO THEIR YEARBOOKS would not end up as official sex offenders.

Why is this a Free-Range issue? Because the more non-dangerous activities we start labeling as “dangerous to children,” the more society becomes convinced that our children are in constant peril. So the more ridiculous laws we pass, and the more we pull our kids inside, and the more we distrust our neighbors and everyone else. (For a lovely example, see my post on the church that will not allow married couples to teach Sunday School unless a third adult is in the room with them, lest the dad molest the students and the wife refuse to testify against him.)

It is so easy to inflate fear and so hard to bring it back down to the real world. This was Mary’s calling. I believe it is also mine.

R.I.P. Mary Duval. — L.

Hi Readers —  Last summer I spent a day with Mary Duval, her son Ricky, and Ricky’s wife. Mary and Ricky were in town to appear on a John Stossel show about the country’s sex offender laws, mostly because Ricky had ended up on the sex offender registry at age 16. He’d met a girl at a club, had sex with her twice, and only later learned she’d been 13, not the 15 or so she’d told him she was. Anyway, the whole, harrowing story is here and I’ve written about it before. What brought Mary to Stossel’s attention is that she fought the law that turned her son into a “sex offender,” and eventually got it changed in her state. She even got her son’s conviction expunged. This kind of victory is rare. Other young men like Ricky are on the registry for life.

Injustice made Mary into the kind of activist they make movies about…when the activism doesn’t involve sex offenders. Just about the same time her son was convicted, she went blind from Marfan Syndrome. A divorcee, she moved the family to a trailer in the middle of Oklahoma, since Ricky couldn’t live many places in town. Sex offenders have to locate a certain distance from schools, churches, day care centers – any place children may congregate. (And yet bank robbers don’t have to live a certain distance from banks.  And murderers can live anywhere. Go figure.)

Anyway, that day Mary was in New York, we painted the town red. We went to Central Park, and Fifth Avenue and Chinatown. What’s really fun if you’re blind? We sailed into a fancy perfume store and soaked up all the scents, even as the snooty salesgirl glared at us. We went to Barney’s, the ultimate in chic, where a sloppy-looking handbag cost $3000, and Ricky and his wife took pictures of the crazy New York prices. It was a great day. And as we walked along, Mary’s cell phone kept ringing. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a mom who’s been suicidal for about a year. Her son was 15, he got a sext from his girlfriend, who’s 17, but the prosecutor got him for kiddie porn.” Or, “Oh, that’s a mom whose son is on the sex offender registry – the cops found something on his computer. And now when anyone rings the bell at their house he has to answer the door, ‘I am a convicted sex offender.’ She’s having a hard time.” Another mom called, also upset. She had to take all the photos of relatives under the age 18 down from her walls, because her son was on the registry and that’s what his parole officer demanded.

The moms called Mary for strength. She listened, offered some bracing words, maybe snorted with gallows humor and told them to call her again anytime. “That mom who was suicidal? She’s finally coming out of it,” said Mary, sounding damn pleased. “She’s getting ready to fight.”

I wish I could say the same for Mary, but in the less than a year since I saw her, she was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemo. She managed to make it to a couple of legislative hearings to explain that while we all want our children to be safe from predators, some of the sex offender laws aren’t making that happen. In fact, they’re making our sons less safe. And then, very recently, she broke her back.

Right now, the word I’m hearing is that Mary is in a coma.  The prognosis is grim and her message machine is full.

Of course it is. The moms keep calling her. They need her. We all do.

Hoping for a miracle. – L.

Hi Readers — Last week I was on a radio show where the host wondered how I could endorse the idea of kids playing outside, now that we KNOW we are surrounded by “sexual predators.” I replied that Sex Offender Registry is confusing because some people on it really do (or at least did) prey on children, but many of them don’t or won’t, and we can’t always tell which is which.  I didn’t get a chance to say this, but  a study by the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board — Georgia! Not a state wussy on crime — concluded that five percent of the people on its registry were “clearly dangerous.” It also determined that just over 100 of the 17,000 (1 in 170) were actual “predators” — people who feel compelled to commit sex crimes. (Read this Economist article for more info.) Here the story of one of the other 169:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I know in some ways this isn’t exactly Free-Range, but last Saturday night my 17-year-old son was interrupted by a Sheriff’s deputy while “parking” with a 15-year-old girl.  I hadn’t heard about her, but apparently they’d been bf/gf for a few weeks.
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After I read about the cases of similar situations that resulted in the teenage boy ending up on the Sex Offender Registry, I immediately looked up the age of consent in my state, Oklahoma, which is 16.  Then I sat down with my son and explained the possible consequences of having sex with an under-age girl.  But I guess it didn’t carry much weight coming from mom.
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Now, I think the deputy handled the situation perfectly (even in a somewhat old school way):  he made both kids call their parents and tell them what they had been doing.   The deputy also gave them a good, strong lecture that with a present-day twist: he included the possibility of sex offender registration.  My son drove, so when the situation was over he was sent home in his vehicle, but the girl’s mother had to come pick her up.
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I have to admit that I was initially amused by it, once my son established that the phone call was pretty much the extent of the deputy’s actions.  He had been doing what teenagers do, and getting interrupted by the officer seemed almost like a scene from a ’60s movie.  I have done my best to prepare him for a safe and healthy sexuality, not only has he had comprehensive sex-ed from myself and our church (Unitarian, so it’s a different approach than many churches) about disease and pregnancy prevention, but I have also talked with him about maturity and emotional consequences for both himself and his partner.  I know from personal experience that teens are going to do what they’re going to do, so my approach has always been about sex being a healthy experience, physically and psychologically.  We’ve had open dialog since he was about 5 or 6 when he asked me, “What is sex?”  My response:  ”Sex is a special kind of hugging and kissing that grown-ups do when they really love each other a whole lot.”
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My first question when he got home was “Were you using/about to use/have ready to use a condom?”  He couldn’t have said “YES!!!” faster or more emphatically.  My second question was, “How old is she?” He said, “Two years younger than me,” which didn’t take a lot of math to figure out that there was potential for real trouble involved.  When I started to remind him of our prior talk, he told me about the deputy’s warning and it was obvious just how hard it hit my son then.  (He event commented that he was going to check ID in the future to make sure a girl was at least 16.)  But I still wasn’t concerned because there was every indication that the event was over and done.
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Unfortunately, that may not be the case.
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The young lady told my son that her mother wants to talk to me.  I understand that she’s upset and I said she was welcome to do so and my son sent the girl my number last night, so she could call me.  Her mother is mad — extremely so — and wants my son to be punished.  Harshly.  Possibly legally.  When he told me that, I started to get nervous and at that point sat down with my son and asked him exactly what happended that night — how far did they go?
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Thankfully, due to our existing relationship on the subject, he was able to tell me honestly and clearly.  They were interrupted before they made it to intercourse, but had progressed to oral sex.
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My son also told me that the girl and her mother have a somewhat contentious relationship and that the mother sometimes calls her daughter “slut” and “whore.”  I believe that the mom is really lashing out at my son out of anger, rather than honestly thinking he did something to hurt her daugher.
Now I’m concerned we should contact an attorney just to cover his butt for whatever may come from this.
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Am I overreacting?  We barely get by as it is and have no money for legal fees.  And if I do need to consult an attorney, what kind?  Criminal/defense?  How do I find a good one, especially with my financial situation?  I’m scared for my son who was just being a normal teenager. What should I do? — Scared Mom
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Dear Scared Mom: I’m scared, too, but I have no legal background. I don’t know if it makes sense to get an attorney just in case things escalate, or possibly wait for them to die down. Thus, I am asking the readers for their advice, and I am wishing you and your son every bit of good luck and fairness. — L.

Possible sex offenders?

Hi Readers — Why was I up till 12:45 last night? I HAD to finish, “Little Brother.” It’s the young adult book by boingboing’s Cory Doctorow that’s all about what would happen after a terrorist attack if the government started suspecting EVERYONE of terrorism, and most of the people were fine with this.

Naturally, the hero is a geeky/brave 17-year-old and his posse of smart friends, and the action is non-stop.  Naturally, i’ts  being made into a movie. UNnaturally, I loved it.  Normally, I’m more of a historical fiction kind of gal — think, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” —  so this was a book I had to filch from my 14-year-old (who is mortified I read one of his favorite things).

In the most exciting way, the book makes you question all the security measures we take for granted: Are they really making us safer? Are they maybe making us LESS safe? Better still, it explains so many of the issues I’m always grappling with. Like — you know how I find the Sex Offender Registry disturbing because so many of the people on it don’t pose a threat to children? And you know how I’m also upset at the idea of background checks for anyone who even walks into a school, a practice that’s becoming more  and more common? I want our kids to be safe, too. So why should these things bother me? What’s the downside, besides the occasional bureaucratic mix up?

Well here’s how Doctorow’s hero, Marcus, explains the problem of casting too wide a net when searching for evil:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first. It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super-AIDS. You develop a test for Super-AIDS that’s 99 percent accurate. I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result — true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy. You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people have Super-AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive” — the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t. That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000/100 = 10,000

One in a million people has Super-AIDS. If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS. But your test won’t identify *one* person as having Super-AIDS. It will identify *10,000* people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent *inaccuracy*.

That’s the paradox of the false positive. When you try to find something really rare, your test’s accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you’re looking for. If you’re trying to point at a single pixel on your screen, a sharp pencil is a good pointer: the pencil-tip is a lot smaller (more accurate) than the pixels. But a pencil-tip is no good at pointing at a single *atom* in your screen. For that, you need a pointer — a test — that’s one atom wide or less at the tip.

This is the paradox of the false positive, and here’s how it applies to terrorism:

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twenty-thousandth of a percent.

That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can sift through all the bank-records, or toll-pass records, or public transit records, or phone-call records in the city and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time.

In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.

That’s such an easy-to-understand explanation of what can happen when we start suspecting too many people of any kind of evil. And rest assured, one of the innocents pulled into the vortex of “Suspected Bad Guy” is our funny, hacking (and horny) “Little Brother” hero, Marcus. Will he get out? Will he change the course of history? Will he get the cute girl with glasses?

There’s only one way to find out! (At least until they make the movie.) — Lenore

P.S. I am not blocking anyone’s comments. My WordPress filter may be doing it. I can’t even find the “missing” comments in my “Awaiting Moderation” cue. So I’m mystified and sorry. Anyway, here’s a link to a free download of the book: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/