(Note: This story was previously written for SOSEN front page articles in the past but has been rewritten for presentation in an upcoming SOSEN brochure on collateral damage.)
Merriam-Webster defines “collateral damage” as “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target.”
In our quest to punish people for sex offenses, we rarely consider the harm our well-intentioned efforts can cause, not just to the Registered Person, but to the loved ones of the registrant, or loved ones of the registrant, or even those simply tied to a family member of the registrant.
Based on research from national and multi-state research, we know that most sex crimes occur at home by someone known to the victim, like a friend or family member. Based on federal research, most sex crimes occur at home by a friend, family member, or acquaintance of the victim. Most of those arrested have no prior record. Even victim advocates state that false accusations account for 2%-8% of these arrests; this means there are tens of thousands of Registered Persons wrongfully listed on the sex offense registry. My best friend’s father could be one of them.
According to the study “Collateral damage: Family members of registered sex offenders” (Levenson, J. S., & Tewksbury, R., American Journal of Criminal Justice. (2009)), nearly a third of those NOT on the registry living in the same household have suffered threats, harassment, vandalism, assaulted, or injured as the result of being associated with a registered person.
I’ve seen the lasting effects of collateral damage both as an outsider (when I lost my best friend after a sex crime accusation) and as an insider (when I was shunned from my local church for dating a Registered Person).
FROM OUTSIDE THE BOX
One night when I was twelve years old, the police surrounded my best friend’s house. They pounded on the door long after everyone had turned in for the night; they were searching for my best friend’s father. He was handcuffed and accused of molesting his daughter.
This story was plastered on the front page of the local newspaper. Because we lived in a small town in Southern California, everyone in the family, and the community as a whole, knew the details and the names of every person involved in this case by the end of the day. Because of the tone of the news article and the charges brought against the father, people already passed judgment before my best friend’s father had a chance to see an attorney or offer a plea.
Accusations can lead to disastrous consequences for everyone involved. My best friend was shunned, blamed for destroying the family, and called foul names like “slut”; someone even suggested her father would never have been arrested if she hadn’t instigated the entire thing. This foul treatment was extended to my best friend’s younger brother. Other children, school teachers, neighbors, and members of the community had all taken part in the ostracism of my best friend’s family.
My best friend’s family insisted nothing happened, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Those who stood up for my best friend’s family often endured the same ostracism levied against the family. The community was convinced my best friend’s father was guilty.
One day, my best friend pulled me into the girl’s restroom alone for a private conversation. She told me between the tears and sobs that she was heartbroken that she would never see her father again. I asked her why she said that; she responded that the judge told her father that he was an awful man, and that he would hurt her and her younger brother. She did not believe that because she knew her father loved his entire family very much.
I was still very much a child myself and was very confused, so when I returned home, I asked my mother how people in our community can judge my friend or anyone in her family when many did not even know them. My mother tried to explain the situation to me but could only say that there were more confusing laws out there than she could count. She said she did not understand many of these laws, because these did not always seem fair or right.
During math class the next day, two people came into the room and asked my best friend to leave with them. At first she refused by stating her mother had told her to never go anywhere with strangers. The teacher then interjected that leaving with these people was the right thing to do, and she was perfectly safe doing so. I pleaded with her not to go; deep in my gut, I know there was something deeply wrong, and I know my best friend felt it too. But what choice did she have?
That was the last time I saw my best friend. Later, I heard people in the community said her mother had also been arrested for being involved in the case and not protecting her, I also heard both she and her younger brother had been placed into separate foster homes. I don’t know whatever happened to that family, or if the accusations were even true. All I know is that the accusations had torn apart a friendship, a family, and a community.
FROM INSIDE THE BOX
Years after I found myself on the outside looking in as my best friend’s life was shattered to pieces, I found myself on the inside of that same box my friend had occupied.
I found myself living in Northern California. I was a regular attendee and volunteer at a local church. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together, had backyard BBQs, shared recipes and books, many of us also met for coffee or lunch and often went shopping together. These people would also ask me to watch their children when they wanted a few hours away.
In 2011, I began dating a Registered Person, but he did not volunteer at or attend any services at this church. However, people started quietly distancing themselves from me. It was not noticeable at first because it was around the busy holidays; it began with small things like “scheduling conflicts” or “lost invitations” to events. The ostracism became more obvious when people started openly avoiding me and my parents.
One particular day, after “Pastor Frank” had given a great sermon on forgiveness, reminding us how Jesus Christ forgives everyone and every sin. Immediately after this service Pastor Frank, “Brian” (the Head Elder), and his wife “Tammy” (the youth director), called me aside into a small, stuffy room and was told to leave the church because I was dating and advocating for the reintegration of a man on the registry. Brian said the church could not allow me to stay because as everyone knows, “Birds of a feather flock together so I must be a pedophile also, as it was obvious I condoned such behavior.” He informed me that my association with criminals such as this would only draw more to our community and church putting many innocent women and children in danger. Frank and Tammy sat looking on with unsmiling serious scowls on their faces that seemed almost to border on a smirk, nodding occasionally in agreement with Brian. Brian ended the lecture with a statement I felt was threatening in tone; he stated, “Remember, be careful who you associate with. People may think poorly of you and many bad things will happen to you, especially when you associate with known criminals.”
My parents lived in a nice neighborhood across town from me on a quiet street with some of the people from the same congregation as neighbors. Yet, after I stopped attending there were many unexplained acts of vandalism on my parents’ property. My parents’ front porch was egged a couple of times; one time the garage door had been vandalized with spray paint; several times they found nails, screws and such in their tires and scattered across the driveway; my father’s gas tank was emptied one night; and twice the tires on my mother’s van were slashed, with all four tires slashed on one occasion. It seemed strange that none of the neighbors heard or seen anything happening even though the street was well lit and the vandalism was only to my parents’ property.
This nasty demeaning situation left me feeling quite insulted and depressed. I felt that the religious community I had so faithfully befriended and supported for all these years had suddenly turned on me and let me down.
Now that I’ve seen the harm our heavy-handed approach to punishing sexual offenses cause as an outsider and an insider, I advocate for sweeping reforms that include restorative justice. In our efforts to “protect children,” we must learn to temper that desire with voice of reason. Destroying lives in an attempt to save lives is not truly saving anyone.