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Juvenile sex offenders marked for life

Records of childhood transgressions, never sealed, limit options for adults

Claudia Rowe, Seattle P-I, June 22, 2008

They were neighbors, aged 13 and 10, who played together in a toy fort at the older boy's home. But one summer afternoon, the teen began talking about masturbation, then performed oral sex on the younger boy. He said they should do it again the next day. And they did.

Soon after, two sheriff's deputies arrived at the adolescent's Eastside home to read the seventh-grader his rights. Within two months, he was a registered sex offender, convicted of first-degree child rape.

"I didn't know that what I was doing was a crime -- that's not to minimize it -- I just didn't know," said Tyler, now 23, who agreed to talk with the Seattle P-I if identified only by his middle name.

"I was just some stupid kid growing up, who had an urge and he didn't know how to cope with it. Afterward, I always wondered, 'Is there something wrong with me? Is there some malfunction in my brain? Am I a pervert?' But it was just my inability to understand what I was feeling."

Since 1997, more than 3,500 children in the state -- some as young as 10, though on average about 14 -- have been charged and convicted as felony sex offenders, a mark that remains on their records forever, barring them from careers in medicine, teaching or a host of other professions that serve the vulnerable. It also frightens many into under-the-radar housing arrangements to avoid landlords who require background checks.

"Juvenile sex offenses cannot be sealed -- ever -- and that's huge," said Kim Ambrose, a former public defender who now runs the Child and Youth Advocacy Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law. "It messes you up with any public housing or any job that allows you access to children -- teaching, coaching, shoot, even cosmetology. The only thing that's available, basically, is to get a pardon from the governor."

Washington is among the few states to include juveniles in its sex offender management plan, assessing youths with tools designed for adults and funneling them through the courts with adult-sized punishments.

Next year, those laws could become even stricter if legislators decide to implement the Adam Walsh Act. The federal legislation, which financially penalizes states that decline to apply it, requires all offenders 14 or older to register with law enforcement for at least 25 years, no matter how upstanding they may have been since their crime.

Tyler, like most youths who get treatment, has never been charged with a sexual offense again. The court sentenced him to two years in an intensive therapy program designed as an alternative to incarceration. He attended school but had to avoid sports -- counseling appointments conflicted with practice -- and he lied desperately to keep his secret from friends.

"As a 13- or 14-year-old, you're sitting there wondering if you're as much of a freak as they say you are," he said. "Are you going to be like this forever? What's going to happen in the future? It's the scariest thing you can possibly imagine."

He looks away then, this preppie young man in a North Face jacket, tears in his eyes.

Now a student at the University of Washington, Tyler has a girlfriend and tries to live as normally as possible. But the childhood record has scuttled his hopes of becoming a doctor and, by alienating him from peers who might ask too many questions, paralyzed much of his social development.

"I was arrested on a Friday morning, at home, by myself," Tyler said, his voice tight at the memory, his fingers snapping a rubber band on his wrist. "I was booked and held, handcuffed to a plastic chair. I remember overhearing one of the police officers calling my mother and telling her there was nothing she could do because her pervert son was going to go to jail."

In general, prosecutors defend their approach to offenders such as Tyler, saying the law treated juveniles too leniently before several changes were made in the 1990s. Therapists who specialize in sexual deviance also acknowledge that some youths warrant aggressive oversight -- kids who hunger for graphic details about sex acts and seem unable to control their impulses.

But these are the minority, said Tim Kahn, who has been treating such young people for nearly three decades. Most of Kahn's patients are closer to the 12-year-old boy he recently met, an elementary school student who had pulled down the panties of his 4-year-old cousin and touched her genitals with several toys. The child, who committed no other crime, is now a registered sex offender.

While supportive of laws that essentially force kids into treatment, Kahn and others wonder at the wisdom of tarring them forever with a childhood act.

"They're branded -- it's on their forehead, even if their face isn't on the Internet," said Michele Shaw, a defense attorney in Seattle who has handled hundreds of these cases. "The punishment is just never-ending."

Shaw is among a group of lawyers and therapists planning to push for new laws that would permit sealing juvenile records in certain cases.

Consequences for these youths may depend, at least in part, on a child's attorney. Jack, for instance -- also 23 and identified here by his middle name -- was discovered at 12 fondling a 5-year-old neighbor. But his lawyer was able to get a felony child molestation charge reduced to assault with sexual motivation, a misdemeanor, and the distinction allowed Jack to have his childhood record legally expunged.

He now works with youngsters at the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Seattle and plans to apply to medical school in the fall -- all of which would have been impossible with a felony history, even if it happened when he was 12.

"I sat down with this woman for like 15 minutes, paid her $100 and the next thing you know, my record was gone," Jack said. "If I hadn't, I know it absolutely would have prevented me from the work I'm doing now, helping kids."

Court officials, acknowledging current research that shows youths who complete sexual deviancy treatment have extremely low rates of recidivism, accept that some refinement of sex crime laws may be in order. But in the current political climate, few believe legislators will make adjustments soon.

Even prosecutors concede that the law for juvenile sex crimes sometimes acts as a bludgeon, rather than a scalpel.

"The entire purpose of the juvenile justice system is more for rehabilitation than retribution," said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff at the Office of the King County Prosecutor, who formerly supervised juvenile sex crimes. "Has that always been accomplished? No, and that's particularly true with juvenile sex offenders."

The vast majority of these felons are rated as Level 1's -- the least likely to re-offend. In King County, for example, of 79 young sex offenders being tracked in a recent week, 84 percent fell into that category.

Yet Goodhew still supports a hard-line approach.

"Under the past system, we didn't treat these cases seriously enough," he said. "Has there been reform and increased punishment from 20 years ago? Yes, and I think that was the right move. But we should always ask, have we gone too far the other way? I don't believe we have."

Many therapists feel otherwise.

"A common misperception is that they're like adults," said Dan Knoepfler, president of the Washington Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "But they're not. We're mainly talking about geeky, nerdy, socially immature kids. And so many of the factors that contribute to risk -- like where they live or how their families work -- are out of their control."

In decades past, Knoepfler said, few believed that youths committing inappropriate sex acts -- whether awkward adolescents or predatory criminals -- needed treatment.

"But my sense is that now we've oversold the case," he said.

Tyler, struggling to find a way to use his talents productively -- medical school is out, a legal career may also pose problems -- agrees, with bitterness evident in his voice.

"All my ambitions are bound by a felony conviction from when I was 13 years old -- 11 years ago," he said. "I just don't want to be a felon any more. I want to wake up one day and not be a criminal, a sex offender. That, I guess, is now my ambition in life."

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