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