by Michael McKay
[The following is a true story, published with permission, which has had significant and lasting consequences for everyone involved. The names and some minor details have been changed to protect those individuals from further harm and stigmatization.]
In 2003, JoAnne Hester was a 39-year old married mother of three children, carving out a typical small-town existence in a rural county of the State of Virginia. As a working mom, she certainly had her fair share of parental challenges, but the most vexing problem in recent months was her oldest child.
JoAnne’s 14-year old son Erik had been going over to the house next door an awful lot over the past few months, which seemed extremely odd, since there were no other kids living there – just Brenda Mears, a 28-year old divorcee who seemed to have way too much free time on her hands. When JoAnne confronted Erik about it, he claimed that Brenda was teaching him how to do scrapbooking, a hobby he’d never shown any interest in previously.
Skeptical, JoAnne told Erik that he was not to spend any more time at Brenda’s house, a decree that angered him, but which he grudgingly accepted. Even so, just a few days later, JoAnne saw him exiting Brenda’s front door one afternoon and confronted him about it. There was a shouting match on the front lawn punctuated with sharp denials from Erik and escalating threats of punishment and loss of privileges from JoAnne. By the end of the confrontation, Erik was grounded for a month. JoAnne naively thought that would put a stop to his increasingly out-of-control behavior. She was wrong.
Two weeks later, on her way down the hallway to the bathroom at three in the morning, JoAnne found Erik’s bedroom empty. In a fit of anger, she called the local police. When they arrived, she told them that her son was most likely next door, ensconced in Brenda’s bed. The policemen went next door and pounded on Brenda’s front door. After what seemed like several minutes of knocking, Brenda answered, wearing only a robe. After some questioning, she admitted that the boy was in the house. They took the boy aside, and questioned him, too. His responses must have been damning, because a short time afterward, the officers arrested Brenda for carnal knowledge of a minor.
Next, the officers spoke to JoAnne and asked how long this had been going on. Without thinking for a moment that she, herself, could become the target of a police investigation, she replied that Erik’s suspicious visits to Brenda’s place had been going on for at least three or four months. After a huddled conversation amongst themselves, the officers advised JoAnne that she was being arrested for failing to report a sex crime in a timely manner, a sub-section of the state law against indecent liberties with a child by custodial or supervisory relationship. By legislative decree, that charge is classified as a “violent” felony. Her son Erik was also taken into custody at that time and placed in juvenile detention.
A few months later, while still in the county jail, JoAnne sat in a bare cubicle and listened in disbelief as her attorney advised her to accept a plea bargain that was being offered by the State’s Attorney. The proposed deal would result in a maximum twelve-month prison sentence, her attorney explained, rather than risk a possible twenty-years-to-life sentence by going to trial. Though her head may have been spinning at the time, to the best of her recollection, JoAnne swears that her lawyer never told her that accepting this guilty plea would require her to register as a violent sex offender for the rest of her life. She just knew that a maximum of twelve months sounded a hell of a lot better than a minimum of twenty years in prison.
She took the plea. She spent twelve months in a state prison as a model prisoner. Thirty days prior to her release, her prison caseworker informed her for the first time that she would be placed on the state registry upon her release. She says she was blindsided by this news, and she spent her last month in prison in a daze of stunned disbelief.
That was fifteen years ago, and JoAnne is still on VADOC probation and considered a violent sex offender by the state. Due to other hardships in her family she is now raising four of her six grandchildren, and yet she isn’t allowed to take them to school or pick them up, can’t attend any school sporting events or recitals, can’t take them to play at the park or swim in the community pool, and can’t take them trick-or-treating.
She’s happily married, but the hardships of being on the sex offender registry have taken a terrible toll on her relationship with her husband, who is also affected by the irrational residency restrictions, endless humiliation and harassment from the community, and the added expense and hassles of having to arrange for others to take the kids where they need to go every day. She can petition the state to allow her on school property, but the process is a lengthy one, and may be denied.
JoAnne suffers her fate in relative silence, fully aware that most people will simply assume that because she is classified as a violent sex offender that she must therefore be a predator of the highest magnitude and worthy of the scorn that they heap upon her and her family. The public is largely unaware that 83% of the sex crimes under VA law are classified as “violent,” whether they involved any actual violence, or not.
She and her husband are barely making ends meet financially, which means that pursuing a legal remedy for her situation will be difficult, if not impossible. She tells her story to anyone who will listen, but nothing changes. If anything, the restrictions and persecution have only gotten worse for her over the past few years. The one island of stability in their lives has been the fact that they have been able to stay in their home. Virginia has 500 foot residency restrictions, unlike many states which have 2000 or 2500 foot restrictions which often force registrants out of their homes and into homelessness.
The people on the sex offender registry are individuals, each with a story to tell. Their crimes are incredibly diverse – sometimes laughable, other times horrifying. Registrants exist on a spectrum ranging from the seven-year old who gets caught playing doctor with his little sister on one end to the psychopath who rapes and murders strangers for kicks at the other end of the spectrum.
The great majority of registrants are at neither of those extremes. Most are simply common people who have made some extraordinarily bad decisions, people who have paid an enormous price for their mistakes, and now simply want a chance to rebuild their post-incarceration lives free of fear, harassment, or discrimination.
Keeping them shamed, unemployed, or homeless serves no purpose but vengeance, and makes our communities less safe for everyone.