Placement on sex offender registries puts children at risk

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Children legally required to register as sex offenders are at greater risk for suicide attempts, sexual assault, and other harm than juvenile offenders not forced to register, according to a new study.

The most troubling findings, the authors say, pertain to suicidal intent and victimization experiences.

“…the time has come to abandon juvenile registration.”

The study found that registered children were four times as likely to report a recent suicide attempt in the last 30 days, compared to nonregistered children.

Registered children were also nearly twice as likely to have experienced a sexual assault and were five times as likely to have been approached by an adult for sex in the past year. Registered children also reported higher rates of other mental health problems, more peer relationship problems, more experiences with peer violence, and a lower sense of safety.

The findings highlight the consequences of placing children on sex offender registries.

“The process of subjecting children to sex offender registration and notification requirements not only conveys to the child that he or she is worthless, it also essentially alerts the rest of the world that a child has engaged in an illegal sexual behavior,” says lead study author Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor in the mental health department in the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins University.

“Not only is this policy stigmatizing and distressing, but it may make children vulnerable to unscrupulous or predatory adults who use the information to target registered children for sexual assault.”

Thirty-eight states subject children younger than 18 to sex offender registration for offenses adjudicated in juvenile court. All states require sex offender registration for offenses adjudicated in adult court, including when children are waived to criminal court. This practice has been controversial from its beginnings in the mid-1990s due to concerns about the effects of labeling children—often for life—as “sex offenders.”

For the study, the researchers surveyed 256 children ages 12 to 17 across 18 states who had received treatment services for engaging in harmful and/or illegal sexual behaviors. Of these, 74 had been required to register as sexual offenders and/or subjected to public notification in which law enforcement alerted others to the child’s status as a registered offender. Some children were even included on public sex offender registry websites. Five girls were included in the sample, although analyses were ultimately reported only for the 251 boys.

Abused girls take quiet path to adult crime

Compared to nonregistered children in this study, registered children had worse outcomes on measures assessing mental health problems, peer relationships, safety, and exposure to sexual and nonsexual violence.

“Policymakers have argued that, if sex offender registration improves community safety, it is worth the costs associated with it, which begs the question, does registration work? Does it make communities safer?” says Letourneau, who heads the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The answer is a resounding no,” she says. “On top of that, our study suggests that these requirements may place children at risk of the very type of abuse the policy seeks to prevent, among other serious negative consequences. Our hope is that this study will convince even more policymakers that the time has come to abandon juvenile registration.”

Previous research showed that fewer than 3 percent of children adjudicated for a sexual offense go on to commit another one. Despite numerous studies, including this one, that have evaluated the effects of sex offender registration and notification policies, none have found any evidence that suggests that such policies prevent sexual abuse and assault or make communities safer and, in fact, the results from this study suggest that these policies may be harmful to children.

Sexually assaulted teens at greater risk of suicide

The findings appear in Psychology, Public Policy and Law.

The Open Society Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University