By Reece Alvarez
As the executive director of USA FAIR, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for a fair and intelligent sex offender registry, Lewisboro native Shana Rowan faces criticism, insult and at times the threat of harm as part of her professional life.
Her organization, which she co-founded in November, aims to raise awareness about the repercussions family members of registrants face as a result of the national and state use of the sex offender registry system.
“We want to minimize the damage to families and reform the registry into a viable safety tool,” said Ms. Rowan, a John Jay High School graduate who now lives in central New York.
She knows firsthand the consequences of being close to someone on the registry — her fiancé is a registered sex offender who served four years in prison for a sex crime he committed while he was a minor.
At the request of Ms. Rowan and her fiancé, The Ledger has omitted his name to protect his privacy.
Ms. Rowan and her fiancé have experienced financial and legal hardship, targeted vandalism and threats of violence as a result of his registrant status, she said.
“The more I saw, the more I got involved,” she said. “I saw somebody needed to do something.”
Ms. Rowan co-founded USA FAIR (fair and intelligent reform) with family members of registrants, as well as people currently on the registry. Their mission is to educate the public about the myth of high sex offender recidivism and to advocate for reform of the registry that is based on facts and evidence, according to the organization’s website, USAFAIR.org.
Much of the work of USA FAIR centers on combating misinformation and false public perception, Ms. Rowan said, the most predominant of which is the public perception of who actually commits sex crimes and that sex offenders will all inevitably re-commit sex crimes.
“The majority of sex crimes — 96% — are committed by someone who is not on the registry,” Ms. Rowan said.
She also notes that sex offenders have the lowest occurrence of re-offending next to murderers, who have the lowest recidivism rate in the criminal justice system, a point supported by a 2003 Department of Justice study, Ms. Levenson said.
Joan Tabachnik, co-chair of the Prevention Committee for the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers and an expert in the field of sexual abuse prevention, said that 85% to 97% of victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.
“The registry gives people a false sense of security because not all dangerous offenders are there,” Ms. Tabachnik said. “People feel if they know who is on the registry that they are safe, their children are safe. Sex offenders on the registry are not the ones we need to worry about. The ones we don’t know about are the ones we need to worry about.”
In her experience, the majority of sex offenders are not what people see on “To Catch a Predator” or “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” Ms. Tabachnik said. When she thinks of sex offenders she thinks of countless people she has met in her 20 years of experience in the field and, in particular, the children who have been abusive with other children.
“The registry is not just a list of people who abuse children,” Ms. Rowan said. “There are a lot more people, including children and teenagers.”
Risa Sugarman, deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the director of the office of sex offender management, said that to her knowledge there are no complaints of negative consequences from the sex offender registry.
- That is because you are looking at only one side of the story.
“What we hear is that parents are grateful and happy they have this opportunity to keep their children safe,” she said. “What we do here is to provide information to make people feel safer in their communities and what they can do to keep themselves safe.”
- And that is all it does, makes them feel safe. But, they are not. If a person who is on the online shaming hit-list wants to commit a crime, the registry or laws will not stop that.
The registry gives people the knowledge to empower themselves, and that is a part of being a responsible parent, Ms. Sugarman said.
- So if you want to give people knowledge and empower them, then why don't we have an online registry for all criminals? The fact is that many other felons are more dangerous that what you perceive by those on the sex offender registry.
“As a parent, do I want to know if a sex offender is in my neighborhood? Of course I want to know,” Ms. Tabachnik said. “But is that good public policy? Does it make my neighborhood safer? I would say in most cases it doesn’t make it safer and is not a good public policy.”
With the well-established fact that the majority of sex crimes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, people should not be monitoring sex offender registry lists and maps as much as they should be observing the people closest to them and their children, Ms. Tabachnik said.
“You should be watching out for anyone who gives you concern,” she said, “not just a registered sex offender.”
Consequences of the registry
Ms. Tabachnik has less of an issue with the registry than with the public notification aspect of it, she said.
“Public notification without education is like putting a lit match in a gallon of gasoline,” she said.
There is an abundance of research showing there are a lot of collateral consequences that interfere with successful reintegration, Ms. Levenson said. Research from other criminal fields, as well, has shown that stable employment, housing and social support increase the likelihood of success for criminal offenders.
“If you push people to the brink of society and make it impossible to exist, you are taking away all incentives for them to reintegrate,” Ms. Rowan said.
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As part of her work with USA FAIR, Ms. Rowan has collected hundreds of stories of families and individuals affected by the negative consequences of the registry. Difficulty finding and maintaining employment, as well as physical and verbal harassment of children of registrants, are among the top obstacles registrants and their families face.
The group also works to challenge perceptions and terminology frequently portrayed and used in the media and politics.
Bills passed in the New York state Senate on Tuesday, March 5 illustrate the challenges registrants have in turning their lives around after incarceration, Ms. Rowan said. The four bills promote tougher restrictions for registrants, including prohibiting registrants from serving on school boards or as principals; instituting misdemeanor charges for anyone known to harbor, house or employ a defaulting sex offender; and prohibiting high-level sex offenders from living in college housing.
While sexual violence on campuses is an important issue, Ms. Rowan said, she finds these bills to be restrictive to a registrant’s ability to reintegrate in a community. They also further the inflammatory language that promotes a common perception of all sex offenders as predators, she said.
The danger of indifference
“Everyone agrees that sexual crimes need to be punished and that the impact on victims is often incomprehensible,” Ms. Rowan said. “But by refusing to acknowledge information that could help us prevent there being more victims, we are doing a huge disservice.”
Along with Ms. Levenson and Ms. Rowan, Ms. Tabachnik advocates for increased awareness and educational strategies to prevent sex crimes from happening.
Former Penn State football coach and convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky was not on any registry, Ms. Rowan pointed out. Ms. Levenson made a similar observation about Mr. Sandusky and how he represents the more likely source of danger than someone on the registry.
“Perhaps if those parents and the people around had been more educated and understood the dynamics of grooming, noticed what was going on and understood the dynamics of how sexual abuse thrives in the trust between the abuser and victim, it could have been prevented,” she said.
Ms. Tabachnik said that knowing how to set boundaries and teaching children that it is OK to say no and have it be respected is much more important than knowing about a sex offender who is already being watched by the police.
“The biggest misconception is that all sex offenders are all the same and they should all be treated the same,” Ms. Levenson said.
Both she and Ms. Tabachnik said that painting an entire class of people with a broad brush creates room for the truly dangerous to be mixed with non-violent individuals and draws attention away from the true source of danger.
“A blind focus on punishment turns a blind eye to prevention,” Ms. Rowan said. “It’s much easier to pretend all the dangerous people are neatly organized on a magical list than realizing those who cause the most harm are often those closest to us.”