By Pamela Dorsey
The Missouri Legislature overwhelmingly passed legislation last year that would remove many juvenile offenders from the public sex offender registry, which is posted on the Internet. It would not have lessened the punishment for any offender. Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the legislation and then launched a misleading campaign in which he highlighted some of the worst offenders on the registry.
Let me tell you my son Zach’s story, as it gives a very different perspective. It shows how harmful the sex offender registry can be for juveniles who should not even be classified as sex offenders, much less be on a public registry for the world to see.
Zach was a typical boy. He loved playing baseball and even made the all-star team with the American Legion. He loved hunting with his dad, being with his friends, playing video games and so often making us laugh. He was a kind-hearted, life-loving spirit.
At age 14, Zach was coming into his sexuality. Like many of his friends, he searched the Internet for girls his own age. But girls his age in sexually explicit pictures are classified as child pornography. When he downloaded them, he had no idea he was breaking the law. He believed that if something was readily available on the Internet, it must be OK.
Through the years he randomly viewed his downloaded library. One of the videos Zach downloaded was tagged by a federal agency that tracks child pornography. A few months after Zach turned 18, in 2008, St. Charles County deputy sheriffs were at our door to confiscate his computer. He was later called to the sheriff’s office for an interview. He went willingly and without a lawyer, thinking he had done nothing wrong.
At 6:30 on the morning of Jan. 7, 2010, our nightmare began. Federal agents knocked on our door with an arrest warrant for Zach. My husband and I hired a lawyer, who informed us Zach was facing four to 10 years in prison. We were in complete shock. On July 1, 2010, Zach was sentenced to 40 years of supervised release and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
Zach was also ordered to take sex therapy. The therapy was more harmful than helpful. Part of his treatment was being forced to say he received sexual gratification from watching children have sex, which he did not. If he refused, he was threatened with being kicked out of class. That would have landed him in prison.
Zach became depressed and felt hopeless. He was prescribed anti-anxiety pills by his doctor. The doctor told me he believed Zach’s anxiety was caused by the treatment he was getting from his mandated sex therapy classes.
Zach would often sit in his room, a prison of its own. He felt like a freak, an outcast and completely powerless. I can only imagine what it is like knowing all your friends are at the first wedding ever in their circle of friends, dancing and celebrating at an occasion you should be part of but are not allowed.
Those on the sex offender registry cannot go anywhere where children might be present. Not to a friend’s wedding. Not to their grandmother’s funeral. Not to a baseball game. Not even to McDonald’s for a hamburger.
Zach was working for our family’s roofing company but was told he couldn’t work on a roof that housed children or had play equipment in the yard. He attempted to find employment elsewhere because children are in almost every home on which we work. But no one wanted to hire a registered sex offender.
Zach tried to look happy and calm for me, but I saw the fear and panic in his eyes. It was a hopeless situation for a 20-year-old boy who made a mistake when he was just a child. On Nov. 4, 2010, I lost my son. The autopsy report deemed his death an accidental overdose. Those of us who knew him well thought he just wanted to escape his pain.
The laws are terribly flawed. Those in Zach’s situation are dealt a “one size fits all” punishment. The laws need to be changed. What happened to Zach and our family should never have to happen to others.