One morning in 2007, Leah DuBuc, a twenty-two-year-old college student in Kalamazoo, began writing an essay for English class that she hoped would save her life. She knew that people like her had been beaten, bombed, shot at, killed. The essay aired details about her past that she’d long tried to suppress; by posting it on her class’s server, where anyone who Googled her name could find it, she thought she might be able to quiet the whispers, the threats, and possibly make it easier to find a job. Her story, she warned, “is not a nice one, but hopefully it will have a happy ending.”
DuBuc had grown up in Howell, Michigan, a small town of berry and melon farmers. In high school, she had thrived. She had earned straight A’s, written for the school newspaper, led Students Against Driving Drunk (she voted to change the name to Students Against Destructive Decisions, she says, to stress that “there are lots of bad decisions that can get you killed”), and performed in “Grease” and “Once Upon a Mattress,” while working part time as a cashier at Mary’s Fabulous Chicken & Fish. “High school was bliss for me,” DuBuc said recently. “I tried not to dwell on the stuff that wasn’t good.” But, as she was about to start her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she got a call from a close childhood friend, Victoria, who asked, “Did you know you’re on the public sex-offender registry?”
Her friend, who had just given birth to a baby girl, had logged on to the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry Web site to search for local predators. She had entered her Zip Code, and there was Leah’s face—her copper bangs, her wide cheeks, her brown eyes staring blankly from the photograph. Her name, weight, and height were listed; so was the address where she’d grown up, playing beneath tall pines and selling five-cent rocks that she’d painted with nail polish. Something DuBuc had done at the age of ten had caught up with her. Victoria knew the story, which DuBuc described as “play-acting sex,” in elementary school, with her younger step-siblings. Online browsers would see only the words on the page: “CRIMINAL SEXUAL CONDUCT.”
A senior in college now, DuBuc was tired of hiding. She wanted everyone to know what it was like to join the many thousands of people across the country who are on the registry—often decades into adulthood—for crimes they committed as children. “After reading my very condensed life story,” she wrote, “I am convinced you will agree that I am a strong, determined young woman, who has risen above the obstacles which have been set in my path.” On an April morning, she published the essay, titled “So, Who is Leah DuBuc Anyway?,” and prayed for relief.
When I visited DuBuc in Howell last summer, I had already spoken to a number of people who had been accused of sex offenses as juveniles and ended up on a public registry. Some, like DuBuc, had been placed on the registry for things they’d done before they reached their teens.
In Charla Roberts’s living room, not far from Paris, Texas, I learned how, at the age of ten, Roberts had pulled down the pants of a male classmate at her public elementary school. She was prosecuted for “indecency with a child,” and added to the state’s online offender database for the next ten years. The terms of her probation barred her from leaving her mother’s house after six in the evening, leaving the county, or living in proximity to “minor children,” which ruled out most apartments. When I spoke to the victim, he was shocked to learn of Roberts’s fate. He described the playground offense as an act of “public humiliation, instead of a sexual act”—a hurtful prank, but hardly a sex crime. Roberts can still be found on a commercial database online, her photo featured below a banner that reads, “PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEX OFFENDERS.”
New technologies in the hands of teens are another route to the registry. In Prince William County, Virginia, two years ago, a seventeen-year-old high-school junior sent a sexual video to his teen-age girlfriend, and found himself charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. The county prosecutor obtained a search warrant to photograph “the erect penis of the defendant.” (Pursuit of the photo was abandoned only after there was a public outcry.) In Fayetteville, North Carolina, a sixteen-year-old girl faced multiple felony charges for “sexting” a picture of herself to her boyfriend. According to the county sheriff’s warrant, she was both the adult perpetrator of the crime at hand—“sexual exploitation of a minor”—and its child victim. Her boyfriend faced similar charges.
Most juveniles on the sex-offender registry pose a more daunting public-policy challenge: they have caused sexual harm to other children, through non-consensual touch and other abusive behaviors. Childhood sexual abuse is troublingly widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, and in a third of such cases, the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth says, the offenses were committed by other juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” a study sponsored by the Department of Justice notes.
Often, these incidents go unreported. But the devastation that may result from childhood sexual assault can last a lifetime, fuelling depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and other signs of post-traumatic stress. Compounding the original trauma is the fact that victims’ voices are often silenced, sometimes by those in positions of trust or power.
Kids who sexually harm other kids seldom target strangers. A very small number have committed violent rapes. More typical is the crime for which Josh Gravens, of Abilene, Texas, was sent away, more than a decade ago, at the age of thirteen. Gravens was twelve when his mother learned that he had inappropriately touched his eight-year-old sister on two occasions; she sought help from a Christian counselling center, and a staffer there was legally obliged to inform the police. Gravens was arrested, placed on the public registry, and sent to juvenile detention for nearly four years. Now, at twenty-nine, he’s become a leading figure in the movement to strike juveniles from the registry and to challenge broader restrictions that he believes are ineffectual. He has counselled more than a hundred youths who are on public registries, some as young as nine. He says that their experiences routinely mirror his own: “Homelessness; getting fired from jobs; taking jobs below minimum wage, with predatory employers; not being able to provide for your kids; losing your kids; relationship problems; deep inner problems connecting with people; deep depression and hopelessness; this fear of your own name; the terror of being Googled.”
Often, juvenile defendants aren’t seen as juveniles before the law. At the age of thirteen, Moroni Nuttall was charged as an adult, in Montana, for sexual misconduct with relatives; after pleading guilty, he was sentenced to forty years in prison, thirty-six of which were suspended, and placed on a lifetime sex-offender registry. In detention, the teen-ager was sexually assaulted and physically abused. Upon his release, his mother, Heidi, went online in search of guidance. “I’m trying to be hopeful,” she wrote on an online bulletin board, but “I wonder if he even stands a chance.”
Last fall, she contacted a national group called Women Against Registry, joining the ranks of mothers who are calling into question what a previous group of parents, those of victimized children, fought hard to achieve. Recently, common ground between the two groups has emerged. Many politicians still won’t go near the issue, but a growing number of parents—along with legal advocates, scholars, and even law-enforcement officials—are beginning to ask whether the registry is truly serving the children whom it was designed to protect.
The sex-offender registry is a modern development, the impulse behind it—to prevent crimes by keeping tabs on “bad actors”—is not. In 1937, after the sexualized murders of several young girls in New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called for the police to keep a secret list of “all known degenerates.” A decade later, California built the first database of sex offenders, for private use by the police. But the practice of regulation took off only in the nineteen-nineties, when a tragedy changed the public’s sense of the stakes involved.
One evening in 1989, in the quiet town of St. Joseph, Minnesota, Patty and Jerry Wetterling set out for dinner at a friend’s house, leaving their eleven-year-old son, Jacob, at home with two of his siblings and a friend. Just after sundown, three of them left on their bikes and scooters to rent movies. Returning home, the kids came upon a masked gunman, who grabbed Jacob and chased off the others with death threats. Frantic searches followed, to no avail. Investigators didn’t know the abductor’s motivation, but feared that it was sexual. Afterward, Patty Wetterling kept returning to the question of what might have helped the police find her son’s abductor during those critical early hours. Officials told her that what they needed was a unified database of local residents who had sex-crime convictions. Wetterling went on to fight for such a registry—first in Minnesota, and then nationally. In 1994, she helped win the first federal mandate that all states create a database of people convicted of violent sex crimes or crimes against children. It was known as the Jacob Wetterling Act. “Initially, this was supposed to be a private law-enforcement tool,” Patty Wetterling told me. “I was one of those people who thought, Once a sex offender, always a sex offender, and my view was: Lock ’em up and send ’em away, forever and ever.”
The act marked the first in a series of sex-registry laws, mostly named after nightmarish “stranger danger” cases. Megan’s Law, passed in 1996, required that states make their registries accessible to the public. Jessica’s Law, and its variants, established long mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders convicted of sex crimes against children, and stipulated that certain offenders be subject to lifetime electronic monitoring after their release. Particularly consequential was the crusade of John Walsh, the host of “America’s Most Wanted” and the father of a six-year-old boy who, in 1981, was abducted inside a shopping mall and beheaded. Walsh lobbied for the most sweeping set of changes to date: the Adam Walsh Act. It broadened the scope of the sex-offender registry, mandating the full disclosure of a former offender’s address, along with a photograph, and more; promulgated a form of indefinite detention, known as “civil commitment”; and, in a late addition to the bill, required that children as young as fourteen who had committed certain sex offenses be placed on the public registry. Jurisdictions that refused to comply would lose federal funds.
In 2005, Patty Wetterling travelled to Washington, D.C., with other grieving parents, to support an early version of the bill. “We will not tolerate sexual violence against our children,” she said at a press conference. An amendment adding certain juvenile offenders to the federal bill had been spurred by the devastating testimony of a teen-ager named Amie Zyla; at the age of eight, Zyla had been sexually abused by another youth, who had gone on to reoffend years later. “We cannot sit back and allow kids to continue to be hurt,” Zyla told Congress. “The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators.” On July 27, 2006, George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Act into law.
Leah DuBuc was a gregarious child. Plump and pleasant-looking, with ginger hair and freckles, she took the crown at the Little Miss Summer pageant, in lakeside Pentwater, Michigan, belting out “You Are My Sunshine”; she brought the same gusto to gardening and tap-dance recitals. Leah’s troubles began when she was eight and her parents got divorced. Her father remarried and won custody of her and her little sister; her mom, mired in personal issues, was granted supervised visits with the girls at the local Dairy Queen. DuBuc was now sharing her old home with her stepmother and her four children—three boys and a girl.
“I’d never had brothers before, and I was curious,” DuBuc told me. One afternoon, after watching movies with her new step-siblings, ten-year-old Leah mimicked having sex with them—“like we’d seen in the movies,” she says—and then, by her account, exposed herself to the younger kids. It happened several more times, she said.
Later that year, DuBuc recounts, a law-enforcement officer visited her elementary-school class and told the students to inform a trusted adult if they had been subject to abuse. DuBuc remembers complaining to him about mistreatment at home; when authorities arrived to investigate, she says, they learned of her sexual misbehavior. According to another family member, however, one of DuBuc’s step-siblings talked about her actions to a therapist, who then alerted the authorities. (As is often true in such cases, the details may be impossible to establish definitively.)
Amid extensive therapeutic interventions, DuBuc was charged with eight counts of criminal sexual conduct, in the first and second degree. The prosecutor, Marilyn Bradford, insists, “There were a lot of scary things that happened to the victims in the case—ongoing things that happened to the little siblings.” But DuBuc’s court-appointed clinical social worker, Wendy Kunce, noted that at the time “there was a history of ‘charging large.’ ”
At the age of twelve, DuBuc arrived in juvenile court for a series of hearings. Her father, a mechanic, drove her to the courthouse, but he didn’t fully grasp the implication of the charges. (DuBuc’s interviews with authorities often occurred without the presence of a parent or a guardian.) Moments before stepping in front of a judge, DuBuc met with her court-appointed attorney, alone. She remembers giggling when she had to say the words “penis” and “vagina,” and when her fingerprints were taken, she told me, “I felt like I was in a movie.”
DuBuc recalls the court-appointed attorney explaining that if she pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal sexual conduct—a graver crime than the one that she says she committed, because it involved penetration—she’d be taken from her home. Given that she wanted to escape the difficult conditions there, she agreed. DuBuc’s investigating officer, Deputy Sheriff Mike Capra, told me, “I think she was hoping to make it easier on everybody by avoiding a long, drawn-out process and saying, ‘O.K., I goofed up, I’m a kid, I’ll learn from it and move on.”
In April, 1997, the judge ordered that DuBuc be sent to a residential juvenile-sex-offender treatment facility in Manteno, Illinois, called Indian Oaks Academy, where she stayed for nearly two years. An adult could have gone to prison for life, the judge warned, and, as she recalls it, proclaimed her a “lucky girl.”
She was the youngest child in her program at Indian Oaks, a facility surrounded by cornfields and a golf course. Many of the girls there were sixteen or seventeen, with histories of trauma that surfaced as rage. The older girls—Leah roomed with three others—verbally and physically abused one another, and occasionally her. A staffer sometimes sat on top of girls to restrain them, DuBuc recalls. “There was this padded room, and I’d take a book in there and read,” she told me. “I felt safe there.”
Five days a week, she went to sex-offender treatment with the girls from her unit. The program borrowed heavily from addiction theory. “Your identity is you’re a sex offender,” DuBuc recalls the girls being told. They’d never be cured, but they could learn to refrain from harming people in the future. To graduate, DuBuc would have to admit to acts that she says she never committed (such as the contested claims of penetration) but to which she’d pleaded guilty, under conditions that she has come to view as coercion. The daily treatment was exhausting, though she did have one therapist who seemed to believe in her. She was grateful, too, for a pastor who arrived one day, teaching the Gospel, and gave her a Bible. “From that point forward,” she recalls, “I had hope.”
For some youths convicted of sex offenses, treatment is a chance to escape a turbulent home life, or to reroute a warped trajectory. “But this idea that a ten-year-old kid who does something sexually inappropriate needs residential treatment is completely insane,” Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me. In the early two-thousands, when Letourneau first began to research juveniles who sexually offend, she discovered that there was little rigorous scholarship about effective treatment. “These offenses do cause harm, and we can never lose sight of that,” she said. “But I believe we can do a much, much better job of targeting the kids who commit these behaviors, and preventing them.” Writing in the journal Ethics & Behavior, in 2008, she and another psychology professor, Charles Borduin, lamented “the research community’s failure—our failure—to subject the most widely used models of treatment to empirical investigation.”
Letourneau and her colleagues set about to address this. Their findings have been significant. Despite what Amie Zyla told Congress in 2005, researchers had already observed that most youths who are charged with a sex offense—upward of ninety-five per cent, Letourneau told me—don’t reoffend sexually. The motives behind their crimes, too, are different from those of most adults who sexually offend. In many cases of early adolescents who sexually touch younger kids in their families, the best treatment may not be “sex offender” treatment at all; some children have never been taught that such touching is unacceptable, and providing training in sexual boundaries will suffice. For kids with more serious sexual-behavior problems, a family-based model known as “multi-systemic therapy” has proved its worth, combining individualized treatment of a child with programming that involves the child’s parents or caretakers. “We now have an effective treatment,” Letourneau said, referring to this more holistic approach, “but it’s just not available to ninety-nine per cent of kids.”
What is available, too often, is a form of commercial treatment that can be abusive in its own right. In my interviews with registrants and their families, one question came up repeatedly: “Have you looked into the therapy industry?” Many treatment programs have dedicated, well-trained staff members who engage with families and seem to help children thrive. But some providers lack the resources that would allow them to separate offenders of various risk levels. And, in some parts of the country, I found a cottage industry of court-authorized but poorly regulated therapy providers subjecting kids and teens to widely debunked interventions or controversial invasive technologies. Juveniles undergoing treatment for sex offenses have been exposed to severe verbal abuse, beatings, and even sexual predation at residential facilities. Not a few people have been placed in dubious but costly treatment programs for actions that many believe should never have been criminalized in the first place. These experiences are hardly exclusive to juveniles; they extend to many youths over eighteen, whose journeys through the justice system can be equally alarming. The most surprising instances are known as the “Romeo and Juliet” cases, involving consensual sex between teens.
In July of 2003, not long after his senior year of high school, Anthony Metts got a summer job at the lakeside camp where he’d once been a camper. Metts, who grew up in Midland, Texas, was adopted; at school, where he was one of its few Mexican-Americans, he’d been taunted for being a “wetback.” But things were different at the camp, and as a counsellor he was in heaven. He ran archery sessions and visits to the Blob, the camp’s famous floating trampoline. Then, one afternoon, a Texas Ranger and a Midland cop arrived at the camp and asked to speak with him. After driving him to a local police station, the officers told him that they were investigating the illegal sale of items from a Midland Police Department evidence room, and an informant had tossed out his name as a potential source of information.
Officers noted that Metts had been keenly coöperative. But he knew nothing about the theft, which, it later emerged, had been perpetrated by a rogue employee of the police department. Eager to get a confession, and seemingly convinced of his association with the crime, the officers pressed him on another tip they’d heard: Hadn’t Metts been hanging out with younger girls the previous year? Was it possible that he’d had sex with them?
Metts told them that when he was eighteen he dated a girl who was three years younger. And he’d also had a brief sexual relationship with a girl more than three years younger, whom he met during his junior year of high school, when she was a freshman. Metts helped the officers proofread his statement, oblivious of its significance. When the officers turned the information over to the Midland District Attorney’s Office, the D.A. filed two felony indictments for sexual assault of a child, based on the age-of-consent laws in Texas at the time. (A third charge of sexual assault of a child was raised, then dropped.)
Consent was irrelevant—in fact, impossible—before the law. Not too far away, in the town of Caldwell, a young man had been convicted, at nineteen, for a consensual relationship with a girl who was four years younger, and who later became his wife. Metts’s case was messier; it involved more than one relationship, and he’d left a trail of adolescent misbehavior—speeding tickets, pot, and pranks. His lawyer told him that he would face life in prison if the case went to trial. He decided to take a plea deal: a suspended sentence and ten years of probation.
Metts, who was twenty-one by then, read the terms of his post-plea life. For the next decade, he’d be barred from alcohol and the Internet; from entering the vicinity of schools, parks, bus stops, malls, and movie theatres; and from living within a thousand feet of a “child-safety zone.” A mugshot of his curly-haired, round-cheeked face would appear for life on the Texas sex-offender registry, beside the phrase “Sexual Assault of a Child.” And he would have to start sex-offender treatment.
The treatment plan was extensive. He was told to write up a detailed sexual history, and then to discuss it with a room full of adults, some of whom had repeatedly committed child assaults. On his first day of class, he recalls, he entered a group circle beside a dentist who had violated several patients while they were under anesthesia. To graduate, he would have to narrate his “assaults” in detail: “How many buttons on her shirt did you unbutton?”
The plan also included a monthly polygraph (a hundred and fifty dollars) and a computerized test that measured how long his eyes lingered on deviant imagery (three hundred and twenty-five dollars). He would also have to submit to a “penile plethysmograph,” or PPG. According to documents produced by the state of Texas, the PPG—known jokingly to some patients as a “peter meter”—is “a sophisticated computerized instrument capable of measuring slight changes in the circumference of the penis.” A gauge is wrapped around the shaft of the penis, with wires hooked up to a laptop, while a client is presented with “sexually inappropriate” imagery and, often, “deviant” sexual audio. Metts would be billed around two hundred dollars per test.
In parts of the country, including New York, judges have banned the PPG; one federal ruling noted “the obviously substantial humiliation of having the size and rigidity of one’s penis measured and monitored by the government.” (The PPG was invented in the nineteen-fifties by a sexologist from Czechoslovakia, and used by the Czech military to expose soldiers suspected of pretending to be gay in order to avoid service.) But Texas’s Council on Sex Offender Treatment says that the test is capable of “breaking through the offender’s denial,” helping to tailor treatments that can “address all of the offender’s sexual interests.”
When Metts balked at what felt to him like technological invasions—not least the prospect of having a stranger measure his penis—he was jailed for ten days. A new round of weekly therapy sessions (thirty dollars for group, and fifty dollars for one-on-one) then commenced.
When I reviewed half a dozen sex-offender-treatment workbooks, I found that most elicit a thorough sexual history. (“Describe and discuss, in detail, a repeated masturbatory fantasy.”) Then come the exercises. One workbook instructs patients to masturbate to an illicit scene, then sniff an “ammonia inhalant” until their “state of sexual arousal is completely removed.” Another manual introduces children and teens to the practice of “aversive scenes.” Youths must masturbate to a deviant thought, then, at peak arousal, switch to an image of “something that you find disgusting . . . e.g. Brussels sprouts.” A third requires patients to imagine a “punishment scene,” conjuring up unbearable shame as a prophylactic, much as gay youths were once taught, in conversion therapy, to use the fear of familial judgment as a corrective.
Several scholars told me that the notion of shaming youths into compliance is itself a fantasy. In the journal Child Maltreatment, the pediatric psychologist Mark Chaffin describes polygraphs, masturbation logs, and other such methods as “coercive techniques of doubtful accuracy, untested benefit, and considerable potential for harm.” But therapeutic failures can be lucrative for providers: the longer someone stays in treatment, the longer the person provides a steady income.
“There’s an awful lot of money involved in prosecuting, locking up, treating, and registering these folks,” Phil Taylor, a former therapist for men convicted of sex offenses in Texas, told me. Under contract with the state, he spent some ten years treating hundreds of adults convicted of violent sex crimes, along with young adults who had had consensual relationships with other teens. A decade ago, in 2006, Taylor’s faith in the treatment protocols was shaken by new research. He renounced the field and began working for legislative reform of the registry. “It’s hard for people to change their minds when their livelihood depends upon this money stream,” he told me.
In Midland, Anthony Metts continued to struggle with treatment. He acknowledged that his behavior as a teen had been reckless. He told me, “Do I think I needed some sort of therapy? Yes. But do I think I needed sex-offender therapy? Hell, no.” Still, the rules left few options. Eventually, he agreed to acknowledge how he’d “groomed” his “victims”: in one case, they’d gone to dinner, a movie, and—for a Halloween date—to a local haunted house.
His life, meanwhile, increasingly felt like a series of derailments. He had been fired from a job he loved at a local radio station when an advertiser learned of his status on the registry and protested. The best gig he could find was in Midland’s oil fields, working dispatch. His mother began to worry about whether he’d make it through a decade of probation. She recalled the judge’s warning, on the day that Metts took the plea: “It’s a good deal if you make it, or else it’s a pretty lousy deal if you don’t.”
At Indian Oaks, Leah DuBuc told me, “I did what I had to do to save my own skin.” She was released on a summer morning, and her father, who had divorced her stepmother, drove her to a campsite, where three of her childhood friends celebrated her return from “boarding school.” DuBuc flourished in high school. Her occasional check-ins with her probation officer weren’t onerous. Victoria was one of the few classmates who knew about her secret.
But, not long after DuBuc’s time at Indian Oaks, the Michigan legislature passed a new sex-offender law creating an online registry that was available to anyone with an Internet connection. DuBuc was required to register privately with the local authorities; when she was eighteen, her name and personal information would be made public online. The law set a mandatory minimum of twenty-five years on the registry—based on a template that was spreading across the country.
At first, the requirements were easily met. Each year, DuBuc’s dad would send in her latest weight, height, and address. In school, meanwhile, DuBuc earned a reputation as Little Miss Civics; she ran the Diversity Club and, after graduation, went to Guatemala with church friends to build an orphanage. But when she got Victoria’s call she learned that strangers could now map an easy route to her childhood home, using the state’s online sex-offender database. “This is where my life became a living hell all over again,” she later wrote.
Throughout her first semester in college, she was dogged by fears of being outed. During winter break, her boyfriend invited her home to Brighton, Michigan. DuBuc agreed, but sheepishly explained that their first stop in town would have to be the police station. Her understanding was that she had to check in with local cops within forty-eight hours of arriving in a new town or face a felony charge.
Her boyfriend parked in the lot of the Brighton Police Post. “I’m here to fill out the paperwork,” DuBuc told the trooper at the front desk. “I’m a registered sex offender.”
“We don’t serve your kind here,” he replied. “You better leave before I take you out back and shoot you myself.”
Back at the car, DuBuc wept. Her boyfriend filed a formal complaint, and eventually a letter arrived from the station’s lieutenant, apologizing for the trooper’s “unacceptable” behavior.
DuBuc felt increasingly unsettled. “I didn’t really have people I could talk to who understood my situation,” she recalls. “I couldn’t talk to my mom—she was going through her own issues—and my dad would feel too guilty. I fell into a deep depression.” She made an effort to stay engaged in the world she still hoped to build, marching with the local living-wage campaign, travelling with her church group to Japan for the summer. At college, where she pursued a double major in comparative religion and social work, she racked up accolades: a Presidential Scholar award, a steady spot on the dean’s list. But, outside of her academics, things seemed only to get worse. As shows like “To Catch a Predator” débuted and awareness grew, registrant-shaming became a popular pastime. Soon, the state legislature voted to require registrants to report their place of work, volunteer activity, and education; new “Predator-Free Zones” were also introduced, prohibiting convicted sex offenders from going within a thousand feet of a school. Many such laws were applied retroactively, lumping juvenile offenses with those of adults.
One morning during her junior year, DuBuc returned to her room from psychology class to find a yellow Post-it on her door: “We know you’re a sex offender. GET OUT OF OUR DORM. You’re not wanted here.” She tore it up, and told no one. A few days later, as she sat in her room working on a paper for class, she heard a ping from her AOL Instant Messenger account. The sender was anonymous. “We know you’re a sex offender,” DuBuc read. “Get out.”
She no longer felt safe in the dorm. But in order to rent her own apartment she’d need a decent income. She applied for jobs that interested her—working with the homeless, helping out an urban ministry—without success. Then McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway turned her down because of her offender status. For a while, she dropped out of school, returning to Howell and working as a home-health-care aide. But she knew that her best chance of becoming independent was to complete her education. She moved into a homeless shelter in Kalamazoo and returned to class. Eventually, a church friend with whom she’d gone on a mission trip to Japan took her in, letting her sleep on the sofa.
Unable to escape the public registry, DuBuc decided to study it, and then take it on. She bought a thick green binder and began to compile research: notes on the historical development of the juvenile-justice system, and studies of the registry’s impact on public safety. Finally, she began to write her story. “I’m a loving sister. . . . I’m an intern for the Kalamazoo City Commission,” she wrote in “So, Who Is Leah DuBuc Anyway?,” uploading the essay, along with friendly photographs (Leah with a campus Christian group, Leah arm in arm with her siblings). “I’m an advocate for the homeless, and disenfranchised. . . . Do I sound like a violent, predatory sex offender to you?”
But vigilantism, too, has found opportunity in transparency. Most state registries publish an explicit warning against using the database for so-called citizen justice. To judge from my conversations with more than forty youth registrants and their families, however, these warnings have done little to prevent threats and violent attacks. Mike Grottalio, in Weatherford, Texas, told me how his daughter, who was sexually abused by her brothers when they were ten and twelve (and she was seven), had suffered further because of her siblings’ registration. After the boys returned from two years of detention, the family dog was shot to death by a neighbor. Then the local paper ran their names and address under the headlines “COUNTY SEX-OFFENDER ROUNDUP” and, later, for Halloween, “KNOW WHERE THE MONSTERS ARE.” More recently, a Molotov cocktail spilled flames across the family’s driveway, and BB-gun pellets were fired at their home’s vinyl siding after a neighbor passed out warning flyers. “It’s made outcasts of our whole family,” Grottalio said of the registry. “The damage has been done. There’s no repairing it.”
In a small, religious neighborhood of Pinesdale, Montana, Heidi Nuttall described how locals held a meeting about her son—a registrant since the age of fourteen—that amounted to something “just short of a lynch mob.” Soon afterward, someone fired a BB gun at the door of the home where her son slept. A third mother, from Missouri, showed me photographs sent to her by local registrants who had apparently been singled out for retribution. She’d blown the pictures up to poster size, showing them to anyone who would look. One featured a registrant’s face that resembled a smashed tomato: two men had broken into his home and bashed him with a tire iron.
In recent years, mothers like these have come together in groups like Women Against Registry, and they’ve begun showing up at the same events as Stacie Rumenap’s Stop Child Predators, sharing their own stories. Rumenap, for one, has little sympathy for those in the group advocating for husbands or adult sons who have been convicted of harming children; she isn’t convinced that most convicted adults should get a second chance. But the stories of juveniles on the registry have increasingly swayed her. “Never in our wildest dreams were we going state by state asking lawmakers to punish juveniles,” she told me, of her early years of lobbying for registry laws. “You can’t handle these types of kids—and they’re kids—in the same way you handle an adult and expect them to be rehabilitated.”
Back in 2006, she helped bring a Florida father, Mark Lunsford, to Capitol Hill, to tell the story of how his daughter, Jessica, had been kidnapped, raped, killed, and buried by a man with a long history of abusing children. Together, they lobbied for the passage of Jessica’s Law, in Florida and beyond. But, soon afterward, Rumenap learned that Lunsford’s eighteen-year-old son had been arrested in Ohio, for heavy petting with a fourteen-year-old. Now the teen faced inclusion on the very registry that his father had fought to bolster in his murdered sister’s name. “When these laws started getting implemented and enforced, we didn’t realize what would happen,” Rumenap told me. “Now here we are, stuck asking, How do we solve this problem?”
Leah DuBuc’s study of the registry evolved into an encyclopedia on juvenile registration. Under the tab “Definitions, History, and Origins,” she charted the creation of the Adam Walsh Act and how use of the registry varied from state to state. In South Carolina, she noted, a nine-year-old could be placed on the registry for life. Other states, including New York and Georgia, defied the act’s requirements and declined to place children in their online databases, at the risk of losing funds.
DuBuc had come from a tight-lipped family—even today, some of her relatives have no idea why she was suddenly whisked away from home in sixth grade. But she began writing letters to every local power broker she could think of, asking for a second chance and pleading for the same consideration to be extended to others who faced charges as juveniles. She took her story to the state legislature and urged legal reform, calling for juveniles to be removed from public registries. “I am not alone,” she testified. At the very least, she told the state Senate, youthful offenders deserved a chance to have their cases reviewed for risk and fairness.
Then she waited. In Lansing, a reform bill stalled, then failed. A letter came from a judge, apologizing that her record couldn’t be expunged under current law. In 2008, when DuBuc graduated with a master’s degree in social work, she had earned academic honors but her efforts to either clear or seal her juvenile record had gone nowhere, and she could find few decent prospects for employment.
So DuBuc left her green binder at her father’s house, gave away much of what she owned, and stuffed her favorite sweaters, a Bible, and her CD collection into two duffel bags. America no longer had a place for her, she decided. And, although she didn’t want to separate herself from her friends and her family, she felt that she had no choice but to leave the country.
In rural Minnesota, Patty Wetterling had, by the late two-thousands, devoted more than two decades of her life to keeping young people safe. First, she and her husband established a child-advocacy group, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Then came a brief foray into politics—she ran for Congress in 2006, as a Democrat against Michele Bachmann, touting her years of fighting for “tough penalties for those who harm children”—and a long period of service as the chair of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
With each passing year, Wetterling learned more about the costs and the causes of sexual harm. She studied the prevalence of the problem (vast), its perpetrators (trusted familiars far more often than strangers), and its most effective remedies (programs centered on open lines of communication in households, schools, and communities). Her first major clue that juvenile registration might demand closer scrutiny came in the nineteen-nineties. She had been touring the country, speaking out against the sexual exploitation of children, when she got an invitation to visit a juvenile-sex-offender treatment facility in Alabama. There she met a child who had just spent his tenth birthday at the institution. “He was nine when he first went into treatment,” she told me. “I was overwhelmed by that. I kept thinking about this kid, who goes away, gets sex-offender treatment, then goes back to his junior high school, and is on the public registry—this young person who really wants to return to school, to learn, to make friends, but can’t have a second chance. That’s a life sentence for this kid.” Still, she focussed on child sex-crime victims, and it was easy to understand the common thirst for retribution among fellow-parents: “You can see the fear and anger, as a parent. I get that.”
In 2007, Wetterling took a job with the Sexual Violence Prevention Program, at the Minnesota Department of Health. She received a call from a Minneapolis mother who wanted to tell the story of her son, and soon followed up with a letter from him. “My name is Ricky,” it began, “and I’m a 19-year-old Registered Sex Offender.” The letter described how, at sixteen, Ricky had met a girl at a teen club who said she was nearly sixteen. They’d had consensual sex on two occasions, according to the note. Later, Ricky wrote, it came out that the girl was thirteen, and he was prosecuted for “Sexual Abuse, 3rd degree,” and placed on the public sex-offender registry; it left him and his family “shattered.”
By then, Wetterling had watched the registry evolve into something very different from what she’d fought to create. The database was no longer for the private use of law enforcement. Nor was it confined to high-risk offenders or adults who targeted kids. (In some states, the registry pooled juveniles and those charged with public urination together with adults who had repeatedly raped children.) It also imposed a costly burden on law enforcement—time and money that might have gone for supervision of the highest-risk offenders and the training of officers in preventive measures.
Wetterling began to talk to Ricky. He was “a young man with so much to contribute to the world,” she told me, but his attempts to lead a better life had time and again been thwarted by registration. Ricky’s letter also raised questions, for Wetterling, about the “Romeo and Juliet” problem—consensual teen-sex prosecutions. These included not just juveniles but also young adults, eighteen and older, who could be tried and sentenced accordingly. In at least twenty-nine states, Human Rights Watch reports, consensual sex between teen-agers can trigger registration. There have been scattered efforts at reform, including in Texas. But for many people found guilty of sex offenses, including Anthony Metts, in Midland, they came too late.
Metts settled into his new life in the oil fields, reluctantly accommodating an array of strictures that he regarded as pointless. Each Halloween, for instance, he reported to the county probation office with dozens of other local sex offenders, and was held from 6 to 10 P.M. and shown movies like “Iron Man 2,” until trick-or-treating was over. “If someone’s that dangerous that they need to be locked up, what about all of the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year?” he asked me.
In 2006, he fell in love with a deputy sheriff’s daughter. One night, he took her out to his favorite Italian place in Odessa, ordered two steaks with risotto, and arranged for the waiter to bring out a dessert menu that read, among the à-la-carte selections, “Will you marry me?” She said yes, and a baby girl soon followed. “My daughter was a blessing and a miracle to me,” Metts told me. But it also introduced him to a troubling new aspect of his life on the registry.
Metts, then twenty-four, learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to see his daughter. His status banned him from living with her, and thus with his wife. Still, Metts sneaked visits, breaking the rules. His mother, Mary Helen, obtained formal certification as a chaperon so that he could see his daughter in her presence, spending Saturday mornings by the duck pond or having brunch at Fuddruckers. Eventually, as his daughter grew, Metts says that his probation officer granted him approval for simple, unchaperoned outings, like crafting trips to Hobby Lobby, with a stop for doughnuts.
One night, a former classmate saw Metts buying a sandwich at Walmart and shouted a slur at him; she’d seen his face on the registry for “Sexual Assault of a Child.” Rattled, he went to Buffalo Wild Wings to down a beer, and got busted. Metts had a record of technical violations, so a judge ordered him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, administered by a private monitoring company that charged several hundred dollars a month. The device would notify the authorities of any infractions—stepping too close to a mall, park, bar, or church, or leaving the county without permission.
The circumference of permissible life kept shrinking. “A flame inside of me just went out,” Metts told me. In the darkness that followed, he recalls, “I hermited myself.” He moved back in with his parents, to save money for his child and for his electronic-monitoring bills. Most days, he’d drive straight home from work to play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on his Xbox. Within a year and a half, he had gained a hundred pounds. He didn’t want his scarlet letter to further affect his wife and child; the couple got divorced.
In the eighth year of his ten-year probation term, Metts decided to reënter the world. He returned to college, began to party, and made friends for the first time in years. On a warm afternoon in May during his final year of probation, he invited some of those new friends over to his parents’ swimming pool. He tossed back several beers and took a dip. He’d failed to charge his ankle bracelet properly, and the battery died at around 5 P.M. Shortly before midnight, his probation officer arrived at his door: she’d be filing to revoke his probation. A few weeks later, Metts was led into a courtroom in hand-cuffs, leg cuffs, and a chain around his waist connecting them. “I looked like Hannibal Lecter without the mask,” he told me. The judge’s name sounded familiar: she had helped prosecute his original case. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has since agreed to consider whether her involvement in the earlier proceedings disqualified her from presiding over Metts’s fate.)
The prosecutor pushed for two years in prison, arguing that the long list of Metts’s technical infractions was “not just a fluke . . . not just ‘Oops, I messed up.’ ” Metts’s attorney urged alternatives that would be less costly for taxpayers. None of Metts’s violations, he noted, had any connection to the original charges of sexual assault of a child. A typical mistake was failing to charge his ankle bracelet’s battery. The judge took some time to think it over. The next morning, she sentenced Metts to ten years in prison.
In many states, compliance with the registry can prove to be a Sisyphean task. In McMinnville, Oregon, I met with Catherine Barnes, whose son, Christian, had been placed on a sex-offender registry for life after a sexual encounter, at the age of seventeen, with a thirteen-year-old girl. (In Oregon, the age of consent is eighteen.) Barnes told me that years of treatment, documenting “his masturbation and all that jazz,” and a life confined by the registry’s restrictions had changed him “one hundred per cent.”
McMinnville is a town built on second chances. In the past few decades, it had lost its Hewlett-Packard and Pillsbury plants. But, as domestic-wine prices have surged in recent years, tasting bars have cropped up in the wine-country town, filled with tea lights and tourists. At a bright new bistro, Barnes showed me a video on her iPhone. “This was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” she said. Christian, in his late twenties, was rapping the lyrics to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” while seated in class at a windmill-repair school; he was physically hulking, but he shared his mother’s blond hair and high cheekbones.
“A lot of doors would have opened for Christian if we could have gotten him off the registry,” his attorney, Claire Brown, had told me at her Portland office. (Brown represented Christian through the CLiF Project, which helps provide legal aid to people placed on Oregon’s sex-offender registry for juvenile adjudications.)
After our meal, Barnes took me to her house, where Christian had lived with her. “I’ll show you where it happened,” she told me, leading me by the arm to a small mauve bedroom, where a decade-long registration story had, not long ago, come to an end.
In the winter of 2013, after years of being turned down for employment, Christian, then twenty-eight, was offered a job in Idaho as a clean-energy repairman for a well-known company. Giddy, he packed his suitcase and said his goodbyes. The night before his departure, he got a call. “Something’s come up,” a woman from the company told him; the company had run a criminal-background check and learned of his sex offense, and she had to let him know the bad news. “I heard the call,” Barnes said. “He was absolutely destroyed.”
One afternoon the following spring, Christian called his mother, sounding frantic: “Mom, did you know I can’t even come into the school and pick up my own kid?” His daughter was entering preschool. Christian hadn’t realized that his registrant status barred him from things like school visits and dance recitals. His mental health deteriorated, and within weeks he was facing a possible felony charge for falling behind on his annual registration at the police station.
On a Friday in April, Barnes called Christian from the grocery store in the early afternoon to see if he wanted anything; there was no answer. “Then I came in with my groceries, and I saw him lying there on the floor.” She pointed to the carpet, where she’d since placed an Autumn Cedar candle. “And I saw the gun three feet from his body.”
Christian had long struggled with depression, debt, and other pressures, and his former probation officer cautioned me against overly tidy explanations for suicide: “Who can know the hearts of men?” But Barnes remembers him as a fearless kid, swinging from ropes and snatching lizards from the woods. As Christian’s teen-age mistake trailed him into adulthood, Barnes believes, his resilience proved unequal to the burden. She has since learned that suicide is not uncommon among registrants. Her son, who left no note, sent his girlfriend a goodbye text. “I shot myself,” it read.
Often, parents are the ones who carry the weight of the registry. In her grief, Catherine Barnes contacted Oregon Voices, an advocacy group that has the stated goal of achieving “justice and rationality in policies regarding sex offenses.” It was run by a professor whose son was arrested, several years ago, for an Internet sex crime, and who had since become exercised by what he considered to be the evidence-blind nature of much sex-offense law. (In a study of more than a thousand male juveniles with sex-crime convictions, Elizabeth Letourneau and her colleagues found that public registration did not reduce repeat-offense rates.) Similar groups had emerged around the country, consisting mostly of parents whose children were on the registry or in detention. In the Midwest, there were the mothers who had formed Women Against Registry, seeking to educate the public about the effects of registration on families. In Maryland, another mother led parents in lobbying against strict residency restrictions. One of the largest and most effective advocacy groups was Texas Voices for Reason and Justice; its members include Mary Helen Metts, Anthony’s mother.
“People would rather have a murderer next door, especially here in the Bible Belt,” Metts, a Catholic hospice worker with a Southern-belle bearing, told me. When her son first appeared on the Texas registry, some friends and relatives stopped speaking to her. Then she got a letter from Mary Sue Molnar, a San Antonio mother whose son was in detention for a sex offense. The founder of Texas Voices, Molnar had contacted the families of thousands of registrants in the state. At first, Mary Helen Metts didn’t see the point of participating in the group. But after her son was sent to prison she agreed to start a local chapter of the organization in Midland. Soon she was hosting Texas Voices meetings at her husband’s oil-company office after hours. “We don’t feel like lepers anymore,” she told me.
This past June, Texas Voices hosted a gathering for a national umbrella advocacy organization called Reform Sex Offender Laws, at a church in Dallas. As many as two hundred registrants and their loved ones travelled across the country to attend. Around big circular tables, parents shared stories about vigilantism and therapy troubles, as well as tips on navigating the demands of compliance. In the church’s dining hall, the group held a humble auction (“Antique cookie jar, anyone? Eighteen dollars? Twelve dollars?”) to raise lobbying funds. Among the parents whose children were charged with sex crimes, discussion revolved around how to change registry laws. Josh Gravens, the young man from Abilene who had been placed on the registry at thirteen, stood at the microphone and said that, if parents didn’t tell their kids’ stories, no one else would. “It takes a lot for a legislator to stick their neck out on this issue,” he said. “So it’s vitally important that you speak up.”
After packing up her life in Howell, Leah DuBuc boarded a plane for Tokyo. Her visit to Japan during college had filled her with a rush of big-city anonymity. Now she was determined to seek her second chance abroad.
“It was such a relief to have a fresh start,” DuBuc told me. Like nearly every other country, Japan has no public sex-offender registry. DuBuc taught English and fell in love with a Filipino man from her church named Kimo, a surfer and a karaoke enthusiast who worked at a Disney resort. She had dreamed of volunteering in India, and with Kimo’s encouragement she spent six months working in orphanages from New Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, Kimo joined her, and proposed. In 2010, they married over doughnuts in Bangalore, and soon returned to Tokyo, where their son was born.
To show the baby off, they planned to travel to Fukushima, where Kimo had spent much of his childhood and where his family still lived. But, three days after the birth, the earthquake hit, followed by the tsunami, which killed Kimo’s mother and his twelve-year-old sister.
DuBuc planned to stay in Japan, despite the devastation; she felt that God had called on her to help rebuild. Then, after a trip to obtain her in-laws’ remains, she received a flurry of Facebook messages from Sharon Denniston, her juvenile advocate in Michigan. Denniston had been pushing the legislative reforms that DuBuc had helped promote. “Be sure you are sitting down,” she wrote. “Juveniles that were less than 14 at the time of their offense will be straight out removed from the registry: no hearing, no court visit, no paperwork to fill out!”
DuBuc asked Denniston for updates as the bill was implemented.
“Sweet child of God, Leah,” Denniston wrote one evening. “Your name no longer appears on the public registry.”
DuBuc decided to take her family home. Her father now had a girlfriend who owned a horse-rescue farm, where Leah and Kimo could work while they looked for steady employment. Even without a high-school diploma, Kimo quickly found a factory job making plastic car parts. Leah’s search proved harder, despite her master’s degree. Her fingerprints and her record still popped up in certain criminal-background checks. She spent months with the baby on her back, shovelling snow from horse stalls and tending to the hogs and cows before dawn, continuing her job search when the sun came up.
She found work at the Salvation Army, helping families in search of housing, but she was let go after several months without an explanation. The pattern persisted through jobs at a bookstore, a gas station, and a fry house—the same place she’d worked as a teen, when she was certain that her adult life was destined for public service.
As DuBuc discovered, getting off a state’s online database doesn’t mean the end of online notoriety. Some companies have programs that retain information that was expunged from registries, which they publish online, demanding that offenders pay steep fees in order to have the damaging data removed. Charla Roberts, who had “pantsed” her classmate in Paris, Texas, when she was ten, was removed from the registry in her early twenties, with the help of Lone Star Legal Aid. But the Internet refused to forget. Not long ago, she learned that her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend was circulating a link to a commercial Web site called SexOffenderRecord.com. The site featured Charla’s photograph along with her race (black), age (twenty-five), and home address, as well as the message: “To alert others about Charla Lee Roberts’s Sex Offender Record . . . Just Click the Facebook Icon.”
With each rebuff, DuBuc tried to motivate herself afresh. By her bed, she stuck a NASA bumper sticker that Kimo had given her, which read, “Failure is not an option.” And Sharon Denniston had made a present of DuBuc’s favorite prayer, from Jeremiah, in a gilt frame: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”
The reform movement’s efforts have started to see gains. In recent years, many institutions—from district attorneys’ offices to detention facilities—have improved the way they deal with youths who have committed sexual offenses. The broader justice system, too, has shifted, acknowledging that juveniles aren’t just mini-adults; not long ago, the Supreme Court affirmed that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” The current executive director of Indian Oaks Academy, Mike Chavers, says that the institution has advanced considerably since the era of DuBuc’s treatment. “Today, while there are some children who need treatment in a more controlled setting, we know that the vast majority of individuals are better off in their own communities, closer to their families, and that’s what we’re pushing to have done,” he told me. Chavers has also recently joined the fight to reform Illinois’s juvenile-registry laws. “To write a kid off at an early age and to label them like that is just unconscionable,” he says.
In Pennsylvania, in 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled that mandatory lifetime sex-offender registration for juveniles was unconstitutional, after the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center led a legal challenge. And in Texas an official task force has formed to assess ways of improving outcomes for juveniles charged with sex offenses; Josh Gravens was invited to testify at one of its hearings this month. But the legislative provisions have proved far more recalcitrant.
One of the movement’s best hopes for advancing legislative change is an attorney named Nicole Pittman. In the early two-thousands, Pittman worked as a public defender on the juvenile docket in New Orleans, where she first noticed the long-term toll that the registry took on convicted offenders. (In Louisiana, teen-agers’ licenses are stamped in red with “SEX OFFENDER.”) In 2011, she embarked on a cross-country trek to interview youth registrants and their families. Her findings were released in a hundred-plus-page Human Rights Watch report, which she was sure would inspire changes in policy. On the road, Pittman met with members of local government to present her findings, and most politicians listened politely. But few, if any, were moved to action.
“The biggest barrier in this work is: ‘If I act, I’m going to lose the next election,’ ” she says. She was dejected, and weighed giving up, but when she won last-minute funding from the Stoneleigh Foundation she moved her operations to Oakland, California, and launched a program called the Center on Youth Registration Reform, with a new criminal-justice-advocacy group known as Impact Justice. Then she forged a surprising alliance with Eli Lehrer, the president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
It was a curious pairing. Pittman favors funky red Converse sneakers, a silver nose ring, and a punk-rock-meets-courtroom aesthetic; Lehrer, a navy-blazer type, had a life-sized cutout of President Reagan in his office. Yet they both deplored juvenile registration; he saw it as a costly and invasive problem of big government, and one that flew in the face of the prevailing evidence about kids who offend against other kids. Pittman observed that some conservatives were willing to take risks that their progressive counterparts wouldn’t, to defend second chances for juvenile offenders. The religious right, for instance, shared a ready-made language of redemption.
Last summer, Pittman and Lehrer drafted a plan of action that focussed on revising a single clause of the Adam Walsh Act. Instead of mandating that states include certain kids on the public registry, they proposed that the law stipulate the opposite: that states failing to eliminate the practice of juvenile registration would fall afoul of federal law, and lose funds. Any savings could be put toward programs that took a preventive approach to childhood sexual assault. Pittman and Lehrer contacted Stacie Rumenap, the head of Stop Child Predators, who agreed to help push the proposal nationwide and to work with them on state-level reforms. “Over the years,” Rumenap told me, “I’ve become more sympathetic and more aware that, as we draft our sex-offender laws, we need to be very careful about how we insure young kids’ lives aren’t being ruined.”
This past July, I drove around Midland, Texas, trying to find the girls—now women—who were involved in Anthony Metts’s case. Having no luck with doorbells, I left notes, and two days later I got a call from one of them. “I never wanted Anthony to be prosecuted,” she told me. “It was a consensual relationship—the kind when you’re young and you’re stupid. My mom knew about it. We’d go on dates, drive around, hang out.” She was shocked to learn of Metts’s fate: his nine-plus years of probation, his current decade of incarceration. “I told [law enforcement] that I didn’t feel like he should have to be prosecuted,” she said.
That same month, I made plans to visit Metts in prison, at Fort Stockton. For nearly two years, I’d routinely spoken with him by phone. But now Anthony’s calls had mysteriously stopped. His mother told me that he had been assaulted by two inmates after they took his I.D. number and found out that he was a sex offender. He was hospitalized and then moved to solitary confinement.
Several weeks later, he was transferred to a remote penitentiary in deep East Texas, eight hours away, built on farmland cleared by former slaves and now maintained by prison labor. When I drove there for an interview, guards shuffled Metts, tall and monkish in his prison whites, into a small booth with a partition between us. The night before, he learned that he’d lost a pending appeal in his case. His eyes were puffy from tears and sleeplessness.
“I thought, by the time we finally met, we’d be on the rooftop at the Hilton,” he said, laughing halfheartedly. For most of the next four hours, he spoke of how he planned to get through the coming decade. “In my mind, I don’t live here,” he told me. He spends his days reading business and life-style magazines and making plans to return to his daughter, who is now eight. “I look forward to being the dad she deserves, the dad I feel I am,” he said. “I miss reading her stories. Getting doughnuts with her, helping her with her homework, brushing her hair. Everything. Everything.”
He began to sob. “It’s a son of a bitch,” he said. Eventually, guards came over and recuffed his hands. After he’d been shuffled back to segregation, it occurred to me that if Anthony Metts serves out his full sentence he will have spent more than twenty years—nearly half his life—under state supervision.
Last October, Patty Wetterling got a startling piece of news at home, in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Twenty-six years after Jacob’s unsolved disappearance, the police had identified a “person of interest” in the case: Daniel James Heinrich, a man whose DNA allegedly matched that found in another unsolved case involving child kidnapping and sexual assault from 1989, in a nearby town. Heinrich was subsequently arrested on five counts of child pornography, unrelated to Jacob; he has pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial. He appeared to be the sort of figure for whom Patty Wetterling first envisaged a private law-enforcement registry.
On a Tuesday afternoon a few days later, Wetterling and her husband walked to the end of their driveway in St. Joseph and stood before a group of reporters. “We still don’t know who took Jacob—we have as many questions, or more, as all of you,” she said, according to local newspapers. “Child sexual abuse and abduction is something we cannot tolerate. I refuse to be silent.”
The discovery of Heinrich took place a few months after Wetterling’s retirement as the director of Minnesota’s Sexual Violence Prevention Program. Just before stepping down, Wetterling had overseen the publication of a remarkable legislative report, titled “Sexual Violence Prevention,” which maps out a public-health response to rape, incest, and childhood sexual assault. It calls for “taking on the root causes like alcohol and drug use, emotionally unsupportive family environments, and societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement.”
The report was an apt summary of Wetterling’s work, and—with its emphasis on prevention—belonged to a maturing vision that began, years before, with the open-ended pain of losing a child. That pain had helped her craft an early model of the sex-offender registry and, later, a nuanced critique of what it had become. But Wetterling’s grief had never abated into abstraction. And so, on that Tuesday afternoon in November, flanked by her husband, she returned to a touchstone. “The one question that we have said for twenty-six years is Where is Jacob? Where is Jacob?” she said. “I will still always, always hope.”
In Howell, Leah DuBuc has grown largely reconciled to her circumstances. On occasion, though, her fear resurges; when I first visited her at her home, she’d spent the previous night in her rocking chair, keeping watch, having been alerted by a noise that stirred thoughts of vigilantes. She still tracks news of registrant attacks across the country. Last year, a neo-Nazi couple were convicted of murdering a man on the registry and his wife, with plans to take down others. “Child molesters don’t deserve to live,” the man told reporters, adding that if he “had to do it over again, I’d kill more.”
DuBuc and I spent part of the day in her garden, with the tomatoes and the strawberries that her four-year-old son had helped plant. Her two-year-old daughter played in a sandbox nearby. DuBuc spoke of her efforts to find a job. She’s been working for a company called Life Leadership, which does “financial fitness” coaching; at night, she sells the company’s self-help books, CDs, and videos from her car. She believes that self-employment is the best option for current and former registrants. She also holds regular yard sales, selling old baby clothes and toys, and makes her own home décor, including a wreath on the front door which lists, in bright colors, the things the family is grateful for: “Food,” “Our health,” “Daddy’s Job,” “Mommy’s Hope.”
DuBuc has worked hard to protect her kids from the experiences that defined her childhood: the chaotic home life, most of all, and the lack of supervision that she believes got her into trouble. “That’s my No. 1 life mission,” she told me. “Raising my kids to be empathetic, good citizens.” As DuBuc recounted her memories of Indian Oaks Academy—the assaults she witnessed as a girl, the gruelling therapies—her son raced over, wearing a pirate’s eye patch and a sword at his hip.
As the kids settled down to watch “Shrek,” Leah rummaged in the basement for her old green binder. Inside was the apologetic letter from the Brighton Police lieutenant and the countless appeals she’d written to politicians, judges, and journalists, hoping for a break. She peeled open the sticky pages of her photo album, which chronicled her travels to Japan and India and her lobbying in Lansing.
Together, we flipped from back to front, pausing often to talk. By the time we reached the opening pages, it was nearly midnight. We’d landed on a photograph of a ten-year-old DuBuc at a dance recital, her emerald-green tank top contrasting with her flaming-red hair. She was holding a carnation. In a moment, DuBuc would get up to look in on her sleeping son and daughter, wishing for them what Jeremiah 29:11 had spoken of—“hope, and a future”—before double-checking the deadbolts. But for now she sat in silence. “That’s me,” she finally said. “A kid.”