Why you should care
Because sexual curiosity and poor boundaries do not make children sex offenders.
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Sitting down with someone branded a child sex offender wasn’t ever how Nicole Pittman imagined she’d be spending her days. Yet in doing that, she’s discovered how nuanced the world of crime and law can be.
She remembers, for example, sharing coffee a few years ago in downtown Dallas with Josh Gravens, who was given the title of sex offender when he was 13 years old after he touched his younger sister. There was no accusation of penetration, and Gravens says it was more about curiosity than anything else. But it was enough for the state to stick him in juvenile detention, and enough to keep his name on a public registry for 14 years, which — by the time he heard from Pittman — had been more than half his life.
“She was the first person who told me I wasn’t a sex offender,” recalls Gravens, who now works in public policy as a criminal justice advocate.
She decided to hit the road to record the post-conviction stories of child “sex offender” — though she’ll tell you there’s no such thing.
Lawyers, of course, are supposed to defend people, good and bad. But Pittman has turned her work into a full-time crusade. Her goal: to reveal the system for supposed sexual predators as punitive and misguided — and in need of change. To some, her tale recalls past efforts to lighten overly harsh drug-conviction sentencing. Only in this case, this justice-system Joan of Arc favors bejeweled horn-rimmed glasses, a nose ring and Converse sneakers.
Since the late ’80s, after America decided to get “tough on crime,” states have been placing children accused of crimes — ranging from touching another child’s genitalia over clothing to rape — in a category alongside 45-year-old pedophiles, for example. And with unfortunate repercussions: Some are required to post in their front windows signs that read, “Sex Offender Lives Here.” Others are prohibited from going anyplace where kids congregate, which means they can’t go to schools or, in some cases, even live at home with their families anymore. They are an isolated population that experiences high rates of unemployment, depression and suicide.
Against the backdrop of her comparatively bland downtown office in Oakland, California, Pittman explains how she is trying to reroute such fates by getting kids’ names off public databases. Hers is a tale that would make Erin Brockovich proud, having hit the road to interview over the past decade more than 500 people placed on the registry as children. In all, she has traveled to 37 states to testify in courts and government chambers, and she has written a 110-page report on the issue. And she’s essentially a one-woman, dreadlock-slinging force.
There is, of course, another side to this debate. Many people, especially concerned parents, argue that all molesters, regardless of age, are likely to reoffend. Glenn Frankel, vice president of Family Watchdog, a national registry, says he doesn’t think kids need to identify themselves, but as soon as they turn 18, even for crimes committed years earlier, they should have to. “We don’t believe people get cured,” he says.
But Pittman says this is more about how sex offenders are demonized and branded as all being the same. Certainly, there is a stigma issue here. Advocacy groups are afraid of losing funding if they try to help; lawyers don’t want to defend them, so they push for plea deals. “No one wants to talk about it,” Pittman says.
None of this was going to be a part of her life when she enrolled at Tulane University Law School. Her plan? To become a sports agent. It wasn’t until she did required pro bono work with a prison group that fought for parole for elderly prisoners that she discovered “the comfort of helping others,” which led her to a job as a juvenile public defender. Back in her hometown of Philadelphia, she began taking on almost all sex cases. By 2009, when 40 states were still registering children, she was testifying before Congress.
The problem was that no one was listening. So with an 18-month, $110,000 Soros Justice Fellowship from Open Society Foundations, she decided to hit the road to record the post-conviction stories of child “sex offenders” — though she’ll tell you there’s no such thing.
“I had no idea how bad it really was,” she says. From hundreds of interviews, Pittman found that the juvenile offenders she talked to had experienced some sort of trauma themselves, usually within one year previous to their crimes. And they weren’t the only ones being punished. Their entire family was often ripped apart. Parents like the Gravens, unaware of the severe consequences, report the crimes to therapists and authorities, and then have to live with the guilt. Meanwhile, the victim becomes the one who got her brother arrested.
Armed with anecdotes, Pittman resumed her fight, with groups like Human Rights Watch, Stoneleigh Foundation and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency supporting her battle. And just this past December, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s laws requiring lifetime registration. Michigan no longer allows any kids under the age of 14 to be publicly listed. And last year, the Missouri House and Senate unanimously voted to ban juvenile registration, though the governor ultimately vetoed the bill. “Nicole’s contribution is putting a human face on this issue,” says Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center who worked on the Pennsylvania case.
Is more change on the horizon? Pittman estimates — though there’s no vehicle for tracking this — that there are still about 200,000 juveniles on public lists, and countless more adults who have been on them for most of their lives. “Everyone says this is my issue,” she says. “I want to make this everyone’s issue.”
Photography by Brian L. Frank for OZY.