In the wake of Virginia's TWENTY-ONE TO ZERO decision to require children who have been convicted of "sex crimes" to register as sex offenders - and face the same devastating restrictions and public scrutiny as someone who has committed a violent, forcible sexual act - I am reaching a new level of appreciation for some people's capacity for ignorance.
Of course, this ruling is mainly a result of Virginia's decision to become compliant with the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law that threatens states with drastic funding cuts if they refuse. Thankfully, my home state of New York found the costs to implement the measures to comply with the AWA far outweighed the amount of funding that would be lost, and rejected it. But this does nothing to help the child offenders of Virginia, or the various other states that do and may eventually support the AWA.
I have made it clear in the past that I do not support sex crime of any kind, and again, want to assert that I do not support or condone them. However, the definition of "sex crime" has become so watered down and all inclusive that this term does not necessarily describe a violent or sexual crime against a child, a woman, or even a crime that is sexually motivated; it does not mean that the perpetrator is an adult. Thanks to laws such as this one, "sex crime" can also mean consensual adolescent behavior. A "sex offender" is nearly as likely to be a teenager as they are to be an adult.
Teenagers being forced to register as sex offenders has gained some attention over the past few years. Some people seem willing to accept that teenagers exchanging nude photos and engaging in sexual behavior is not equal to a sex crime; others still cling to widely varying ages of consent throughout the country as though they are gospel. But did you know that you don't have to be a teenager to be accused or charged? In early January, two 10-year-old special needs boys were charged with sexually assaulting an 8-year-old special needs student in Texas. Think that's bad? In California, a six-year-old boy was accused of sexually assaulting a classmate during a game of tag when he "brushed against his groin".
Even in the case of a teenager or child who does something unusual or even forcible, we are still talking about children, not adults. Opposition to the bill in VA and others like it beg lawmakers to heed the numerous studies that have shown extremely low recidivism rates for child offenders - even lower than adult sex offenders, whose re-offense rates are lower than every other crime except murder. Mental health experts explain to lawmakers that the brains of children continue to develop after they've committed their "crime", as they have not yet reached adulthood. It's ironic - we can accept the fact that children are not adults when it comes to punishing child molestation, child pornography and statutory rape - but not when the children are also the offenders. Why?
The National Alliance of Mental Illness asserts that millions of children in our country suffer from a mental illness, and that half of all lifetime disorders begin by age 14. This list, populated by American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, gives us a very general idea of the types of disorders considered mental illnesses. Take a look at the list, and I bet you will know a child - whether it's yours, someone else's, or one that you've heard about - who has one of these mental illnesses. Should these children be treated as though they are adults, too? Should their names be on a list, accessible by "concerned parents" who would don't want their children around someone who isn't perfect or "normal"? Perhaps there should be a list of all children who have a physical disorder, disability or disease in case some parents don't want their kids to play together. Or, heck, why not a list of all children who have a criminal past? Have used drugs? Have set things on fire? Shoplifted? After all, considering sex offender recidivism is lower than other criminal acts, that seems to be the path we are headed on. And it's all in the name of protecting children.
I know that most people reading this aren't the ones who support laws like the one that passed in Virginia, and will understand that the sentences above are sarcastic. Of you, I ask: tell one person you think might believe those lists are a good idea why they aren't. Ask them if their child has ever made a mistake, and if they value their right to discipline and teach and react as they see fit. Do whatever you can to show them how harmful this narrow thinking is. The public holds the key to a world where children truly can be children and they and their parents both can feel safe doing so.