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Vicki Henry Is Fighting to Reform the Way Missouri Treats Sex Offenders

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During Women Against Registry's first national conference, Vicki Henry ​urges ​attendees to "find their voice" as activists. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • During Women Against Registry's first national conference, Vicki Henry ​urges ​attendees to "find their voice" as activists.

"I realize that there are folks right here in this room who have been struggling with this ugly issue for decades," Adam says. "It is a difficult task, but we need to step out of the shadows and be heard. We need to fight for the rights of our families and for our prisoners of the registry."

The nationwide web of state sex offender registries is a relatively new phenomenon. The first federal law was passed back in 1994, enacted in the wake of lobbying efforts by the mother of a murdered eleven-year-old boy.

Known as the Jacob Wetterling Act, the new law required states to create registries to supervise and track people convicted of sex offenses, and it obligated sex offenders themselves to periodically report to law enforcement. The same year the law passed, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, spurring the modification of the existing registry requirements. The amendment, known as "Megan's Law," made the registry information public.

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Act — again named for a murdered child — set an array of minimum guidelines, but states were free to tighten their restrictions as their respective legislatures saw fit. Some states, following those federal guidelines, divided their registries into tiers based on severity of offense — for example, treating someone who physically rapes a child differently than someone who masturbates in public. Missouri's registry has no such nuance.

Under Missouri law, once you're convicted of a sex-related crime — which covers everything from public sex between consenting adults to child molestation — then you land on the registry for life. Along with being listed on the public website comes a lifetime obligation to report your home and work addresses to the police.

For sex offenders, serving lengthy prison sentences is just the beginning. Many are saddled with lifetime parole and residency restrictions. Even those who aren't must still check in with law enforcement every time they change residences or jobs and contend with the constant threat of public shaming. This is the "double and triple punishment," Adam referred to in his speech, and it's a frequent note of frustration among conference attendees.

In some ways, Missouri makes it harder than most. A 50-state survey by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center found that Missouri is among just 18 states that operate one-size-fits-all registries. The remaining 32 use multi-tiered systems that impose lengthy registry requirements to only the most dangerous offenders. Those convicted of lesser crimes become eligible to leave the registry more quickly — 15 years instead of 25, for example, or 25 instead of life.

Like most states, Missouri does have an escape clause. After ten years, state law allows non-violent sex offenders who have demonstrated that they are "not a current or potential threat to public safety" to petition for removal from the registry. State law also includes two loopholes for "Romeo and Juliet" situations: If the perpetrator is 19 years old or younger and the victim older than 13, they are permitted to petition for removal after two years. A perpetrator 18 years or younger convicted of certain misdemeanor sex crimes against a victim 13 or older is permitted to petition immediately.

In practice, however, very few registrants leave the registry. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which is tasked with maintaining it, only 173 people have successfully petitioned for release from registry since 2007. During that decade, the state's registry nearly doubled in size, adding more than 7,000 names to a roster that's now swollen to more than 15,000 men. (It also includes about 500 women.)

"The registry is chock full of people who are low risk," says University of California-Berkeley School of Law Professor Ira Ellman, whose research into sex offender recidivism rates has helped debunk the myth that these men and women are a uniformly predatory group.

And that, he says, makes Missouri's registry ineffective. Treating 15,000 people as if they're all child rapists wastes resources that could be used to better track the state's truly dangerous sex offenders. "You've created a giant haystack in which a few needles can be hidden," he points out.

Still, despite years of state and federal court challenges, Ellman says that he has yet to see an example of a state successfully instituting rational registry policies.

"I don't think there are any states that are doing the registry well," Ellman admits. "There are only states doing it less badly."

DATA COURTESY OF MISSOURI HIGHWAY PATROL​. ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK
  • DATA COURTESY OF MISSOURI HIGHWAY PATROL​. ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

Missouri is not one of the "less badly" states.

The WAR conference's first breakout session is titled "Registrant Storytelling Time." In a meeting room arranged with rows of tables covered in white tablecloths, a succession of men delve into their respective histories. A few monopolize the pulpit to proclaim their innocence.

A man from O'Fallon wearing a Cubs cap goes first, speaking for nearly fifteen minutes. He claims he was framed for child molestation. Now he can't participate in church services. The next man introduces himself as the former "business administrator of the largest Christian school in St. Louis," and adds, as if a casual aside, that he had never even met the 3-year-old child he was accused of raping.

Others, though, are frank about their crimes. One man states, simply, "I molested my daughter."

"We can't deny what we've done wrong," the next man says. He's been on the registry since 1997. "If we violated the social code, you done it. I think the biggest challenge we have now is, how do we present ourselves in a respectable manner to a community that's already had years of indoctrination that we're hateful, dangerous people? How do we get out there in the public to say, 'We deserve more than to be treated like sub humans.'"

As the hour-long session inches along, Vicki Henry slips into the room. After her son's arrest ten years ago for child porn, Henry found comfort and assistance among fellow moms and families going through the same hell, the same anxious powerlessness. Eventually, though, she wanted to do more than suffer in silence.

She knows, probably better than anyone in this room, that changing sex offender laws poses a steep political challenge. As recently as 2013, a bill WAR supported would have created new exceptions in the state's sex offender registry, including a provision that would hide the names of registrants who committed their crimes as juveniles. The bill passed both the House and Senate, only to reach the desk of then-Governor Jay Nixon. He vetoed it.

The defeat effectively halted WAR's momentum on legislative reform. The organization's big private donor — a family with a son on the registry — withdrew their support. Now, four years later, the WAR conference represents the group's pivot to a different strategy: building and training a grassroots army of advocates who can do the lobbying themselves.

Now 69, Henry grew up in a small town in the Missouri Bootheel, and her voice has that easygoing "Missourah" twang so many state politicians try to mimic on the campaign trail. Addressing the meeting room after the speakers finish, Henry urges her audience to think of their stories as policy pitches, not therapy sessions.

"The idea," she says, "is to develop a storytelling mechanism. You need an elevator speech. If you're talking to a legislator, you can lose them real quick, you have to keep them engaged. If we don't educate the public and the media, then we're fighting a losing battle. They won't buy this stuff."

At the break for lunch, her older son hoists a box full of McDonald's burgers — the volunteers' lunches — onto the meeting room table. Broad and tall, he acts as his mother's bodyguard during her public trips and appearances. That's the way it's been for years, ever since his youngest brother's arrest in 2007.

"My mom has gone headfirst into this fight," he says. The years have been hard on their family, but perhaps hardest on her. She's spent her retirement years traveling to conferences, testifying in state legislatures and trying to organize the anti-registry groups scattered across the country.

"There's been times when she comes home for literally five hours, turned around and leaves," he adds. "But that's her. I wouldn't expect anything less."

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