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

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WAR marches at a protest downtown about a month before Jason Stockley's acquittal. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • WAR marches at a protest downtown about a month before Jason Stockley's acquittal.

One week after the conference, the midday sun glints off the legs of the Gateway Arch as a handful of protesters assemble on the lawn stretching before the monument. Vicki Henry and Adam, who'd spoken at the conference about his son's experience, are here. They hold up a small banner that reads, "End Registrant Family Peonage," and below that, in bold black letters, a call for the repeal of Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Act.

A dark baseball cap and sunglasses conceals Adam's features. Henry, now wearing a red polo with the WAR logo, listens as a handful of activists gather to mark a national day of protest directed at the American prison system. Speakers inveigh against long drug sentences and bail schemes that effectively warehouse poor people in "debtor's prisons." The audience responds with affirmations of outrage.

When it's Henry's turn to speak, however, there are no breaks for applause or amens.

"There are 861,000 men, women and children across the nation on the registry," she begins, fumbling with the megaphone. "People say they all belong there, that they're all rapists. But if you commit a crime, and you pay the penalty for that crime, why are you not allowed to get on with your life? When does redemption begin? Never?"

The question hangs silent in the air. After a few moments, it's met with tepid, polite applause.

The movement to reform the sex offender registry has yet to find major support within the social justice community. Protesters may be changing hearts and minds about immigrants, police brutality and racial inequity in the criminal justice system, but sex offenders remain America's untouchables. Residency restrictions frequently push sex offenders into homelessness, creating modern-day leper colonies. Famously, the harsh residency restrictions in Florida displaced more than 100 sex offenders, forcing them into a shantytown beneath a Miami highway overpass. For years, the colony functioned as an official dumping ground for sex offenders. It's not a model Henry wants to see repeated in Missouri.

Yet Henry sees commonalities between her cause and others making headlines. After the gathering by the Arch, she joins a larger protest group that marches through downtown St. Louis to demand the conviction of a city police officer accused of first-degree murder. "The whole damn system is guilty as hell!" they chant.

Henry positions herself at the front of the march, holding WAR's banner aloft as young activists around her shout "Black lives matter!" and "Indict! Convict!" No one thinks to chant, "Sex offender lives matter." Why would they?

WAR's goal is not the registry's abolition. In interviews, Henry repeatedly notes that the group supports "reasonable restrictions" and strong supervision for dangerous predators. But for Henry, part of being reasonable is understanding that sex offenders can be rehabilitated. It means conceding that the public registry is a policy placebo, offering empty reassurance at the price of her son's freedom.

The closest WAR has come to changing Missouri's registry occurred in 2013, when three separate bills were introduced to the state legislature. One bill would have allowed mental health experts to re-evaluate sex offenders to determine their eligibility for removal from the registry. Another would have created a tiered system to differentiate between severities of sex crimes.

The bill that made it the furthest was sponsored by state Representative Kevin Engler (R-Farmington). It passed the General Assembly, no small feat, only to run into the veto pen of Governor Jay Nixon.

Engler's bill would have automatically removed the names of registrants who had committed their crimes while under the age of 18. That didn't sit well with Nixon, a law-and-order politician who had previously served as the state's attorney general. Victims' rights groups blasted the bill as well.

Politically, registry reform carries few upsides. Any legislator willing to sponsor a reform bill must realize it could come back to bite them in the form of a nasty attack ad.

Engler says he still believes that the registry needs fixing.

"The purpose of the list should be giving a warning to the general public of the potential danger that might be living in the area," Engler says in an interview. "But the list right now is totally ineffective."

It's the same problem pointed out by Ellman — creating a haystack when you've already found the needles. And Natalie Hull, a Missouri public defender who represents sex offenders in post-conviction appeals, points out that a false sense of security poses its own danger.

"The issue is, what does the sex offender registry really protect kids from?" Hull says. "This thought of 'once a sex offender, always a sex offender' — it's false. And we're still punishing them. The real threat is the guy who's not on the registry."

Indeed, studies show that sexual assaults are more commonly carried out by relatives or friends, not strangers who are already under the government's microscope and aware, fully, that their addresses and faces can be pulled up with a few keystrokes on a website.

Hull believes that judges should be empowered to make decisions about who should be placed on the registry, and for how long. At present, the registry is automatically triggered with conviction of a sex-related crime.

"Judges need discretion," she says, and not just at trial. Currently, judges can't initiate reviews of registrant cases on their own. "There should be a review process after a certain number of years, and judges need to be able to say, 'Let's get this person off the registry.'"

Henry has lost count of how many parents she's met trying to support children on the sex offender registry.

In Missouri, the long list of offenses that can lead to the registry include crimes that, while stomach-churning, don't involve a physical act of violence, such as exposing one's genitals in public, exhibitionism or, as in Joseph's case, possession of child porn. In many cases, their loved ones are left reeling. It's common to lose jobs and apartments once others find you on the list. Among the WAR conference attendees are families who were forced to uproot themselves because their house was too close to a school.

During a weekday in August, Henry settles into an office chair inside her tidy duplex in Arnold. The home serves as both her home and the unofficial WAR headquarters.

"I think I've heard all of the stories," she says.

In the corner of the living room, a card table is strewn with pamphlets and mailers. Henry's public persona makes her an outlier among parents of registrants, but she sees her mission clearly. She works to represent registrants silenced by fear. She tries to build support networks with other criminal justice reform groups. She tries to teach activists how to talk to legislators. Still, WAR largely flies beneath the radar of the general public.

For sex offenders, though, WAR is one of few organizations willing to listen. A support hotline funnels phone calls from all over the country to Henry's desk. On the line are mostly men, some homeless, jobless and desperate. She's had to talk more than one caller down from a suicide attempt.

"When does redemption begin?" she says, repeating one her favorite talking points. "I talk to people that sleep in their trucks because they're not allowed to stay overnight with their family. These people have paid their debt to society, and they want to live their life in peace."

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