No regular reader at SJ is unfamiliar with the sex offender registry, the simplistic solution birthed by a public panic that became a convenient tool of politicians to keep the public in fear so they could fix it by adding more people, more crimes, more punishment to the list. Guy Hamilton-Smith has laid bare his story here. They now exist as a permanent underclass, condemned to live under bridges until imprisoned for not being able to register their new address.
At Persuasion, Carol Nesteikis tells of yet another wrinkle to this Fool’s Paradise based on what happened to her son, Adam.
When Adam was a toddler, he was diagnosed as having an intellectual and developmental disability (the updated term for “mental retardation”). Many clinicians over the years have confirmed that he will never have the ability to care for himself. My son has the intellectual capacity of a 10-year-old—one who is guileless, naïve, and easily manipulated.
There are a lot of Adams out there. This description may well sound horribly familiar to many of us, sweet, beloved children who will never grow out of their intellectual and developmental disabilities. They are vulnerable, not out of choice or a failure of parental supervision. No parent can sit on their child every moment of every day, and no child can spend their life bubblewapped and hidden away, as much as that may be a parent’s inclination, if only to protect them from the harsh world that won’t understand that they are defenseless.
Adam became friends with a neighborhood child, Reuben, who suffered his own demons and sexual abuse, although Carol didn’t know about it. She thought the long-term friendship could be trusted.
But unbeknownst to us, Reuben—now a young adult—was re-enacting the sexual abuse he had been subjected to as a boy, and was molesting both my son and his niece. My heart breaks for this little girl, who has endured so much trauma. One day, Reuben told my son that it would fun if Adam unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the 5-year-old girl. Adam did. He had no understanding of what he had done, nor did he touch her.
The niece told Reuben’s adoptive parents what had happened, and they called the police. Both Adam and Reuben were arrested. We were in despair for everyone involved. My husband and I emptied our savings accounts to pay for attorneys—money we had put aside for retirement and to provide for Adam after we were gone. We assumed that once the court understood that Adam himself had been victimized and that he was neither dangerous nor mentally competent, this nightmare would end.
The story from there takes no surprising twists. The prosecution didn’t “understand,” or just didn’t care because cutting a man in his twenties a break for exposing himself to a young girl would have made heads explode. The same outrage that cost Aaron Persky his bench was at play here, because after all, who cares about this disgusting miscreant to did such a thing to a girl, even though he was manipulated and mentally incapable of appreciating what he was doing?
This is a good place to pause and get a firm grip of reality. Carol is telling the story of Adam, and he is and should be deeply sympathetic in the retelling. But if the story appeared on the front page of your local paper from the perspective of the young girl abused, would you be calling for Adam’s execution as a child predator and sex monster? At least some of you would. At least some of you have.
As is the usual path of least resistance, a decent plea to a misdemeanor was offered and taken, and trial was far too risky.
When Adam appeared before the judge, she was required to make sure my son voluntarily agreed to plead guilty and that he understood the consequences of doing so. But my son didn’t comprehend any of the questions the judge asked him. Adam’s lawyer stood next to him and told him what to say.
Carol may be surprised by this dynamic, but no criminal defense lawyer should be. Imagine what might have come of a trial, where Adam, who couldn’t testify because of his disabilities, could have ended with life plus cancer for his 19 felony charges. The plea was the only rational option in such an emotionally charged case, and his lawyer managed to get him through it, knowing full well that he had no comprehension of what was happening, and saved him from what prison would have done to this guileless young man.
But the collateral consequences came as shock.
Because of Adam’s conviction, we could no longer live in the neighborhood where we raised him and his sister, so we bought a one-bedroom condo, and eventually sold our house of 35 years. My husband sleeps on the couch, and I sleep on an air mattress in the walk-in closet. We let my son have the bed. He has lost so much that we had to let him have his own bed. For the two years he was on probation, he was terrified that his ankle monitor would go off. He was also required to stay inside from 6 pm to 6 am. Because Adam cannot be left alone, we all lived under this curfew.
Adam has been on the registry for seven years. He doesn’t have the capacity to understand what the registry means. He just knows that he can no longer participate in the activities he loves. His life is so restricted that he spends most of his days in our small apartment. He plays with fidget spinners, watches the robot vacuum clean the floor, and talks to Alexa and Google Assistant. He is severely depressed, and his language and social skills have drastically deteriorated.
As Carol Nesteikis writes, Adam is no sex offender. Adam is no threat to anyone. She and her husband are in their late 60s and retired. What happens to Adam when they’re gone?