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July 28, 2011

The Accidental Sex Offender

nikki rodriguez

Nikki Rodriguez today, at her daughters' school.

Photo Credit: Sarah Wilson

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In recent years, at least 50 grassroots groups have been launched with the goal of changing sex-offender laws. Mothers, shocked to find their sons on the registry for high school sex, note that teens on the registry have trouble getting into college and finding jobs, and often face residency restrictions — such as a ban on living within 1,000 feet of a school. They are also frequent targets of harassment, or worse: A young man in Maine named William Elliott, on the registry for sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 19, was murdered in 2006 by a vigilante. The killer had found Elliott's name on the registry and decided to go hunting for sex offenders before turning the gun on himself.

Some grassroots groups are controversial, as they're lobbying to ease restrictions on all sex offenders, violent or not. But many groups are formed by mothers of high school lovers. Tonia Maloney, who runs Illinois Voices, says her group includes at least 75 mothers of sons on the registry for consensual teenage sex. Francie Baldino, who runs Michigan Citizens for Justice, says her group has around 30 mothers in the same situation. Both women became activists when their own teenage sons were arrested after having consensual sex.

Even kids under the age of 10 have been registered, says Cheryl Carpenter, a criminal-defense attorney in Michigan. She knows a 9-year-old boy who went on a private juvenile registry for playing doctor with a 6-year-old girl. The boy's name can now be removed from the registry, thanks to new state legislation spurred by activists. A similar case is currently unfolding in Wisconsin courts, where a 6-year-old boy is accused of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl; the children reportedly said they were playing doctor.

Carpenter, who has managed to free 11 teenagers (all convicted of sexual offenses involving minors) from the registry, now serves on a professional advisory board for the Coalition for a Useful Registry, a grassroots group launched by two Michigan mothers. She estimates that the group includes 150 mothers of sons on the registry for teenage sex. Some of the boys, she says, can now petition for removal from the registry under the state's new legislation.

Activists also note that the age of consent varies among states — ranging from age 16 to 18 — so sex can be a crime in one state and not in another. While the activists say they're not advocating teenage sex, the reality is that a significant percentage of teens are sexually active: A national study by the Centers for Disease Control shows that 28 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 have had sex.

In the past few years, the grassroots groups have managed to get many states to pass laws designed to help high school students. The so-called Romeo and Juliet laws aim to reduce or eliminate the penalties for consensual sex with a minor, provided the couple's age difference is minimal and other parameters are met. While the laws have helped in many cases, activists say, often young people find themselves just missing the parameters of the law in their state.

In Texas in 2009, activists succeeded in getting state lawmakers to pass a bill that tweaked the law — and could help Frank Rodriguez. But when the bill landed on Governor Rick Perry's desk, he vetoed it. This past spring, a revised version of the bill went back to the governor's desk. And this time, in late May, he signed it. The bill becomes law in September — and, for the first time, it gives Frank a chance to petition the court to remove his name from the registry.

Under the new bill, the accused can file a petition if he was within four years of age of his sexual partner and if the partner was at least 15. For Frank, this could be the end of a frustrating 15-year journey, one that has caused tensions on both sides of the family. As Nikki notes, "My relationship with my mom has never been the same."

Her mother agrees. "I walk around every day with this guilt. We don't know yet what kind of effect [Frank's registration] is going to have on the girls," she says, referring to her granddaughters. "Kids can be so mean."

The girls don't yet know their parents' history, although they have hints of it. "They hear us talking," Nikki says, as her daughters bound around the living room on a Saturday evening in Caldwell. "They know something is up. One day my mom came over, and Layla, my 7-year-old, asked her, 'Why did you send my dad to jail?'

"It's been really hard on Frank," Nikki adds, describing how she and Frank have had to explain their situation time and again throughout the years — to teachers, to employers, to parents of their daughters' friends. "He's always wondering what people are thinking." Recently, the family moved to a new home across town, and the neighborhood kids came over every day, until they abruptly stopped. "We wondered, Did their parents see the registry?" Nikki says. "You never know for sure."

When Nikki and Frank learned that the governor of Texas had signed the new bill, they couldn't quite believe it. Now in the process of hiring a lawyer to petition the court, they are reluctant to celebrate their freedom just yet. Says Frank, "I'll believe it when I see it."

How many juveniles are on the sex-offender registry? Find out in the results of our exclusive survey.

To lobby for change in your state, e-mail us at action@marieclaire.com.

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