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July 28, 2011

The Accidental Sex Offender

It was a classic teenage love story. He was a football star, and she was a cheerleader. They met, they fell in love, they started having sex. And then the cops got involved. Fifteen years later, they're still paying the price.

the rodriguez family

Frank Rodriguez outside the fence. Inside, his wife, Nikki, and daughters (from left) Francesca, Layla, Maia, and Analissa.

Photo Credit: Sarah Wilson

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Frank Rodriguez cannot coach his children's soccer teams. He can't get a job at a major corporation. He can't leave the state without registering with local law enforcement. A married father of four girls, he is a convicted sex offender. Neighbors can find his name and address on a public registry online.

His crime? Sleeping with his high school sweetheart 15 years ago. At the time, Frank was 19 years old, a recent high school graduate in the town of Caldwell, Texas. That's when he first had sex with Nikki Prescott, his future wife. The two had been dating for nearly a year; the sex was consensual. However, the legal age of consent in Texas is 17, and Nikki was just shy of 16. Nikki's mother, worried that her daughter's relationship with Frank was getting too serious, reported Frank to the police. She expected the cops to issue a warning, but instead she set in motion a legal nightmare from which Frank would never recover. He became a registered sex offender — for life.

Today, Nikki, 30, and Frank, 34, both say they unequivocally support laws that put sexual predators behind bars and protect children from attacks. "The registry isn't a bad thing," says Nikki. "It's a good thing. It's just that Frank shouldn't be on it."

Nikki and Frank's predicament is not an isolated incident. Across the country, young lovers are increasingly finding themselves caught in the nation's complicated web of sex-offender laws. Teenagers wind up on the public sex-offender registry, alongside violent predators, pedophiles, and child pornographers, for having consensual sex with an underage partner (or, sometimes, for streaking or sexting — sending racy self-portraits, which can be considered child pornography). The stigma of the sex-offender label is difficult to shed: "Once you're on the registry, good luck trying to explain it," says Sarah Tofte, who has studied sex-offender laws for the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch. "It's like you're in prison proclaiming your innocence. People think, Right, that's a likely story. Especially potential employers."

There are now more than 650,000 registered sex offenders nationwide. There are no reliable statistics on the number of juveniles — but the problem is clearly on the rise. Each of the 50 states now has at least one grassroots group dedicated to getting young people — many high school age, but some under the age of 10 — off the registry. The effort includes judges and other legal experts who say they have seen the problem often enough to persuade them that the system needs adjustment.

Still, the problem is poorly understood. Partly out of embarrassment, some parents don't want to talk about this issue — even as they work to try to remove their own children from the registry. To get some answers as to the extent of the problem, we conducted our own survey, state by state. What we found: Not all states register juveniles, and of the 34 that do, only 23 keep track of the number of juveniles on the registry. In those 23 states, there are nearly 23,000 registered juveniles. No states monitor whether the number of juveniles is on the rise or not, but one state, Oregon, provided an estimate, reporting a 70 percent jump in that state since 2005.

Undoubtedly, some of the juveniles on the list are guilty of violent sexual crimes. The grassroots movement is trying to help a different group of people: high school students who get labeled as sex offenders for teenage sexual behavior that can be technically criminal, but which, activists argue, should fall into a different category. Under the current system, kids' futures are being ruined, says William C. Buhl, a recently retired Michigan circuit judge who became an activist after overseeing 12 convictions of teenagers for consensual sex. Says Buhl, "What we have done, to young men, mostly, is destroy their lives, for somewhat common behavior."

Nikki Rodriguez remembers the night that sparked her embattled future — the night she first met Frank. At a mutual friend's house one evening on spring break, she and Frank began chatting, and quickly clicked. She was a 15-year-old freshman in high school, a self-described "clumsy" cheerleader. He was an 18-year-old football star, a confident, outgoing high school senior. They soon began calling each other every day. At the time, Nikki lived with her mother, stepfather, and four siblings on the grounds of a church camp that the family ran in Caldwell, a town of around 3,500 people.

"Frank was different," Nikki says. "He would pick flowers for me at the bus stop and bring them to school. At lunch, he came and sat with my friends and me, not with the guys." After nearly a year together, she and Frank had sex. They had no idea about crime or the consequences. "We were just madly in love," says Nikki, while standing on the sidelines of a soccer game in Caldwell on a windy Saturday morning. Watching her 11-year-old daughter, Analissa, bounce around the field, she adds, "Everyone was doing it."

When Nikki admitted to her mother, Melissa Ostman, that she was sleeping with Frank, tension flared. Ostman didn't think her daughter was ready for a sexual relationship, and the two began arguing frequently. "It's just that Nikki was so young," Ostman says. "I liked Frank from day one, but I wanted them to cool off."

One night, after Nikki and her mother had yet another argument, Ostman snapped. "Nikki and Frank were supposed to bring her sister home from the fair, but they left her there and went off together," she says. "I said, 'That's it.' I was getting so mad." Fed up after months of feuding, she says, she drove her daughter to the police station that night and reported Frank for having sex with a minor. "It was the only thing I could think of to get Nikki to listen to me," she says. "I wanted her to know I was serious." She thought the police would simply scare Frank, giving him a stern warning. "If I had known the implications," she says, "I wouldn't have done it."

Nikki remembers the police interrogation. "The sheriff said I had to give a statement," she says. "I refused." The officer told Nikki she could be arrested, she says, so she replied: "Arrest me." Then, thinking it would help Frank, she told the cops the sex was consensual. After that, she was driven to the hospital to be tested for rape.

The next day, Nikki's mother calmed down. She went back to the police station to rescind her complaint. It was too late. "The police said the state would be taking it from here," she says. "Looking back on it, I just feel horrible. I don't know what the answer is when your kid is 15 or 16 and wants to date. But the answer is not to label the guy a sex offender."

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