Collateral Damage: Family Members of Registered
Jill Levenson &Richard Tewksbury
Received: 15 October 2008 / Accepted: 20 October 2008 /
Published online: 15 January 2009
#Southern Criminal Justice Association 2009
Abstract The purpose of this study was to better understand the impact of sex
offender registration and notification laws on the family members of registered sex
offenders (RSO). An online survey was utilized to collect data from 584 family
members across the U.S. Employment problems experienced by the RSO, and
subsequent financial hardships, emerged as the most pressing issue identified by
family members. The likelihood of housing disruption was correlated with
residential restriction laws; larger buffer distances led to increased frequencies of
housing crisis. Family members living with an RSO were more likely to experience
threats and harassment by neighbors. Children of RSOs reportedly experienced
adverse consequences including stigmatization and differential treatment by teachers
and classmates. More than half had experienced ridicule, teasing, depression,
anxiety, fear, or anger. Unintended consequences can impact family members’ability
to support RSOs in their efforts to avoid recidivism and successfully reintegrate.
Implications for criminal justice policy and practice are discussed.
Keywords Registered sex offender .Family members .Megan’s law .Sexual abuse
It is estimated that there are currently over 644,000 registered sex offenders (RSO) in
the United States (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children 2008), and
that number will continue to grow with new sex crime convictions and the release of
sex offenders from incarceration. Efforts to protect citizens from recidivistic sex
crimes have evolved over the past 15 years. The Jacob Wetterling Act was enacted
by the U.S. Congress in 1994 and required convicted sex offenders to register
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
J. Levenson (*)
Lynn University, 3601 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton, FL 33431, USA
Department of Justice Administration, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292, USA
identifying information with law enforcement agents (Jacob Wetterling Crimes
Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act 1994). In 1996, the
Wetterling Act was amended to allow the public to be notified of sex offender
registry information and this policy is commonly known as “Megan’s Law.”All
states now have publicly accessible Internet sites on which sex offender information
is posted. The passage of the Adam Walsh Act in 2006 (Adam Walsh Sex Offender
Registration and Notification Act 2006) lengthened registration periods, mandated
more frequent updating of registrant information, and expanded the number of sex
offenders to whom public notification requirements apply. Researchers have
identified ways in which sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws
can impede community reintegration efforts of RSOs and potentially contribute to
recidivism. The purpose of this study is to explore the impact of SORN laws on the
family members of registered sex offenders.
Sex offender registration and notification laws are strongly endorsed by the public,
who believe that knowing where sex offenders live can enhance their ability to
protect themselves and their children from sexual victimization (Anderson and
Sample 2008; Levenson et al. 2007a; Lieb and Nunlist 2008; Mears et al. 2008).
Empirical research does not consistently support this hypothesis, however. A few
studies suggest that sex crime recidivism has decreased as a result of SORN laws
(Duwe and Donnay 2008; Washington State Institute for Public Policy 2005), but the
majority of research does not indicate significant changes in sex crime trends
following the implementation of these policies (Adkins et al. 2000; Vasquez et al.
2008; Zevitz 2006). Prescott and Rockoff (2008) analyzed Uniform Crime Report
data from 15 states and found that while sex crime rates declined after SORN laws
went into effect, recidivism did not, suggesting that public notification may have had
a general deterrent effect but did not prevent known sex criminals from reoffending.
The number of RSOs living in a community does not appear to be correlated with
higher sex offense rates (Tewksbury et al. 2008). While the efficacy of SORN laws
in preventing sex crime recidivism has yet to be firmly established, growing
evidence supports the notion that these policies have unintended consequences that
can undermine successful reentry.
Impact of SORN Laws on Offender Re-entry
A growing body of research has highlighted the adverse effects of SORN laws for
sex offenders in Kentucky (Mustaine et al. 2006; Tewksbury 2004; Tewksbury and
Lees 2006), Connecticut (Levenson et al. 2007b), Florida (Brannon et al. 2007;
Levenson and Cotter 2005a; Mustaine et al. 2006; Tewksbury and Mustaine 2006),
Indiana (Levenson and Hern 2007; Tewksbury 2005), New Jersey (Mercado et al.
2008), Wisconsin (Zevitz and Farkas 2000), Illinois (Burchfield and Mingus 2008),
Oklahoma and Kansas (Tewksbury and Mustaine, in press). Most studies show that
community notification appears to limit employment opportunities for up to half of
RSOs. Housing disruption is common, with 20–40% of sex offenders reporting that
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 55
they have had to move because a landlord or neighbor became aware of their RSO
status. A majority report psychosocial consequences such as depression, hopeless-
ness, and fear for their own safety. Some have experienced vigilante activities such
as property damage, harassment, and even physical assault (Brannon et al. 2007;
Levenson and Cotter 2005a; Levenson et al. 2007b; Mercado et al. 2008; Tewksbury
2005; Tewksbury and Lees 2006,2007).
At least thirty states prevent RSOs from living within close proximity to schools,
daycare centers, parks, or bus stops (Meloy et al. 2008). Proximity to schools,
however, does not seem to be empirically related to recidivism (Colorado
Department of Public Safety 2004). In fact, researchers concluded that residence
restrictions would have successfully prevented none of 224 recidivistic offenses
in Minnesota (Duwe et al. 2008). The Minnesota repeat offenders tended to
victimize children who were well known to them, but of the 16 minor victims who
were strangers, none of the incidents took place near a school, park, or
Housing availability is greatly diminished by residential restrictions, and so the
impact of housing laws on sex offenders and their families is particularly salient. For
instance, in the greater Orlando, Florida metropolitan area, 95% of residential
dwellings fall within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers and school bus
stops, and 99.7% are within 2,500 feet (Zandbergen and Hart 2006). In Camden
County, New Jersey, 88% of registered sex offenders were found to live within 2,500
feet of a school, park, daycare center, or church (Zgoba et al. 2008), and in Newark,
New Jersey, 93% of the county’s livable territory is within 2,500 feet of a school
(Chajewski and Mercado 2008). Nearly half (45%) of housing in five major
counties in South Carolina is within 1,000 feet of a school (Barnes et al. 2008).
So buffer zones, especially those that extend to 2,500 feet, render the majority of
housing in metropolitan areas off-limits to sex offenders. A substantial proportion
or dependent family as a result of SORN laws (Levenson and Cotter 2005a;
Levenson et al. 2007b; Tewksbury and Lees 2006). Housing restrictions tend to
force them to relocate to communities which are less densely populated, and
therefore farther away from employment opportunities, public transportation,
and mental health services (Levenson 2008; Levenson and Cotter 2005b; Levenson
and Hern 2007).
Though most citizens and politicians might be unconcerned with the adverse
consequences of SORN laws for sex offenders, these laws ultimately impact
communities in ways that can undermine their intended goals. Limited housing
options and underemployment often relegate registered sex offenders to neighbor-
hoods marked by high levels of social disorganization, lower incomes, and larger
minority populations (Mustaine et al. 2006; Tewksbury and Mustaine 2006,2008).
Such neighborhoods may be more affordable to criminals, but they are often
characterized by community neglect, low social capital, and a paucity of resources
with which to protect and serve citizens (Burchfield and Mingus 2008; Tewksbury
and Mustaine 2008). Since unstable employment and housing are associated with
increased sexual and criminal recidivism (Kruttschnitt et al. 2000; Laub and
Sampson 2001; Schulenberg 2007; Willis and Grace 2008), laws which disrupt
stability are unlikely to facilitate public protection.
56 Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
Impact of SORN Laws on Family Members of RSOs
SORN affects not only sex offenders, but also their loved ones. Although the degree
to which family members are affected and the frequency of negative experiences is
difficult to quantify, RSOs report that other members of their households are affected
by SORN laws (Levenson and Cotter 2005a; Levenson et al. 2007b). A direct survey
of family members themselves revealed that they are affected in important ways that
are sometimes subtle and not obvious to others (Tewksbury and Levenson, under
review). Most family members of RSOs (86%) reported that SORN has caused stress
in their lives, 77% often felt a sense of isolation, and 49% often felt afraid for their
own safety due to public disclosure of the sex offender’s status. Half had lost friends
or a close relationship as a result of community notification, and 66% said that
shame and embarrassment often kept them from engaging in community activities.
These adverse consequences of SORN laws were correlated with increased stress
levels in RSO family members. Lower income was empirically associated with
increased stress levels, as were feelings of isolation, fear for one’s safety, shame
interfering with social activities, and having to move (Tewksbury and Levenson,
In qualitative interviews with 72 family members of RSOs in six states (Farkas
and Miller 2007), several common themes became apparent. Family members often
reported persistent feelings of hopelessness, depression, and frustration as they
adjusted to life with a registered sex offender. In many cases, a family member’s
decision to maintain contact with the offender led to hostility and disengagement
from other relatives, leaving the family member feeling alone and isolated. Many
reported that housing and employment disruptions, often caused by limitations
imposed by the offender’s probation or registration status, resulted in economic
hardships for the entire family. As well, close scrutiny and perceived intrusion from
parole or law enforcement agents were viewed as an invasion of privacy, and public
notification procedures often generated an enormous sense of shame and stigma.
Many family members discussed feeling “overwhelmed and demoralized”(p. 5),
struggling to cope on a daily basis. Some remarked that reentry assistance policies
(e.g. the Second Chance Act) seemed to unfairly exclude sex offenders from
receiving services. The conclusion reached by the authors was that stress for family
members can hinder the crucial role they play in aiding the sex offender to
successfully reintegrate (Farkas and Miller 2007).
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this exploratory and descriptive study was to better understand the
ways in which family members of registered sex offenders are affected by SORN
laws and residential restrictions. First, we identified the types of community
notification strategies that were commonly utilized. Next, we explored the
perceptions of family members about SORN. Finally, we examined the impact of
SORN by asking family members to identify the specific collateral consequences
they experienced, including psychosocial consequences to the children of RSOs.
Very little is known about the effects of SORN laws on RSO family members, and
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 57
especially their children. This study adds to a very limited empirical literature,
informing our understanding of a neglected population who provides a crucial link to
successful criminal reintegration.
A non-random, purposive sample of family members of registered sex offenders was
recruited to participate in an online survey about the impact of SORN laws on their
lives. There are over 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States and many
of them may have family members who visit online advocacy sites. The actual
population for online sampling pools, however, is unknown (Wright 2005).
Therefore we are unable to calculate the response rate and we are also limited in
our ability to know if the sample is representative of the population. The sample was
made up of 584 respondents. There was representation from all 50 states, though
some states had a particularly high number of respondents: California (31), Florida
(48), Michigan (64), and Texas (46).
Raosoft sample size calculator was used to estimate the number of subjects
required to obtain valid results. Using an estimated population of 20,000 (sample
size does not change much for populations over 20,000), a sample size of 377 would
represent the population with a margin of error of 5% and a confidence interval of
95% (Raosoft 2008). G-Power software was used to calculate power analyses (Faul
et al. 2008). Using a power of .95 and an alpha of .05, a sample of 210 is sufficient
to detect a medium effect size when conducting a two-tailed t-test. Using a
conventional power of .80, and an alpha of .05, a sample of 138 is sufficient to detect a
medium effect size when conducting correlational analyses. Therefore, our sample of
584 should be sufficient for this preliminary descriptive study.
The sample was recruited from websites and list-servs identified as advocacy or
support resources for the families of registered sex offenders. A letter requesting
assistance with data collection was sent to six sites known to provide support,
information, and resources for registered sex offenders and their families. Four of the
sites agreed to participate, one declined, and one did not respond until after the
survey was completed. Additionally, a request was sent to the administrators of two
list-servs for RSOs and their families, and both agreed to help recruit participants.
Specifically, we requested that the contact persons 1) send a link to our survey to
their email distribution list; and 2) post a link to our survey on their website. The
survey was launched in July 2008 and remained active for 45 days.
There are benefits and weaknesses to online survey methods (Pokela et al. 2008;
Wright 2005). They are cost effective and time-saving, allowing data to be collected
from a large volume of subjects without the personnel and fiscal resources typically
needed for interviewing and data entry. Online surveys are an efficient method for
soliciting a unique or difficult-to-reach population who tend to frequent websites
58 Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
pertinent to their interests (Wright 2005). On the other hand, Internet users are not
representative of the general population; they are more likely to be white, more
educated, more affluent, and younger (Pew Internet and American Life Project
2008). Even in the 21st century, not everyone has Internet access. Roughly 27% of
the adult population does not have or does not use email or the World Wide Web
(Pew Internet and American Life Project 2008). Moreover, there is no reliable
method (e.g. similar to random digit dialing for telephone surveys) to generate a
random sample when surveying people online (Pokela et al. 2008), and online
samples are self-selected, perhaps leading to bias (Wright 2005). These limitations
notwithstanding, an online survey was deemed to be an efficient method for
collecting data from a large pool of family members of RSOs. We recognize,
however, that our sample is made up only of family members who have Internet
access and who have chosen to visit websites known as “advocacy sites”for
registered sex offenders and their families.
Subjects were invited to complete the survey via a link on the websites and/or a
link distributed through the above mentioned email lists. It is also possible that those
email invitations were forwarded by recipients to other interested parties and posted
on relevant blogs (known as “snowball sampling”). Surveys were completed online
and were anonymous and confidential. The survey was developed using Survey
Monkey, a survey construction site designed for online data collection. The first page
of the survey contained an authorization for informed consent and the survey was
designed not to launch unless participants stated that they were over 18 years of age
and clicked “yes”giving their consent to participate. Our survey did not track or
record respondents’IP or email addresses or other personal information. Survey
Monkey uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol over Secure Socket Layer (HTTPS) to
create a secure HTTP connection with encrypted communication, which is widely
used on the World Wide Web for security-sensitive communications such as
payment transactions and corporate logons.
The research was conducted in accordance with federal guidelines for the ethical
treatment of human subjects, and was approved by an Institutional Review Board.
Participation was entirely voluntary and subjects could withdraw from the study at
any time by closing the survey. Online completion of the survey was considered to
imply informed consent to participate in the project. The survey was programmed to
allow only one response from each IP address or work station to prevent one person
from taking the survey multiple times.
The survey was designed by the authors for the purpose of collecting data
regarding the impact of sex offender registration and notification on family
members. The survey was constructed by utilizing some questions drawn from
previous surveys of the impact of these laws on sex offenders themselves (e.g.
Levenson and Cotter 2005a,b; Tewksbury 2005) as well as by discussions between
the authors and feedback from sex offenders’family members. The survey was
designed to elicit participants’perceptions of community notification and housing
restrictions by rating Likert scales indicating their degree of agreement with the
issues in question.
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 59
The Family Members
The sample was comprised of 584 participants, of whom 80% were female. The
majority (92%) were white. The average age of the respondents was 48 years old
(median = 50, mode = 50, SD= 13). About 64% said that they were married, 15% were
divorced or separated, and 4% were widowed. The sample was well-educated, with 20%
reporting high school completion or GED, 37% indicating that they attended some
college, and 41% reporting that they had obtained a bachelors’or graduate degree.
Most of the respondents were either the spouse (42%) or a parent or stepparent
(33%) of the RSO. Only 1% said that they were an RSO’s child or stepchild (minors
were not permitted to take the survey), and the remaining 24% were siblings,
relatives, friends, or romantic partners. Most (62%) said that they lived in the same
home with the RSO.
The RSOs in Their Lives
The vast majority said that the RSO about whom the family member was taking the
survey was male (97%), and most of the RSOs were adults (98%). They had been on
the registry, on average, for 8 years (median = 7, mode = 1, SD=6.3). The RSO to
whom the family member referred was, on average, 40 years old (median = 39, SD =
13) though it is interesting to note that the most common age (mode) was 25. In fact,
29% of the RSOs were young adults age 30 or younger. Nearly half of the RSOs
(48%) were reported to have committed an offense against a minor, 28% abused a child
under age 12, 7% sexually assaulted an adult victim, 9% were convicted of a child
pornography offense, 6% had an Internet-related offense other than child porn, and 4%
described the registry-eligible offense as “other.”Most of the victims were unknown to
the family member who answered the survey (59%), but 10% said the victim was their
child or stepchild, 4% said the victim was their grandchild, and 8% described the victim
as a niece, nephew, or other child in the extended family. About 16% of the victims were
unrelated minors, and about 3% were described as an adult relative, friend, or
acquaintance. It is important to recognize although most of the victims were unknown to
the family members, they were not necessarily strangers to the RSO.
Respondents were asked about the risk level assigned to their RSO. About 43%
said they lived in a state that does not assign risk levels. One quarter (25%) said that
the RSO was classified as a Level 1 (low risk) offender, 16% reported a Level 2
(medium risk) classification, and 11% said that the RSO was considered to be a high
risk (Level 3) offender. A small proportion (4%) was classified as a sexual predator.
In all of the tables, the “valid n”refers to the number of subjects who answered the
questions, which differed for each question or section of the survey. Participants
were asked about the types of community notification procedures that were most
commonly used to notify the public about their RSO (see Table 1). None of the
strategies seemed to be used with great frequency. Automated phone calls were least
60 Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
common. The majority of respondents had seen their RSO’s listing on their state’s
Internet sex offender registry.
Perceptions About the Registry
Table 2describes the participants’views about publicly accessible Internet registries.
Slightly more than half of the sample believed that the information listed on the
Internet registry about their RSO was correct. However, few thought that the
information would help the public to protect themselves from the RSO or that
communities are safer because of SORN laws. Most did not believe it was fair to
inform the community about the RSO’s risk, and 97% denied that their RSO could
be at risk to reoffend.
Consequences to Family Members
A substantial number of family members experienced adverse consequences as a
result of SORN laws (see Table 3). The majority of the sample noted that
Table 1 Community notification procedures
In my neighborhood, flyers were posted to show neighbors that my family
member, a registered sex offender, lived nearby.
In my neighborhood, the police or someone else went door-to-door to inform
neighbors that my family member, a registered sex offender, lived nearby.
In my neighborhood, they held a meeting to inform neighbors that my
family member, a registered sex offender, lived nearby.
In my neighborhood, flyers were sent home with schoolchildren to alert
neighbors that my family member, a registered sex offender, lived nearby.
In my neighborhood, the local newspaper published the whereabouts
of my family member, a registered sex offender, who lived nearby.
In my neighborhood, neighbors received automated telephone calls
informing them that my family member, a registered sex offender, lived nearby.
I have seen my family member’s listing on my state’s sex offender Internet registry. 472 88%
Table 2 Perceptions about the internet registry (valid n= 469)
disagree agree strongly
The information listed about my family member on the Internet
registry is correct.
22% 27% 42% 9%
The information listed about my family member on the Internet
registry helps the public know how to protect themselves.
78% 18% 3% 1%
Communities are safer when they know where sex offenders live. 56% 35% 8% 1%
I believe that my family member could be a risk to reoffend. 86% 11% 2% 1%
I believe that it is fair for the community to know about my
family member’s risk.
61% 24% 11% 4%
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 61
employment problems for RSOs resulted in financial hardships for the rest of the
family. Housing problems were less common, with less than one quarter reporting
that they had to move due to sex offender notification. Almost half, however,
reported being threatened or harassed by neighbors, 27% had their property
damaged, and 7% said they were physically assaulted by someone as a result of
notification. We compared those who said they lived with the RSO to those who did
not in order to examine differences in consequences between groups. One item was
significant: those who lived with an RSO were more likely to experience threats and
harassment by neighbors (X
=4.543, df=1, p=.03).
The majority of participants (75%) indicated that their RSO was subject to residence
restrictions laws requiring them to live a certain distance from a school, park,
playground, daycare center, bus stop, or other place where children congregate.
About 30% said that the residence restriction was a state law, 13% were restricted by
a probation or parole condition, 4% by a local municipal ordinance, and one-third
(33%) indicated that the RSO was restricted by a combination of more than one type
of residential proximity law. The most common distance requirement was 1,000 feet
(44%), with 7% restricted by 500 feet, 6% by 1,500 feet, 11% by 2,000 feet, and 7%
by 2,500 feet. As the residential buffer zone increased, family members were more
likely to experience adverse consequences, as indicated by Spearman’srho,a
correlation coefficient that measures the strength of the relationship between ranked,
non-parametric variables (see Table 4).
Table 3 Collateral consequences to family members
My family member, the RSO, had a very hard time finding a job because employers
don’t want to hire a registered sex offender, AND this has created financial
hardship for my family.
My family member, the RSO, lost a job because a boss or co-workers found out
through Megan’s Law that (s)he was a sex offender, AND this created financial
hardship for my family.
I have had to move out of a residence that I RENTED because my LANDLORD
found out through Megan’s Law that a sex offender lived there.
I have had to move out of a residence that I RENTED because my NEIGHBORS
found out through Megan’s Law that a sex offender lived there.
I have had to move out of a home that I OWNED because my NEIGHBORS found
out through Megan’s Law that a sex offender lived there.
I have been threatened or harassed by neighbors after they found out that my family
member is a sex offender.
I have been physically assaulted or injured by someone who found out that my
family member is a sex offender.
My property has been damaged by someone who found out that my family member
is a sex offender.
A person who lives with me (who is NOT a RSO) has been threatened, harassed,
assaulted, injured, or suffered property damage because someone found out
through Megan’s Law that my family member is a sex offender.
62 Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
Impact on Children of RSOs
Participants were asked if they were the parent or caretaker of a child whose other
parent is a registered sex offender and 134 (29%) indicated that they were.
subjects were then asked questions about the ways in which the children had been
affected by their parent’s RSO status. More than half (58%) said that the child was
treated differently by other children at school, and 78% indicated that the child’s
friendships had been impacted in some way. It was common for other children’s
parents to be reluctant to allow the RSO’s child to play at the friend’s home (56%) or
to let a child come to the RSO’s child’s home to play (70%). Many respondents said
that the child has been treated differently by other adults (teachers, neighbors,
friends’parents) (63%), and that the child has been stigmatized due to the parent’s
RSO status (71%). Interestingly, most children were reported to have unrestricted
contact with their RSO parent (63%), though 23% were allowed only supervised
contact and 14% had no contact at all. A majority (74%) indicated that the RSO
parent has been unable to participate in some of the child’s activities, such as
attending school plays or other events, attending or participating in the child’s
organized sports, or attending the child’s birthday party.
The psychosocial impact on the children as reported by their nonoffending parent
is illustrated in Table 5. As shown, the children of RSOs are reported to most often
exhibit anger (80%), depression (77%), anxiety (73%), feeling left out by peers
The majority of these cases involved RSOs who are fathers, with the survey respondent being the mother
(or other caretaker) of a RSO father’s child. However, there are 4 cases in the data where the RSO is the
mother of a child being cared for by the respondent.
Table 4 Consequences of residence restrictions (valid n= 406)
After my family member became a RSO, (s)he was unable to return to my
residence because it was too close to a school, bus stop, park, daycare,
playground, or other place children congregate.
The RSO and I wanted to live together but were unable to because of residence
I have had to move out of a house that I owned because it was too close to a
school, bus stop, park, daycare, playground, or other place children congregate,
and I wanted to live with the RSO.
I have had to move out of a residence that I rented because it was too close to a
school, bus stop, park, daycare, playground, or other place children congregate,
and I wanted to live with the RSO.
A landlord refused to rent to me because my family member is a sex offender. 28% .03
A landlord refused to renew my lease because my family member is a sex offender. 18% .05
I have found it difficult to find an affordable place to live that was not too close to
a school, bus stop, park, daycare, or playground, and I wanted to live with the
My family member was “grandfathered in”to a new law, so I did not have to move
from a residence we were living in before a residence law went into effect.
** p< .01, two-tailed.
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 63
(65%), and fear (63%). Additionally, more than one in eight (13%) of the children of
RSOs were reported to exhibit suicidal tendencies.
This study is one of the first to survey family members of sex offenders to
understand the ways in which they are affected by SORN laws. Employment
limitations and subsequent financial problems emerged as the most pressing issue for
family members, followed by housing concerns. The likelihood of housing
disruption was higher for those family members restricted by larger residential
buffer zone laws. Clearly, disruptions in employment and housing can affect others
with whom an offender lives. As well, a substantial minority of family members
experienced threats, harassment, or property damage due to public disclosure about
the sex offender.
Civil sanctions imposed on criminal offenders are sometimes called invisible
punishments and often result in barriers to reintegration (Travis 2005). The primary
objectives of the criminal justice system are to punish offenders and protect
communities, but rehabilitation and successful reentry are also important goals. It is
well known that the stigma of felony conviction can hinder partaking in prosocial
roles such as employment, education, parenting, and property ownership, all of
which are vital to an offender’s investment in conformity to social norms and
therefore to desistance from crime (Uggen et al. 2004). Invisible punishments and
their consequences (i.e. underemployment, lack of affordable housing, obstacles to
assuming adult and parental roles) have a documented impact on families of criminal
offenders (Hirsch et al. 2002; Travis and Waul 2003), but less obvious is the stigma
felt by them.
The public disclosure to which sex offenders are exposed is unprecedented, and
therefore SORN is unique in the degree to which invisible sanctions are
inadvertently imposed upon and experienced by loved ones of offenders. As such,
SORN creates impacts that are broad, and as illustrated in this study, deep and
lasting. Family members, even those who do not live with RSOs, experience
harassment, threats, violence, economic hardships, difficulties with housing, and
psychological stresses simply because they are related to a sex offender. Whether
Table 5 Psychosocial consequences to children of RSOs (valid n= 95)
harassment by others 47%
ridicule by others 59%
teasing by others 52%
physical fighting instigated by others 22%
feeling left out with other children 65%
suicidal tendencies 13%
64 Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68
intended or not, the criminal justice system, via SORN policies, extends punish-
ments to a wide swath of society beyond sex offenders.
In particular, the impact on children of sex offenders is worthy of contemplation.
Whether we like it or not, many sex offenders have children of their own, and they
encounter stigmatization as a result of their parent’s RSO status. What remains
unclear is the myriad of ways in which these experiences will impact their
psychosocial development, their interpersonal relationships, and their sense of self.
Furthermore, the ways in which their relationship with their RSO parent is impacted
is crucial and can influence their own future criminal and non-criminal behaviors.
Those who are truly without culpability - and many times already victims - are
punished through SORN polices and their consequences.
Not surprisingly, family members found little value in notification and did not
believe that it contributes in meaningful ways to public safety. Noteworthy, however,
is the miniscule number of subjects who believed that their RSO could be at risk to
reoffend (3%). Certainly, denial among family members is not uncommon. But this
adamant rejection of the possibility of recidivism has the ironic potential to
compromise the recovery of the offender. Sex offenders (like other criminal
offenders) need support systems made up of people who will accept their potential
for deviant behavior, recognize their risk factors and destructive patterns, and
empower them to engage in healthy, law-abiding, respectful relationships and
activities. Family members can play an important role in this endeavor, provided that
they acknowledge the potential for reoffense. It is possible that family members’
perceptions of unfairness about SORN distort their ability to accurately view the
threat of harm posed by sex offenders. In other words, they become so focused on
the negative consequences of SORN policies that they dismiss the possibility of
future dangerousness. These reactions are clearly not in the best interest of society or
the offender, and represent another unintended effect of these laws.
Implications for criminal justice policy are clear. SORN laws have extended
sanctions and their negative economic, social, and psychological consequences to
others associated with sex offenders. A result may be that these laws ultimately
impel loved ones to distance themselves from the RSO in order to limit, manage, or
cope with their own experiences of collateral consequences. In turn, such
disengagement will leave some offenders with fewer sources of economic and
social support and a weaker safety net for inhibiting recidivism. As a result, current
policies may have effects that contradict their intentions: by imposing losses on
RSOs’family members, the conditions that work to inhibit reoffending are
weakened or removed, potentially facilitating recidivism.
Furthermore, the Adam Walsh Act expands registration requirements by
lengthening duration periods, including juveniles as young as 14 years old, and
mandating that states conform to an offense-based categorization scheme which
inflates the number of registrants classified as high-risk. Such a system is well-
intentioned but misguided. The result will be an exponentially growing number of
RSOs who are publicly identified for longer periods of time; of course this will also
proliferate the impact of SORN laws on family members. Some sex offenders do
indeed have a higher probability of recidivism, and therefore community safety is
more likely to be enabled when states adopt empirically derived risk assessment
methods to validly, reliably, and discriminately identify high risk offenders (Grove
Am J Crim Just (2009) 34:54–68 65
and Meehl 1996; Hanson and Morton-Bourgon 2005). By reserving public
disclosure for those who pose the greatest threat, resources can be more efficiently
distributed, citizens can be appropriately warned, reintegration obstacles for
offenders can be minimized, and collateral consequences for family members can
be diminished. In contrast to the guidelines set forth by the Adam Walsh Act,
evidence-based sex crime policies which employ empirically validated risk
assessment strategies would be more apt to accomplish goals of public safety and
The sampling methodology used in this study has limitations and creates a
potential for biased results. Participants were self-selected after being recruited via
several internet sites, list-servs, and blogs identified as advocacy and support
resources for RSOs and their families. So, the sample may be more likely to reflect
the opinions of those who are experiencing distress rather than those who are not.
Additionally, generalization may be limited by the high proportion of female, white,
well-educated and older respondents. The universe of RSO family members is
presumably very large (over one million people) but we were unable to estimate the
population for this survey. Therefore, we are not able to generate a survey response
rate, nor are we able to determine whether the sample is truly representative of the
This study does, however, represent a pioneering effort to quantitatively
understand the experiences of loved ones of registered sex offenders. Their voices
have been, to date, largely unheard, and they are among the collateral victims of
sexually violent crime. SORN policies have become increasingly restrictive over the
years, exposing sex offenders and their families to public scrutiny and placing severe
limits on sex offenders’employment, housing, and academic opportunities.
Certainly, these policies were designed to protect the public from sexually dangerous
individuals, but the collateral consequences of the laws to others were presumably
unanticipated. Given that there is little research to suggest that community
notification laws result in decreased recidivism (Prescott and Rockoff 2008), their
impediments to offenders’reintegration and their consequences for innocent others
deserve thoughtful consideration.
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