Joshua Gravens can't do a lot of the normal things parents do, like drop his son off at school, attend parent-teacher conferences, or take his daughter to the park, a library or anywhere else children gather.
For the offense of inappropriately touching his 8-year-old sister when he was 12, Gravens, 26, has spent almost half his life as a registered sex offender. The designation subjects him to residency and zoning restrictions that dictate where he can live and spend time. It has also made him the target of harassment, death threats and hampered his ability to find a job or keep a home, he said.
As he sees it, his wife and four children are still paying the price for what he did as a child.
"The biggest effect is obviously not being able to provide stable housing and a stable environment," said Gravens, who lives in Dallas. "I have missed two first days of school, experiences which can never be re-lived."
The collateral effects of life on the registry are the subject of a new Human Rights Watch report challenging the view that registration and related restrictions are appropriate measures for dealing with children who commit sex offenses. "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.," recommends adolescents be exempt from registration and community notification in the absence of empirical data showing that doing so makes communities safer.
Gravens said he does not want to minimize the severity of his actions, for which he spent 3½ years as a teen in the custody of the Texas Youth Commission for one count of aggravated sexual assault, followed by 10 years of parole. But it seems like the older he gets, the consequences become harsher.
"I admit that I did something wrong. I didn't understand the consequences and while I regret every day what I did, I can't go back. I can only go forward," he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in a 2003 ruling that sex offender registration is a public safety tool not intended to punish offenders. But the report suggests that restrictions associated with life on the registry do more harm than good and amount to continued punishment with little evidence to suggest the public is any safer.
"Good public policy should deliver measurable protection to the community and measurable benefit to victims. There is little reason to believe that registering people who commit sexual offenses as children delivers either," Soros Senior Justice Advocacy Fellow Nicole Pittman said in the report.
Juvenile registration has long been a thorny issue even among supporters of the registry and the rules have evolved over time.
The federal Adam Walsh Act, which was passed in 2006, requires registration for juveniles 14 and older in cases of serious sexual assault involving force or threat of violence. Sixteen states have formally adopted the Adam Walsh Act's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, a comprehensive set of minimum standards for sex offender registration and notification in the United States. The other 34 states have their own laws, creating a patchwork of guidelines and procedures governing sex offender management nationwide.
The lack of uniformity is part of the problem, victims rights advocate Linda Walker said. Her daughter Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a North Dakota mall parking lot in 2003 and killed by someone who had recently been released from prison after serving 23 years for attempted kidnapping and assault.
Sjodin's death led her mother to push for Dru's Law, which created the first national public sex offender registry. She believes the registry should be reserved for the most serious offenses, even in the cases of juveniles.
"The registry is intended for the worst of the worst. We're talking about violent offenders, not teens who were sexting or got involved in a sexual relationship," said Walker, a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition.
In cases involving siblings, she said it's important to weigh the lasting harm of the victim against the desire to "make excuses for offenders" and give them second chances.
"The scars are very deep for those victims," she said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has also acknowledged that weighing the rights of offenders and the need for public safety is a tough balancing act.
It's important for juveniles to be brought to the attention of authorities to prevent them from reoffending and to ensure they get the services they need, said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, vice-president of policy and governmental affairs.
"The goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation," she said. "In addition to those goals is the need to protect other children who may be victimized by juvenile offenders who have already been found to commit offenses against children."
But the Human Rights Watch report says children who commit sex offenses should be treated in a manner that reflects their age and capacity for rehabilitation, consistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred juveniles from being eligible for the death penalty, in part for similar reasons.
"Protecting the community and limiting unnecessary harm to youth sex offenders are not mutually incompatible goals. Instead, they can enhance and reinforce each other," the report says. "Society's goal should be returning them to the community, not ostracizing them to the point that they and their families are banished from any semblance of a normal life."
Based on interviews with 281 adult and teen sex offenders whose median age of offense was 15, the report examines the long-term effects of subjecting adolescents to restrictions originally intended for adults convicted of serious sex offenses.
What began as a list of "usual suspects" for law enforcement expanded to include juveniles in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the premise that teens who committed sex offenses were "destined to become sexual predators," said psychologist Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, who specializes in sexual behavior in youth.
Since then, a number of studies have found that youth sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders, who also have extremely low recidivism rates when compared to people convicted of robbery, burglary, larceny, murder and other non-sex offenses.
"There's a number of widely held but erroneous notions about this population that have arguably driven public policy over the years," Chaffin said. "There was this sense of inevitability that (juvenile sex offenders were) an unusually high-risk population.