Life On the List

When Josh Gravens was 12 years old, he made a terrible mistake. He and his sister, who was 8, had sexual contact, twice. “Like, where my body part touched her body part,” he says. “It was never penetrative. Obviously, it couldn’t have been what they call consensual, but it was playing.”

Josh’s sister told their mother, who was alarmed. She wanted to ensure that, even if Josh’s intentions were only curious, he learned appropriate behavior right away. She called a Christian counseling center near their home in Abilene and described what happened. She was informed that, by law, the center had to report Josh to the police for sexual assault of a child.

The next day, Josh was arrested and sent into Texas’ juvenile justice system. He wouldn’t get out for three and a half years.

“My family didn’t want to press charges,” he says. “The state took up the case and pressed charges.” Josh and I met earlier this year at his older sister’s house in Plano, where he lives with his soft-spoken wife Nicole and their four children, two from Nicole’s first marriage and a toddler and infant with Josh. The three-bedroom house is neat but crowded, full of happy kids, two big dogs and a couple of turtles in terrariums.

“There was quite a bit of shock,” Josh says of his arrest. “My mother didn’t understand at the time that if the counselor felt there was a chance it could happen again or there was something going on, she was obligated to report it.”

That phone call, and the child’s choice that prompted it, unalterably changed the course of Josh’s life.

Today he is 25. He and his family are living with his older sister and her husband while Josh looks for work. He estimates that he’s applied for 250 positions since January, when the checks from his job at a Christmas tree lot started to bounce. He stays upbeat, though finding work is harder for him than for other people. Because of what he did when he was 12, Josh is a registered sex offender. He’ll remain on the list until he’s 31.

Unlike some states, Texas lists juveniles, and adults who committed their crimes as juveniles, on its public sex offender registry, a searchable website run by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The registry lists each offender’s name, birth date, current home address, current employer and work address, and any school being attended or occupational license held. Also listed are the offender’s sex, race, ethnicity, height, weight, hair color, eye color, shoe size and shoe width. The website keeps an up-to-date color photo of each offender. If Josh gets a haircut or grows a beard, he’s supposed to go back to the local DPS office and re-register to keep his image current.

The day before I first met Josh, two officers from the Plano Police Department had dropped by unannounced to make sure Josh really lives where his registration says he does. They also wanted to see his blue card, an ID card registered offenders are required to carry at all times. I asked Josh if he felt harassed by that. “You could,” he says, “if you weren’t used to it.”

Not only does Texas list juveniles, but it has no lower limit on the age of registerable children. Right now, Texas lists a 12-year-old. Twelve is too young to have a Facebook account, but with a quick search I can find this boy’s home address in a small town in Central Texas. He has brown hair and blue eyes, is 5 feet 2 inches and 102 pounds. His photograph shows flushed cheeks and a worried brow. No school is listed, perhaps because he is prohibited from attending school, as many sex offenders are. He moved here from North Carolina, where he was adjudicated for “indecent liberties between children.” He’ll be on the list until 2021.

Josh admitted what had happened with his younger sister from the beginning and was adjudicated for one count of aggravated sexual assault. (Any sexual assault against a child under 14 is considered aggravated.) In error, though, his DPS page also lists his youngest sister, age 6, as a second victim. Josh and his mother say Child Protective Services listed the second child on its original complaint, but the judge found the allegation lacked merit and struck it out. Josh says there was no such assault, he wasn’t adjudicated for it, never pled to it, but hasn’t had the money to petition to have it removed. (Despite all the public information about Josh available on the Internet, his court records, being those of a juvenile, are sealed. Josh’s story here is based on extensive interviews with him and his wife. Major points have been corroborated by family members.)

Josh says he never considered denying the abuse. “I thought it was so important that I never call my sister a liar,” he says, “which is what happens in a lot of cases, and [the victim] has to deal with it later on. I never wanted that to happen to my sister. I did value telling the truth more than freedom, I guess, because what’s the point of freedom when you have to live a lie?”

Josh understood the destructive power of secrets because he had one of his own. Between the ages of 6 and 8, Josh says he was repeatedly raped by three neighborhood high schoolers—a babysitter and her two male friends. “They said they would kill my sisters and my parents if I ever said anything,” Josh says. “And I held them true to that, because they were big into hunting, big gun people. Every Saturday they were out shooting. I went on with my life and kept that in the back of my head, but obviously it messed me up.

“Everything that I did with my sister came directly from the things I had experienced in the abuse,” he says. “I was sexually confused, and it started to play out with my sister.”

Josh was imprisoned in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), where he says he was bullied for his age and crime. “I was only 13, by far the youngest,” he says. “I’d be marching in line when we were going building to building, and I’d have to endure the person behind me punching me square in the kidney the entire time. You could hear it. The guard would look, but he wouldn’t see anything.”

He never told anyone that he had been abused. “I was so embarrassed by it that I only started talking about it last summer. [In TYC] I never felt safe enough to talk about what had happened to me in childhood,” he says, “especially since they’re looking for any possible reason you might re-offend.”

One little-realized fact of sexual abuse is that more than a third of sex offenses against children are committed by other children. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice published a comprehensive bulletin about child-on-child sex abuse that analyzed multiple studies. It found that about half of juvenile sex offenders are between 15 and 17, the age people might expect offenders to be. But many are much younger. More than a third are between 12 and 14, like Josh was, and one in 20 is younger than 9.

These children are also not generally being convicted of the crimes people associate with sex offenders, like rape. Almost two-thirds of offenses were for fondling or non-forcible offenses like sharing pornography. But they all are sex offenders under the law.

Dr. Paul Andrews is a forensic psychologist who works with juvenile sex offenders in Smith County. He said labeling children sex offenders is becoming more frequent—and the offenders are getting younger. “Here in the last couple of years, we’re seeing kids as young as 10 being adjudicated for their sexual misconduct,” Andrews said. But he speculates that this is because of increased prosecution of young children, rather than increased misbehavior.

Children Josh’s age and younger “are usually exploratory, curious,” he said. “They do not have any kind of predatory tendencies, usually. They’re not budding sexual molesters. They’re kids who are curious and sometimes not well-supervised, having been exposed in places to sexual material. Without good sex education—‘Don’t do this, this is going to get you in trouble’—they sometimes cross that line and suddenly they’re in the criminal system.”

Josh was transferred to the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield in November 2000. The Clayton unit housed younger offenders and had a specialized sex offender treatment program. Josh says the treatment involved things like “coping skills, like how to handle an erection when you’re around a child. That’s an interesting topic, because that was never the case. A pedophile is a person who’s attracted to the prepubescent male or female form. In a lot of our cases, we were curious about sex, and a sibling was nearby, and we weren’t necessarily attracted to them, but they were there. That’s not to justify it, but very seldom was it someone who went and attacked some stranger. We didn’t want 8-year-old girlfriends or anything like that.”

The Justice Department study confirms Josh’s observations about juvenile sex offenders. It found that less than 3 percent of victims were strangers to their assailants, while a quarter were family members.

The conventional wisdom about sex offenders is that if they do it once, they’ll do it again. That’s the whole logic behind having a registry. But statistically, sex offenders are less likely to re-offend than other kinds of criminals, and juvenile recidivism is even lower. A 2006 study of 300 registered sex offenders in Texas who were juveniles at the time of their first offense found that just 4.3 percent were arrested as adults for another sex crime.

Yet youths like Josh, with a very low chance of re-offense, are listed publicly alongside dangerous predators. As of March, Texas listed 4,784 offenders who were 16 or younger at the time of their offense. Twenty-eight of those on the sex offender registry are still children. And unlike their peers who commit assault or even murder, these adolescents’ crimes will follow them into adulthood.

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by Published on Thursday, May 31, 2012, at 2:52 CST