Six years ago Charlene Southworth discovered something no parent wants to think possible: her fifteen-year-old son, Chris, had molested his younger brother.
“It was disturbing to me,” she said while sitting on the couch in her Cheyenne home. “I didn’t want to hear it.”
Soon after it came out that Chris himself had been molested for years by an older step brother. Southworth told the authorities about Chris’s behavior, and he was sent to a juvenile sex offender therapy program at Teton Youth and Family Services near Jackson. He spent a year there, and when he got out, Southworth said, he seemed much healthier. “He [had] started to mature like a normal seventeen-year-old.”
Chris was sent Teton Youth and Family Services in 2010. At that time, Wyoming did not put juveniles on the state’s sex offender registry unless they were tried and convicted in adult court. But in 2011, that changed. Beginning that year Wyoming began putting minors found guilty of sex crimes on a juvenile sex offender registry, in order to come into compliance with a 2006 federal law known as the “Adam Walsh Act,” which withholds federal funds from states that do not register children.
For Chris, the policy shift was personal: he was retroactively registered as a sex offender.
Wyoming doesn’t make juvenile registry information available to the general public, but it is available to the registrant’s neighbors, school, and local church and youth groups. Southworth said that was devastating to Chris.
“[He was] Scared, and frustrated, she said. “He didn’t want to be out in public like that. And as a kid, just trying to fit in... "
After he was registered as a sex offender Chris’s mental health took a rapid turn for the worse.
A year later, he took his own life.
Chris’s death is a worst case scenario for a minor who ends up on the registry. But getting registered is fairly common. Since 2011, Wyoming has been putting kids on sex offender registries for a broad range of offenses. Recently state lawmakers met during a joint judiciary committee session to consider whether that range is too broad.
Bruce Berkland spoke at that meeting. He is the director of Teton Youth and Family Services, where counselors work with kids who were victims of sex crimes, as well as juvenile sex offenders. Burkland says that, while many of the offenders he sees are technically in their mid-teens, “Developmentally and emotionally their age is much more around 8 or nine.”
Sex offender therapy at Teton Youth is composed of activities like wilderness trips, sports, and cooking: all designed, Burkland said, to help the minors build healthy relationships with their peers. Juvenile sex offenders reoffend at a much lower rate than adult offenders, according to the Department of Justice. Still, Burkland said he does not advocate for the juvenile registry to go away entirely.
“The juvenile who is looking for multiple opportunities and just prefers and likes to have contact with younger children would be a high risk to reoffend, and should be on the registry.”
Instead Burkland said Wyoming’s system should include more discretion in the registration process. Bryan Skoric is the attorney for Park County, and head of the Wyoming prosecutor’s association.
“Across the board prosecutors believe that some juveniles need absolutely to be registered and some don’t,” he said. “That’s based on the history of the juvenile, and their offense.”
Skoric said that, before 2011, prosecutors made the call of whether to register using a whole checklist of risk factors: whether the offender has had more than one victim, their age, and their mental health status, and many more. But now registration is based entirely on what offense is charged. Skoric said that has caused some prosecutors to try and circumvent the issue entirely.
“There are a few prosecutors around the state that specifically don’t charge the act that was committed,” Skoric said. “In hopes that the juvenile won’t be registered.”
Nicole Pittman is a Director at the national advocacy group Impact Justice, and one of the few people working to change this practice full time. Pittman has interviewed hundreds of kids on sex offender registries, and she says at least 20 percent of of them had attempted suicide. And although Wyoming and a few other states make juvenile sex offender registry information available only to neighbors, Pittman says it's easy for those neighbors to post that info on privately run websites.
“We have interviewed people who have subsequently been killed by vigilantes,” she said. “People really fear the worst when they see this information.”
Charlene Southworth’s son died almost three years ago, but she still keeps his ashes in an urn in her Cheyenne home. She would like to scatter the ashes on Chris’s favorite trail in the wilderness around Jackson, but she’s waiting, she says until justice is done.
“He was a human being that was hurt. And nobody would do anything about it. What happened to him shouldn’t have happened.”