One local woman is caught in the middle of a battle over the public's access to sex offender registries and the right to keep her family together.
"Families are the collateral damage of the sex offender registry,” said Rayida Grooms, a former St. Joseph resident who married a registered sex offender in 2013. “The sex offender registry doesn't really protect anybody, because it just gives a false security.”
All 50 states have a registration and tracking system in place to monitor sex offenders, their location, identifying features and vehicles. For Mrs. Grooms, the public’s access to the database has affected the guardianship of her three children.
“Because of his status alone”
After a divorce in 2007, Mrs. Grooms said she fell in love with her neighbor — a registered sex offender who was convicted of sexual assault of a minor in Maine in 2003. Even after learning about his past, the couple got married and began a life with her children.
A nasty custody battle, however, prompted her to lose her three children.
“I got to know the person, and because of one stupid mistake in his past, this will follow him around for the rest of his life,” she said. “Because of his status alone, I lost custody of my kids.”
Mrs. Grooms’ story is one of several that the Missouri-based advocacy group WAR — Women Against the Registry — has rallied behind. With two pending class-action lawsuits, WAR is pushing for the rights of convicted sex offenders and their families, as well as removal of the nation’s public sex offender registry.
“Your ideas about sex offenders are pretty much all the same,” said Vicki Henry, president of WAR. “You think that those people are horrible people, that they've committed horrible crimes and those horrible things, but when your family gets involved with this issue, it puts a different light on it.”
Ms. Henry, whose family member was convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography, said while the registry may have good intentions, it is fundamentally flawed and should not be made available to the public. She argued every case and defendant’s story is different, so an all-inclusive sex offender registry is unfair.
“It was designed to be a law enforcement-only tool and it was designed to be for the repeat, violent offenders,” Ms. Henry said. “It has just kind of blossomed from there and the reason we advocate against the registry is because we have people who are harmed” from being on it.
According to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are more than 819,000 registrants across the nation and more than 14,000 registrants in Missouri. Ms. Henry said she estimates that more than 3 million family members are negatively affected by the registry.
The hypocrisy, she said, is that no public information is available for people released from prison for domestic violence, hate crimes, murder, or other violent offenses.
Rights of the public
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, one in four women and one in six men will experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. Statistics also show that 67 percent of sexual assaults have victims under the age of 18.
Buchanan County Sheriff Mike Strong said the purpose of the registry is to keep the public informed in order to protect their families. He said the public is entitled to know the potential threat living next door, especially in Buchanan County.
Police misconstrue, actually ignore, threats by other crime types, far greater than from former sex offenders. Police cause families to look the wrong way, making society less safe.“The information we put out there is very useful: What kind of vehicle (the offender) is driving, where they are living at, and what they were convicted of,” Mr. Strong said. “When you have a community of our size and you have about 270 registered sex offenders living within this community, I think it is vitally important that we provide the tools for people to use that can advise them as to what kind of danger their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or whoever, could be in.”
Note the absence of any mention of other types of crimes leaving society less safe! Are former sex offenders the only threat to society?Mr. Strong agreed that cases vary, specifically for the Romeo and Juliet law and public urination, but for a majority of cases, the registry serves its intended purpose.
Fighting for registrants
While law enforcement and WAR advocates may disagree, Ms. Henry said the group will continue to draft civil lawsuits that seek to dissolve the public registry. Ms. Henry said rehabilitation of registrants can be possible, but broadcasted information violates that idea.
"The laws that we have are brought about by 1 percent of the horrible, horrible offense, and we recognize that, because no one should have to be a victim of a sex crime," she said. "We recognize that. But these laws also affect the lives of people who are living law-abiding lives."
Ms. Henry and Mrs. Grooms agreed that sex offenders should be punished, but should also be given opportunities to live a rehabilitated life. by Kristin Hoppa