By Grace Mattern
PIRC Research to Practice Specialist
Author and Nonprofit Advisor
In the late 1990’s the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) worked with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (NHCADSV) to amend New Hampshire’s child abuse statute to provide what everyone hoped would be increased safety for abused children and women. Wouldn’t tougher penalties for abusers who violated stay-away orders make battered women and their children safer?
At the time I was working with Susan Schechter, a pioneer of the battered women’s movement, on another initiative—a national project to address the intersection of intimate partner violence and child abuse. I asked her what she thought about the proposed policy change in New Hampshire.
“We should be trying to enforce the laws we already have,” Susan said. “We don’t need more laws, we need to change how communities keep women and children safe.”
The law was changed. It didn’t improve enforcement of orders and it led to disagreements between DCYF and NHCADSV about an advocate’s role in reporting violations of orders. Putting a criminal penalty in a civil statute—designed to outline the state’s work with families to heal abuse and reunite children with their biological parents—didn’t work, and it didn’t make children and battered women any safer.
The development of sex offender registries is another public policy initiative that was meant to protect children, but has turned out to be harmful in too many instances. Sex offender registries were established with the belief that parents and the public could keep children safe if they knew where all the sex offenders were. The instinct was protective.
But in reality, the most likely offender of any child is a family member or friend: someone from the community you would expect you could trust. In a third of cases the offender is another child, according to the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. In many states a juvenile convicted of a sex crime, no matter how unjust or misguided the conviction, is subject to a lifetime on a public sex offender registry.
In The New Yorker, Sarah Stillman recounts troubling stories of the children, some as young as 10 at the time of their offense, who are on public registries. The negative consequences they face include vigilante violence against them and their families, misguided and ineffective treatment, and crippling discrimination in education and employment. Criminalizing trauma-related behavior by a child, and publicly identifying that child as a sex offender, doesn’t prevent child abuse. It perpetrates it through policy.
To be clear, I’m not making an argument against sex offender registries. I’m pointing out that when we advocate for policy changes we believe will help protect victims, we need to think as creatively as we can about the ways policy changes might be harmful to vulnerable people. If we can identify potential unintended negative consequences then we can advocate for policies that minimize unintended harm as much as possible.
After trying for too long to find justice for victims in the criminal justice system, advocates in the battered women’s movement learned that justice can never be fully realized by any system of government. No matter how well-crafted the policy, government retains the authority to implement it however it wants, including in racist and sexist ways. We criminalized domestic violence and advocated for the police to put batterers in jail, and the men who ended up incarcerated were disproportionally black or poor or both.
As a movement, we hope to learn from our mistakes. The emphasis on criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence and sexual assault shifted years ago, with more attention on other systems—medical, mental health, community-based, child welfare, public assistance—as places to advocate for the support of survivors and their families.
There is growing recognition across child sexual assault victim rights groups and groups of family members affected by the registry of juveniles, such as Women Against Registry, that reform is needed. Stacie Rumenap of Stop Child Predators, talking about lobbying for states to adopt registries, told Stillman, “Never in our wildest dreams were we going state by state asking lawmakers to punish juveniles.”
We need to have wild dreams when we advocate for new policies so we make as few mistakes as possible.
For more information on state registry laws and juveniles, please visit the Center for Sex Offender Management.
Grace S. Mattern was Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence for 30 years. She has been actively involved with public policy and systems advocacy to promote effective community interventions in response to domestic and sexual violence and coordinated a statewide network of programs that assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. She served on the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Chairing the Research Committee. She has also served on the Attorney General’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect, the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, the National Greenbook Policy Advisory Council, and on numerous Boards of Directors, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the NH Network of Child Advocacy Centers and the NH Coalition to End Homelessness. She is currently the Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the NH Center for Nonprofits and is a member of the Advisory Board of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.