How a 2018 law meant to protect children missed the mark
On a summer day in 1981, a woman took her six-year-old son, Adam, with her to Sears—she wanted to buy a lamp on sale. Adam asked if he could play video games in the nearby electronic section with some older boys, and she said yes. That would be the last time she’d ever see him.
Adam was abducted outside the Sears by a man named Ottis Toole, a drifter who was passing through town. In a confession years later, Toole said he sexually assaulted Adam on the side of the road for hours before decapitating him.
Toole was never officially charged with Adam’s murder, thanks to botched police work and other unfortunate factors. The high-profile case eventually led to the creation of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which imposed harsher punishments for sex offenders and stricter policies about how they would have to register on state databases available to the public.
It came to the Nevada Legislature in 2007 as Assembly Bill 579 and passed unanimously. The new sex offender registry requirements were set to go into effect on July 1, 2008. However, just days before implementation, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging AB 579’s constitutionality. Litigation also cropped up in state court. It took a decade—and the Nevada Supreme Court weighing in with a denial of further delays—before the bill and its provisions took effect in October 2018, adding Nevada to a list of 16 other compliant states. Its passage came with a carrot: Nevada could receive some additional federal funding, as well as hold on to some existing earmarked dollars.
A year-and-a-half later, it may have missed the mark on both.
The story behind AB 579
The registry divides sex offenders into three tiers: Tier 3 encompasses the highest-risk offenders (typically involving sexual contact with children under 13, or sexual violence). Tier 3 offenders must report to law enforcement every 90 days for the rest of their lives. On the other end of the classification system are Tier 1 offenders—the least likely to re-offend; they only need to report once a year for 15 years after release.
When AB 579 came back into action in 2018, the idea was that it would be safer for the public to have thousands of convicted Tier 1 offenders, whose cases often involve acts like indecent public exposure or statutory rape, reclassified into Tier 3. In addition to publishing a profile on the state’s public database (www.nvsexoffenders.gov), more people had to register in-person with authorities (prior to 2018, some could simply register online).
There were criticisms, most notably led by then-State Senator Tick Segerblom and State Senator Peter Goicoechea, who argued that the recalibration of tiers—which would be retroactive—created an unconstitutional double jeopardy scenario (although a federal court struck down this argument in 2012). Some argued that, considering the complexity of some situations, tiering should happen on a case-by-case basis, rather than painted with a broad brush. Segerblom said that the expanded roll would be “just too many people for the cops to focus [on].” Other critics argued the cost of implementing the bill would surpass the amount of funding it would receive for signing it into state law. Jay Rivera, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, told the Nevada Independent the law was “obviously going to be a bigger load for our records section.”
A year before Rivera expressed concerns about the new digital workload, the State Department of Public Safety received $136,000 for its sex offender case file digitization project; the agency had needed funding just to maintain standards before AB 579.
As of today, “The Nevada DPS, Records, Communications and Compliance Division (RCCD), did not receive any funding to implement AB 579,” Kim Y. Smith, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Public Safety, wrote in a recent email. “Implementation efforts were paid for out of the RCCD Division’s reserve budget.”
“The workload has increased due to the increase in Tier level 3 offenders with the implementation of AB 579,” Smith confirmed. “The Sex Offender Registry was approved to hire additional full-time staff … in 2019 … to be able to effectively manage the increased workload.”
AB 579 today
Fifteen months later, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 has not seemed to translate into results. In fact, some argue it has done what Segerblom and Goicoechea had warned: more harm than good.
As of last year, roughly 45 percent of registered sex offenders in Nevada fall into Tier 3, and are considered the most likely to re-offend. There are 1,300 registered sex offenders living in Washoe County. Just over half of them are convicted of sex crimes involving children under 13—770, according to Travis Warren, Public Information Officer for the Reno Police Department.
FamilyWatchdog.gov, a searchable database that lists all publicly viewable offender records across the country, ranks Nevada ninth out of 50 for sex offenders per 1 million residents. It’s not uncommon to see a related headline in the local news. Weeks ago, a 31-year-old Reno man was arrested after authorities found thousands of images and videos of child pornography on his computer, collected over 16 years; he received three years in prison. Last month, detectives arrested four adults in Nye County for sexually abusing multiple children, including production and distribution of child pornography. In the Reno-Tahoe area, a 48-year-old woman was found guilty in January of having repeated sexual relations with her 16-year-old foster son, and in the same month, a 41-year-old former male substitute teacher was found guilty for having sexual relations with a student. Both were sentenced to three months in prison for these crimes. Last September, another Reno resident was jailed for downloading thousands of images of child pornography. (He was discovered only because someone had witnessed him viewing the images on his laptop, and called the police.) Already in 2020, two non-compliant, convicted sex offenders who had found their way to Reno have been arrested (one from California one from Washington).
The Department of Public Safety said the registry adds approximately 300 new offenders per year, which was the same rate they saw prior to AB 579.
Warren said RPD has not seen a reduction in non-compliant sex offenders—those who aren’t registering with the authorities per the new mandate—since 2018.
RPD has a sex offender notification unit that consists of three detectives, one for each of the area’s three largest jurisdictions (Reno, Sparks and Washoe County). These three detectives are in charge of tracking down non-compliant offenders, as well as making sure hundreds of other individuals remain in compliance.
“With only three detectives going around and knocking on doors even once a month, it would be pretty time-consuming,” Officer Warren said. “That time would be better spent finding individuals in non-compliance.”
Additionally, Amber Howell, director of human services for Washoe County, said removals of children from homes due to sexual abuse has remained relatively flat over the past five years.
She also said county services is moving women, children and families out of its Record Street shelter because of the number of sex offenders living in the immediate area—as well as recurring sex trafficking incidents on the block.
Multiple parties said community awareness of the public registry, which was the whole point of creating it, is low.
Rebecca LeBeau, the executive director of Child Assault Prevention (CAP), said, “Most parents don’t know the registry exists. And they don’t have knowledge on how to access it.” (Officer Warren also expressed this.)
Even if AB 579 were better at protecting children, it would be hard to get a clear picture of how, in part due to a lack of data. When asked for the rate of re-offense for those convicted of sex crimes against children from 2017 to 2019 (as well as the percentage of those who were first-time offenders), Smith said, “The Nevada Sex Offender Registry does not track the specific information requested.” This also held true for The Nevada Department of Public Safety, Records, Communications and Compliance Divisions—all which manage the registry.
When asked if the Department of Public Safety felt that AB 579 had proven effective in deterring sex crimes against children, Smith said they “did not have an opinion on this matter.”
Despite the unavailability of data specific to the prevention of child sex crimes, Officer Warren says the registry helps RPD “know where [the offenders] are. That has a major impact on the safety of the community. If we know where individuals are it makes a difference,” though no specific real-life cases were cited.
A lack of information begs the question: If AB 579 isn’t working, what could? To answer that, stakeholders say we should look at the view from all sides—from victim to offender, and from private and public efforts—to see what’s holding back more effective prevention.
CAP provides a sex abuse awareness curriculum to schools in Washoe, Storey and Lyon Counties. Running since 1984, it’s a primary prevention program, which means its goal is to stop abuse before it happens. Operating as a private non-profit, CAP is meant to “address the growing concern of child abuse in Washoe County.”
“We give kids education about what to look out for,” LeBeau said.
One day, her phone rang. On the other end was a pedophile. He was looking for help.
“It was a real ’Aha!’ moment in my life,” she recalls. “He was beside himself. He said, ’I know I’m going to offend again. It’s in my blood. There’s no help for me. I can’t get therapy, and I can’t get help unless I’m incarcerated—I’d have to offend.”
Ms. Lebeau told him to call back the next day and went to work on his behalf, searching for resources that would help him.
“I called every therapist, I called the university,” she said. “Here’s a person who can’t gain employment because he’s a sex offender on the registry. … People won’t hire him, so he has no money. Even if he had the money, it’s hard getting a therapist to treat him. They are so reluctant because of the recidivism rate.”
The next day, the man called back. All she could do was direct him to an organization she found online, StopItNow.org, which she said has a hotline for potential offenders. (Upon a visit to the site, there was no hotline available for potential or re-offenders; the organization is focused on helping families and children prevent abuse.)
LeBeau, who does make efforts to capture results data, said her program’s success rate is “huge.” She returns to classrooms 90 days after a workshop to gauge students’ retention of the lessons and checks in with teachers. She says overall, about 12 percent of the children she taught talked to their counselor about a related issue.
Lebeau’s program pushes up against the 2015 passage of Erin’s Law, which mandated that every school bring such a preventative curriculum to students. Schools received no funding to do this. The committee assembled to research recommendations for the best way to implement the law also was not funded.
While money continues to go toward adding Tier 1 offenders to Tier 3—and toward placing children in foster care, according to Howell—funding has been a huge issue for preventative programs. On the plus side, because CAP is publicly and grant-funded, the pressure to provide data is real. One funding source “wanted to see how many people were not abused as a result of this program.”
“How do you measure something that didn’t happen?” LeBeau said. “I thought, well, if a child has used our safety messages to say no to an abusive situation, then that’s abuse that didn’t happen because of our program.”
To get this information, she relies on the children to answer whether they said “no” to a situation because of the program. (Notably, Howell said that reports of child sex abuse received by Washoe Human Services have decreased by nearly a third, but there are too many influencing factors to single out why.)
“The registry is just one piece of a situation that needs to be addressed in many ways,” LeBeau said. “We can do the education part, but unless we come full circle with a treatment program for [pedophiles], we have a problem. Maybe they need to be talked off the ledge and brought to terms with what their feelings are. Where do these people go?”
Getting to the source
The answer to LeBeau’s question, in short, is often “nowhere.”
A Google search would not offer much, but whispered recommendations and deeper digging uncovered two therapy-based programs in Reno.
Having practiced for nearly five decades, Dr. Robert Hemenway leads therapy and support groups for sex offenders at a location in midtown. A former minister and now grandfather to nine children, he works with all ages of sex offenders—as well as the victims of sexual abuse.
Initially, he didn’t accept Tier 3 offenders—until the passage of AB 579.
“Now, almost all men are Tier 3s,” Hemenway said.
He says the very fact that those who struggle with sexual attraction toward children have nowhere to go is the first part of the problem (the second being the catch-22 they find themselves in post-release).
With AB 579, “What we are doing is repressing the chances for change because we are focusing so much attention on the bad guy, the guy we caught,” Hemenway said. “That’s not going to change much.”
Hemenway claims that 95 percent of child sex offenses are committed by people who are not on the registry. “The public gets promised safety, and it’s not real,” he said.
Officer Warren echoed the concern regarding those not on the registry. For example, any offender staying in town for longer than 48 hours has to register—and that falls under the jurisdiction of those three aforementioned detectives.
Adam J. Graves, a criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas who has represented convicted sex offenders, called into question the registry’s intended role.
“No one has ever said,’This guy was about to molest my daughter, but I saw him [on the registry], and I went over there and stopped it.’” Graves said. “It’s not a guy driving a van. It’s usually someone you know and you never saw it coming. A registry won’t prevent a guy from re-offending, it will only confirm his badness.”
Graves said the registry is less about prevention and more about punishment, and wonders why we put our tax dollars into after-the-fact efforts.
“Maybe [the money] should be diverted toward the prison system and lifetime parole programs. It’s motivated by wanting to put a label on a person that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, a form of punishment beyond the jail sentence. It’s feel-good legislation. We should spend that money on local police and forensics labs that are understaffed … on testing rape kits that are two decades old.”
Insufficient funding for education-based preventative programs, like CAP, has a counterpart in crime: the near-total absence of counseling and preventative programs geared toward pedophiles—a result of cultural and logistical disconnects when it comes to the sensitive subject, according to Hemenway.
Hemenway said mandatory reporting laws deter even non-offenders from revealing their problem. (Doctors and those in other roles are legally required to report if they feel a child could be in danger.) And, patients fear insurance knowing their diagnosis, so they tend to pay out of pocket.
Hemenway also thinks society’s use of terms like “predator” repel medical professionals and others from working with those types of patients.
“Often these people are afraid of their own shadow. They have a label on them and they are scared to death,” Hemenway said, echoing the sentiments of Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University, who is working on a preventative program for pedophiles.
Even in prison, resources for pedophiles are few and far between. Inmate-led support groups, which vary across prisons, are risky to attend, as they put a target on attendees’ backs. This has effects after release.
Ridge House, a facility that operates several locations in Reno and provides a variety of treatment services (and will take Tier 1 offenders on a case-by-case basis), does not accept Tier 3 sex offenders because learned isolation and peer rejection would not be conducive to their group support system.
“Sex offenders don’t fare well in prison yards and often live their lives in isolation,” said Dani Tillman, Ridge House’s executive director. “That tends to follow through when they get out. … If I put someone out of that tier into one of our units, it would be high-risk [for re-offense].”
In the struggle for funding, few centers want to risk dragging down their recovery success rate, but changing policy can be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
“As a profession, we don’t know how to prevent it because we are not learning about it purposely,” Hemenway said. “There’s no political hay to be made. What causes pedophilia? There’s a wide range of answers to that. We haven’t done that research, and you don’t get resources if you don’t have a plan.”
Two months after the passage of AB 579, State Assemblyman Steve Yaeger, who was vice chair of the corrections, parole and probation committee in 2017, when AB 579 was on the docket, wrote an op-ed in the Reno Gazette Journal about Nevada’s unsustainable prison population in which he said:
“Equally as startling as the overall growth rate is the absence of alternatives to incarceration for people whose crimes stem from unmet behavioral health needs. Over the past 10 years, the number of offenders entering prison with mental health needs has increased by 35 percent. Our jails and prisons have become de facto treatment facilities, struggling to meet increasing demands for services they were never designed to provide.”
When asked via email if he would consider a program specifically geared toward helping pedophiles from re-offending (or in the first place), he said, “We all share the goal of preventing the sexual abuse of children. In the 2019 legislative session, we focused primarily on non-violent and non-sexual offenders, but we would certainly be interested in learning more about effective programming for the entire offender population. If there are proven programs out there, they should be implemented in Nevada if possible. This very well may be an area of consideration in future legislative sessions.”
There was just one other therapist in the Reno area I was told about, Steven Ing, who works with sex offenders (among other patients), who seems to share this idea. He writes, “I came to see that if I cared about victims, I should spend far more time helping perpetrators … many … have multiple victims, after all, and helping one bad guy helps prevent … victims from ever becoming victims.”