Rowan advocates for sex offender reform

As the executive director of USA FAIR, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for a fair and intelligent sex offender registry, Lewisboro native Shana Rowan faces criticism, insult and at times the threat of harm as part of her professional life.

Shana Rowan, a Lewisboro native and executive director of USA FAIR, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for fair and intelligent reform (FAIR) of the sex offender registry system. (Photo courtesy Shana Rowan)

Her organization, which she co-founded in November, aims to raise awareness about the repercussions family members of registrants face as a result of the national and state use of the sex offender registry system.

“We want to minimize the damage to families and reform the registry into a viable safety tool,” said Ms. Rowan, a John Jay High School graduate who now lives in central New York.

She knows firsthand the consequences of being close to someone on the registry — her fiancé is a registered sex offender who served four years in prison for a sex crime he committed while he was a minor.

At the request of Ms. Rowan and her fiancé, The Ledger has omitted his name to protect his privacy.

Ms. Rowan and her fiancé have experienced financial and legal hardship, targeted vandalism and threats of violence as a result of his registrant status, she said.

“The more I saw, the more I got involved,” she said. “I saw somebody needed to do something.”

Ms. Rowan co-founded USA FAIR (fair and intelligent reform) with family members of registrants, as well as people currently on the registry. Their mission is to educate the public about the myth of high sex offender recidivism and to advocate for reform of the registry that is based on facts and evidence, according to the organization’s website, USAFAIR.org.

Perceptions

“The assumption they [sex offenders] are all predatory pedophiles preying on children, who are highly dangerous, can’t be stopped and can’t be helped, are all myths not supported by the research,” said Jill Levenson Ph.D., an associate professor of human services at Lynn University in Florida and an expert on sexual violence.

Much of the work of USA FAIR centers on combating misinformation and false public perception, Ms. Rowan said, the most predominant of which is the public perception of who actually commits sex crimes and that sex offenders will all inevitably re-commit sex crimes.

“The majority of sex crimes — 96% — are committed by someone who is not on the registry,” Ms. Rowan said.

She also notes that sex offenders have the lowest occurrence of re-offending next to murderers, who have the lowest recidivism rate in the criminal justice system, a point supported by a 2003 Department of Justice study, Ms. Levenson said.

Joan Tabachnik, co-chair of the Prevention Committee for the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers and an expert in the field of sexual abuse prevention, said that 85% to 97% of victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.

“The registry gives people a false sense of security because not all dangerous offenders are there,” Ms. Tabachnik said. “People feel if they know who is on the registry that they are safe, their children are safe. Sex offenders on the registry are not the ones we need to worry about. The ones we don’t know about are the ones we need to worry about.”

In her experience, the majority of sex offenders are not what people see on “To Catch a Predator” or “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” Ms. Tabachnik said. When she thinks of sex offenders she thinks of countless people she has met in her 20 years of experience in the field and, in particular, the children who have been abusive with other children.

“The registry is not just a list of people who abuse children,” Ms. Rowan said. “There are a lot more people, including children and teenagers.”

Cognitive dissonance

Risa Sugarman, deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the director of the office of sex offender management, said that to her knowledge there are no complaints of negative consequences from the sex offender registry.

“What we hear is that parents are grateful and happy they have this opportunity to keep their children safe,” she said. “What we do here is to provide information to make people feel safer in their communities and what they can do to keep themselves safe.”

The registry gives people the knowledge to empower themselves, and that is a part of being a responsible parent, Ms. Sugarman said.

“As a parent, do I want to know if a sex offender is in my neighborhood? Of course I want to know,” Ms. Tabachnik said. “But is that good public policy? Does it make my neighborhood safer? I would say in most cases it doesn’t make it safer and is not a good public policy.”

With the well-established fact that the majority of sex crimes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, people should not be monitoring sex offender registry lists and maps as much as they should be observing the people closest to them and their children, Ms. Tabachnik said.

“You should be watching out for anyone who gives you concern,” she said, “not just a registered sex offender.”

Consequences of the registry

Ms. Tabachnik has less of an issue with the registry than with the public notification aspect of it, she said.

“Public notification without education is like putting a lit match in a gallon of gasoline,” she said.

There is an abundance of research showing there are a lot of collateral consequences that interfere with successful reintegration, Ms. Levenson said. Research from other criminal fields, as well, has shown that stable employment, housing and social support increase the likelihood of success for criminal offenders.

“If you push people to the brink of society and make it impossible to exist, you are taking away all incentives for them to reintegrate,” Ms. Rowan said.

As part of her work with USA FAIR, Ms. Rowan has collected hundreds of stories of families and individuals affected by the negative consequences of the registry. Difficulty finding and maintaining employment, as well as physical and verbal harassment of children of registrants, are among the top obstacles registrants and their families face.

The group also works to challenge perceptions and terminology frequently portrayed and used in the media and politics.

Bills passed in the New York state Senate on Tuesday, March 5 illustrate the challenges registrants have in turning their lives around after incarceration, Ms. Rowan said. The four bills promote tougher restrictions for registrants, including prohibiting registrants from serving on school boards or as principals; instituting misdemeanor charges for anyone known to harbor, house or employ a defaulting sex offender; and prohibiting high-level sex offenders from living in college housing.

While sexual violence on campuses is an important issue, Ms. Rowan said, she finds these bills to be restrictive to a registrant’s ability to reintegrate in a community. They also further the inflammatory language that promotes a common perception of all sex offenders as predators, she said.

The danger of indifference

“Everyone agrees that sexual crimes need to be punished and that the impact on victims is often incomprehensible,” Ms. Rowan said. “But by refusing to acknowledge information that could help us prevent there being more victims, we are doing a huge disservice.”

Along with Ms. Levenson and Ms. Rowan, Ms. Tabachnik advocates for increased awareness and educational strategies to prevent sex crimes from happening.

Former Penn State football coach and convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky was not on any registry, Ms. Rowan pointed out. Ms. Levenson made a similar observation about Mr. Sandusky and how he represents the more likely source of danger than someone on the registry.

“Perhaps if those parents and the people around had been more educated and understood the dynamics of grooming, noticed what was going on and understood the dynamics of how sexual abuse thrives in the trust between the abuser and victim, it could have been prevented,” she said.

Ms. Tabachnik said that knowing how to set boundaries and teaching children that it is OK to say no and have it be respected is much more important than knowing about a sex offender who is already being watched by the police.

“The biggest misconception is that all sex offenders are all the same and they should all be treated the same,” Ms. Levenson said.

Both she and Ms. Tabachnik said that painting an entire class of people with a broad brush creates room for the truly dangerous to be mixed with non-violent individuals and draws attention away from the true source of danger.

“A blind focus on punishment turns a blind eye to prevention,” Ms. Rowan said. “It’s much easier to pretend all the dangerous people are neatly organized on a magical list than realizing those who cause the most harm are often those closest to us.”

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  • Rudy101

    Have some DUE PROCESS! Put a person in front of a court where the court can tailor restrictions according to the individual. It also requires a standard of proof to give the court authority to curb a person’s freedom. BUT that takes all the politics out of the sex offender registry.

    Level systems have no legal meaning. They are ever an changing, ever evolving definition that doesn’t require ACTUAL danger to be labeled even at the highest level. A level system is applied to an individual and everyone is told how dangerous that person is and there is nothing that person can do to show he is not dangerous, or has a change in circumstance. The level is a lifetime label and unchallengable once applied.

    Make up a list of crack heads and then ask any parent how they want to know where the crack heads are. Thieves? Assaulters? Make the list and everyone will want it to show how they protect themselves from THOSE people.

    I get my life. I got it by LEAVING the sex offender registry. The registry does nothing for community protection while destroying my ability to live a productive life. Isn’t that obvious?

    It isn’t to most people, but that is the reason I will NEVER go back on a sex offender registry. It is irrational to the core to call chaos in a person’s life protection of the community.

    • Proud Mom

      Rudy101: I am thrilled to hear of your success. There are so many out there suffering the unfair assassinations to their lives and characters. One act does not define a person. If it did there would be no one left without a criminal history ESPECIALLY those who write these self serving vote mongering laws.
      SHAME ON AMERICA FOR BUYING INTO POLITICAL MAYHEM AND ALLOWING THE WOOL TO BE PULLED OVER THEIR EYES BY UNSCRUPULOUS POLITICIANS LIKE SENATOR GEORGE MAZIARZ!
      Politicians are the cause of the downfall of society as a whole, not just for sex offenders who are the homosexuals of this century. How many homosexuals had to go to jail, die and have their lives destroyed by political bigotry before humans realized that the only people who had anything to gain were the lawmakers.
      The same applies to sex offenders. How many 10-15 year olds curious about sexuality will have their entire lives destroyed by the ‘hit-list’ disguised as a registry? I don’t know of many of my era who by today’s standards would NOT be a sex offender.

    • Proud Mom

      Rudy101: I am thrilled to hear of your success. There are so many out there suffering the unfair assassinations to their lives and characters. One act does not define a person. If it did there would be no one left without a criminal history ESPECIALLY those who write these self serving vote mongering laws.
      SHAME ON AMERICA FOR BUYING INTO POLITICAL MAYHEM AND ALLOWING THE WOOL TO BE PULLED OVER THEIR EYES BY UNSCRUPULOUS POLITICIANS LIKE SENATOR GEORGE MAZIARZ!
      Politicians are the cause of the downfall of society as a whole, not just for sex offenders who are the homosexuals of this century. How many homosexuals had to go to jail, die and have their lives destroyed by political bigotry before humans realized that the only people who had anything to gain were the lawmakers.
      The same applies to sex offenders. How many 10-15 year olds curious about sexuality will have their entire lives destroyed by the ‘hit-list’ disguised as a registry? I don’t know of many of my era who by today’s standards would NOT be a sex offender.
      How about a registry listing political offenders made up of every self serving politician who writes ignorant, uneducated, feel good only, laws and then adds the little addendum exempting themselves from prosecution for said laws?
      And, every election day we allow it to continue!!!! How long will voters allow themselves to be raped? Every election vote out every incumbent until the political waters are purified.

  • Lexie

    I think its wise to assume that all people are capable of unspeakable acts. Sometimes its the person we would LEAST expect. I agree that its unjust to brand a person for life. The key is to educate the public and children for the signs that a person is disordered in some way. hint: they’re usually really nice people, not mean and swarthy. sociopaths target the vulnerable, naive and trusting.
    Its a sad state of affairs, but its truly impossible to trust anyone, these days. And there is no such thing as absolute safety. My very own husband, I came to discover is a sexual predator. (adult women, only– I think.) And yes, I left him.

  • OF COURSE Risa denies hearing any negative consequences about the registry. If people cared about the damages the list caused, they’d abolish the list and Risa would be back to pushing files around.

  • David Hess

    I can’t begin to say how impressed I am that a small publication could produce such a well written, well researched article! It blows my mind at the number of quality sources they reached out to. Would that larger publications would be as thorough.

  • LJW

    Great article! The other thing to think about is the massive amount of money being spent on enforcing these laws. When every study done shows that the registry and all of it’s restrictions have not even had the smallest affect on abuse rates, then it’s time to do something else.

    How much would the public be helped if we took those billions which have no positive effects, but plenty of negative effects, and put it toward helping the victims and families to heal. Heck, we could probably even help prevent new victims. Now that would be something. For the kind of money being spent on stings, arrests, convictions, prisons, monitoring, and legal battles over ever tightening rules for sex offenders, we could be each victim their own house!

    Look at it another way. If we had spent billions on an education program where each kid gets some cool magic markers and were telling the public that it had really helped children learn, only to find out not only didn’t it help, a good number were sickened by the toxic ink, we’d demand the program end immediately if not sooner!

  • Sam Hill

    Smart journalism covering a big issue that very few others have the guts to tackle.

    Sex laws are a fraud perpetrated on the public by weasley politicians who don’t have the backbone to do anything that might actually help protect children. Nevermind collateral damage, nevermind the lives ruined by the registry, nevermind the millions of wasted dollars.

    Great work, Ms. Alvarez.

  • Will Allen

    The article said, “Risa Sugarman, … said that to her knowledge there are no complaints of negative consequences from the sex offender registry.”

    Ms. Sugarman should be commended for admitting so absolutely and freely that she knows very little about the Sex Offender Registries. What she said is amazing. I hope Ms. Sugarman reads this so that she can change her shockingly ignorant and naive statement.

    I have been listed on a nanny government Registry for well over a decade. The Registries, and especially all the idiotic laws that they have enabled and promoted, are absolute BS that does nothing useful and protects no one. I think about it nearly every day. I work very diligently at ensuring that not only are the Registries worthless, but that they are very counterproductive. I go out of my way to spend time with random children, very often. I do that because, and only because, the Registries exist. I believe the governments that support these Registries and pass law after law after law based on them are nothing but criminal regimes. They need to be kept broke and dysfunctional.

    So, Ms. Sugarman and the rest of the terrorists who support the Registries – if you want to hear about negative consequences, I could talk about it non-stop for a day. Morons.

  • Lynne Presley

    How many more laws should be passed? We are allowing the politicians to push their views. They are no more educated than the public when it comes to sex offenders. They are the ones who are defining sex offenders, putting everyone into one bucket. It is our responsibility to educate these people. Without education the registry will never be eliminated.

  • Gordon

    I notice the majority of people who still advocate for offender registries are the government employees who are making a salary from maintaining registries and the businessmen making profit from scaring the public and then selling the public access to registry information. These advocates have no interest in public safety or in educating the public with the facts,they are only interested in feeding their personal bank accounts.

  • Edie Billings

    The sex-offender registry is an ill-conceived system that has gone awry.

    If anyone,including Ms.sugarman thinks there are no negative impacts due to the registry,let them interview a few family members of offenders, including their children, who are often teased and ridiculed and are denied housing and can often not live with their parent due to residency restrictions.They are often shunned by society and are denied any kind of family life.

    The registry is a nightmare not only for the registrants,many of whom have committed a non-contact,non-violent offense,but also for their families.

    This system is a travesty of justice and it’s amazing that people, including Ms.Sugarman and our politicians, are blind to what they don’t want to see.

  • Jackie Dzaluk

    Ms. Sugarman would lose her job, if the registeries went away, so she has a vested interest in her opinion. Did not see any data. Wow, moms are happy.
    While at first, this seems like a sensible idea, the more one learns, the more one realizes that this is not close to a solution, and is nothing more than a gigantic, costly system which diverts govenment resources away from positve measures and provides the public with a false sense of security.
    I am surprised and heartened to see that others can look past the hysteria and get to the facts.

  • MRoberts

    LJW – great idea!! Take all of the money we spend on people who pose no threat and put it towards helping the victims of those who are.

    Hope people wake up soon. This is a dangerous game we play of making believe if we put a bunch of names on a list, no matter what their offense was, that the general public will buy the BS, think they are safe, and think their politicians have done something good. They have done NOTHING except make it impossible for probation officers to keep up with those few who are a threat to society.

  • Shari

    I was wondering if you are working together with WAR (Women Against Registry)
    Perhaps there is great power in numbers.
    The current laws are unrealistic and I am astounded to see that lives are unnecessarily ruined. PLEASE do not give up the fight for thousands of individuals who deserve some normalcy in their lives.

  • Powerless

    I’m hoping someone reading this can please give me some advice. My friend, who is like a son to me, got mixed up with some rotten people when he first moved to town. For about a year he hung with them doing drugs and making bad decisions. He has never been in trouble before, not even a speeding ticket (he is in his late 20’s) After breaking up with his boyfriend he started down the road to recovery, found a nice guy, and was hoping to live happily ever after. Well, the FBI came knocking on his door at 3am one day….they confiscated all their electronic devices. They informed him that he was being booked for child pornography. He was put under house arrest while they combed through EVERYTHING….all they ever found was one file (the one that lead them to his laptop to begin with, that had been loaded a year earlier) After a year and a half of house arrest they were finally ready to take him to court. Their own ‘expert’ that they hired to evaluate him stated he was NOT a pedophile and he was NOT a danger to the public. As a matter of fact the testing showed he preferred older men. The prosecution agreed to ask for the lightest sentence and even allow him to take therapy with a Dr. who specialized in this area, and if on completion the therapist agreed he was not a threat he wouldn’t have to be a registered sex offender. My friend plead guilty and was STILL under house arrest until sentencing…. when that time came the judge did take the recommendation of 5 years in prison but insisted my friend would have to register as a sex offender. I am LIVID!!! This young man was sexually abused by two different people as a child….he testified that he had no idea how the video got there (his ex and all his druggie friends had access to the computer, but he did admit watching it) and in my mind I don’t think in those circumstances it automatically makes a person a sex offender. Looking at two years of history on his lap top, his current phone, his older phone, they could find NOTHING but the original video and not one single person, professional or other wise, sees him as a threat and yet this judge is throwing this young man’s life away without a second thought. Oh, btw, after sentencing…he STILL was not taken into custody. He is still under house arrest for three more months. If he is that big of a threat, WHY did they not take him right away? Why can’t the court order him to seek intensive therapy, give him some prison time and put him on probation afterwards? (I still think even that would be too harsh but at least it wouldn’t ruin his entire life!) Can someone PLEASE help us? He had to use a lawyer that specialized in indigent clients, but he seemed to be a good lawyer. He didn’t even want to take the case at first but once he saw all the facts he knew my friend was not a predator and wanted to help him. What can we do??? BTW….we are in Alabama if that makes a difference…

  • james coulton

    I was in the state of maryland and falsely arrested and charged with a 4th degree misdermenor by a woman who claimed to be my friends daughters mother . I sat in jail for months and couldnt get hold of anyone. my public defender was completely useless, I tried to fire him but he wouldnt let me. I ws so scared that he would have me convicted due to his incompitance . He finally told me that if i were to plea guilty to a misdermenor then I would be released that day and to come to his office to start the appeal process and overturn the verdict. he lied to me. I was never ordered to register as a sex offender though. the probation officers made me call them every day or face jail. I wasnt from maryland and had nowhere to live and nobody would hire me. I am from ft myers and went back there. I was assaulte and mugged at ft myers beach, and hospitalized for a month because of broken bones in my head and face.
    even though it was a confidential hospitas called lee county mental health. a receptionist there named regina went through my records and called a deputy named foreman to take me out of bed and to jail to register. he took me to jail and told me that if i didnt sign those papers then i would be arrested and charged with a felony. i needed to get back to bed and my medication so i did as told from fear of the medical treatment in jail.
    I was told that maryland had passed an ex post facto law requireing me to register there. from that point on I was forced to pay 35 dollars every time that i slept in a bed for more than two days. I couldnt get a job or find anyone who would rent to me. my job of more than ten years couldnt hire me back because of it. after being tired and dirty for months after being released I couldnt take it, and asked how to be removedfrom the list. it was for ten years. the officer in charge of my case said to move away…
    I went to kentucky where friends believe in me still. and was forced to register there too but only because florida had made me. I did as told and was whispered out of church, assaulted and had my door kicked in etc..
    I decided to go back to california where I have family. and all was fine for two years, until I was pulled over and asked my name. I was arrested and charged with a felony for failure to register. I posted 3000 dollars bond and the charge was dissmissed because of the ex post facto clause. however the officer contacted kentucky and had them put a warrent for my arrest. . I was chained up in the back of a van for 5 days and nights. I was charged with a felony . and forced to sleep on the floor for 6 months of an overcrowded cell in bell county ky. I was told that i would be there for up to a year longer before I went to court. the law in marylan was repealed the day before I was indigted, and the prosecuter named karen blondell didnt care and held me for months after she was aware of the repeal anyway. I was forced to plea f my own “free will” while in handcuffs and wearing stripes Or I would be there indefinately. now I have a felony on my record and if for any reason i am pulled over i will be dragged back to a kentucky prison . for a 4th degree misdermenor out of ky that they dont even care about. kentucky is keeping me on that list because of florida for life now and florida says it will not release me from its list because they just wont. maryland dosent have me on their list. what can I do about this . Ive lost everything Ive ever owned and my entier family has turned away from me. i was “sweated ” into a plea or i would still be in there right now. everyone ive ever known thinks im a pedophile except for the victims family who cannot believe this is happening to me. the dropped the charges even before the first court date. can I be compensated by anyone for any of this? how can I get off one of those lists? every time a policeman askes my name they want to charge me with something. sincerely james coulton [email protected]

  • I totally agree that these labels that they are placing on people have to stop. Yes there should be people on the registry who pose a threat to others, but these lists are filled with people who are no more threatening than you or I. It is so true that once you are on the list and labeled your life is basically over. People will judge you no matter what, what you did really does not matter at this point. People make bad judgement calls and a lot of times need help, but extensive jail and life long registry is not the answer in most cases. There is a lot going on that the public does not know about. You can read our story if you like and see what is happening. There are thousands of families who have been torn apart because of this.

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  • Valerie Parkhurst

    The majority of posters on this article are members of FAIR and are W.A.R. members ..The ever so breezy description of Shana Rowan’s boyfriends crime is more than slightly under described. He was not a Minor he was prosecuted as an adult Over 18 for raping (not groping, not manhandling,) but a full on rape of his 6 year old sister while showing her porn. Jesus, if a writer is going to tell a story at least tell it correctly. Shana Rowan’s fiance” is every defintion of why we have a Registry and why we need to keep bugs like him under glass. Shana Rowan “fights” for the worst of the worst among sex offenders and makes no distinction of their crimes. If she did? She wouldnt have any followers.

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