DECATUR — Sex offenders in Illinois must have their names and addresses registered on a public-accessible database — and Decatur has more than 200 convicted defendants living within a 10-mile radius of the city.
The heat map maintained on the Illinois State Police website pinpointing offenders’ locations, addresses and outlining their crimes is part of the state law-mandated Sex Offender Registry. And the sheer numbers can be surprising, and widespread.
Even the village of Stonington, population 855, has one registered sex offender. Moweaqua, population 1,893, has two, as does Assumption, population 1,082. It goes on and on like this, with clusters in big cities (more than 3,000 offenders live in Chicago) and they’re dotted around just about everywhere else. Overall, 34,000 registered sex offenders are throughout the Land of Lincoln.
And once the current COVID-19 lockdown eases, there is at least one assistant state’s attorney, specializing in prosecuting sex crimes, who expects there will be enough new cases and convictions to add significantly to those legions of offenders destined, after serving their time, to live back among us.
Assistant Macon County State’s Attorney Lindsay Shelton isn’t sure whether lockdown and stay-at-home orders in and of themselves increase the number of sex crimes, especially those against children. But she says there were already alarming numbers of these offenses occurring pre-pandemic anyway. And, she said, the disturbing effect she did observe is that the reporting of the crimes dwindled to almost nothing when Central Illinois was placed in lockdown.
So why did child victims stop crying out for help?
“I believe what was happening was kids, who are often the victim of these crimes, were not being seen by the usual mandated reporters like teachers, counselors and so on,” Shelton said. “Now, while it’s not all the time, it is true a lot of the time that kids will disclose to someone they trust if it’s, say, a family member who is abusing them. They will disclose to a teacher, counselor, doctor.”
When schools went remote and everybody spent more time at home and sealed off from public interaction, Shelton said she watched her usually busy pipeline of cases suddenly dry up in lockdown.
“I’m normally reviewing between eight and 10 charges every two weeks but, from March until May when we had previous lockdown, there was like nothing coming in,” she recalled. “But when things opened back up after lockdown, there was a significant increase in reporting of offenses which went up, maybe, by some 20%.”
Similar trends were seen in other areas.
In late spring and into the summer, Dr. Kathy Swafford, who specializes in treating child victims of sexual abuse, noticed a significant drop-off in patient referrals.
“It was very quiet, which made us all very nervous,” said Swafford, executive director of the Children’s Medical and Mental Health Resource Network, a division of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
The concern, she said, was that children were trapped inside their homes with the people abusing them. That might make them less likely to tell another adult about the situation, they worried.
As well, teachers, counselors and other school officials play an important role in protecting child abuse victims. As mandated reporters who spend hours with children each weekday, they are required to report any suspicions about abuse, whether or not a child discloses to them, to the Department of Children and Family Services’ Child Abuse Hotline. But with schools moving to remote-only in the spring, they had fewer opportunities to interact with children.
Across the state, the hotline saw its call volume drop to concerning levels. Though, that has started to change.
Since the fall and the resumption of school in some form or another, the number of reports have picked back up for both physical abuse and sexual abuse, Swafford said. “At least for us, I would say it’s pretty much at the normal level,” she said of the 34 southern and central Illinois counties her service territory spans.
Victor Vieth, director of education and research with the Zero Abuse Project, a national nonprofit that advances policies aimed at preventing and responding to child sexual abuse, said there’s a general consensus among people who work in the field that child maltreatment has increased during the pandemic. Cyber crimes against children are a particular concern, he said, pointing to an uptick in cyber tipline reports in recent months.
“If you look at it from the standpoint of the sex offender, the conditions are ideal for the offender. You’ve got kids that are under quarantine, kids that are isolated, kids that are in stressful situations with their parents and are at high risk to run away ... And so all of those factors coming together would suggest that there’s a rise in child maltreatment during the pandemic.”
But echoing others, Vieth said it may be some time until hard evidence is available to back up what advocates suspect is happening. That won’t be available until “after we come out on the other side of the pandemic … but most folks in my field say they’re confident that there is an increase,” he said.
Denise McCaffrey, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, a statewide child abuse prevention advocacy organization, said the increased levels of stress families are dealing with is, unfortunately, likely to lead to increased incidences of child abuse and neglect.
“Families are under so much stress right now,” she said. “We all are. We’re all feeling the stress of everything surrounding COVID and everything else going on in our country. I think families are a lot more isolated than they were before. They’re not getting out and children are often isolated in the homes with their abusers.”
Shelton is worried what further restrictions mean for child sex assault victims denied access to a trusted person to confide in.
“I fear the same thing will be happening again,” she said.
That worry becomes even more disturbing as statistics the prosecutor has looked at suggest only 25% of sex crimes ever get reported in the first place. Another concerning trend she has noted is that sex offenders are not infrequently repeat offenders: one study cited by the Department of Justice found that, out of 9,700 sex offenders released from prison in 1994, the sex crime recidivism rate was 5.3%. The violent crime and overall recidivism rates for the entire sample were much higher: 17.1% of offenders were rearrested for a violent crime and 43% were rearrested for a crime of any kind.
Almost four out of 10 sex offenders studied were sent back to prison within three years of their release due to the commission of a new crime, or a violation of their release conditions.
The keeping of the registry
Which brings us back to the ever-expanding sex offender registry (registration periods range from 10 years to life) and the need to keep an eye on where such people are living when they’ve served their time.
The database is the product of the 1986 Habitual Child Sex Offender Registration Act, which mandates registration for second or subsequent sex offense (including attempts) with victims under 18.
It was established and is still run by the Illinois State Police. This first registry was only for law enforcement use, and included people who were released from state custody and had been convicted of criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse or aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Since then, the General Assembly has amended the registry nearly 25 times, each time adding new offenses or requirements.
Shelton, the assistant prosecutor, said that if the registry is up to date and maintained, it is useful, especially for concerned parents who click on a stranger’s name and see what comes up.
“So if your child wants to go over to someone’s house and you want to look and see if that person is a sex offender or not, you can check,” said Shelton. “It is a way to keep loved ones or yourself safe.”
She praises the Decatur Police Department for devoting significant time and resources to its task of updating its share of the register information. Travis Blancett is one of the Decatur police crime analysts responsible for looking after it and he said there is a detective, Charles Hendricks, who spends a lot of his time going out and physically checking if addresses and information are correct.
And it’s not just name, address and phone numbers. Police want to know sex offenders’ jobs, what vehicle they drive and what social media accounts they are using along with all email addresses. If an offender is home and their porch light is aglow on Halloween night, Hendricks will stop by and tell them to turn it off.
Blancett said offenders are required to register once a year, and more often if they have previously broken the rules or are homeless. But keeping a close eye on what they're up to, and running random, periodic checks, is a full-time job.
“With social media, it gets tricky because I feel like every month there is a new social media website I hear about that I didn’t even know had existed before,” he explained. “So I try to dedicate some time, and it’s kind of at random, but I’ll pick offenders and go through social media sites to make sure they have registered the ones they are using properly.”
Blancett estimates that, within the greater Decatur area, he is currently monitoring 500 offenders, of whom most are men but a small number — less than 10 — are women.
“When you take the totality of everything required (to maintain and check the register) yes, it is quite time-consuming,” he added.
Is it fair?
But is it fair to impose lifetime registration on any group of offenders, including those who serve their time and may never reoffend?
One officer of the court with a unique perspective on that is Scott Rueter. A former Macon County state’s attorney, he is just winding up 15 years as a public defender before returning to the top prosecutor’s job after winning the November election.
Having looked at legal life from both sides now, he said one criticism of the registry for sex offenders is that it paints various shades of evil with a broad brush, lumping sexual predator adults who rape children with hormone-addled teenagers going too far in the back of a car.
“So you have an 18-year-old male dating a 15-year-old girl and they end up doing what kids have been doing in that situation since time immemorial,” said Rueter, posing an example. “It’s consensual sex, but its illegal and he ends up having to register. I think, in that situation, it seems a bit harsh.”
And Rueter says once you carry that badge of shame on your resume, you can forget any hope of getting many kinds of jobs and pretty much any line of work that puts you anywhere near children.
“You’re never going to be the school bus driver or anything like that,” he added. “And I know some defendants are left thinking, ‘All right, I committed a crime, I got my punishment and I paid with my time. That should be it.”
So there they are: registered and held up for public scrutiny, socially shunned, excluded from many jobs and limited on where they can live — sex offenders can’t reside near schools or parks with a playground, for example — the life of anyone convicted of a sex crime is never going to be easy. And it’s likely to get tougher as they carry their badge of shame into old age.
The Water Street Mission in Decatur is one of the few men’s homeless shelters that will take sex offenders, under certain conditions. Director Larry Duncan said those conditions include the offenses not involving a child or having been committed so recently the perpetrator has not been through any kind of rehabilitation and treatment program.
He recalls the case of one aging man, in rough medical shape, who was allowed in. “The guy had done 20 years for raping a grown woman,” said Duncan. “He needed a place to stay and we took him in and he did extremely well here.
“He had a lot of physical problems and so he wasn’t able to get out and do much, and he got to the point where he needed to be in a nursing home; and there are very few nursing homes who will take them (convicted sex offenders). I think his choices were Granite City and Chicago, just out of maybe two or three in the whole state.
“Being a sex offender is something that follows them their whole lives. And no, you don’t escape it.”
'Keep our children safe'
Decatur police Chief Jim Getz is not without a certain sympathy for offenders who see having to register forever as an extra form of punishment pursuing them to the grave. But he said the quality of mercy has to be tempered by his duty to serve and protect Decatur’s citizens, and especially some of the most vulnerable and defenseless looking to him to keep them safe from predators.
“Many studies show that a lot of these people (sex offenders) reoffend against youth,” he said. “So we have to keep our children safe and so that is why I think the legislation (to create the offender registry) was passed to make that happen.”
The chief is proud that his police department has a reputation for being “one of the most proactive departments” in maintaining the accuracy of the sex offender information it constantly checks and verifies.
“And those that have to register, they know that we’re keeping an eye on them and maybe that helps them behave a little better, too,” Getz added.
The question remains, however, as to whether the registry does much to make the victims of the listed and catalogued offenders rest easier. Jean Moore, director of Decatur’s Child 1st Center, isn’t so sure that it does.
Child 1st works with law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the Department of Children & Family Services and others to help investigate and prosecute sex abuse cases. It conducts forensic interviews with children, provides advocates that help young victims deal with the court process, and links them with everything from counseling and therapy to specialized medical exams.
It handles child sex assault and extreme violence cases but Moore said the bulk of the work is sex offenses. “We’re averaging about 350 cases a year and about 300 of those will be sex offenses,” she explained.
Moore said Decatur police do work hard to maintain the registry but there is not much comfort in it for victims who’ve already been violated. “From the victim point of view, I’m not sure it helps them very much,” she said, “I don’t think it offers a whole lot of satisfaction or healing to the victims that the perpetrator has already victimized.”
She said there is value in helping future potential victims steer clear of people who might be dangerous to them, and believes that offenders do need to be watched. “The treatment programs out there for sex offenders are very small in number and… I don’t believe the success rate is very high,” said Moore.
The real danger, she said, is perhaps taking a false sense of security from the registry and believing it's showing you all the rapists, abusers and sexual predators who might assault you or your children.
“There are just so many more offenders out there that we don’t know of,” Moore warned. “When you look at the registry you are only looking at the ones who were caught and prosecuted. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Registered sex offender database
This information was compiled in October and November 2020 using the Illinois State Police registered sex offender database. This listing is for entries for Macon County addresses in the "sexual predator" category.