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Advocacy Group Challenges Sex Offender Rules

Edith Brady-Lunny
Women Against Registry senior advisor Jonathan Grund, membership director Judy Burke and president Vicki Henry, came to the Bloomington Police Department this week to support a Bloomington sex offender in his dispute with the agency over registration.

The number of people in the U.S. now required to register as sex offenders is edging close to the one million mark.

Women Against Registry, a St. Louis area group that advocates for sex offenders’ rights, has challenged rules that limit where an offender may live, work and be present in the community. On Tuesday, three members of WAR traveled to Bloomington to support Charles Henderson in his registry dispute with Bloomington Police.

Henderson is one of more than 150 people on the public registry of sex offenders living in Bloomington.  Convicted in 2002 of attempted predatory criminal assault of a minor, indecent solicitation of a minor and possession of child pornography, Henderson has registered annually with local police for 18 years.

"We would like for him to be treated as a human being. That's what he is."

But Bloomington Police registration records show Henderson convicted of a predatory criminal sexual assault, with the word “attempt” missing from the charge. Henderson and his lawyer provided BPD with court documents showing the conviction was for attempted predatory criminal sexual assault. A transcript from a court hearing in which a judge found no victim existed in the case also was given to police.

The limited detail listed on the public registry, combined with errors on law enforcement documents, adds to the difficulties faced by sex offenders, said Henderson. People who review Henderson’s record would not know his most serious sex offense involved an attempt to hire a prostitute through a website that hired underage girls or the reasons he offered authorities for that attempt.

In his 2017 testimony to a statewide task force considering changes to sex offender rules, Henderson disclosed he was sexually abused as a child. When he learned the prostitution website he contacted hired minors, Henderson continued his contact with the company to gather information on a potential perpetrator of underage sex crime, according to his testimony.

“I thought I could make a big difference and that I could do what I thought law enforcement had been failing to do since I was a child until now. Eventually, I was arrested because the man was actually an undercover police officer,” Henderson told the task force.

The child pornography traced to computers in Henderson’s home was downloaded by his minor sons who admitted their actions at his bench trial, according to Henderson.

In October, when Henderson went to the BPD to complete the annual paperwork for his registration, he provided police with a Google phone listing when asked for his cell phone number. He blamed the stress of the registration process for his inadvertent error. The meeting grew confrontational, said Henderson, after Officer Scott Sikora threatened to arrest him if he found Henderson had been using the virtual phone number for more than three days without registering it.

Several weeks later, the 64-year-old received a letter from Sikora changing the registration requirement from once a year to every 90 days. The reason for the change, according to the letter was, “repeated violations of the Illinois Sex Offender Registry.”

While state law gives law enforcement the authority to require quarterly check-ins without a reason, Henderson argues the new directive is part of his ongoing dispute with the BPD over inaccuracies in his records. Henderson has been charged with violating the sex offender registry rules three times since he completed eight months of a 2 1/2-year prison term on the initial charges. He has been cleared each time of the charges.

Vicki Henry, president of Women Against Registry, considers the registry rules cruel and unusual punishment that do more harm than good by putting stringent restrictions on people as they try to reenter society.

In Henderson’s case, errors on his paperwork and the decision to increase his registration visits are a form of harassment by police, said Henry.

“We would like for him to be treated as a human being – that’s what he is — and be allowed to be productive and not have to look over his should and see what police are doing,” said the leader of the advocacy group.

BPD declined to talk specifically about Henderson’s case, but department spokesman John Fermon said, “in most cases, offenders register once a year and that is the end of it,” if they provide accurate information to police. The option to increase the frequency of check-ins without cause is open to police, he confirmed.

Policy changes have been adopted by the BPD in response to concerns that some practices made it more difficult for offenders, said Fermon. In 2019 the department stopped going to door to door during sex offender compliance checks to notify people that a registrant lives in the area. The practice needlessly created fear in the neighborhood, according to offenders.

“After March 2019, neighbors are only to be contacted if an investigation warrants it, pretty much like any other investigation of a crime,” said Fermon.

Bloomington Police also are working with Jobs Partnership, a local group that helps people find jobs, housing and other assistance after they return to the community.  

Jobs Partnership’s director Michelle Cook said the 2019 policy change “has helped a whole bunch. People are more assimilated into the neighborhood and they get to be regular neighbors,” said Cook.

By The Numbers

The widespread access to a public listing of sex offenders also harms children of the offenders, according to Women Against Registry. Forty-seven percent of children of registered offenders reported harassment and 77% suffered from depression, said WAR data. Anger issues were reported by 80% of the children surveyed.

Henderson recognizes the uphill battle he and others who oppose the registry face when it comes to convincing lawmakers to consider easing restrictions and registration mandates.

“The need to end the public registry is most important. Maybe that seems nearly impossible, but it would be the right thing to do,” said Henderson.

Before his check-in Tuesday, Henderson hired an attorney who also accompanied him to the police department for what was an hourlong process. Still unresolved is the discrepancy between the charges listed on BPD paperwork and court records. That discrepancy matters and should be corrected, Henderson and his lawyer Todd Roseberry told a BPD staff member who handled the registration.

The day after his registration, Sikora and a second officer came to Henderson’s home after contacting him through the Google phone service. The officers left after several minutes, satisfied he is still living at the address listed on his registration forms.

“My stress level went down tremendously. It was such a relief,” Henderson said of the brief, low-key interaction with police.

Henderson and his lawyer plan to consult further with BPD before his next scheduled check-in in late April. He said he is hopeful the records will be corrected, and he can return to an annual registration.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.