Criminalizing Child's Play

Detailed comments for Q&A # 11: “Do kids who are just “messing around” have to worry about these laws?”

What used to be called “playing doctor” for young children or thought of as normal sexual experimentation for older teens is now enough to get a kid arrested, taken away in handcuffs, put in juvenile jail, subjected to draconian psychological “treatment,” and put on the sex crime registry, often for the rest of his or her life! This is not just for aggressive or violent behavior, but for innocent, consensual play among giggling kids.

This report presents statistics on juveniles on the registry, as well as details and references on 66 cases of the formal admonishment of children as young as four for behavior interpreted as sexual and criminal prosecution of children and teenagers for consensual sexual activity. This is a small sample of tens of thousands more cases like them across the United States and in some other countries.




Punishing Kids for Sexual Behavior

A pair of studies in 20031 and 052 about Megan's Law by the US National Center for Juvenile Justice found that

  • Thirty-two states required at least some juveniles found guilty of a sex crime, either adjudicated in juvenile court or convicted in (adult) criminal court, to register. Twenty-six of those states applied the requirement to juveniles of any age, while six limited it to those who were at least a certain age, ranging from 11 to 15, when committing the crime. (South Carolina would register at any age, but if the child was under 12 at the time of adjudication or conviction, the registration was not made public.) In 16 of the 32 states, the requirement applied to all such juveniles, subject to any applicable age limitation. The other 16 states allowed judges some discretion as to whether to require registration, based on a variety of factors, such as risk of committing another crime and level of danger to public safety.
  • Nine states and DC did not register adjudicated juveniles, but required juveniles convicted of a sex crime in (adult) criminal court to register.
  • The remaining nine states did not register juveniles at all.

The Adam Walsh Act changes that, requiring all states to include in their public registries people who were at least 14 at the time of committing certain crimes, or lose a portion of their federal funding for law enforcement resources.

  Age profile of people committing certain sex crimes, US National Center for Juvenile Justice
Source: US National Center for Juvenile Justice3

That age of 14 has special significance in the prosecution of children for sex crimes. It is the most common age of all people charged with sex crimes investigated by police in the United States. The graph at the right, from a government analysis of national crime data,3 shows the proportion of people of different ages in the commission of all sexual assaults on record from 1991 to 1996. Notice that the steep increase in age on the left side of the graph corresponds roughly to puberty. What we have here is evidence of the onset of the sexual interest of children. And the fact that those children are being prosecuted for exploring that interest.

These data are not evidence of children exploring that interest by forcing themselves on other children. The government records of these crimes are kept in such a way as to make it impossible to distinguish between violent acts of rape and mutual sexual exploration by curious children, i.e., "playing doctor." (See the SOLR report, Discerning Use of Force in Sexual Crimes.)

For more information on this issue see the following two articles at the website, Ethical Treatment for All Youth:


Some Statistics on Juvenile Registrants

In research for the SOLR report, Count Analysis of the US Registries, all records of the complete public registries were obtained for nine jurisdictions (eight states plus the District of Columbia). Of these nine sex crime registries, four include date of birth in the data provided to the public. This allowed a calculation of the ages of the people listed on those registries. The results are rather startling:

Selection of State Registries with Age Data
StateYoungest1011121314151617Total under 18

We find that all four states that provide date of birth information have juveniles on their public registries, complete with name, address, and photograph. Here is one example of a registry entry for a juvenile:

This registry entry was obtained from the Internet on May 22, 2008, when the young man in it was 16 years old. You can see that he was convicted about two years earlier, when he was 14, of “lewd conduct with minor child under 16.” He was one of 33 juveniles found on the Idaho registry when it was downloaded on August 22, 2007. Many more youngsters suffer this fate in Colorado, whose complete registry obtained on a CD from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for $20 on August 27, 2007 (without photographs but with full names and addresses) had 651 juveniles on it, including three who were only eleven years old!

As noted in the previous section, government data does not allow us to determine how many of these cases involved any use of force by one child against another. However, there are laws that specifically cite the use of force in their descriptions, and when a child is charged with “lewd conduct” as in the above picture from the registry, which makes no mention of use of force, one has to wonder if the activity being prosecuted was consensual between the children.

Of the four states providing date of birth, two of those also provided the date of registration. This allowed the calculation of the age at which each person first appeared on the registry. Here we find that although Georgia had only 16 juveniles on its registry when it was downloaded on August 21, 2007, there were 125 people on the registry who have been on it since they were juveniles, including three who were first registered when they were only 13. Kansan kids fare even worse. On that state’s registry, which had 120 juveniles when it was downloaded on August 17, 2007, there were 240 people who had been on it since before they turned 18, including two whose registration began at eleven.

Selection of State Registries with Age-at-Registration Data
StateYoungest1011121314151617Total under 18

Finally, of the four states providing date of birth, two also provided the date of conviction for each crime (as shown in the example from Idaho above). These registries allowed the calculation of how old each person was when convicted of the crimes that got them on the registry. Here we find that Georgia has almost 500 people on its registry for crimes for which they were convicted while still juveniles, including one who was only eleven at that time. Since conviction often takes place a year or more after the subject crime, these people were even younger than indicated here when the activities for which they were convicted took place.

Selection of State Registries with Age-at-Conviction Data
StateYoungest1011121314151617Total under 18

Initial estimates, based on the above statistics and to be tested by further analysis, indicate that approximately 19,000 people are on the sex crime registries of the United States who are either under 18 today or are registered as a result of crimes committed before they turned 18.  

Some Cases

Most people simply don’t know how aggressively the government is prosecuting young children and teenagers for innocent or consensual sexual play. However, consider the following two news accounts from the past few years. In reading them, please note that the term “assault” does not mean here “attack,” as it does in ordinary English. Here it is used as a legal term that means some kind of sexual touching took place with a person under the age of sexual consent.

  • "Twenty-eight Maryland kindergarten students were suspended during the [2005]-06 school year for sex crimes, including sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual activity, according to state data. Fifteen of the suspensions were for sexual harassment."4

  • In just one county in Wisconsin, more than a dozen pairs of teenagers, including same-age couples, were charged with sexually “assaulting” each other in 2003.5

The background report, Cases of Persecuted Juvenile Sexual Activity, provides brief descriptions of 66 cases of children and teenagers, from four to 19 years of age, who were either formally admonished by their schools or criminally prosecuted as a result of innocent or consensual sexual acts. Each case is documented by at least one reference to reputable news reports and/or court documents.

Go to the
listing of information on 66 cases.

Meet the Kids on the Registry

This section attempts to break through the dry statistics and legal case information above to put a human face on this subject. Below is a small collection of photographs of youngsters obtained from the registries of three states. The eyes were not blocked in the original photographs downloaded from the Internet. While it is possible that some of the youthful smiles shown here are masking violent rapists who brutally molested young children in their communities, we simply don't have enough information to know. None of the registries give us the information to distinguish between the sexually violent and those who engaged only in consensual activity with other kids. From the example cases given above, we know there are a lot of the latter on the registries.

So, without further ado, here is a small selection of America’s estimated 19,000 juveniles on the registry.



1. Megan’s Law: Juvenile Sex Offender Registration Age Limits, National Center for Juvenile Justice (US DoJ), May 2003

2. Megan’s Law: Judicial Discretion Over Requiring Juveniles to Register as Sex Offenders, National Center for Juvenile Justice (US DoJ), March 2005

3. Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics by Howard N. Snyder, National Center for Juvenile Justice (US DoJ), July 2000 (Link), Figure 6, page 8. Note that the caption on the figure in the original government report, “Age of victim,” is incorrect. In the figure shown above in this report, the caption has been corrected by copying it from one of the four figures on the same data on page 9.

4. Boy, 5, Accused Of Sex Harassment For Pinching Girl’s Butt () — Boy’s Father Says He Can’t Explain Term — (Maryland), December 20, 2006

5. Teens who have sex charged with abuse — DAs are prosecuting even when both consent — Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), March 7, 2004


Page posted on August 24, 2007, updated August 26, 2007, September 20, 2007, September 26, 2007, January 10, 2008, January 15, 2008, January 24, 2008, February 1, 2008, February 2, 2008, February 28, 2008, September 7, 2008, major revision on January 28, 2009, updated March 5, 2009.
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