THE BLOG

High School Sweethearts -- Or Sex Offenders?

07/25/2011 05:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Frank Rodriguez is a family man, a husband and father of four daughters. He is also a convicted sex offender. As such, Frank, 34, is prohibited from coaching his children's soccer teams. Neighbors and employers can find him on the sex-offender registry, alongside pedophiles and child pornographers. An iPhone app directs people to his home. MySpace has delisted him. If he moves out of state, he must promptly register with the local police as a sex offender.

All this, for the crime of having slept with his high school sweetheart 15 years ago.

Back then, Frank was 19 years old, a recent high school graduate in the small town of Caldwell, Texas. That's when he first had sex with his girlfriend and future wife, Nikki Prescott. The two had been dating for nearly a year; the sex was consensual. However, the age of consent in Texas is 17, and Nikki was just shy of 16. Frank got arrested. And with that, he became a registered sex offender.

Over the years, Frank and Nikki married each other, and had their four daughters. Still, Frank remained on the registry, his crime listed as "sexual assault of a child."

Frank and Nikki are not alone. Across the country, high school students are increasingly finding themselves caught in the nation's complicated web of sex-offender laws. Teenagers end up on the registry for having consensual sex with an underage partner, as well as for stunts such as streaking or urinating in public, or for sexting -- sending racy self-portraits, which can be considered child pornography.

Now, a growing grassroots movement is trying to help teens who get labeled as sex offenders for sexual behavior that can be technically criminal, but which, activists argue, should fall into a different category. This movement is led, in large part, by women -- mothers who are shocked to find their sons on the registry for having sex with a high school sweetheart. Francie Baldino is among them. She launched Michigan Citizens for Justice after her own teenage son was arrested. Tonia Maloney is another; she started Illinois Voices after her teen son's arrest. Each of the 50 states now has at least one such grassroots group.

America's sex-offender laws have a noble goal: to protect children from predators. But now, these activists argue, mothers are trying to protect their children from the laws.

The laws currently vary widely by state. Five years ago, federal legislation tried to bring some uniformity to the tangle of state laws. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as the Adam Walsh Act, created minimum standards across the states. However, only seven states have implemented the act to date. A main reason cited is cost: Many states, already struggling to maintain expanding registries, say they can't afford any added administrative costs. The government has said that states that aren't compliant with the act will lose a chunk of federal funding, effective this month.

I recently talked with families embroiled with the registry, including the Rodriguez family. This summer, that family finally caught a break: Thanks to a push from activists, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill that will allow Frank to petition the court to remove his name from the registry. The law goes into effect in September. For Frank, it could mean the end of a frustrating 15-year battle. For other families, their battle has just begun.

You can read more about Nikki, Frank, and the grassroots movement of mothers in Marie Claire.