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In 1998, 7-year-old Mary was sexually assaulted.
That's enough sorrow for a lifetime.
It gets worse: Her assailants were her brothers, Billy, 12, and Mark, 10.
Their mother, Carol, says watching her adolescent sons shuffle into court – in handcuffs and oversized orange jail jumpsuits rolled up to fit their scrawny frames – for assaulting their sister "just tore my heart out."
But the horror was only beginning.
Following the juvenile justice philosophy that children deserve a second chance, the boys received probation, and their delinquency records remained private. But ostensibly to protect the public, their names were added to the sex offender registry.
The Smith sons, now in their 20s, are due to be removed from the registry next year after the 10-year juvenile registration limitation expires. But Carol says the family will never recover from the boys being branded as sex offenders.
"Even though they were 10 and 12 when this happened ... they'll be sex offenders when they die," she says.
The Smith family – whose names have been changed to protect Mary's privacy – is not unique. According to a Dallas Morning News analysis, about 4,000 people are on the Texas sex offender registry for crimes committed as juveniles. About a thousand of them were younger than 14 at the time of their crimes.
It's her label, too
Mary is 19 years old now, thin, pale and soft-spoken. She forgave her brothers long ago.
But she's never been able to put the matter behind her, primarily because of her brothers' registration. "It's always in the back of my mind," she says. "You know, not so much what happened, but [it's] who we are now."
Though she was never identified publicly as the victim, she suspects people know. Her brothers' registration information includes their address and the victim's age and gender. Even if the people in her North Texas town don't know she was the victim, she's recognized as the sibling of sex offenders.
"They see the word 'sex offender' and they automatically see it as some horrible monster that took some little girl out somewhere and raped her," she says. "Nobody really cares what the story is."
The case file is sealed, and attorneys and others involved in the matter would not discuss it, but court papers provided by the brothers' father, Bob, describe the story clinically: Billy penetrated Mary and had her perform oral sex. No violence was involved, but because of her age the crime is aggravated sexual assault. Mark later touched her genitals and was charged with indecency with a child.
Sex offender treatment providers say penetration by young children is unusual, but looking and touching is fairly common, falling within the range of "normal development."
Their parents, while not playing down the seriousness of the offenses, say the boys learned the behavior from adults.
"A kid came over and spent the night with Billy and brought with him a porno tape from his dad," Carol says. "That's where they got these ideas from."
Billy declined to talk for this story, but Mark says they also witnessed sexual activity between a teenage baby sitter and her boyfriend. Both boys were diagnosed with learning disabilities from an early age, and Billy was treated for emotional problems in kindergarten.
The Smiths admit their family isn't suited for a Norman Rockwell painting. Bob's trucking job took him away for long stretches of time. Carol worked at the post office and made extra money cleaning houses. The kids were often left with the sitter.
"We may not have been the perfect people, but we both tried," Bob says.
Mark doesn't blame his parents. "They did the best they could," he says.
Both parents say they don't know how long the behavior went on, but after Carol walked in on Billy and Mary in the bathroom one day, she and Bob "told him this is not acceptable, this is not the way people conduct themselves."
They also told Mary not to let anyone touch her that way.
Carol sought help, unaware the therapist was required to report the incident. When authorities interviewed Mary, she told them about Billy and about when Mark touched her.
Mark says Billy encouraged him to touch their sister, and their parents say Billy did so because he didn't want to be in trouble by himself.
Billy and Mark pleaded guilty and received two years' probation. Mark went to live with a foster family from Carol's church; Billy was sent to a residential treatment center.
Carol expected the kids to get help "and we could go back to being the family we were," she says.
4 feet 7, 80 pounds
But to the Smiths' horror, the boys' names, descriptions and crime soon cropped up on the Internet. Bob shuffles through a stack of papers and pulls out a copy of Mark's early state sex offender registration: white male, 4 feet 7, 80 pounds, size 6 shoe.
The family knew the boys would be registered with law enforcement authorities – Mark's acknowledgement was printed with childlike letters, signed in careful cursive – but didn't realize the information would be listed on the public sex offender registry.
Juvenile registration was not mandatory at the time but was left to judicial discretion as it is today. Court records do not show whether a judge specifically ordered public registration, and the Smiths are puzzled about why their sons, who received light sentences and eventually were sent home to live with their victim, were listed.
The Smiths say they favor public registration for sexually violent criminals, and maybe for repeat juvenile offenders, but "you don't need to protect the community from an 11-year-old kid," Mark says.
Carol says: "This was a horrible thing that happened, but ... they are not these horrible animals."
Registration "ruined both their lives," she says softly. "It totally ruined them."
When they returned to school, the principal vowed to keep a close eye on the boys; teachers asked if they were dangerous; fellow students quickly learned about the crime.
Attending church camp was nixed. Sleepovers became a thing of the past. After an old friend's mother saw Mark on the Internet, "He was not allowed to associate with that child," Carol says.
Both boys gravitated toward young thieves and junkies, Bob says, "because they're the only people that would accept [them]."
Neither son dated much. When Carol asked Mark why he didn't ask a girl he liked to go out, he replied, "I can't ask her out, Mom, I'm a sex offender."
Mark says his life spiraled out of control after his arrest.
"Once I was in jail when I was 10, that made me accept that jail was OK," he says. "It exposed me to drugs. It made me accept a world I never would have accepted."
Mary also struggled. At school, she says, her teachers told her that they knew her brothers and warned her not to be a troublemaker like them.
And, she added, "it was hard making friends."
Mary "continued really to be a victim," Bob says. "She couldn't live a normal life.
"We were scared to death if some girl came to the house and they were here and their parents knew."
At a counselor's suggestion, alarms were installed on Mary's bedroom door when the boys returned home. "I was OK with that," Carol says, "because I want Mary to be safe, too."
Being the parents of both the victim and the perpetrators is like "being pulled apart," Carol says. "Because if you take up for your boys, then they're thinking, 'What about your daughter? Don't you care about her?' And if you take up for your daughter, it's, 'What about the boys?' "
Her dream of a normal family life vanished "as soon as I knew it was on the Internet," she says. "Our family was looked at as a family of degenerates."
The Smiths' marriage was already on shaky ground, and the situation with their children made it worse.
"It caused tremendous strain," Carol says, and for a long time the couple blamed each other for what happened. "We don't feel that way now," she says.
Carol particularly had a difficult time dealing with the situation. She quit going to church after a deacon asked her, in crude terms, exactly what happened. And she began abusing methamphetamines.
"I can't deal with it," Carol says of her sons' status. "The way I've dealt with it is to not think about it."
She and Bob divorced in 2004.
All three kids dropped out of high school. Mary works at a fast-food restaurant, and Billy, who earned a GED certificate, recently landed a construction job. But employers willing to hire poorly educated teen sex offenders in a town of 25,000 are rare.
Bob considered sending his sons to live with relatives who were willing to give them jobs. But "nobody wanted their address" on the sex offender registry, he says.
Under one roof
Today, Billy, Mark and Mary call Bob's small rental house home. He's grateful his landlord has not objected to having sex offenders on the property, but others have not been so welcoming.
Bob points to a jagged hole in the siding where a passer-by shot a pellet gun, then ticks off the other incidents: two broken car windshields; a Molotov cocktail thrown in the driveway; a neighbor who complained about the boys visiting a nearby park; talk of forming a neighborhood group to keep an eye on the Smiths' sons.
Bob admits he has not always turned the other cheek. In 2002, he received deferred adjudication for a misdemeanor assault he says sprang from escalating tensions with a neighbor.
Ironically, Bob says, when irate people target his house, they're also victimizing his daughter again.
"I really didn't have much of a childhood at home," Mary says. "I kept to myself most of the time because I was afraid."
In and out of jail
Neither Smith boy has committed another sex offense. But they haven't stayed out of trouble either.
Both have been in and out of prison for crimes such as burglary. Billy also spent a year behind bars for failing to register as a sex offender.
"He didn't want to create problems for me and his sister," Bob says. "He didn't want his face in the newspaper. He had just made new friends – he was a teenager."
Even though juvenile registrations are capped at 10 years, the conviction for failing to register "is going to be on his record the rest of his life," Bob says.
What bothers Carol is that her boys accept prison life as normal.
"Billy's all but institutionalized," Carol says. "He sees no point in trying, because he's branded."
The last time Billy got in trouble, Bob asked him, "Why? Why did you do this?"
"What else do I got to do?" Billy replied. "At least if I'm in prison, I can crawl into my little hole. I don't have to deal with anybody on the outside."
Mark is currently in the local jail for using heroin in violation of his latest probation.
He doesn't seem particularly bothered by the prospect of spending a couple of years behind bars. "I don't have to deal with it in here," he says. "Nobody really knows."
By the time he is released, his registration period will have expired, and he hopes to find a job and a place to live without worrying about a sex crime appearing on his record.
"When I get out, it'll be a clean slate," he says hopefully.
He is less optimistic about his brother's chances.
"He may have taken it worse than anyone else," Mark says. "He's shy; he's never had friends.
"Me and my sister, we can get past this, but I don't think my brother ever will."
The rest of the family also continues to suffer. Bob recently applied for a part-time job as a security guard. After a background check, he was asked, "Who's the sex offender?" at his home. He explained the situation and never heard back from the company.
At 56, on disability because of two bouts with cancer and other health problems, he longs to leave Texas. But he's trapped, he says, because his sons would have no place to live.
"If I take off, if I bail out, then I'm stuffing it all on her," Bob says of his ex-wife. "I don't want to do that."
If Billy and Mark were simply thugs, "I would have said, 'Boys, I'm leaving. Y'all want to be crooks and thieves all your lives, fine,' " Bob says. "But because of the registration thing, that I feel deeply in my heart had such negative impact on their lives ... I don't have a choice."
The rest of the world may have given up on the Smith brothers, but their victim hasn't.
People can't understand "why we were still there for them if they were such awful people," Mary says. "But I'm not going to do that. I'm never going to abandon them."
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