Inviting Sex Offenders Home: When Mom's Relationship Puts Children at Risk

Inviting Sex Offenders Home: When Moms Relationship Puts Children at RiskCourtesy National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
And the third -- 4-year-old Haylee Donathan -- is still missing. Federal authorities hunting Haylee's abductors know who they are looking for -- her mother Candace Watson and Robbi Potter, the convicted sex offender she is accused of helping escape from a post-prison halfway house in Mansfield, Ohio.

Losing a child to a sex offender is a mother's nightmare. But what if that mother is the one who brought the sex offender into her home?

In the cases of at least three Midwestern children reported missing this year, police have discovered that their mothers had relationships with known sex offenders.

One little boy was found safe in a motel. One little girl was found buried in a riverside grave. And the third -- 3-year-old Haylee Donathan --was found Tuesday thousands of miles away from her home.

VIDEO: Haylee Donathan is found after disappearing with her mom and boyfriend.Play

Federal authorities hunting Haylee's abductors knew who they are looking for -- her mother Candace Watson, 24, and Robbi Potter, 27, a convicted sex offender she is accused of helping escape from a post-prison halfway house in Mansfield, Ohio, May 28.

Police say the two disappeared with Haylee from Watson's Crestline, Ohio, home May 31, days after Watson, her brother, Haylee's biological father and his girlfriend allegedly helped Potter leave the halfway house he'd been staying at since being released from prison three days earlier.

Cyle Watson, along with James Donathan and his girlfriend Nicole Kirkpatrick have all been arrested and charged with complicity to escape, the same charge Watson is facing.

But authorities were most concerned with apprehending Potter and getting Haylee home safe to her grandmother who had been awarded emergency custody in the little girl's absence.

Assistant Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Andrew Deserto told that all three were picked up just outside San Diego after someone recognized them from a billboard the U.S. Marshals had placed in several states.

Both Watson and Potter have been arrested and are being held in California. Haylee appeared to authorities to be unharmed saved for a case of what looked to be chicken pox. She is currently in state custody, also in California.

They had apparently been staying at a Christian ranch for about a week, Deserto said, adding that Watson could face federal charges for aiding a fugitive.

Potter had two warrants out for his arrest, one for a federal probation violation stemming from a bank robbery conviction and the other a state probation violation related to his sex offender status.

Ken Lanning, a consultant and former FBI agent who spent two decades studying the sexual victimization of children, said that, in general, the first hurdle for pedophiles on the prowl is access to children. One of the most common ways to get that, outside of abusing a family member, is to latch on to a woman with children, often in a romantic relationship.

And while mothers of the abused children run the gamut from being knowingly involved with the abuse to being completely fooled, Lanning said, most fall into the category that is hardest for police to deal with -- "mom should have known."

Lanning said that while some would consider a mother's attention to a sex offender crime enough, some women don't just turn a blind eye to abuse. They participate.

Lanning added he's heard of some women who actually consent to the predator having sex with their children, with the stipulation that the predator has sex with them first.

Those are the cases that are easy to prosecute, he said. Most of the others fall into a grey area with authorities unable to prove how much about the sex offender the mother knew and whether or not she knowingly put her children at risk.

Lanning said he couldn't comment specifically on Haylee Donathan's disappearance, but he said women who choose to stick by sexual predators, even at the risk of their own children, have succumbed to the offenders' ability to prey on their vulnerabilities.

"Adult human beings tend to believe what they want or need to believe," he said. "Someone to tell her she's pretty, someone to support her.

"The more desperate she is and the greater the need, the more vulnerable she becomes to this," Lanning said.

'Nothing's Been Proven Yet'

Haylee's grandmother, Mary Watson, said she isn't sure whether her daughter went on the run with Potter willingly at this point.

"It was like her voice was shaky the last time," Watson said of the last time she spoke to her daughter the day she disappeared. "And her voice was short."

The last known sighting of Haylee before she was found was at an Ohio Wal-Mart they day she was reported missing. Deserto said Watson was caught on the store's surveillance system returning a tent and allegedly stealing some clothes while Donathan and a child believed to be Haylee waited in the parking lot.

Watson was seen again getting into the passenger side of the truck at a Colorado gas station June 2, Deserto said. While police believe that Donathan was in the driver's seat, Haylee couldn't be seen.

Potter's criminal history includes prison time for two counts of sexual battery and Deserto said he has a history of child sexual abuse.

But Mary Watson said her daughter had no idea of the severity of Potter's crimes until after she picked him up.

As for the charges against her daughter and son and the others, Mary Watson said she's not sure what to believe.

"I don't know nothing about them helping" Potter escape, she said. "Nothing's been proven yet."

But in an interview with the Mansfield News Journal, Cyle Watson, who served his own prison sentence on a rape conviction, admitted to helping Potter leave the halfway house, but said he only did so in hopes Potter would get in trouble with the law -- retribution, Cyle Watson told the paper, for not paying a debt.

"Things are really, really serious. It went from a trick to now," he told the Journal from inside jail. "He messed with another girl. He might be messing with my niece."

'He Would Have Done It a Little Sooner'

Lanning said mothers who knowingly admit sex offenders into their lives aren't knowingly stupid. Women with high self-esteem, good educations and successful careers are less likely to fall into this trap, he said, but aren't immune.

"The more needy you are, the more you need to believe," he said.

In last month's murder of 5-year-old Nevaeh Buchanan, her mother had relationships with two sexual offenders who have since been jailed because their parole conditions prohibited associations with women who have children.

Though no arrests have been made since Nevaeh's body was found in a cement-covered grave along the River Raisin in Michigan June 4, Monroe County Sheriff Tilman Crutchfield has called George Kennedy, 39, and Roy Lee Smith, 48, persons of interest.

Some locals have begun turning against Nevaeh's mother, Jennifer Buchanan, for giving sex offenders access to her only child.

Buchanan told the Detroit Free Press in an interview earlier this month that she was "completely innocent" in Nevaeh's disappearance and murder.

Buchanan had been released from prison earlier this year after being convicted of a 2006 home invasion. She was living in a Monroe, Mich., apartment with her daughter and mother when Nevaeh disappeared.

"I didn't think it was a crime to have my child around someone," she told the Detroit Free Press, later adding that "If George wanted to do that, he would have done it a little sooner. That's the way I feel. But I could be wrong."

She told the newspaper that she had known Kennedy for a couple of years and met Smith through him a couple months before her daughter disappeared. And while she was aware of Kennedy's sex offender status, she only guessed the same of Smith because of the men's association.

3-Year-Old Found Safe, Mother and Sex Offender Arrested

In the kidnapping of a little Wisconsin boy earlier this year, the 3-year-old's mother was arrested and charged with child neglect after her babysitter, Joseph Rivera, took off with her son.

Rivera, who had been convicted of second-degree sexual assault in 2003, was found in a motel room with the unharmed boy and marijuana and THC.

The boy's mother told police that Rivera had sent her text messages threatening to take her son. But Rivera told police he only took the boy because he was upset with the child's mother for leaving him home alone for several hours, according to the police report.

As for Haylee Donathan, her grandmother just wanted to know she was alive. Mary Watson said she's already prepared for the attention and counseling her granddaughter will likely need when she comes home.