Verdict: House for sexually violent predators a violation of county code
A Kitsap County hearing examiner delivered a verdict on Thursday declaring that a house for sexually violent predators on Viking Way near Poulsbo operates against county code.
The hearing was an appeal of a Notice of Violation sent by the county to Westsound Support Services, LLC, the company contracted by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to operate the house. Hearing Examiner Susan Elizabeth Drummond upheld the violation and dismissed the appeal.
The house, part of DSHS’ Less Restrictive Alternative program, has operated since last year as a way for four court-defined sexually violent predators to transition from the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island back into the community on conditional release, all while receiving sex offender treatment.
Kitsap County passed interim land use regulations in February that were made permanent last week, preventing “high-risk secured facilities” from being established in residential zones of Kitsap County. The Kitsap County cities of Poulsbo, Bremerton, and Port Orchard have all passed similar zoning regulations in recent months.
“There are significant differences between the standard rural residential use and an LRA Facility [sic] with its security needs, staffing ratios, and lack of occupant number limits,” the hearing examiner’s findings stated.
Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder explained that the amount of services required for a home like this makes it inappropriate for a quiet rural neighborhood.
“This is a higher level of intensity in terms of the number of trips for staff, for the residents, etc. So it’s not a one-for-one or a light comparison,” he said. “Therefore, it’s really incompatible with the rural residential character … not comparable with a single-family residence in a neighborhood.”
In addition to pushing such facilities to commercial, business, or industrial zones, the new county regulations establish, in Gelder’s words, “a more official siting process, where the proponent would actually partner with the county in the convening of a community or neighborhood meeting” before putting in an LRA facility — in contrast to the current LRA home, which was put in without first notifying the county,” Gelder said.
Becky Hoyt, legal liaison for Washington State for Public Safety — a local citizen group that formed late last year with the intention of getting the home moved to an area that is not rural residential — stated that the LRA home “needs to be somewhere that has an urban level of services, so that fire and police can respond quickly.”
Westsound Support Services administrator Alan Frey said that the company would be pursuing “independent judicial review of the county’s action.”
“Many of the key issues remain unaddressed by virtue of examiner’s decision that she did not have jurisdiction over such matters, including the violation of the residents’ rights as disabled persons and the statutory preemption that exists under RCW 9.94A.8445,” Frey said.
The major question being debated during the hearing was whether or not the LRA home was a secure facility or a facility akin to an Adult Family Home, which can house the elderly, dementia patients, and adults living with disabilities, and must be allowed to operate in residential zones, according to state law. The hearing examiner found that it was the former.
“The parties did not dispute that the Intensive LRA is not an adult family home and does not have the state license required to operate as one; the Appellant’s [sic] contract with the state is to provide for Sexually Violent Predators [sic].
Washington state has only two official Secure Community Transition Facilities, but Pamela Benson, director of WSPS, feels that the Viking Way residence far more resembles one of these than an Adult Family Home.
For example, residents of the Viking Way facility, who are all classified as level 3 sex offenders, cannot receive visitors without advance planning, can only watch certain media, cannot leave without a staff member and can only go into the community on pre-planned visits, have all phone calls monitored, and wear ankle monitors with GPS tracking that are monitored by the Department of Corrections.
“From a land use viewpoint, my personal reaction to the effect that this facility has on myself, and the entire neighborhood, are very different than an Adult Family Home would be,” Benson said.
In an interview earlier this year, Chris Wright of DSHS said that while the Viking Way home does in many ways resemble Secure Community Transition Facilities, there are notable differences, such as the fact that the home is not locked from the inside.
“That doesn’t mean that this is not a Secure Community Transitional Facility — this is evidence of them not following the law,” Hoyt said.
Safety concerns with sexually violent predators
While the house’s residents — who are all classified by the DOC as Level 3 sex offenders, those with the highest likelihood of re-offending — are allowed to go on outings to parks and stores in the area, they are supposed to be monitored at all times by staff and must wear GPS trackers.
“Staff are specifically trained to work with developmentally disabled clients who have concerning offense history,” explained Andrew Morrison, attorney for one of the LRA residents, William Deaville.
Benson explained that the house sits 150 feet from a school bus stop and borders a property where a young mother lives with her children; she added that other homes with children sit just down the street.
One of those homes belongs to Hoyt, who no longer lets her two young children play in the backyard.
“We are talking about a population that is the worst of the worst,” she said of the sexually violent predators.
Benson herself is a survivor of sexual assault.
“Knowing that the state is putting sexually violent predators into our community has brought back so much for so many people … who have been previously attacked,” she said. “And as director of this organization, I have heard, personally from so many of these people … who are now reliving their rape and molestation on a daily, nightly basis.”
According to the DOC, one of the residents has twice this year violated the conditions of his release by going for a walk without his GPS ankle monitor.
Another resident has been sent back to the Secure Commitment Center in total confinement after reportedly acting aggressively toward staff, with the recommendation of a review hearing in 60 days.
“Fifty percent of the SVPs on Viking Way have already violated [their conditional release] more than once,” Hoyt said.
Pathways to rehabilitation
Morrison said that it is unconstitutional to throw people like these men onto McNeil Island with no possibility of rehabilitation.
“[The Secure Commitment Center] is not meant to be a warehouse to throw away the individuals that are most hated by society — and I think folks have that idea, that it’s appropriate to just send them off to this island in the middle of the Puget Sound,” he said. “The system is not constitutional if it does not include a pathway to community re-integration.”
His client, he noted, has the mental age of 11 and suffers from a severe mental disability that makes it difficult for him to complete even the most basic tasks, like fixing himself meals.
According to monthly progress supports submitted to the DOC, the four LRA residents take precautions like going to the grocery store at a time when kids are not as likely be there, or moving to an alternative section of a store if they notice a child in their aisle.
Morrison explained that people approved for an LRA “are not at a stage where, if they see a child, that they are going to lunge and grab at the child.”
Frey and Morrison suggested that WSPS exaggerates or even tells outright lies in order to stir up fear and thus win the community over to their cause.
“We do feel the process of taking testimony has been a vindication of the lack of substance to support the social media hyperbole, as the complainants were far more muted in their claims once placed under oath,” Frey said.
As an example, Morrison pointed to WSPS’ claim that men at the LRA home have watched children getting off the school bus.
“There is a big difference between what these individuals have been willing to say on social media and potentially to talk radio, and what they’re actually willing to testify to under oath in the proceeding … they don’t come into court and testify under oath saying that these individuals are staring at children getting off the school bus. They’ll say that on social media, but when it comes down to it, they know that whenever they’ve seen an individual outside the house taking a picture of them and asked the CC who that was, they found out that it was a staff member.”
Benson stated that she has seen two men standing outside observing her, and a neighbor, Starr Trujillo, has seen people inside the facility observing her children as they get off the school bus. Apart from one occasion — when Trujillo called 911 and it was confirmed that it was Frey who was outside taking photos — the identification of the men has repeatedly gone unanswered by the Department of Corrections, according to Benson. It is unknown whether it has been staff members, SVPs, or someone else watching out the window.
“WSPS has never publicly stated on social media or anywhere that SVPs are watching children get off the school bus. What we have said is that in the afternoons when the school bus is due, two, sometimes three, men have been outside watching … We do not have identification, so why would we testify under oath that SVPs were watching, when we don’t know that it was SVPs because we can’t get the answers? … We will not testify under oath, we will not publicly state in any way, shape or form, anything that we do not have documentation of to prove that it is factual. We don’t spin this story — we do not need to spin this story because it’s bad enough as the facts stand.”
Morrison said research shows sex offenders are most dangerous when isolated, and that community integration will lead to the least risky outcome overall.
“It’s not what, I think, the folks are most comfortable with, this idea of community integration,” he said. “But it is what I think we have to do if we want to keep the community the safest … We have a natural gut reaction — I understand that reaction, but the important thing is to take the perspective of looking at what research has shown us, slowing down a moment, and really focusing on community safety.”
While he said he feels empathy for the WSPS members — especially those who testified as to having been sexually assaulted years before — men like the four LRA residents become scapegoats for the anxiety, fury, and disgust people feel when they hear about sex offenders.
“We begin to project all of our worst fears and hatred about sex offenses in general — and for some folks, even their own individual victimization in the past — gets projected onto the person in front of us,” he said.
Speakers during the hearing were instructed to keep the testimony related to land use and told that emotional statements based on fear would not be taken into the hearing examiner’s decision.
Statewide problems with the LRA program
According to an annual report from DSHS to the Washington State Legislature, the LRA program had 149 violations statewide between September 2017 and August 2018, ranging from possessing pictures of minors to unnecessary touching of another person. During that year, there were 54 sexually violent predators on conditional release in the LRA program.
“The community is supposed to be kept safe,” Benson said. “Obviously, the community is being endangered by these [LRAs] just by looking at the number of violations.”
Morrison pointed out that no one in an LRA program has ever committed a violation as serious as sexual assault.
But Hoyt said that it only takes one time to destroy a life.
“Because a minor child hasn’t been raped, it’s a successful program?” she said. “Is that what our threshold here is?”
For Benson, the Viking Way house in Kitsap County is just the beginning. WSPS plans to keep working toward change at the legislative level to prevent what it sees as the “sociological experiment that we are forced to participate in” from happening in residential neighborhoods not just in Poulsbo, but throughout the entire state.
“This is a huge statewide issue, and it’s got to be solved, and Kitsap County is unfortunately on the forefront of this … we have got to get this particular facility closed or relocated into a proper zone so that we can set the correct precedent,” Benson said. “This isn’t a fight we can afford to lose.”