Gross: Residents step up to hold government leaders accountable

Mar 2, 2023, 1:15 PM | Updated: Mar 3, 2023, 10:20 am
violent sex offenders...
Tenino playground near the Garden House. (Photo courtesy of The Bryan Suits Show)
(Photo courtesy of The Bryan Suits Show)

Unfortunately, another Washington community is having to deal with the possibility of rogue sex offenders who put children at risk. At best, this was just an oversight, but at worst, this is massive negligence with harsh consequences.

This complex issue deals with several levels of governance, but it boils down to convicted sex offenders who used to be housed on a remote island are now being placed in the middle of specific neighborhoods.

Why sexually violent predators are being housed in local communities

Even though they shouldn’t have to, community members are putting up an incredible fight to ensure the safety of their children.

“We have a lack of meaningful community engagement,” Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn) told The Jason Rantz Show. “And we have a lack of what I believe is a concern for the community’s safety.”

Fortunato said he found out about this situation when he was informed by constituents. The Republican senator has since introduced S.B. 5739, which would give notice to community members where a sexually violent predator will reside.

Enumclaw City Councilmember Chris Gruner said he was given no warning that Stephen James Knapp, a Level 3 sex offender who has been civilly committed since 1999, was being placed at the Garden House.

So where do they go?

In Washington state, life sentences are not handed down for child sex crimes. These sexually violent predators do have to integrate back into a non-prison setting at some point. This is why places like the Garden House in Enumclaw exist.

The Garden House in Enumclaw is a state-approved, less-restrictive alternative (LRA) to house offenders after they complete their sentence. Sexually violent predators are placed in these facilities when they are still in need of treatment.

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The location is off 188th Avenue Southeast in Enumclaw, located just a few blocks away from Westwood Elementary School. School bus stops are in close proximity, with one being roughly 500 feet from the site. Reports claimed the Enumclaw School District was not informed of Knapp’s placement at the Garden House.

During a public meeting held in Enumclaw, Department of Corrections officials claimed to have done their due diligence when assessing the site.

“The onus of keeping your kids safe is on you,” said Martha McGinnis, a victim’s advocate with King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. McGinnis was met with outrage by a crowd of concerned community members at the Wabash Church meeting held on February 9.

“You need to open a dialogue with your children,” McGinnis continued. “Keep them safe at the bus stop.”

Knapp, 62, has a 1983 conviction for attempted rape of a child and a 1990 conviction for child molestation in the first degree. Knapp was previously a resident at McNeil Island Special Commitment Center.

The Tenino community vocalized concerns after learning that potentially dangerous sex offenders from McNeil Island were being placed in their community. Leaders listened. It was announced this week that the project was been put on hold.

Home for violent sex offenders in Tenino shuts down

These situations may put local kids at risk. The state considered these sites in Enumclaw and Tenino to be ‘less restrictive alternatives’ or LRAs. These are placements for sex offenders who have already served their sentences.  

“I have three kids to the right of me and three kids to the left of me. We have little grandchildren,” Eric VanDam, a neighbor to the Garden House, said during a public meeting. “If any kid gets hurt in this neighborhood, it’s on every one of your ***es.”

VanDam and hundreds of others had their voices heard by a panel of representatives from the Department of Corrections, King County Sheriff’s Office, and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

A representative from McNeil Island Special Commitment Center claimed that there have been “zero hands-on events of recidivism” for those placed in LRAs. The Department of Corrections (DOC) gave a definition of ‘recidivism’ as “any felony offense within 36 months of release that results in re-admission to prison.”

On the surface, this appears to be a pointed statement that would raise alarm bells for any parent. Something so tightly defined and steered in a way that you think about the phrase ‘hands-on.’

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A silver lining would be difficult to find in all of this. Ultimately, there is no positive to come from sexually violent predators being housed near children.

Although her comments were horribly tone-deaf, McGinnis is technically correct. The onus is on parents to keep their kids safe. However, local governments shouldn’t be making it this difficult.

However, this and a similar situation in Tenino sparked some intense local activism. Many Facebook groups of frustrated parents and community members have formed.

Locals have become the accountability arm for a system that is failing those it was meant to protect.

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Gross: Residents step up to hold government leaders accountable