DSHS hosts forum on sex offender housing alternatives

Following up on their quick exit from a community notification meeting on Oct. 21, officials from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) hosted an information session at the Poulsbo Library on Nov. 19 aimed at educating the public on Less Restrictive Alternatives for civilly committed sexually violent predators, to address community concerns regarding a residence which houses such offenders on Viking Way near Poulsbo.

Representatives from DSHS, Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Special Commitment Center ( SCC) spoke about their individual roles and fielded questions from the audience.

“One thing that I want to acknowledge is that back on Oct. 21, there was a community notification meeting and we at the special commitment center and representatives … attended the meeting, we did a prepared statement and we left that meeting. I fully recognize the impact that had on the community that we didn’t stay and answer questions, that was a missed opportunity for us to answer questions that you had at that time. Our thought process was that we would put this forum together we would come and have the opportunity to provide you more information than is generally provided at a community notification meeting. Again, I want you to know that I take full ownership of us not staying at that meeting and responding to questions and we would like to rectify that issue here today,” David Flynn the new CEO for the Special Commitment Center stated at the start of the meeting.

The two-hour forum began with a presentation outlining how each of the departments works and what they do as it relates to the treatment, management, and monitoring of sexually violent predators (SVPs). Defining what an SVP is as well as what each department can and cannot do in terms of the placement of these individuals into less restrictive alternative (LRA) environments such as the house on Viking Way.

Following the presentation audience members voiced their concerns about the LRA and its ability to continue to operate in a residential area despite being in violation of county zoning laws.

One of the early concerns was related to the use of GPS trackers worn by the SVPs. In one instance an SVP at the Viking Way house was able to leave the house without the tracker, while they returned to the house without incident, the report made many in the community very nervous.

Dominic Winter, a specialist with the DOC clarified that there are two types of GPS trackers, one that is a single piece another that is two pieces. In that particular instance, the SVP was using a two-piece tracker and had put on only half of it while the other half was still docked in the charging station.

“We have two types of GPS units that we utilize. One is a single piece that cannot be disconnected without an alert being sent to an officer, that is traditionally or typically what most of our guys are on now. We also have a two-piece system that’s available, we use that in certain circumstances, I just fitted a guy with one because we have an issue with the quality of the GPS coverage in the area where they live, its kind of a rural area. So, it helps mitigate one of those issues, the downside is… there is this issue of if they leave the range [that unit] is tethered to, it has them out in the community without GPS, that’s scary as hell and I don’t like it,” Winter said.

Winter also noted that the SVPs are told multiple times if they leave without their GPS tracker, their experience within the LRA will be over and they will be sent back to the Special Commitment Center.

The audience also expressed concerns about the operators of the Viking Way house, Westsound Support Services (WSS), a for-profit company.

In response statements from the audience that DSHS should own the property, Flynn reiterated the fact that DSHS has no control over where these facilities are placed and that right now it is not an option for DSHS to own or operate these homes, their job is to treat the folks living in the homes.

One attendee commented on how DSHS’s job is to work with the community where these facilities are located and argued that a residential area is not an appropriate place for a treatment facility. In addition, she noted that while integration into society is part of SVP therapy, it should not be surprising to DSHS that there is push back from the community about their patient’s presence.

Flynn responded to this comment by clarifying that these individuals are civilly committed following their criminal convictions and serving their prison sentences and then when they are civilly committed they still maintain their civil rights.

“Civil commitment is different from criminal conviction. The residents that are civilly committed [still have] civil liberties, constitutional protections that are in place. They do have a legal right … we have a legal obligation to provide treatment so that they can re-enter the communities … DSHS, we are very committed and very good at the treatment that we provide to people,” Flynn said.

Flynn also doubled down on DSHS and the DOC’s commitment to community safety as part of the treatment process for these individuals.

Charlie Hamon spoke on behalf of another individual who owns a duplex near the Viking Way house. Hamon noted that the residents of the house on Viking way are causing a loss of income and devaluing home values to nearby residents.

“Here’s a gentleman that is losing income because of this house, where its placed. It’s not to the magnitude which I think most of the people here are concerned about and that is the safety of our children and our women, that’s the central issue. But on a very simple basis, here’s a gentleman who’s lost value to his home and to his income and its a doable thing to make that not happen,” Hamon said.

Brandon Duncan, the civil commitment manager for the DOC responded to this comment noting that in addition to the safety aspect of the community concerns, he is also concerned about the economic impact on the community that this house poses. However, Duncan emphasized the value of the work that is being done to treat the residents.

“You know, I’ll tell you what, that’s what I would be [upset] about … That’s what I’m thinking in my head, I’m thinking about the practical realities. These guys jumping out the bushes and grabbing someone. I’m more worried about people like you who are seeing a very automatic, real effect of this,” Duncan said. “ One thing I want to say to your comment about community integration and where this is placed. Evidence actually shows that the more integrated into the community that these guys can be to the community at large, the lower the risk is. The problem with that is they are not accepted into the community.”

The conversation then moved on to the DSHS contract with WSS and the ongoing litigation process.

One of the questions that came up was if DSHS would pull its contract with WSS and why they haven’t when the house was found to be in clear violation of county code.

“Because there is active litigation. DSHS is not responding until litigation and the attorneys have worked [things] out,” said Julia Crabbe, community programs manager for the Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island.

Crabbe also confirmed that DSHS is renewing its contract with WSS which expires this month.

It was also revealed, that contract or no contract, these individuals would still occupy that residence due to a court order and that the housing providers themselves would have to pull out of the contract in order for the residents to be sent back to the SCC. In fact, if DSHS did pull its contract, it could be in violation of the court order.

“What’s good about the contract is that we can hold the housing providers accountable. We can say, well we need residential notes, we need to input … you need to tell us how they’re doing. If you don’t, then you’re not getting paid … that’s really what the contract is,” Duncan added.

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