Laws are creating enclaves where sex offenders live
By LEONORA LaPETER
ST. PETERSBURG -- When sex offenders get out of jail, finding a place to live is one of their toughest tasks.
If they've harmed children, they can't live near a school or a day care center, a playground or a park. But the law that barred those convicted after 1995 from living within 1,000 feet of areas where children congregate has produced unintended consequences.
Now sex offenders are living together in pockets, many of them at cheap motels and apartment houses near children.
In St. Petersburg, 15 sex offenders live in a five-block area of Fourth Street N between the family neighborhoods of Crescent Heights and the Old Northeast, with more than half living in two inexpensive motels, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement sexual offender registry. Four of them are sexual predators and 13 of the 15 are convicted of sexual offenses against children.
The trend is not limited to St. Petersburg.
A motel on Ulmerton Road in Largo had four registered sex offenders living in it. Another six sex offenders call one Tampa motel on Hillsborough Avenue near historic Seminole Heights home. And officials who watch and manage sex offenders across the country say they've noticed clustering in other states too.
"A lot of sex offenders are having trouble finding housing, period," said Charles Onley, a research associate with the Center for Sex Offender Management, a Department of Justice program in Silver Spring, Md. "So it's just easier for them to go to those areas that are urban, low income, where there are businesses and bars and where the landlord is more open to renting to sex offenders. You get large concentrations of offenders in places that are willing to rent to them."
State probation officials, who typically help sex offenders just released from prison find acceptable housing, say they can keep a better eye on sex offenders living close to one another. One sex offender might tip authorities off if another sex offender strays, said Joe Papy, regional director of the Department of Corrections.
But mental health professionals who treat sex offenders say it is a dangerous trend that could contribute toward recidivism. They say that although sex offenders are typically treated in group therapy, that's not always the best way for them to live.
"It's like with any group. If you are an overeater and you work together with other overeaters to overcome the problem, that's a good thing," said Denise Hughes-Conlon, a Pinellas County mental health counselor who treats sex offenders. "But if you put five overeaters in an all-you-can-eat buffet with no therapy, that's not a good thing."
Florida laws affecting sex offenders have gotten increasingly tougher over the years. Sex offenders who committed their crimes after 1995 and are still being supervised must obey a curfew, participate in sex offender treatment at their own cost, and, if they have harmed children, avoid living within 1,000 feet of places where children congregate. Those who committed their crimes after 1997 must participate at least annually in a polygraph test, maintain a driving log and not drive alone without prior approval from their probation supervisors.
One of the most well-known requirements is the posting of information about sex offenders, who number some 450,000 nationwide, on the Internet.
Megan's laws honor Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who was a twice-convicted sex offender. Florida is one of four states that require the most information about sex offenders to be put on the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering challenges to the laws in Alaska and Connecticut.
Studies estimate that 60 percent of convicted sex offenders are supervised by probation officials in the community.
The low-rent motels can be the first stop for many of them after prison, when they've had little or no treatment. Some live there for long periods of time, while others stay there briefly until they find more permanent housing, officials said.
Most of the motel owners providing rooms to sex offenders in Tampa Bay declined to comment. The owner of the Dutch Motel on W Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa, which had six sex offenders, including three sexual predators, was out of town until January and a clerk there would not comment.
Another motel owner who declined to be named said he would get rid of the sex offenders at his motel if it was publicized that they lived there. Other motel operators claimed sex offenders no longer lived there and that information on the sex offender registry was outdated. Attempts to contact many of the offenders listed as living at the motels were unsuccessful.
Chantia Singh, an owner of the Economy Inn Express Stadium, said all three of the sex offenders staying at the motel at 451 34th St. N in St. Petersburg had been asked by state officials to move out more than a week ago because a day care center had opened nearby.
Singh acknowledged that she allowed the sex offenders to live at Economy Inn. She said she didn't know they were living there until after they moved in and state officials notified her while verifying the address.
"To me they look like normal people," Singh said. "So much onus is put on the hotel owners to know if people have drug offenses or sex offenses or prostitution. We've got limited resources. We're business people. The minute you ask for more information, you're accused of being prejudiced and racist. Our hands are tied quite often."
The operator of the Suburban Lodge on Ulmerton Road in Largo, where four sex offenders were registered, consulted a lawyer to determine how to deal with them.
"We want to respect the rights of the individual and we always want to be concerned about the safety and welfare of all our guests, so we wanted to find out under law what we must do," said Rob Van Wey, vice president of operations for Grantham Enterprises, which operates three Suburban Lodges, including the one in Largo. "We found out that it's an operating decision on our own part as far as notifying guests and we chose to notify guests."
They also found they had the right to deny service to sex offenders, but Van Wey said they chose to decide on a case by case basis whether to accept the sex offenders. He said two of the four sex offenders registered there moved out voluntarily.
Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, just north of 22nd Avenue N, has a large concentrations of sex offenders. Some live in duplexes there, but most live in two motels, the Royal Inn Motel and the El Rio Motel. The operators of these motels declined to comment.
Neighborhood leaders on either side of Fourth Street N expressed surprise that so many lived so close to their neighborhoods.
"Wow, I wasn't aware that we had that many," said Stephanie Pitts, president of the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association. "We have children in our neighborhood, and I'm not in favor of them being there, especially with the park (Crescent Lake Park). But these people have to have some place to go, too. You can't deny them housing, but I don't know if putting them in areas so close to a residential neighborhood and a park where kids are is a wise decision."
Parents, in particular, said they would be more vigilant.
"That is a concern, and I have a child that's 6 years old, and we live fairly close. And so it makes you wonder, and then it makes you wonder what you can do about it," said Kim Taylor-Ignacio, president of Northeast Park Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood is just east of Fourth Street N.
Crescent Lake Park is five blocks from the Royal Inn Motel, which has six registered sex offenders, but it is outside the 1,000-foot limit, police said.
Mental health experts say the 1,000-foot law designed to keep pedophiles away from children does not work because sex offenders need only walk or drive to a school or park. Some said state officials and sex offenders expend a lot of energy finding places for the offenders to live that follow the law but not enough time trying to rehabilitate the sex offenders.
Some experts have noticed that sex offenders are living together in the same rooming houses, apartment complexes and motels.
"That caught my eye," said Robert Whitford, a mental health counselor with the Center for Rational Living in Tampa, which treats sex offenders. "I want to propose something to you. Suppose you have 30 rooms and four or five sex offenders and other people happen to stay over with children. Isn't that like putting a fox in the henhouse? It's better not to put them in a vulnerable position. They need to do some rewriting of the laws."
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird and reporter Tamara Lush contributed to this report.
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