Dumping violent offenders in Lakewood must end

Lakewood City Council member John Simpson.
Lakewood City Council member John Simpson.

Timothy Nitschke’s death in a Lakewood adult family home is tragic.

On Oct. 27, Nitschke and John Quitorio, a former patient at Western State Hospital with a history of violent behavior, argued over a can of pop. Words became actions, and Quitorio fatally injured Nitschke.

This tragedy underscores the impact of the state Department of Social and Health Service’s habit of using Pierce County, and in particular Lakewood, as a site to dump violent and sexual offenders into adult family homes.

These homes were designed to provide a place for vulnerable individuals to age gracefully. They were not designed to house violent or sexual offenders.

Many adult family homes function as they are designed to do; however, some work with DSHS to host such offenders.

Consequently, Quitorio was in an adult family home in Lakewood’s Oakbrook neighborhood when he killed Nitschke.

Since 1992, Pierce County planning policies have outlined the fair distribution of Essential Public Facilities among the 23 cities in the county.

These policies are not being followed. Presently, there are 326 adult family homes in Pierce County, of which 93 – or 28.5 percent - are located in Lakewood. That means Lakewood has four times the number of adult family homes it should have, based on population.

State agencies such as Western State Hospital, DSHS and the Aging and Long-Term Support Administration are required per the Revised Code of Washington (RCW)36.70A.210(A) to comply with county planning policies.

Unfortunately, these agencies, and in particular DSHS, have not complied with the policies (RCW 43.43.830), which prohibit the placement of violent and/or sex offenders into adult family homes.

For DSHS, it is a cost-saving measure; putting patients in adult family homes is less expensive than keeping them at Western State or the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

As fellow Lakewood City Council member Mike Brandstetter wrote me in a recent email: “Because DSHS prioritizes a cost-based risk assessment in deciding when and where to move such individuals … safety risks are transferred to the vulnerable residents of destination facilities and the nearby residential neighborhoods.”

Pierce County, especially the Oakbrook neighborhood of Lakewood, is ground zero.

Due to DSHS’s noncompliance and the complicity of some Lakewood adult family homes to house sexual/violent offenders, the city filed suit last May in Pierce County Superior Court.

On Sept. 21, Judge Elizabeth Martin ruled that Lakewood’s concerns should be addressed by the state Legislature, either through an amendment to the Adult Family Home statute or via new legislation.

This prompted an immediate response from Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson on the city’s website: “DSHS will continue to place our citizens at risk until they are forced to adopt responsible practices. Unfortunately, based on the court’s ruling, that may only happen if Lakewood suffers a tragedy.”

Anderson’s words proved prophetic when Nitschke was killed a month later.

The death prompted State Sen. Steve O’Ban to communicate to DSHS Secretary Cheryl Strange that he wants a moratorium on placing any more violent offenders into adult family homes.

As usual, DSHS has made no comment about O’Ban’s letter, and the placement of violent and/or sexual offenders into Pierce County and Lakewood continues.

Want proof? A Lakewood adult family home will soon house Gerald Johnson, a violent sex offender who molested and murdered an 11-year-old girl. He will join two other sex offenders already in the home.

This must stop now.

The efforts of all elected officials in Pierce County are needed to compel the Legislature to end DSHS’s actions and hold it accountable to ensure the public’s safety, both inside and around adult family homes.

Otherwise, another tragedy will occur.

John Simpson is a Lakewood City Council member and a retired Air Force officer who teaches history at Pierce College. Reach him by email at jsimpson@cityoflakewood.us