Editorials

These sex predators could go to a group home. We don’t blame Lakewood for fighting it

The Secure Community Transition Facility on McNeil Island is a less restrictive alternative for sex offenders formerly confined at the island’s Special Commitment Center. Three Level III offenders are scheduled to be released from the transition facility into a Lakewood adult family home, according to the city, which objects to the move.
The Secure Community Transition Facility on McNeil Island is a less restrictive alternative for sex offenders formerly confined at the island’s Special Commitment Center. Three Level III offenders are scheduled to be released from the transition facility into a Lakewood adult family home, according to the city, which objects to the move. News Tribune file photo, 2013

If anyone still doubts that Washington needs better placement options for high-risk people with mental health problems, look no further than Lakewood, where the city is fighting to block the state from releasing three sex predators to an adult family home.

Among the three waiting to taste the semi-freedom of group home life is the killer of an 11-year-old girl, and two men convicted of sexually abusing children on multiple occasions. All are Level III offenders, which means the state classifies them as the most likely to reoffend.

Would you want them living down the hall from your elderly parent, or down the street from your child’s school? Neither would we.

In its legal filing, Lakewood accuses the state of “playing a dangerous shell game that puts residents and the community at risk.” Based on recent history, we’d be hard pressed to disagree.

The city has been down this road before. Last September, Western State Hospital planned to discharge Lawrence Butterfield, a 61-year-old schizophrenic with a long record of violence, to a group home in the Oakbrook neighborhood.

Butterfield allegedly killed his roommate with a hunting knife at their Puyallup apartment in 2010, but was deemed incompetent to stand trial. Without sharing many details due to privacy issues, Western State was poised to conditionally release him. After Lakewood made noise, along with Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and others, Butterfield stayed put.

Now the city hopes for the same outcome, in triplicate, when it appears before a Pierce County Superior Court judge Friday. It aims to stop the release of three sex offenders whom the state has determined are ready to ease into a less-restrictive environment after completing their sentences and participating in a transition program on McNeil Island.

We believe the judge should grant Lakewood’s request. Adult family homes can be excellent care settings for people with functional disabilities and age-related conditions. But they’re not designed to handle the treatment and supervision needs of Level III sex offenders.

Just consider the rap sheets of the three men in question. (Each is listed in Pierce County’s sex offender database.):

* Gerald Johnson, 74, of Mason County, pled guilty in 1993 to murdering an 11-year-old girl while she was walking home; he’s also admitted sexually assaulting a total of 20 to 30 girls age 4 to 14.

* Robert Aronson, 77, of Spokane County, was arrested for abusing three boys and pled guilty to child rape in 1994; he also was convicted of sexually assaulting boys, including a 5-year-old, in the 1960s.

* Daniel Holdren, 56, of Thurston County, was arrested twice in the last 15 years — once for molesting a boy, once for attempting to molest two girls — and he twice pled guilty to communication with a minor for immoral purposes.

In addition, the city is aware of four other sex offenders already discharged to local adult family homes.

Reasonable people may disagree whether some (or any) of these men should be allowed to live outside a lockdown institution at all. But if they’re going to be in a community setting, it should have extra security measures, specialized behavioral health workers and around-the-clock nursing staffs.

The good news is that Washington already has this model of decentralized care. They’re called enhanced service facilities, with eight to 16 beds each. The bad news is that there are only three ESFs across the whole state — a fourth is set to open in September — and none in Pierce County.

Fortunately, Gov. Jay Inslee wants to fast-track a shift to community-based mental health care. Plans to build more ESFs enjoy bipartisan support in Olympia.

The shift is the result of Washington’s years-long mental health crisis, exacerbated by the recent loss of federal certification at Western State along with a $53 million cut in annual funding.

Lawmakers must act quickly to invest in ESFs. That way, the mental health burden is spread around the state, large institutions can focus on criminal commitments — and the fiasco of dangerous people being discharged to adult family homes can end.

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