State officials seeking to move about a dozen civilly committed sex offenders to Cambridge, Minn., struggled to reassure the community at two public meetings Tuesday that they would impose adequate security measures.
“This is what we do,” said Nancy Johnston, executive director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which treats more than 700 dangerous or psychotic offenders at high-security sites in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
Anne Barry, deputy commissioner of the Department of Human Services (DHS), insisted that plans for a 48-bed supervised-living facility in Cambridge were not yet complete, and said she and top MSOP officials want to listen to the community’s concerns.
About 200 residents total attended the two sessions. A number were clearly agitated as they said that they didn’t believe that sex offenders could be “cured” and that they didn’t trust DHS officials to contain them.
“I am not going to sleep well with those beasts over there,” said John Staton, 69.
A woman who said she was a victim of one of the sex offenders currently housed in Moose Lake trembled as she demanded assurances that he wouldn’t return to Cambridge.
State officials said the law bars them from discussing individual clients. They noted that any of the offenders can petition the courts for release or transfer to a less-restrictive setting. A panel of appellate judges makes the final decision, they said.
“I know you say it’s going to be a secure community. It’s not always secure,” the woman said to a round of applause. “I’ve gone through this.”
The meeting was just a preview of what DHS officials are likely to encounter statewide as they seek to avert a federal takeover of MSOP. Clients in the program are part of a federal class-action lawsuit pending in St. Paul, which contends that the 20-year-old program is unconstitutional because no one has ever been discharged and because the state fails to provide less-restrictive treatment settings.
Several community members said they didn’t trust DHS, which initially said that it wanted to transfer six low-functioning offenders to a facility in Cambridge that currently serves eight developmentally disabled clients. Those clients are being moved to less restrictive home settings under a settlement agreement reached in federal court in 2011.
Now, DHS officials say they want to move six more disabled or medically fragile clients to the Cambridge facility, which is licensed for up to 16 residential clients and can handle 48.
“I feel we’re not being told the truth,” said Frankie Weber, who described herself as former longtime DHS employee. “I know how it works.”
Weber asked how DHS officials determined that a sex offender has been “cured” when it goes along with his petition for release.
Johnston and Liz Barbo, who oversees the MSOP reintegration program, said they don’t use that term. Sex offenders cannot be cured, they said, but with treatment and security measures, their behaviors can be adequately managed. Johnston said it’s like alcoholism.
“You can’t compare the two,” Weber fired back. “Raping a baby and having a beer are two different things.”
Christy Gunderson agreed. A mental health worker for 23 years, she said, “We’re treating sex offenders like they’re human. They’re not human.”
Barry said the state must do something to reform MSOP or “we fully expect the U.S. District Court will hold the state accountable.” She said DHS is planning to move offenders to a variety of less-restrictive settings statewide.
Amanda Bartnick, a nurse at the Cambridge facility, described herself as “the gray duck” in the room because she supports the state’s plan. She noted that there are about 17,000 convicted sex offenders living openly in Minnesota who weren’t committed after their release from prison. If the state appellate court approves the transfer of offenders to Cambridge, she said, “they’re going to stimulate our economy.”