Dee knows that Gov. Mark Dayton can’t make time to see her son, who’s now in his 30s and has been housed since 2012 in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) at Moose Lake. So she sent the governor a photograph.
In it, her son wears a dark suit and light pink shirt. His full head of brown hair sweeps to the left with a slight curl. He wears a red tie and a jubilant smile.
He is 4 years old.
“I need to make [the governor] say, ‘My God, we need to save this little boy,’ ” said Dee, who asked that only her first name be used. “He’s not only a perpetrator locked up in Moose Lake. Emotionally, he’s also still a little boy, who was a victim first.”
Dee is one of many Minnesotans wondering if, finally, it’s safe to dream that a loved one will be released from the embattled program.
On Monday, more than a dozen Minnesota legislators and other state officials gathered behind closed doors (drawing media protests) to discuss more workable options for treating offenders. Those options include re-evaluating current residents, more frequent assessments of their progress and less restrictive facilities for those deemed no longer a danger.
Of nearly 700 “clients,” only three have transitioned out of the 21-year-old program. A fourth moves out in September. That Hotel California-esque reality has led to a class-action lawsuit.
Judge Donovan Frank has made it clear that if stakeholders don’t act within coming months, he will.
“God must be listening,” Dee wrote in an e-mail after learning of Judge Frank’s pronouncement. Her son has been in the corrections systems in some form for 22 of his 34 years. “There is finally a ray of hope.”
But if we are to keep our communities safe, and also embrace second chances, we need to see ourselves as stakeholders, too.
Serving public safety
It’s likely that, over the next several years, many former offenders will become our neighbors, our employees, our renters. We have to push past unfounded fears (read: NIMBY) and embrace facts, to see people where now we see only numbers.
It’s true that most residents of MSOP are repeat offenders, and some have been charged with horrific crimes. A random sample of 50 men in treatment in 2010 revealed that 36 of them had offended against children.
But MSOP also houses more than 50 clients with no adult criminal convictions. Another 112 clients have been assigned to MSOP’s “alternative program” because of developmental disabilities or other limitations preventing them from advancing in the normal treatment program. Many likely would do well in supervised, and less costly, communal settings. The current price tag per client per year is $120,000.
“It’s immoral what we’ve done,” said Margretta Dwyer, a licensed psychologist who has worked with hundreds of sex offenders for decades, including serving for 17 years as director of the sexual offender treatment program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in the 1980s.
“The problem will not go away by us not integrating them back into society,” she said. “It will only make it worse.”
That sentiment is shared by what might seem a surprising ally — the respected Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Ending sexual violence is urgent and highly complex,” said coalition executive director Jeanne Ronayne.
Emphasizing that the safety and well-being of victims “must be first and foremost in our minds,” she also noted that “public safety is served by prevention and true rehabilitation.”
It’s exactly the winning formula that Dee’s son never got.
‘Years of abuse’
Dee shared the details of her family’s story over coffee last week. She arrived with a binder thick with documents, from letters to the governor, sexuality experts and lawyers to discharge reports to psychological assessments.
Her son’s first “offense” was consensual, and far from illegal, sexual exploration with another 8-year-old boy. His second offense was more troubling, when he sexually fondled a stepsister when he was 13 and she was 9. He pleaded guilty and later told a therapist he felt sad while he was doing it.
His mother immediately sought counseling for him, which led to the awful discovery that her then-husband had been sexually abusing their son since he was 3. (His father was charged, convicted and is also serving time in prison.)
Dee’s son was diagnosed with ADHD, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was moved from one court-mandated treatment program to another, in and out of counseling and juvenile detention. On one release when he was about 16, he propositioned a girl three years younger for sex.
Though one of his assessments said he would benefit most from being involved in activities with same-age peers, his probation mandated that he have no communication with anyone under age 18, making impossible the opportunity to practice social skills.
“I’m not excusing his behavior,” Dee said. “He needed to pay the consequences. But through years of abuse, mistreatment and isolation, this system has created a criminal.”
Now she hopes that her son will soon be granted a chance to craft a different kind of life. But integration for him, and for all those who are released transitionally, will likely be bumpy.
“It is true that many of these people have been institutionalized for so long that allowing them out without serious support would be a mistake,” said Dan Gustafson, attorney for the MSOP plaintiffs. “Some have never used a cellphone, never had a job. Many don’t have driver’s licenses.”
That’s still easier to remedy than what he calls “this culture of fear.”
“These people have the scarlet letter in such a way that people don’t want them in neighborhoods. It’s a group of people who are hated and feared. It’s just not grounded in reality. We need to change the perception.”
For example, repeat rates are lowest among tightly watched Level III offenders, and are known to decrease dramatically with age.
After Monday’s meeting, Gustafson remains optimistic that the governor does want to move forward with workable alternatives for families like Dee’s.
“I’d like it to move faster,” he said. “But we made a little bit of progress, and if we don’t move, the judge will.”