March 28, 2007
Stonewalled By Suffolk
Angry Neighbors Just Want The Facts
New neighbors moved into the neighborhood, and no one rolled out the welcome wagon. They're homeless sex offenders and Suffolk County has placed them in a trailer on police property on Old Country Road in Westhampton. News of new, supposedly temporary, neighbors has caused a stir, and no small measure of outrage. It's no so much that they're doing it, but how the county did it — under a cloak of silence.
Last week parents, community members and South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman criticized County Executive Steve Levy and the county Department of Social Services for failing to answer questions and embarking on the housing program prematurely.
When the new trailer at the county police firing range property on Old Country Road first came to Westhampton PTA president Suzanne Mensch's attention, she contacted Schneiderman. He knew nothing about it. "I called every day for two weeks," Mensch said. Schneiderman wrote Levy and, she related, "as of Friday afternoon, he still had no response from Mr. Levy." Over the ensuing days, "People left three, four, five messages and had yet to get even a return call much less given an explanation," Mensch said.
Parent Troi Kandler did get a return call, but the information she was given, she said, "was vague." It wasn't until Schneiderman and DSS spokesman Roland Hampson appeared on a News12 special report last Friday night that community members found out some facts.
Back in February county officials decided to use mobile trailers to house homeless sexual predators. By law, DSS is required to offer housing to homeless residents, and must maintain confidentiality of its clients. But, because of new laws regarding sex offenders, DSS also must make sure they are housed the mandated distances from schools and places where children gather. The Westhampton trailer site meets those requirements, Hampson said.
The program was initially lauded as offering more protection than the prior program, which housed sex offenders in motels, unsupervised. Under this new program, the sex offenders are taken to the trailer by cab at around 8:30 p.m., locked in for the night, then let out in the morning and taken away by cab. Hampson emphasized that DSS contracts with the cab company and monitors the client's destination after he leaves the trailer in the morning. DSS is not required to provide the level of security it does, but, Hampson stressed, "We're doing it because the community demands supervision."
While information about security measures did mollify some concerns, Mensch and Schneiderman both complained that the program is supposed to involve moving the trailer from site to site, and according to the lawmaker, no other site has been deemed acceptable for the trailer.
"I think people are concerned that there's a group of sex offenders here and they're supposed to be moved from site to site, but there is no other site," Mensch said.
Schneiderman complained that the program was implemented before all the kinks were worked out. "The program itself is better than housing sex offenders in a hotel with no security," he allowed, "but it can't just fall on one district. If it's going to be spread throughout the county, then it better be spread throughout the county, so it's a long time before we see them again. But, until they have other sites, we don't know that." The legislator continued, "With only one site, they can't even give me a date or even a month when this is going to be moved."
That's not quite so, Hampson said. DSS do have sites in mind, but it's a violation of state confidentiality laws to announce where the clients will be placed.
And what about Megan's Law? The law requires sex offenders to register their addresses. The individual offender, not DSS, is responsible for the notification. "That's between them and the police," Hampson made clear.
But, there's a catch. The offender has to register every time he changes his address, and has up to 10 days to do so. The average trailer stay so far is about eight days. That predators can leave before the 10 day window closes, seems like a circumventing of the law, Mensch said. "It's beyond circumventing the law," Schneiderman railed. "The law is clear that they must register. If they're only there for eight days, they still have to register. The community has the right to know who is there, what their crimes were, and when they were committed." So far, just one trailer resident has registered with police.
Kandler reported that when she spoke about the new neighbors with a local officer who patrols the area, "he knew nothing about it. It really makes you wonder what the heck is going on."
On Friday, Hampson reiterated that two security guards monitor the sex offenders during the time they are at the trailer. In other areas of the state, similar clients are simply given money for lodgings or placed in hotels not segregated from the rest of the community. In Suffolk County, the spokesman said, "We know where they are with security and with a curfew and monitored transportation in and out; that should be a comfort. They are not becoming a part of the community."
As the televised debate wore on Friday night, Schneiderman allowed that one of his main complaints was that his district was chosen as the site for the launch of the new program. This week Mensch said she understood the need to house homeless county residents, but "there wasn't an issue of homeless people in our area to begin with." Kandler concurred, "They're homeless and came off the streets. But they're not off our streets here in Westhampton."
Overall, Mensch observed that a lot of frustration in the community could have been avoided if county officials had responded to queries. "The lack of information is what's hurting more than anything. This might be something that's OK, but the fact that no one could tell you anything other than 'Sex offenders are moving into your community,' that's scary."
Levy's chief spokesman Ed Dumas declined to respond to the allegations of stonewalling without a quantifiable list of how many people called and exactly who they spoke with within the administration.