Living with sex offender housing laws
Jenifer Warren, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2006
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Shortly after 8 each evening, David DenAdel kisses his wife and three kids goodbye and leaves his home in the
peaceful suburb of Clive. A half-hour later, he pulls up at an unfurnished rental in a scruffy pocket of Des Moines, one of the few
spots in the region where he can legally spend the night.
His children, ages 3 to 6, "think maybe I'm camping, but they really aren't sure," said
DenAdel, 37, who pays $650 a month for the rental
and $1,500 a month for the mortgage on his home. "It's not easy leaving them every night, but it's the law."
A little more than a year ago, Iowa began barring sex offenders such as DenAdel, convicted of sexual abuse on a 15-year-old girl, from
living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care center. Soon after, cities and counties passed even stricter rules, adding
libraries, swimming pools, parks and bike trails to the protected list. Now, much of urban Iowa is off limits to those whose past includes a
sex crime against a minor.
As Californians prepare to vote next week on Proposition 83, which would impose a similar residency ban, Iowa is becoming an example of
the unintended consequences of such measures.
Prosecutors, police officials and even victims rights groups say the crackdown has backfired, driving some offenders into rural towns and
leaving others grouped at motels, campgrounds, freeway rest stops or on the streets.
Many have simply gone underground, authorities say, with more than twice as many registered sex offenders now considered missing than
before the law took effect.
"These guys are off the radar scope, and we've got no idea where they are," said Bill Vaughn, chief deputy of the Polk County
Sheriff's Department in Des Moines.
All around the Hawkeye State, police and sheriff's detectives say they are overwhelmed by the task of chasing down child molesters who
violate the residency law. And although they don't often pity sex felons, authorities say the house-hunting challenge faced by the
ex-cons is almost insurmountable.
"When they call and ask where they can legally live, my response is, 'Do you know anybody in Nebraska?' " said Des Moines Police Sgt.
Barry Arnold. "It's a nightmare."
Iowa prosecutors agree. Their statewide association earlier this year declared the law a failure and asked the Legislature to pursue
a different strategy to protect children from sex crimes.
The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, representing victims, echoed that request. Executive Director Elizabeth Barnhill said
Iowans are less safe now because sex offenders, facing banishment, are absconding in large numbers.
"Probation and parole supervisors cannot effectively monitor . . . offenders who are living under bridges, in parking lots, in tents at
parks or at interstate truck stops," she said.
Despite such concerns, Iowa's Legislature has declined to overhaul the law. One member, Republican Sen. Larry
"things may not be working the way we'd hoped." But in an
election year, he said, legislators would not support anything "making life easier for these pariahs."
Iowa is among about 20 states and hundreds of communities that have adopted rules governing where released sex felons may live.
In California, Proposition 83 would ban registered sex offenders -- including those whose victims were adults -- from homes within 2,000
feet of a school or park and would allow local governments to adopt more restrictive rules. The initiative also would increase prison
and parole terms for some crimes and require electronic monitoring of registered sex offenders for life, an added step that backers say
would prevent some of the problems that have surfaced in Iowa.
According to maps prepared by the California Senate, Proposition 83 would bar sex offenders from living in much of Greater Los Angeles
and virtually all of San Francisco, leaving only the less densely populated suburbs and rural areas open to them. Already, some local
governments are adopting Iowa-like ordinances.
Advocates believe forbidding offenders to live near schools decreases their access to children and thus reduces assaults.
Critics say the residency laws are anchored in faulty logic because strangers are responsible for only about 10 percent of sexual
attacks on minors. The vast majority of assaults on young victims are done by people they know and trust, often family members.
"There is no evidence that residence restrictions prevent sex crimes or increase public safety," wrote Jill S.
Levenson, a professor of
human services at Florida's Lynn University, in a 2005 report to the Florida Legislature.
In Iowa, Republican state Sen. Jerry Behn proposed the residency rule after learning that a sex offender lived in a home overlooking
a schoolyard in his district. The measure breezed through the Legislature in 2002 but was held up in the courts. The Iowa Supreme
Court upheld it in 2005.
As a result, housing in 70 percent of Greater Des Moines, with a population of 522,450, became off limits to overnight stays by child
molesters. After city and county officials added restrictions, more than 98 percent of Greater Des Moines' neighborhoods were covered.
Fearing they would become dumping grounds for sex offenders, officials in rural and suburban communities soon enacted their own
laws. In some towns, the ordinances are so restrictive that remote cornfields are the only places a sex offender can legally live.
Des Moines police initially assembled a team of 30 officers to deliver eviction notices to 300 offenders living in illegal
locations. Often, distances were in dispute, so officers used radar guns -- the ones designed to catch speeders -- to measure from front
doors to the property lines of schools or day-care centers.
Among those on eviction lists were two offenders at a nursing home and another at a veterans hospital. Des Moines' downtown homeless
shelter also fell within a protected zone, meaning about 30 offenders living there had to leave last winter, said the shelter's
executive director, Jean Brown.
"So now they're living under bridges," Brown said. "Thank goodness my kids are grown. Because it's far more dangerous to have these
guys out on the streets and desperate."
Uprooted, some of the 6,150 sex offenders required to register annually with Iowa's Department of Public Safety began listing
unusual addresses. Bryan Etherington reports living at the "I-80 rest area, mile marker 119," in Waukee. A trucker who can no longer
live at the home he shared with his elderly mother sleeps in his rig at the Flying J truck stop in
Perhaps the largest enclaves are in mobile home parks. One recent night on the outskirts of Des Moines, two state officers who
supervise sex offenders on probation pulled into such a park to visit James Brake, 37, convicted of indecent contact with a child.
Approaching Brake's door, Officer Kurt Kness pointed to several preschoolers playing,
unsupervised, in a mud puddle outside another rickety mobile home, parked about 20 feet away.
"The crazy thing is, you've got this guy in this trailer because there's nowhere else for him to live, but there are 8 million kids
here, running all over the place," Kness said.
Roger Wheeler, 43, is a forklift operator, who with his girlfriend, Ruth Lilly, and their three children in a rented mobile home in
Wheeler served three years for a 1992 sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl he knew. Off probation now, he said he still
attends group therapy once a month to talk about his problem "and how to keep living a healthy life."
The residency law is a big topic at the group sessions, Wheeler said, and, in his view, is the kind of thing "that can make people
"These laws keep coming down, making it harder and harder to get by, and you just wonder all the time what's next," Wheeler said. "Does
telling a sex offender where he can or can't live make a difference? No. All somebody's got to do is get in their car and drive someplace."