The Boys Next Door

In the rush to ban sex offenders, cities and counties may inadvertently be creating more of them down the line.

"The police soon realized we had five sex offenders living in one home," says Lakewood Deputy City Attorney Janet Young. "I'm the attorney in the police department, and they brought it to my attention."

Then it was brought to the attention of Lakewood's city council, whose members voted to sue the owner of the Green Mountain home. The suit, which claimed that the landlord was illegally operating a correctional facility in a residential area, was filed June 9. On June 28, the council passed an emergency measure amending the city's zoning ordinance. From that point forward, households were banned from including "more than one individual who is required to register as a sex offender."

The men were forced from the home the following month. They then moved to Arvada. After a neighbor questioned police about the men this spring and learned that they were sex offenders, newspapers picked up the story and their landlord moved to evict them. Arvada has since passed a law banning such group homes from the town.

Harl Hargett, executive director of the Lost and Found child-placement agency, wonders where juvenile sex offenders will go.
John Johnson
Harl Hargett, executive director of the Lost and Found child-placement agency, wonders where juvenile sex offenders will go.

It's easy to find out information about sex offenders. Since 1991, state law has required sex offenders to register their addresses with local law-enforcement agencies. When they move, they have seven days in which to re-register. And since 1994, the Colorado law requiring them to register has allowed law-enforcement agencies to release that information to the public. (Similar legislation is more widely known as "Megan's Law," which was named for a seventeen-year-old New Jersey girl who in 1994 was raped and killed by a twice-convicted sex offender who had been living in her neighborhood. Later that same year, the New Jersey Legislature passed a law requiring sex offenders to register with police. In 1996, President Clinton required that all states adopt the law.)

In July, Jefferson County took up the zoning fight after residents of the Columbine Knolls neighborhood complained that their community was teeming with juveniles who were in the legal system for committing sex crimes. Many of the south Jefferson County residents had known for some time that adolescent sex offenders were living in three group homes in their neighborhood; they just hadn't known they could do anything about it.

The Lakewood ordinance gave them an opening.

Jefferson County officials went about the process more slowly than did their Lakewood counterparts in part because counties, unlike towns, are required by state and federal laws to find suitable placements for juvenile sex offenders.

At the same time, however, cities have the right to make zoning decisions without interference from the state, but the federal Fair Housing Act mandates that a city's zoning regulations cannot discriminate against a person with a handicap. (The "sex offender" classification is not considered a handicap in and of itself; however, some providers and their attorneys point out that because many of these kids are also being treated for mental-health issues, they might fall under federal guidelines protecting the mentally ill.)

The Colorado Children's Code guarantees that children who are removed from their own homes by state or county officials will have a secure and stable environment and won't be moved from foster home to foster home.

Lakewood city attorneys were aware of the fact that the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on familial status and that their zoning laws made no distinction between families and "households"; they defined a household as "unrelated individuals or related and unrelated individuals, living together as a single housekeeping unit, up to a maximum of one person per room which is being used for living purposes." So they proceeded to amend the definition, stipulating that a household cannot include more than one registered sex offender.

In Jefferson County, the matter was even stickier -- the county zoning department and the county commissioners would be going up against the recommendations of their own social services department, who backed the group-home environment for juvenile sex offenders.

To handle the issue, Jeffco administrator Ron Holliday established a group of staff members, community residents, group-home providers and representatives from the district attorney's office and the social services department. The group met five times, and in October published a 193-page study containing nine recommendations for the county commission to consider. Among the recommendations were that the county identify locations outside of residential neighborhoods for the group homes, that the county force group homes located in residential areas to move, and that it be "proactive" in helping the group-home providers find "appropriate" locations for their facilities.

Public meetings on the matter were heated. Harl Hargett, executive director of Lost and Found, called the proposed zoning change a "knee-jerk reaction." Because the vast majority of adolescent sex offenders had themselves been molested, he argued, they were kids first and foremost, not offenders. He labeled the proposal "Jim Crow" legislation that "violates the human in all of us."

Neighbors were equally adamant that the homes be moved elsewhere. "I'd rather have a fireworks factory next door to my house than a single one of those offenders living next door," Columbine-area resident Chuck Wheeler told the county commissioners at one meeting.

In late January, six months after first delving into the matter, Jefferson County commissioners changed the zoning law to disallow more than one registered sex offender per home, "unless related by blood, marriage or adoption." Group homes essentially were banned from residential areas of the county, although Jeffco granted them two years to be "brought into conformity."

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1 comments
thiagodaluz7
thiagodaluz7

I won't  use a blanket statement like "everyone deserves a second chance", but I do believe that these folks do. Its kind of sad how society can be with labels sometimes. Tearing people down, not giving them a chance when more than one professional has said they can do better, its not fair. People like Harl and his <a href="http://www.achildsdream.org">child placement agency</a> shouldn't have to have these concerns.

 
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