By Joel Warner
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By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
The sweeping green lawns of the Columbine Knolls neighborhood are punctuated by ranch-style brick houses and a smattering of split-levels and two-story homes. The 1,100 or so households in the vicinity are governed by a homeowners' association that enforces covenants designed to keep the area clean, tidy and wholesome.
So it came as a shock to Karen Hansen that the neighborhood -- which lies south of West Coal Mine Avenue in unincorporated Littleton -- also accommodates three group homes for juvenile sex offenders, as well as a private school and an administrative building where therapists conduct testing and evaluation of those young people.
Her discovery ultimately led to a countywide ban on such homes in residential areas of Jeffco. Eighteen months from now, the homes will have to close up shop, change their clientele or obtain a special-use permit to continue. Given the tenor of the neighborhood, the last scenario is highly unlikely.
Checking It Twice
The sex-offender registry brands kids well into adulthood.
The neighborhood's three-year-long fight, says local resident Bob Remington, has reached "the end of the beginning."
For the Shiloh House group homes, however, it might be the beginning of the end.
The battle began in the spring of 1997, when Hansen heard that the county zoning department had recommended approval of a Shiloh House request to rezone one of its commercial buildings on West Coal Mine Avenue. Shiloh officials were hoping to use the building for short-term and emergency housing for as many as eighteen juveniles.
At the time, Hansen had no idea Shiloh House worked with sex offenders. Nor did anyone else in the vicinity, she says.
But at a neighborhood meeting, a sheriff's deputy suggested that if Hansen wanted to learn more about the agency, she should obtain a copy of the area's sex-offender registry. She went to the sheriff's department the next day.
"I paid three bucks, five bucks, something like that," Hansen recalls. "I said I'd like a copy of the sex-offender list and a map. And [the clerk] held up a map with pins in one little area. It was solid with pins. And I said, 'Gosh, where's that?' And she said, 'That's the Shiloh houses.'
"I almost died," Hansen says. "I cannot express to you how I felt. I had trouble standing up. I said, 'That's my neighborhood. The pins are boys in my neighborhood.'
"I drove home, crying and shaking."
At the time, Shiloh was proceeding with public meetings that are required when a rezoning is requested. Shiloh officials were present for the next homeowners' meeting. Hansen attended, too, armed with her map.
Hansen says that when the homeowners asked Shiloh representatives if they treat sex offenders, they were told no. (Shiloh officials declined to be interviewed for this story.) Hansen and others then held up their maps.
The Shiloh folks backpedaled, she says, insisting that the youth's offenses were only minor.
But the damage was done. The homeowners decided to fight the rezoning, and the county commissioners later denied Shiloh's request.
Some of the Shiloh group homes have been operating in Columbine Knolls for fifteen years. (Another Shiloh-owned home in the area has sheltered foster children for 25 years, although sex offenders are not housed there.)
Hansen and Remington believed there was little they could do to rid the neighborhood of the existing group homes, but they began researching the issue anyway.
What they discovered, says Remington, is that "the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
There was no communication between the county and the state regarding placement of juvenile offenders. The various county departments had different definitions of such things as "group homes" and "treatment centers." The county zoning department was reacting only to complaints against the homes and not being proactive in inspecting the facilities, and the county had no answer when homeowners asked about guidelines governing group homes in the area.
The issue again came to a head in the spring of 1999 when, Hansen says, residents on South Sheridan Court "went ballistic" upon learning that Shiloh operated a group home for sex offenders on their street. Shiloh officials reported receiving threats. Hansen says the neighbors backed off when they heard that a Shiloh attorney might sue.
But in late June that year, the residents got the wedge they sought when Lakewood passed an ordinance limiting sex offenders to one per home. Representatives of the Columbine Knolls neighborhood then went to county administrator Ron Holliday and asked him to examine the issue.
In response, Holliday established a group of homeowners, therapists, Shiloh representatives and county staffers to clarify the responsibilities of the governing agencies and help him draft recommendations for the commissioners to consider. It was a daunting task, as the group had to take into consideration myriad state and federal laws and regulations, zoning regulations, property rights, individual rights, safety and social-service concerns.
In late October the group published its findings, in which the members recommended, among other things, that group homes for sex offenders be moved out of residential neighborhoods and that the county help find a place to put them.
The county zoning department and the county commissioners then held a number of public meetings seeking input -- and emotions surrounding the matter quickly became apparent.
"I don't want my granddaughter to become a victim at their hands," said a man who identified himself as having lived in the Columbine community for 29 years. "They have to pay the price."
Neighbors got up to report numerous offenses allegedly committed by Shiloh boys, the most serious of which was a woman's claim that one of the boys told her daughter he was going to "come over and rape her."
Others said they were afraid because they'd seen boys sneaking out of the homes at night. One man said a Shiloh boy pointed a laser light into his bedroom window.
Most of the reports, however, were generated by fear, not facts. Group members had been unable to find records of any crimes directly related to the Shiloh homes.
John Fasciani, who represents a church fellowship group that works with the Shiloh youth, went to the meetings to support Shiloh and said he discovered "the closest thing I've seen to a lynch mob."
"I'm disappointed in the community that we live in," he said at a planning meeting. "I've had people call me an idiot. A man with a beet-red face challenged me to a fight in the parking lot."
But there were reasoned comments, too.
An Aurora woman, whose son is living in a treatment program in Fort Collins, told the gathering that she would love to have Shiloh-like programs in her neighborhood. "Please," she said, "put these services in my backyard. The problem is there's not enough group homes in our community...There are only four residential programs in the state that will take my son."
And numerous treatment providers and therapists took the floor to advocate compassion.
Compassion, however, "is not the issue," says Hansen. "How can any of us say we don't want to help troubled youth? But that's not the point. The point is that it's wrong where they're doing it."
The county commissioners agreed with Hansen. In January they approved an ordinance banning more than one unrelated sex offender per household. Shiloh was given two years to comply.
"The thing that I think really got lost in the whole zoning controversy is that there are criteria for kids to be in the community," says Gail Ryan, director of the Perpetration Prevention Program at Denver's Kempe Children's Center. "It would be much more useful to involve the community in that criteria design process, to have them say, well, that criteria seems reasonable, that makes us uncomfortable. Those kinds of conversations can be helpful in that they know the kids must meet certain criteria, and that if they don't, if they cross a certain line, they're out.
"But no one wanted to talk about that criteria. I think many people were not in a good place to listen and to ask the right questions. It was a very adversarial process."
Jefferson County, in the meantime, is trying to find a place to build a facility for the offenders. The plan is to make it a public-private enterprise, with the county providing the land. Leah Wicks, former supervisor of the probation unit for Jefferson County, says she thinks the county may be planning to build a family-style treatment model in which small homes are scattered over a campus-like setting.
But that plan already has run into roadblocks. County commissioners had agreed to buy nine acres for the group home site as well as a surrounding 140-acre parcel for open space, giving the offenders and the public some breathing room.
But Golden city officials protested use of the site, which lies just beyond that town's borders. They and residents who live near the site complained that the group home would compromise their safety and that of anyone who chose to use the open space.
The protest prompted county administrator Ron Holliday to ask in exasperation, "How far is far enough?"