The level of frustration is rising in West Seneca, where town officials and residents have questions but aren’t getting answers about how seven convicted sex offenders with developmental disabilities wound up living in two state-run group homes on a residential street.
The seven men – all from Erie and Niagara counties and ranging in age from 31 to 53 – were relocated from a locked and segregated section of the state’s Monroe Developmental Center near Rochester to the houses at 510 and 526 Leydecker Road on Dec. 26. Their presence came as an unwelcome surprise to town leaders and the neighborhood about a month later, when a reporter covering the closing of the Monroe facility asked about the new residents.
Town Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan said she cannot get any answers from the state Office for Persons With Developmental Disabilities about why her office wasn’t notified about the change at the group homes and what specific measures are being taken to assure the safety of the community. The small ranch houses previously provided a supervised environment for nonviolent people with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder or cerebral palsy.
“All the burden of security is being placed on the town,” Meegan said. “I’ve had at least 30 calls from employees (at the group homes) and former employees about what’s going on there. They are concerned, but they say they have talked to (their employers) to ask for help and are being reprimanded.”
Meegan also said one caller told her that the previous residents were transferred to other group homes to make room for the sex offenders.
“They moved the other residents out and disrupted their lives and their routines,” she said.
Kevin Penberthy, deputy director of the regional office of the state disabilities office, directed all questions about the placement of the sex offenders to the agency’s Albany office. However, Denise Decarlo, the agency’s deputy communications director, would not discuss the matter by phone.
According to West Seneca Police Department records, the men were transferred to West Seneca at the end of last year as the state was closing the Monroe center. Town police were contacted Jan. 3 by the West Seneca Developmental Center to register the new addresses of the sex offenders, as required by law.
The group includes three men who were sent to prison and four who received sentences of probation. The most recent arrests were in 2005 and 2008; the others were between 1994 and 2001. The convictions range from attempted sexual abuse to rape in the third degree. There were nine children and two adults among the reported victims.
“It’s disturbing, is what it is,” said Meegan. “I can’t believe no one else involved in this thought it was disturbing. No one saw some red flags, that maybe we should know about this.”
Neighbors have expressed concerns about their children’s safety, and other residents feel they were misled when the homes were first established. Town resident Sharon Wesoloski said in an email to The Buffalo News: “When these group homes were being established years ago into our neighborhoods, we were led to believe they would be for individuals with disabilities with a need for a safe and nice environment for themselves,” and she describes the placement of the convicted sex offenders as “underhanded.”
Meegan concurs. “These facilities were set up to encourage independence for the mentally challenged, not to house sex offenders,” she said.
Although no state officials would discuss the West Seneca homes, Helene DeSanto, deputy commissioner of the disabilities office, addressed the concerns broadly during questioning as part of a legislative budget hearing Tuesday.
Asked about the agency’s policy about notifying communities when it is locating sex offenders in state group homes, DeSanto answered bluntly, “We would certainly follow the laws that are required for sex offenders to register.”
She then turned the responsibility for others to discover the offenders back to the towns and neighbors: “Certainly there are a lot of ways in which people in the public can remain informed of individuals in their communities ... through the (Division of Criminal Justice Services).”
That would be by signing up for NY-Alert, a state notification system that includes tracking sex offenders by their residence.
Asked specifically about “the angst in the community” over the lack of notification, DeSanto answered, “We appreciate the concerns that are raised. Safety of people is of paramount importance to us. We have a very rigorous process by which we assess individuals’ needs and put the necessary kinds of supports and protections in place so they can live successfully in the community.”
The agency’s Decarlo did respond, in part, to inquiries via email by writing, “In addition to comprehensive staffing plans, door and window alarms, as well as other person-specific strategies, are in place. At these two group homes, a number of security measures were added.”
Meegan, however, said she was told by people familiar with these group homes that no extra security was provided and that the default procedure will be to call 911. Most group homes, even for nonviolent residents, typically have a key-card program for people to enter and leave, according to a person aware of their setup. There also may be buzzer alarms or another type of alert system on windows, and some houses have security cameras for the residents’ protection.
Via email, Decarlo defended the move of these individuals into the community as follows:
“Individuals with a history of high-risk behavior, including those who are (Sex Offender Registry Act) registrants, are reviewed by a team of highly trained clinicians before being recommended for community placement. The individual is assessed prior to leaving a campus setting, and plans are developed to address identified needs, including the need for supervision.”
Group homes for all types of residents typically house from four to eight individuals and are staffed around the clock, with up to four direct care workers on site during the day and two overnight. The state would not describe the level of supervision in the Leydecker Road homes.
How this placement process was handled is of particular interest to Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, who has a brother in another West Seneca group home. He questioned the lack of notification as a matter of both policy and courtesy.
“As a (Buffalo) Common Council member, I used to check every week and notify neighbors in my district if a sex offender moved in, literally sending a notice to each household,” Kearns said.
He and State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan have indicated they will work in Albany to improve requirements to let municipal officials know when sex offenders – especially seven at one time, on one street – move into their areas. Right now, the law provides only for notification to “entities with vulnerable populations,” among them schools, churches, day care centers and neighborhood watch groups.