Enumclaw, Tenino residents concerned over sex offender housing


Why are violent sex offenders being relocated to local neighborhoods, often without widespread notification to those living there? KIRO Newsradio’s Kate Stone’s three-part series investigates how this growing issue is being handled across Washington state.

Read Part I: Why sexually violent predators are being housed in local communities
Read Part II: Sex offender housing: How recent WA laws have changed the process

In Washington state, violent sex offenders who are granted conditional release are moved back into communities, often with close supervision by state agencies. This process is enshrined in both federal and state law, and protected under the U.S. Constitution. It cannot be stopped, though some local and state lawmakers have vowed to try. Recently, in communities like Enumclaw and Tenino, concern is mounting over not just who is living in their neighborhoods, but where they are living.

Need for notification

A particular condition driving outrage is many said they had no idea a less restrictive housing alternative (LRA) was being established until it had already happened. Likewise, some said they were unaware a sex offender had even moved into their neighborhood.

As Enumclaw City Councilmember Chris Gruner told state officials earlier this month, “we have a lack of meaningful community engagement, and we have a lack of what I believe is a concern for the community’s safety.”

Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet said the department is just following state law as it is currently written.

“DSHS is required to inform the sheriff’s department that a sex offender is moving into the county, but they’re not required to tell them that an LRA is being opened or operated in a particular area.”

Additionally, the sheriff’s office in each county decides if — and subsequently how — to notify the community. A bill currently in the state senate, SB 5544, would close the loophole and require the state to deliver such notifications directly to the affected communities. It is sponsored by state Senator Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), who also led the push for the 2021 law establishing the “fair share” principle to spread violent sex offender housing across multiple counties.

Another bill, SB 5739, would tell communities where sexually violent predators would reside. Both are unlikely to make it through the legislature.

Plan to house sex offenders in Tenino on pause amid public outcry

And if a resident escapes their LRA residence?

“With everyone in an LRA, the ankle monitor is the main security measure,” Chris Wright, director of the Department of Corrections Communications (DOC), answered. “Those are monitored 24/7 by DOC and community corrections specialists who would respond 24/7 if they wandered outside the property or went off a pre-approved route if it were somewhere in the community.”

But this claim was disputed by Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders. Regarding the Tenino facility, Sanders told KTTH’s Jason Rantz, “I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty, I’ve worked with DOC for a long time. They are more of a Monday through Friday thing.”

Some Tenino residents also expressed disbelief and outrage after a Jan. 29 webinar hosted by state officials, where it was pointed out that the proposed LRA is next to a children’s playground. Secure Commitment Center CEO Keith Devos admitted, “the playground was not there at the time the investigation of the house was conducted by the Department of Corrections.”

Tenino resident Sarah Fox, who is leading a community effort against the Supreme Living facility, said the playground is not the only concern.

“When the DOC went out to the property, it stated there were concerns over the private ski lake where there’s children all year round, and the minimal security with the fencing,” Fox said.

However, a playground — or the private ski lake — doesn’t automatically disqualify an LRA placement, according to Wright. The DOC is authorized, but not required, to reject a residence if it is close to a school, child care center, playground, or other grounds or facilities where children are present.

“Certainly, if that law were changed, the state would adhere to that when looking into these places,” Wright said.

Additionally, conditions submitted by DOC are recommendations and are not automatically adopted by the court when an LRA is granted.

Wright also emphasized that new information, like the playground, will change the strategy by which DOC monitors the LRA. That can include directives restricting time and frequency of movement, what route they can take to leave their residence, or a restriction of the residence entirely until a strategy can be developed to address new risk elements, according to Wright.

Residents at the community meeting in Enumclaw said they are convinced Stevan Knapp, who was first convicted of violent sex crimes in 1983 and has been civilly committed since 1999, will try to leave the home where he now lives less than 500 feet from a school bus stop.

“I got to find a way to tell my four-year-old daughter, my six-year-old daughter, and my eight-year-old-daughter, and explain to them what it means to be careful from a man who’s a sexual predator that goes after their children,” one woman told the panel of state and local officials at the Feb. 9 community meeting.

Wright stated, while concern in the community is understandable, the state believes the conditions put in place are enough to protect those who live near a sexually violent predator.

“In the three decades we’ve had less restrictive alternatives (LRAs) in place, no resident has ever been charged with a sexual assault,” Wright said.

Why in my neighborhood?

The DSHS, under the law, has to come up with a list of community-based LRA options in each county, equal to the number of offenders at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island. For example, Thurston County houses 11 sexually violent predators on conditional release. In contrast, the Tenino facility, run by Supreme Living, can hold up to five, meaning more would need to be established.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) currently supervises 85-86 (numbers vary between DOC and DSHS) sexually violent predators living in 26 community-based LRAs and four secure commitment transfer facilities across King, Pierce, Spokane, Walla Walla, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties. DSHS also provided a list of where each LRA is and how many sex offenders it can house. Specific addresses were redacted for privacy and security concerns.

When asked, the DSHS could not confirm whether the 2021 law, specifically the “fair share” principle and the “500 foot” restriction makes it more difficult to find adequate LRA housing options, or forces the department to search for options in rural areas with limited resources.

“This [500-foot rule] will interfere with the contracts SCC is trying to create with housing providers to provide more LRA housing in underserved counties,” the 2022 report from the Sex Offender Policy Board read. “This also has a chilling effect on the goal of increasing LRA placement options in accordance with fair share principles.”

This seems to indicate that if the 2021 law is not amended, smaller rural communities like Tenino or Enumclaw will bear a larger share of LRAs, simply because of the restrictions placed on the state’s ability to find adequate housing, particularly in urban areas.

According to a report on the SCC facility provided by DSHS, it costs close to $7 million per year to house residents on McNeil Island. This, among other factors, sparked rumors among critics of LRAs that more sexually violent predators are being released now compared to previous years.

DSHS data indicates this is not true. Data between 2018-2022 shows an average of 30 sexually violent predators have been conditionally released to LRA housing every year.

Additionally, an average of 16 sexually violent predators were unconditionally released with no restrictions during the same time period. By contrast, less than 10 were civilly committed to the SCC each year.

While the number of residents at the SCC on McNeil Island has undeniably dropped (from 214 in 2018 to 130 currently), alongside the number of incoming residents being lower than those outgoing, Devos was clear: “McNeil Island is not closing down.”

Hemstreet with DSHS did confirm the state is expanding less restrictive options, including a state-run secure commitment transition facility in Snohomish County.

“We’re in the pre-planning process for that. We’re still scouting sites up there that will be 12 beds in accordance with fair share,” Hemstreet said.

However, when asked if this would affect operations on McNeil Island, Hemstreet said, “absolutely not.”

All of this likely comes as small comfort to the residents living and working in the communities now housing the sexually violent predators. But local law enforcement and government officials stated they will be responding quickly and as often as necessary to any issues, regardless of any questions or concerns on the state level.

“If one of these individuals leaves the property, we will throw all our resources at capturing them,” Sanders said. “The state’s going to do what the state’s going to do, and the sheriff’s office is going to do what the sheriff’s office is going to do.”

Suits: ‘I would be P-O’d’ if sex offender house was in my neighborhood

King County Prosecuting Attorney spokesperson Casey McNerthney echoed that sentiment.

“We say loud and clear to them, that if you abuse other kids, we’re going to come back for you,” McNerthney said. “We’re going to make sure that you get back to court and go before a judge and be held accountable.”

McNerthney also said the prosecutor’s office will not wait for a crime to occur before taking action.

“It’s not just prosecuting the cases, but also following up to make sure that they follow the court order terms,” McNerthney continued. “Going to these houses to make sure that the people who are providing the housing, follow the regulations, and that they don’t have an access window or an access door to get out of a bedroom. Because we don’t want to see people who are sexually violent predators go back and hurt other kids.”

McNerthney confirmed the prosecutor’s office is keeping an especially close watch on the situation in Enumclaw, as well as another recent LRA in Kent.

The process of relocating sexually violent predators back into the community cannot be stopped by local or state laws — or by any officials. But much more remains to be decided and discussed regarding clarity of the current laws and regulations for LRA housing, including how sites are chosen and proper communication to those most affected.

“We are safer with civil registration or with civil commitment and sex offender registration,” Chris Knudsen with the King County Sheriff’s Office said. “They’re about communities, community protection.”

But closing the gaps, and providing peace of mind for families, could be a long process.


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