Many from the Cambridge community voiced their opposition over the state’s plan to move sex offenders to a facility in town during two public meetings this week.
Officials from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program hosted an afternoon meeting and another in the evening Tuesday at the Armed Forces Reserve and Community Center in Cambridge. Both gatherings attracted more than 200 people from all walks of life, from concerned families and individuals to local government officials and law enforcement.
“Safety is my number one concern,” said Paul Gammel, who lives just outside of Cambridge. “I know you can’t guarantee the safety of the community, but it needs to be protected.”
Another man inquired about the program’s effect on nearby property values including his. He asked, “Who besides the offenders (and the state, program) will benefit from this? Why does it have to be in the heart of this town?”
Others wanted assurances that the sex offenders will be kept secure and under supervision at all times — even with wearing Global Positioning System or GPS bracelets, as it was learned the clients may earn supervised time in the community as part of their treatment and goal of reintegrating back into society.
Others challenged the site’s proposed gate, along with surrounding chain link fences, as sufficient security measures with young families living in the vicinity. It was noted the program also is working on adding recording cameras, door alarms and a phone monitoring system at the facility, which is currently home to the Minnesota Specialty Health System campus and former state hospital grounds near the Isanti County Government Center.
“You’re saying to trust us,” said Cambridge resident and physician Budd Renier, “but if you Google ‘DHS, Minnesota and turmoil,’ you do not have a good track record.”
At issue, the state Department of Human Services has announced its plan to move six “low-functioning” clients from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to the state facility in Cambridge. This is part of a larger effort to develop alternative placements for clients who can be served safely in settings that are secure and supervised, but less restrictive, than the facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter, Minn., DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said recently.
The six clients, who range from 40 to 80 years old, have developmental disabilities and/or mental illness. Under law, their transfer petitions will be considered by a special review board, yet the ultimate decision will be made by the three district court judges who make up the Supreme Court Appeal Panel.
This sex offender treatment program is proposed to take effect in early spring or fall of next year, when the last of the current clients at the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge campus transfer to more integrated programs in the community — given their transfers and provisional discharges are approved by the court.
Current clients are civilly committed for developmental disabilities and present a public safety risk. Some clients have sexual offense histories, while others are sent to the program to undergo competency assessments for standing trial on criminal offenses. At present, the facility is licensed for 16 clients and can serve to 48.
As they recently did with local government officials, Nancy Johnston and Liz Barbo of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program talked about the program and fielded questions from the public at Tuesday’s public meetings. Accompanying them was DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry.
“We understand your fear and concern,” Barry told the evening audience. “Public safety is a top priority.”
Still, the people lined up to speak their minds about not wanting sex offenders in their town and near their neighborhoods. Local resident Scott Schmitt wondered why the small town of Cambridge was identified as the place to house the program. “Have you talked to the rich towns such as Edina?” he asked.
Johnston said of the 17,000 registered sex offenders in the state, so many are incarcerated while most are living in places from foster to group homes and private to supervised settings in communities across the state. “So you have sex offenders living in the city now,” she noted.
“But why out of the blue does Cambridge become the hot spot or test run?” Schmitt replied.
Added another man, “We don’t want that here; we don’t want that crime.”
It was noted that requests for proposals from communities all over the state have been filed — based in large part to the decent paying jobs found at such a facility — but they have yet to be made public.
Resident Sara McCloud asked what the term, “low functioning,” meant, since it was used to describe the clients who may transfer to the Cambridge facility.
“They are men with cognitive or learning disabilities, brain injuries and those who learn at a different pace,” said Johnston, noting special programming is offered to these clients. “Providing a therapeutic and safe environment for our clients and staff is crucial.”
After a few more questions, McCloud finished her time by voicing her disapproval of the program and the state’s decision to target Cambridge. Though she did speak in favor of Barry’s earlier point about choosing local control in placing, treating clients through a state appeals court process rather than conceding to federal jurisdiction.
“I don’t approve of this decision,” McCloud said of the state’s plan for Cambridge. “This is a poor decision for Minnesota. This is not the right direction, but I do think having state control will be a better outcome than federal control.”
One young woman became emotional about the state’s plan. “I am fearful now; all of us women will live in fear,” she said. “When I go to my car at night, will I have to worry? I am so angry, and if this does happen I will…conceal and carry because no other man will touch me again.”
Another who stepped up began by saying she is a rape victim.
“I don’t feel you’re validating us enough,” she told the panel of state and program officials. “It scares the crap out of us that you don’t seem prepared. People are talking about their children being raped. Anyone can be a victim. What is the end goal?”
Johnston answered, “The end goal is for clients to make progress through their treatment plans and change their thinking and action patterns. The end goal is to lower the risk so they can successfully live in the community.”
State Rep. Brian Johnson, of District 32A, also weighed in with questions as the last to speak from the audience.
Insisting on more of a transparent approach, he voiced concern about the overall process as it relates to the funding of such sex offender facilities and if they’re state-run or privately-run.
He voiced frustration over the lack of a cure for the sex offending population, as well.
“I think you really need to think, ‘What if this was jammed down your throats?’” he added.
Upon entering the AFRC Tuesday night, many residents signed a petition asking Governor Mark Dayton to revoke the plan to move the sex offender program to Cambridge. Cambridge resident Mara Renier helped organize the petition.
After the Tuesday night meeting, Barry reflected on the questions and concerns raised by the community.
“We understand their concerns, and they mean a lot to us,” she said. “Public safety is a concern for us. They (the people) want specific details, and that will come in time. It’s essential for people to hear those specifics. These meetings are about building relationships. This group doesn’t trust us right now, and I respect that. We’ll work on it one day and a week at a time.”
Barry noted she and members of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program will regularly meet with city, county and law enforcement officials at least once a month to discuss the state’s plan.
And judging by Tuesdays public meetings, she can be assured the people will be watching and wanting to be involved, too.