Housing elderly sex offenders
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Since 82-year-old Leonard Bailey hit his head in a fall eight months ago, he can’t remember to take his medicine.
His ex-wife, Marianne Devita, calls him 11 times a day to remind him about his appointments.
At that stage of dementia, many families would consider admitting him to a nursing home, but Devita said she has a list of assisted living homes that have rejected Bailey. The pages lined up are as tall as Devita’s grandson — whom Bailey has never seen.
“Nobody wants him,” she said. “Nobody wants a sex offender.”
Bailey is among a growing number of elderly sex offenders: People on Florida’s list of 73,000 registered offenders who are 65 and older jumped 2 percentage points between 2015 and 2016, according to the state’s legislative auditors, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Florida’s registry has about 10,200 elderly offenders.
The problem is sparking a national crisis of social and justice policy: How and where do we allow the most-reviled class of citizens to survive their silver years - especially those with serious age-related medical problems - after they have served their prison terms, while striving to protect children who may be living nearby?
For offenders like Bailey who can’t live without assistance, nursing or retirement homes are not a guarantee. Even if the retirement home isn’t within 1,000 feet of schools and parks, as required the state’s sex offender residency restrictions, managers of nursing homes often reject elderly felons.
The state policy for long-term care homes is this: Management can choose to accept or reject applicants. Some other states, and Hillsborough County, have residency restrictions within 1,000 feet of places where seniors live, including nursing homes. States, counties and cities have different rules limiting where offenders can live.
In Iowa, the 2017 legislature considered a bill that would have created a committee that studied the feasibility of building a long-term care facility for offenders.
Privately owned assisted living homes have reasons for rejecting offenders. They may be financially responsible for lawsuits if a resident is assaulted by another resident with a criminal history. A Pennsylvania nursing home agreed to pay $6.75 million in damages to the estate of a resident who was assaulted there. The home knew the resident who assaulted her was a registered offender.
Oak Hammock, a University of Florida-managed retirement community in Gainesville, said it prioritizes resident safety and screens for sex-related criminal histories. It does not accept predators.
Assisted-living homes may also face reputational damage and lose other prospective clients if their commercial addresses show up on sex-offender registries.
Living at home isn’t always an option for offenders either. When offenders’ families are unable to move from areas near school or parks, offenders seek housing elsewhere.
Bailey was arrested for touching a minor in Florida while he was on vacation with Devita from their home in Long Island, New York.
Devita is still in New York, driving her 14-year-old grandson to school in the mornings, helping her daughter-in-law with chores. Bailey remains near where he was in prison. He is driven to court-mandated therapy and the sheriff’s office.
When Bailey put a girl’s hand in his pocket and asked her if she felt his “little leg,” he was 74. Now Devita said Bailey, who uses a cane, can’t live on his own anymore. After he hit his head in the bathroom, it took her calling him 37 times before he was able to reach for the phone.
“Help me” is all he said.
Since then, he often forgets his “black box” that pairs with the bracelet around his ankle to monitor his location. He’s already been sent to prison for misplacing the device before and his parole officer has warned him the next time it happens he will be sent back.
Bailey can’t help but forget.
“I’m getting too old to fight about this,” he said. “I don’t care.”
For some victim advocates, any risk that a sex offender might lapse back into criminal behavior is too high. Ron Book, a former legislator, lobbied for Florida’s restrictions after his daughter, who is now a state senator, was assaulted by her nanny in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
He said he has met elderly offenders and is aware of cases when they committed new crimes. He does not think the state should change laws to account for the aging offender population.
“Sex crimes are sex crimes,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re 18 or 98.”
Researchers have found that the chance of recidivism decreases by half every five years an offender is out of prison, said Jill Levenson, professor of social work at Barry University and an expert in sex offender treatment and policy.
She predicts that offenders will live together and provide care to each other.
This is already happening, according to sheriff’s offices responses in the state’s accountability office survey.
Residency restrictions are the most common hurdle for offenders searching for housing, with unwilling property managers a close second reason. Both contribute to the growth of enclave communities where offenders live together, usually in mobile home parks.
There are no known, comprehensive lists of communities or neighborhoods that accept sex offenders. Some in Florida include a St. Petersburg trailer park that was the subject of a 2016 documentary called “Pervert Park.”
Lori Nassofer, who helps sex offenders 55 and older find housing in Central Florida, owns three mobile home parks near Orlando. “NO CHILDREN” signs are posted at the driveway.
The business of finding offenders housing is booming. There are no vacancies in Nassofer’s parks.
Ron Johnson manages Overland Village for Nassofer, a mobile home park in Apopka. He said he receives 30 to 40 calls a week. He is kept busy coordinating housing for sex offenders recently released from prison.
Sex offenders in Florida must already have an address they will live at before they can leave prison.
“It’s taking calls all the time,” Johnson said. “Taking phone calls, dealing with probation, prisons, release coordinators, hospitals — you name it.”
Finding housing is considered one of the biggest barriers for sex offenders recently released from prison. Federal rental assistance in public housing is not available to sex offenders.
Johnson said sex offenders risk being gouged for rent when they have no other options. At Nassofer’s parks, most offenders already own their trailers or rent from each other. She charges $350 for land rent and covers utilities.
Many of the offenders have Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid. Some get financial help from family or friends. Few have jobs.
Bailey receives $1,200 a month for Social Security and pays his roommate, Paul Casey, $500 for a room in his trailer.
Most of the elderly offenders in the park have relatively younger roommates who take care of them. Johnson takes care of elderly in his park, including a man in a wheelchair.
“I shouldn’t have him because I can’t care for him,” he said. “But what is he going to do?”
When Bailey’s doctor told him he could no longer drive because of the dementia, Casey started using Bailey’s Lincoln to take him grocery shopping.
Gail Colleta, an advocate for sex offenders, has asked lawmakers to consider lifting the state’s residency restrictions if an offender is a certain age or has ailments.
“This is a humanity issue,” said Colleta, president of Florida Action Committee. “We’re more concerned about stray animals than we are about people with issues, that need to have medication, that need to have oxygen, that are just human beings.”
Bailey has given up trying to take control. Sitting in a fold-out chair at the picnic area of his mobile home park, he pointed at the ground. He said he’d rather be under it.
“I’m just so tired of hanging around.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.