While opponents have stepped up calls to shut the Volunteers of America (VOA) center that treats sexual offenders in Over-the-Rhine, operators of the controversial halfway house are trying to assuage longstanding concerns — concerns that flared anew due to two recent cases in which sexual offenders from the program committed new crimes.
“We understand their concerns,” says Philip Nunes, who took over as VOA’s executive director last August. “I’ve made a point of meeting with every community group that I can, and I’ve met with the protesters. We’re trying to be very open and transparent.
“The main point I’ve been trying to get across to them is that the alternative is much more unsafe,” he adds. “If we didn’t exist, these offenders would not have any other place to go. They’d be released directly to the streets, unmonitored.”
The center, funded partially by taxpayer dollars, treats no more than 35 sex offenders at any given time, even though Hamilton County releases more than 190 each year. Of those, Nunes points out, 70 percent don’t reenter the criminal justice system for the two years they’re tracked following release, a statistic that’s well above the national rate.
Still, that’s not calmed fears for many.
The center first drew attention in 2009 when one of its clients, Anthony Kirkland, walked away from the facility following a fight with a fellow resident. A convicted sex offender, Kirkland was arrested a week later and charged with the sexual assault and brutal murder of 13-year-old Esme Kenney, a popular student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
He was later convicted of Kenney’s murder, along with the killing of another teenager, 14-year-old Casonya Crawford. Kirkland also pleaded guilty to murder in the deaths of two adult women.
At the time, the center weathered calls for its closure and established new notification protocols for AWOL clients, as well as other changes to safeguard the community. More recently, however, protests have sprung up again following two more incidents since the New Year.
In January, after one convicted sex offender failed to show up for an appointment at the center, he was later found in Kentucky. There, police say, Jerry Smith kidnapped a Kenton County woman at knifepoint. The woman escaped unharmed, and Smith was arrested.
Then, a few weeks later, a graduate of the VOA program who had been jailed for rape, Terry Austin, was arrested and charged with rape once again.
Those cases culminated in a renewed push for closure, and a Feb
Tony Walsh, president of the West McMicken Improvement Association, one of the community groups involved with the protest, says the continued problems are the main reason he wants VOA shut down.
“Changes are good, but it’s too little, too late,” he says. “We’ve been living with it since they came to the neighborhood in 1995, and there have been so many problems. Here we are, two years since Esme Kenney, and we still have the same problems. It’s just a poorly run program.”
A West McMicken resident since 1987, Walsh cites the number of sex offenders who settle in the neighborhood after treatment. One building close to his home had six offenders at one time, he says, and Over-the-Rhine is home to many more.
“There’s a pool that’s going to be open next summer 600 feet from the center,” Walsh adds. “There’s going to be summer camp programs for kids there. There’s a daycare right behind the center. A church up the street. A school nearby. SPCA’s close. There’s just no way the center should be in a residential neighborhood.”
But Nunes says the center has undergone a significant reorganization that has improved safety.
For starters, the center no longer accepts sex offenders who aren’t Hamilton County residents. In the past, it accepted parolees from across the state, which opponents alleged made Over-the-Rhine a “dumping ground” for Ohio’s sexual offenders. Accepting only local offenders has resulted in fewer tenants at the center, which has capacity to handle up to 90 clients.
Currently, only 23 of those clients have a record involving a sexual crime. Nunes anticipates that number will remain fairly constant without non-Hamilton County offenders entering the program.
Also, VOA has implemented electronic tracking of its sexual offender clients.
The trackers, worn on bands, are monitored 24 hours a day by a VOA staffer. Nunes concedes, though, it’s not foolproof. Smith, who kidnapped a woman in Kentucky, cut his band off when he didn’t show up for his appointment. Still, the new system worked, Nunes says; once Smith cut off the GPS band, police were immediately notified.
“There is an immediate alert, we get a phone call from the tracking center and e-mails are sent to several of our staffers to tell them the band has been severed,” he says. A notice is immediately issued for the person’s arrest.
Computerization of records has been another upgrade at the center, along with nightly detailed reports to the center’s director of the comings and goings of its clientele.
Statewide changes also have helped to make the center safer.
Parole authorities are now required to have an on-call contact for after-hours crises. When Kirkland left the center in 2009, his Friday night eviction wasn’t reported until Monday morning because the center had no way to contact his probation officer over the weekend.
Meanwhile, VOA continues to hone its treatment. Working with the University of Cincinnati, they’re working to create a treatment program for sexual offenders that could serve as a national model.
“Right now, there is no nationally recognized treatment model for sex offenders,” Nunes says. “Centers, like ours, are left to their own resources, piecing together treatment protocols from a number of sources.”
The center has been working with UC experts on a treatment curriculum based on research and best practices from other nations. Once complete, the VOA will host a pilot program of the resulting program within three to five months.
As VOA works to calm community fears, Nunes says that he’s met mostly with support as he’s made the rounds to neighborhood groups.
“When I speak with them and tell them the changes we’ve made, the feedback has been largely positive,” he adds.
The support even comes from unlikely places.
Marking the two-year anniversary of their daughter’s murder last week, the Kenneys remain strong in their support of the VOA and similar programs.
“We certainly support the concept of rehabilitation,” says Tom Kenney, Esme’s father. “One of the problems that the (then) Pogue Center had was that it was under-funded for a long time. It started out as a model program, then got low on funds and was overburdened. They ended up with people there who weren’t supposed to be.“But in terms of having these kinds of centers, well-run and doing their jobs, we’ve always been supportive of them,” Kenney says. “The alternative, not having progressive programs like that, is not a better solution.”