Loophole in sexual predator law
By DUANE MARSTELLER and NATALIE NEYSA ALUND
Herald Staff Writers
MANATEE - Ivey Edwards' lengthy criminal record included a Sarasota County conviction for sexual assault. But those living with him in a Jacksonville nursing home didn't know it - until he was charged with raping a fellow resident.
Officials at Manatee Glens were unaware that Thomas Ango Oliver was a sexual predator when he was taken there for a mental-health assessment. They found out a day later - after a nurse allegedly caught him molesting a female patient.
Both places didn't know because they weren't required to be told, even though Florida has a law requiring public notification of sex offenders.
These incidents and others underscore what experts and notification advocates say is a long-standing gap in state laws nationwide:
Laws requiring public notification of sexual offenders and predators have long focused on protecting children - but not vulnerable adults such as those in nursing homes, hospitals and mental health facilities. As a result, an untold number of people are placed in greater jeopardy of being sexually assaulted.
"There's not only people out there who abuse children, but people who specifically prey on adults," said Judy Cornett, executive director of Safety Zone Advocacy, a national non-profit organization that provides education on safety, prevention and intervention on sex crimes against children.
"Any business, hospital or nursing home - I think it should be required to do a background check on those who come in," she said. "Hospitals could be a little tough. But nursing homes, I think it should be mandatory. There should be a law passed."
Such laws exist in a few states, but Florida has none despite a previous legislative attempt.
As a result, those living and working in Florida's nursing homes - as well as residential treatment centers, hospitals and other facilities - remain unknowingly at risk, advocates say.
"When you put predators in with the prey, somebody's going to get bit," said Wes Bledsoe, founder of A Perfect Cause, an Oklahoma City advocacy group that has documented hundreds of registered sex offenders living in the nation's nursing homes.
But some question whether expanding the notification laws is warranted.
They contend that sexual assaults in nursing homes and other residential facilities are rare, and that constant supervision of residents is an effective deterrent. They also raise privacy concerns, citing federal confidentiality laws.
"You have a lots of eyes and ears in a nursing home," said Ed Towey, spokesman for the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group representing the state's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
"Staff at facilities, they're trained to be on the lookout and be aware and look for signs. They're vigilant, but . . . checking criminal backgrounds and notifying others (of sex offenders in the facility), they can't do."
Notification required, limited
Under Florida law, sex offenders are those convicted of a sex-related crime. Sexual predators, which are designated by courts, are those convicted of a first-degree felony sex crime or multiple sex crimes.
Digg it del.icio.us AIM Within 48 hours of their release from incarceration or establishing a new residence, even if it is temporary, both offenders and predators must register with their local sheriff's department. Information they must provide includes name, home address and place of employment, if any.
In turn, sheriff's departments must notify the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and day-care centers, schools and facilities with children within a one-mile radius of a predator's home. State law does not require active community notification of sex offenders, but that information is publicly available via an Internet site.
In Manatee, the sheriff's department goes beyond the law's requirement, extending notification to all residences and businesses within that one-mile radius.
Volunteers from the department's crime prevention unit do that by going door-to-door, said sheriff's Detective Carol Montague, who works in the department's sex offender unit.
"If someone on the list moves within a mile of a hospital or nursing home, we would pass out fliers there, to someone in administration there, especially if they were a predator," Montague said.
But a nursing home or any other facility is notified only if it's within the one-mile radius. Otherwise, they aren't told.
Such was the case with Oliver, who was designated a sexual predator after his 2004 conviction for molesting a 10-year-old girl in Polk County. When he was placed in a Palmetto halfway house after being released from state prison in December, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office told residents and businesses within a mile of the facility.
Manatee Glens is in Bradenton, more than a mile from the halfway house.
So the facility did not learn of Oliver's predator status when deputies took him there Dec. 30 under the state's Baker Act. As a result, Oliver was allowed to mingle with other patients, including the woman he is accused of assaulting on Dec. 31.
Manatee Glens' officials have said Oliver's movements would have been restricted had they known he was a predator. But the deputies who took him there were not required to tell the facility.
That likely will change, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said.
"Whether you need new laws, I'm not sure," he said. "But I do know one thing: Because of the Manatee Glens incident, a policy is being considered in which there will be a box to check on the Baker Act form that notes if a person is on the registry."
Disparity in the law?
All agree schools and day care centers should be notified because children are among society's most vulnerable. All also agree the disparity in notification laws stems from how they originated: well-publicized crimes against children.
Minnesota became the first state to require sex offenders to register with law enforcement in 1991, two years after an armed, masked man abducted 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling as he rode his bicycle near his home. The boy has never been found.
Other states, including Florida, quickly followed in creating their own registries - something all states were later required to do under a federal law named after Jacob. But the general public had little or no access to that information.
That changed after the 1994 rape and murder of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. New Jersey quickly made its registry public through Megan's Law, which later led to a federal version requiring all states to provide widespread public notification and information about sex offenders living in the area.
As a result, "Most of the required notifications at this point are to schools, day care centers, Boy Scouts, anything involving children," said Charles Only, a research associate with the federal Center for Sex Offender Management in Silver Spring, Md.
"You usually don't see nursing homes or other facilities being told, unless they're within the radius" of an offender's home, he said.
A Perfect Cause's Bledsoe said "an absolutely huge bias against the institutionalized" is a big reason for the disparity.
"What's the difference between putting them (sex offenders) in a day care center or a nursing home? If it's insane to put them in a day care center, then it's equally insane to put them in a nursing home."
Long-term care facilities
But the latter has happened hundreds of times, according to Bledsoe's group.
In a pair of reports published in 2004 and 2005, A Perfect Cause said it found 800 registered sexual offenders in long-term care facilities in 36 states. Of those, 58 were in Florida - including two in Bradenton facilities who have since died.
Those offenders committed more than 100 crimes, including murder, rape and assault, against fellow residents, the group said.
Its findings led several states - California, Illinois, Oklahoma and Virginia among them - to begin requiring nursing homes to check prospective residents' criminal backgrounds and/or notify residents or their guardians if convicted sex offenders live on the premises.
Florida considered the idea in 2005, prompted in part by the Edwards' case where he sexually assaulted someone in a Jacksonville facility.
State records show Edwards' criminal record dated back to 1945, including convictions in the 1960s for sexual assault and child molestation in Sarasota and Jacksonville. But other residents and their families didn't know that when the state placed him in the Jacksonville facility in 2002.
Shortly after he arrived, a nurse caught Edwards allegedly raping a 77-year-old comatose woman. Edwards, then 82, was charged with sexual battery but later was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to a state mental hospital, records show.
The case prompted Florida legislators in 2005 to consider requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to check potential residents' names against the state's registry and deny admission to those on it. But the measure died in committee and has not resurfaced since.
Towey said the measure had several major hurdles, including the potential cost, and would likely have created backlogs in criminal background checks. Another issue was what to do with prospective residents, many of whom were ready to be discharged from hospitals, while waiting for results, he said.
"It was a seemingly simple solution to a big, complicated issue that had nursing homes kind of caught in the middle," he said.
With no action at the state level, some local jurisdictions have taken steps to protect seniors. Among them is Hillsborough County, which last year banned sexual predators from living within 1,000 feet of senior-living centers.
Local case bares loophole
The Manatee Glens incident might result in some changes in Tallahassee.
The incident came up Tuesday before the House Committee on Healthy Families, which was hearing testimony on a proposal to toughen penalties for sex offenders, said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who chairs the committee.
As a result, the committee likely will look at possibly broadening the state's notification laws during the upcoming legislative session, he said Friday.
"I think it's time we supplement the existing law to make sure that people operating health care or treatment facilities are noticed or on notice so that proper precautions can be taken," he said. "I think it's time we made a change in that area of the law, and I'm going to do what I can to make that happen."
Galvano said he didn't know how far any proposed changes would go, including whether other residents or patients should be notified.
They should be, Bledsoe said.
"It's our moral obligation to protect the disabled and elderly, and we're failing them," he said. "Each one of us has the potential of going into a long-term care facility. We've got to do a better job, because if we don't, we could one day be potential victims ourselves."
To access the state's sex registry online, visit www.FDLE.state.fl.us or visit www.manateesheriff. com and click the link to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Web site.
Under the law, a sex predator or sex offender must provide the following to authorities:
• Current address
• Place of employment
• Names of institutions of higher learning, including high schools and college, if they are enrolled.
When a sex predator establishes a residence, within 48 hours the sheriff's office is required by law to notify all schools, churches, day cares and neighborhood within a one-mile radius.
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