Families of sex offenders find hope in Clarence Opheim's releaseby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Golden Valley officials will hold a community meeting Monday night to discuss the provisional release of Clarence Opheim from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program into a halfway house near Highway 100 and the Olson Memorial Highway.
The 64-year-old convicted pedophile with nearly 30 victims is expected to be transferred March 12 after more than 20 years of commitment in the system.
But as the Golden Valley community gathers to learn about Opheim, another group, the mothers of men still in the sex offender program, are hoping that Opheim's release may eventually bring their own families some relief.
Kym Armstrong and other mothers gathered on the steps of the State Capitol last week. Armstrong said she was happy to see the other parents; she said the sight gave her strength.
"I'm not afraid anymore," she said.
Armstrong said her 29-year-old son Zachary Emberton is in the sex offender facility in Moose Lake, after being convicted for attempted criminal sexual conduct. He accepted civil commitment because his lawyer said it would mean a few years of treatment.
"He knew he needed help. And that's fine, that's great," she said. But then she learned that "he'll get a provisional release when he's in his forties."
Minnesota Sex Offender Program
• Judges outline conditions of Opheim's release
• House Majority Leader raises release questions
• Officials defend Opheim's provisional release
• Minn. House passes notification bill
Last week, after some of them visited with legislators, parents of sex offenders told MPR News they feel trapped by what they call an arbitrary system.
Gina Brown said her son, Lincoln Brown, was convicted for sexual assault when he was 16 years old. She thought he'd be gone for a few years. Twenty years later, he remains civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
"I just don't know. I give up my country — I'm originally from the Philippines — I give up my country because I thought this was a really beautiful country, the United States, America, a free country. And then this is what they do to my son," she said.
In Minnesota, district courts commit sex offenders — nearly all men — who have served their prison sentences but are still considered too dangerous to release. They're placed in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, where treatment is voluntary, but only people who complete treatment are eligible for release. Many of the 635 civilly committed people chose not to participate in treatment because it seemed futile. No one had ever been released.
Until now, in Ophem's case.
Tammy Annen says her 32-year-old civilly committed son, Ryan Johnson, was also recently moved to St. Peter. She said Opheim's release gives her hope — and fear.
"Our fear is this guy sneezes sideways, and somebody is going to yank his GPS off, they're going to yank him out of the halfway house, and there go our hopes. That's how we feel. There go our hopes for our loved ones," she said.
A handful of civilly committed men who completed treatment have petitioned courts for release. Until recently, there hasn't been a community-based program designed to receive them.
But the Department of Human Services put such a program in place last year. Opheim's case came up, an expert recommended his release, and the state chose for the first time to not offer opposition. Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a letter to legislators explaining that if the state didn't release someone, it left the sex offender program open to court challenges. Those challenges claim it's unconstitutional to indefinitely detain people.
Yet, a legislative auditor's report last year found there are likely sex offenders being released from prison into the community who are more dangerous than many who are civilly committed.
"Ultimately, we all have the same interest in making sure that the general public is going to be protected," said Republican state Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie. He introduced a bill this session that would create a centralized board to review current and new civil commitment cases.
"We got a commitment on both sides of the aisle that we want to try to make the program we have a better program, reduce some of the legal liabilities, and make sure we're treating people who can be treated and maybe incarcerating more permanently people who can't be successfully treated," he said.
Hann noted that civilly committed sex offenders each cost the state $120,000 a year. He said at that cost Minnesota can't afford not to change.
- All Things Considered, 03/05/2012, 3:24 p.m.