Prosecutors, police officials and even victims-rights groups say the bans on where sex offenders can live in Iowa has backfired.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Shortly after 8 each evening, David DenAdel kisses his wife and three kids goodbye and leaves his home in the peaceful suburb of Clive. A half-hour later, he pulls up at an unfurnished rental in a scruffy pocket of Des Moines, one of the few spots in the region where he can legally spend the night.
His children, ages 3 to 6, “think maybe I’m camping, but they really aren’t sure,” said DenAdel, 37, who pays $650 a month for the rental and $1,500 a month for the mortgage on his home. “It’s not easy leaving them every night, but it’s the law.”
A little more than a year ago, Iowa began barring sex offenders such as DenAdel, convicted of sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl, from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care center. Soon after, cities and counties passed even stricter rules, adding libraries, swimming pools, parks and bike trails to the protected list.
Now, much of urban Iowa is off limits to those whose past includes a sex crime against a minor.
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Prosecutors, police officials and even victims-rights groups say the crackdown has backfired, driving some offenders into rural towns and leaving others grouped at motels, campgrounds and freeway rest stops.
Many simply have gone underground, authorities say. More than twice as many registered sex offenders are now considered missing than before the law took effect.
“These guys are off the radar scope, and we’ve got no idea where they are,” said Bill Vaughn, chief deputy of the Polk County Sheriff’s Department in Des Moines.
All around Iowa, police and sheriff’s detectives say they are overwhelmed by the task of chasing down child molesters who violate the residency law. And although they don’t often pity sex felons, authorities say the house-hunting challenge faced by the ex-cons is almost insurmountable.
“When they call and ask where they can legally live, my response is, ‘Do you know anybody in Nebraska?’ ” said Des Moines Police Sgt. Barry Arnold. “It’s a nightmare.”
Iowa prosecutors agree. Their statewide association this year declared the law a failure and asked the Legislature to pursue a different strategy to protect children from sex crimes.
The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, representing victims, echoed that request. Executive Director Elizabeth Barnhill said Iowans are less safe now because sex offenders, facing banishment, are absconding in large numbers.
“Probation and parole supervisors cannot effectively monitor … offenders who are living under bridges, in parking lots, in tents at parks or at interstate truck stops,” she said.
Despite such concerns, Iowa’s Legislature has declined to overhaul the law. One senator, Republican Larry McKibben, acknowledged that “things may not be working the way we’d hoped.” But in an election year, he said, legislators would not support anything “making life easier for these pariahs.”
Iowa is among about 20 states and hundreds of communities that have adopted rules governing where released sex felons may live.
Advocates believe forbidding offenders to live near schools decreases their access to children and thus reduces assaults. Critics say the residency laws are anchored in faulty logic because strangers are responsible for only about 10 percent of sexual attacks on minors. The vast majority of assaults on young victims are done by people they know and trust.
In Iowa, Republican state Sen. Jerry Behn proposed the residency rule after learning that a sex offender lived in a home overlooking a schoolyard in his district. The measure breezed through the Legislature in 2002 but was held up in the courts. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld it in 2005.
As a result, housing in 70 percent of greater Des Moines, with a population of 522,450, became off limits to overnight stays by child molesters. After city and county officials added restrictions, more than 98 percent of greater Des Moines’ neighborhoods were covered.
Fearing they would become dumping grounds for sex offenders, officials in rural and suburban communities soon enacted their own laws. In some towns, the ordinances are so restrictive that remote cornfields are the only places a sex offender can legally live.
Uprooted, some of the 6,150 sex offenders required to register annually with Iowa’s Department of Public Safety began listing unusual addresses. Bryan Etherington reports living at the “I-80 rest area, mile marker 119,” in Waukee. A trucker who can no longer live at home with his elderly mother sleeps in his rig at the Flying J truck stop in Clive.
Roger Wheeler, 43, is a forklift operator, who with his girlfriend, Ruth Lilly, and their three children live in a rented mobile home in rural Maxwell.
Wheeler served three years for a 1992 sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl he knew. Off probation now, he said he still attends group therapy once a month to talk about his problem “and how to keep living a healthy life.”
The residency law is a big topic at the group sessions, Wheeler said, and, in his view, is the kind of thing “that can make people snap.”
“Does telling a sex offender where he can or can’t live make a difference?” he asked. “No. All somebody’s got to do is get in their car and drive someplace.”