Sex offenders in group homes for disabled isn’t new in Tupper Lake

Sunmount's group homes, like this one on Hosley Avenue in Tupper Lake, are low-security residences for people with developmental disabilities. (Enterprise photo — Tom Salitsky)

TUPPER LAKE — An analysis showing dozens of sex offenders being housed in state group homes has received news coverage from several print and television outlets, but this practice of housing sex offenders in group homes for the developmentally disabled and alongside the general community is old news in Tupper Lake.

It is unclear, however, if sex offenders and the developmentally disabled without a criminal history are being housed together.

Sunmount, the facility of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities in Tupper Lake, has housed people with developmental disabilities who cannot care for themselves for decades, but since 1999 it has also been a place for convicted people with developmental disabilities who may be at risk in prison, as well as those deemed unfit to stand trial for alleged crimes, including rape, pedophilia and acts of violence.

OPWDD officials will not reveal what percentage of Sunmount residents now have a criminal background.

“While a portion of those served at Sunmount have a criminal justice history secondary to their developmental disability determination, at no time has admission to Sunmount been contingent on the existence of criminal charges,” OPWDD Director of Communications Jennifer O’Sullivan wrote in an email.

Sunmount's Center for Intensive Treatment, behind a fence in Tupper Lake, is a secure facility largely for people with developmental disabilities who were also accused of criminal activity. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Last week, the Albany Times Union, Glens Falls Post-Star and Channel 13 from Albany spoke with Michael Carey, an advocate for the developmentally disabled, who linked records of 25 registered sex offenders in Washington, Franklin, Suffolk and Saratoga counties with the addresses of OPWDD facilities in each county.

“Under State law and decades long practice, people with developmental disabilities who have sex offender designations can be and have been legally and appropriately served in group homes,” OPWDD Deputy Director of Communications Denise DeCarlo wrote in an email. “OPWDD only provides services for people with a diagnosed developmental disability as defined by state law, and OPWDD is further obligated by law to provide needed services to those who qualify regardless of a person’s clinical or forensic history.”

Most of the 25 were in Tupper Lake, 16 total. Fourteen are housed at the main Sunmount facility on Route 30, and there are two in an on-campus group home at 380 Hosley Ave.

Many of the developmentally disabled have been moved out of the main Sunmount facility and into the group homes in the community as those with criminal backgrounds moved into the high-security Center for Intensive Treatment and the lower-security RIT and LIT.

Sunmount employees are banned from speaking with the media, but former Sunmount employee Dave McMahon said some individuals are released when they shouldn’t be, due to pressure from the state to rehabilitate residents and return them back to the community.

The main Sunmount facility, a state institution for developmentally disabled, is home to more than 100 residents and is a major economic and social force in Tupper Lake. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“Sunmount has a revolving-door policy; they just seem to be pushing them out whether they are ready or not,” McMahon told the Enterprise for a past article. “As a former employee, I know that some of these people [in group homes] are very dangerous sex offenders.”

Carey said this movement between OPWDD and the Department of Corrections and Community Services is dangerous — as many people with developmental disabilities are vulnerable, like children — as well as illegal, because it endangers the welfare of incompetent or physically disabled persons, a class E felony.

Carey was actually responsible for making this offense a felony in 2012, several years after the death of his son Jonathan, who was autistic and in OPWDD care when he was killed by an employee.

Carey’s recent analysis came around three weeks after protest from the parents of people living in a group home for the developmentally disabled in Gansevoort, near Albany, delayed plans to move a twice-convicted sex offender in with their adult children.

Since the original report, Carey and his other son have found eight more cases in Oneida County.

Statewide advocate Michael Carey, inside his RV in October 2015 in Tupper Lake, displays a stick with the message he is promoting, urging people to call 911 rather than make an in-facility report in case of abuse at a state home for the developmentally disabled. (Enterprise photo — Tom Salitsky)

McMahon said he doesn’t always agree with Carey but that the activist is “right on” in this case. McMahon said he knows of 25 sex offenders, official or unofficial, living in group homes around Tupper Lake alone. McMahon noted that since many residents have been deemed not fit to stand trial, and are thereby never tried or convicted, they cannot be registered as sex offenders, even if they actually committed the acts.

This creates a risk for the staff as well.

“There have been many incidents there where clients have attacked staff,” McMahon said. “There’s been incidents there where residents from Sunmount have actually grabbed a female employee and tried to drag into a bedroom.”

In 2015 Thomas Perrault was found guilty of third-degree assault after he dragged a female staff member into his room and attacked her at Sunmount’s group home at 390 Hosley Ave.

McMahon also said these same residents are being brought into the community with others on outings.

“Almost any time that you see a state van parked at a restaurant or parked at a store … you can almost be guaranteed that there’s a sex offender there, whether he’s been convicted or not,” McMahon said.

In 2016, a Level 2 sex offender walked off the Sunmount property on three separate occasions, making it as far as 48 miles away from the facility to his hometown of Jay.

Sunmount’s main facility is situated directly across the street from L.P. Quinn Elementary School and bordered by residential neighborhoods. It’s group homes are located in neighborhoods.

Solutions

Retired Sunmount manager Bob Sweet, of Saranac Lake, said he does not see any problem with using the vacant directors’ houses on campus to house sex offenders away from other residents, saying they could have increased staff surveillance and take precautions, like placing alarms on the doors. He also said Sunmount is understaffed.

“I think they just have to suck it up and staff it better,” Sweet said.

Carey has previously pushed for bills in the state Senate to protect developmentally disabled people in OPWDD facilities from abuse by staff or fellow residents. He said these same bills would be able to keep staff safe if they did not keep getting stuck in committee. A bill requiring more camera presence in facilities and in transportation vehicles has been circling the legislature for several years now, and a bill requiring employees to call 911 in the case of an emergency got stuck in the finance committee, despite having no financial cost.

Carey said parents of people in group homes can push back if they find out their child is being housed with a sex offender. In Gansevoort, when parents put up a fight the state backed up and has delayed moving the offender into the home.

Carey has emailed district attorneys around the state, as well as all state senators, Assembly members and acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood. The Republican candidate in New York’s gubernatorial race, Marc Molinaro, tweeted that the moving of sex offenders into group homes is “criminal.”

Assembly members Dan Stec, Carrie Woerner, Mary Beth Walsh and Billy Jones, along with state Sens. Betty Little and Kathleen Marchione have signed a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo requesting designated home for sex offenders with developmental disabilities.

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