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Iowa law clusters sex offenders in Davenport trailer park

Iowa law clusters sex offenders in Davenport trailer park

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DAVENPORT, Iowa -- The same home address has been given to the Scott County Sheriff’s Department this year by 18 registered sex offenders.

West Kimberly Park, 4847 W. Kimberly Road, Davenport, is one of the few rental places in the county that is at least 2,000 feet from any school or day care, which means it complies with state law as an eligible place for certain sex offenders to live.

The trailer park owner could prohibit sex offenders from renting there, but he does not.

Ken Miller, the park owner, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, “I don’t want to get involved in anything like that.”

 At one point this summer, 12 sex offenders were living at West Kimberly Park at the same time.

“It’s like a modern-day leper colony,” said sheriff’s detective Peter Bawden, who keeps track of the 300-plus registered offenders in Scott County.

West Kimberly Park, formerly Brown’s Trailer Park, has about 40 mobile-home lots, and several of the residences are occupied by children.

“Some sex offenders do have children of their own,” Bawden pointed out. “There’s nothing in the law that prohibits them from being around their children. We have several sex offenders who are parents.”

And what about the children living at the park whose parents are not sex offenders and may not be aware that so many of their neighbors are?

“There is no way for me to know when someone who is not a sex offender comes and goes from there,” Bawden said. “There’s probably a waiting list for sex offenders out there.”

A female park tenant said she was made aware through word of mouth the number of sex offenders living there. A woman who lives in a nearby neighborhood said she learned of the makeup of the park by searching Iowa’s Sex Offender Registry.

Both women declined to be quoted by name, saying they are fearful of speaking critically of neighbors with a criminal history.

But the woman who lives on the outskirts of the park said her young daughter never is allowed outside the house alone because she and her husband are fearful of what could happen to her. 

Experts who study public-safety measures geared toward sex offenders say residency restrictions like Iowa’s 2,000-foot rule are among the laws that don’t work. Critics do not quarrel with efforts to keep track of offenders but say zoning laws are not only ineffective but may actually increase public risk.

In situations like the one at West Kimberly Park, some say, having as many as a dozen sex offenders living in one small area can be dangerous to neighbors and to offenders who are trying to stay clean.


Learning as they go

Jill Levenson, an associate professor of psychology and human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., is regarded an expert in sexual violence and concluded in a nine-page paper on residency restrictions that Iowa is among the states that should consider changes.

Told of the sex-offender cluster at West Kimberly Park, Levenson replied, “We shouldn’t be surprised this becomes a consequence. Residency requirements really don’t reflect anything we know about sex offenses and sex offenders.”

In her report, which often refers to Iowa law, Levenson said 2,000-foot rules and other restrictions may have made sense at first. In practice, however, the good intentions of protective measures may actually be backfiring.

“Decreasing access to potential victims seems, intuitively, to be a reasonable strategy for preventing sex crimes,” she wrote. “However, there is no evidence that housing restrictions achieve this goal.”

The law was flawed from the beginning, she said, citing three “myths” about sex crimes.

-- The first is that all sex offenders will re-offend: “In fact, several large studies by both the U.S. and Canadian governments have found that sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed.”

True offense rates are difficult to count, however, because so many sex crimes are not reported. But Levenson said all crimes are underreported, adding, “The only crime reported 100 percent of the time is bank robbery.”

-- The second myth is that sex offenders cannot benefit from treatment. In fact, researchers have found a relationship between offenders who successfully complete treatment programs and a decline in subsequent offenses.

-- A third myth thrives today and resulted from the “panic and urgency” created by a few high-profile child abduction/murder cases, Levenson said.

“In reality, such cases are extremely rare,” she wrote. “A study reviewing sex crimes as reported to police revealed that 93 percent of child sexual abuse victims knew their abuser.”

Removing sex offenders from areas where children congregate is not proving to spare victims, Levenson said.

“Offenders do not molest children because they live by a school,” she said.

The unintended results of residency restrictions, such as the “cluster” at West Kimberly Park, may be putting kids in peril, she said.

“The disproportionate number of sex offenders in one place produces an inequitable level of risk in that area,” she said. “Being around a bunch of unsupervised children in a trailer park can be more dangerous for an offender than living with family in a supportive environment.”


Start over or salvage some?

While pressure increases to reconsider some sex offender laws, portions of the statutes are working as they should, according to some who work in law enforcement.

When a child is reported missing, for instance, one of the first weapons police pull from their arsenal is the sex offender registry. Viewed in map form, the data instantly gives police (and anyone else) a geographic relationship between a victim and those who might have use for a victim.

As Levenson pointed out, those cases are rare. Much more common is the need for parents to keep tabs on neighbors, especially since most sex crimes are committed by offenders who know their victims.

As the deputy in charge of Scott County residents on Iowa’s Sex Offender Registry, Bawden has an appreciation for its potential as a public-safety measure.

“I’m a firm believer that keeping kids safe is a parent’s main role, main objective,” he said. “The registry is a tool that allows parents to check on a person. It does help keep children safe, allowing parents, teachers and day care operators to be aware of people with this kind of history.”

Scott County Attorney Mike Walton agreed, saying the sex offender registry “is a good thing, and I don’t think anyone disputes that.”

What Walton and other members of the Iowa County Attorney Association have pushed for is a repeal of the 2,000-foot rule, based on the same discoveries cited by Levenson.

“The problem is it (residency restrictions) doesn’t address the reality of child sex abuse, which is that an overwhelming majority of the offenders are relatives or friends of the family,” he said Thursday. “It drains resources away from investigation and prevention and into tracking, measuring and putting pins in a map.

“The other problem is that it creates clusters like this situation (at West Kimberly Park).”

The trailer park is not the only place in Scott County where offenders can live, but many of the rentable properties outside the 2,000-foot rule do not accept offenders.

“At 4847, they are OK renting to persons with that record,” Bawden said. “It’s entirely up to the property owner — as long as the address complies.”


Change considered 

Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard remembers when the sex offender registry and residency requirements were enacted by the Iowa Legislature.

In the beginning, there were high hopes that the measures would advance the cause of public safety. But the laws are imperfect, he said.

“The way these laws came about is law enforcement went to the legislature, along with county prosecutors, and asked for change,” the sheriff said. “I believe it’s time again for law enforcement to go back to the legislature.”

The resistance by some lawmakers to make changes, he said, comes largely from current economic conditions. Iowa cannot afford to spend more money treating, classifying, housing and tracking one group of criminals, he said.

“Until more resources become available, sex offenders are going to have to have restrictions and burdens placed on them,” Conard said. “Public safety has to come first.”

Walton said the Iowa County Attorney Association “pushed” in 2006 for the repeal of the 2,000-foot rule, but the matter is “too political” to gain ground.

He agreed with many of those who work most closely with sex offenders and say restrictions are not working and public safety would benefit from change.

Asked whether residents of Scott County would be safer if the 12 sex offenders living at West Kimberly Park were spread out in neighborhoods closer to the city center, Scott County probation and parole officer Diana Danielson said, “It would be better if that happened, yes.

“They would be closer to where they need to be — work, probation and parole, treatment programs, transportation. How much harder can we make it? We’re increasing their risk of recidivism, and that’s what we don’t want.”

By isolating offenders in rural locations with little or no access to jobs and social services, Danielson said, the “stressors” that lead to recidivism are on the rise.

“We’re also forcing some of them to be homeless,” she said. “Do we want them out wandering around?”

As sex-offender laws have changed in Iowa, the desire to monitor the actions of the most dangerous offenders has remained the bottom line.

“It used to be that anyone convicted of a sex crime against a minor had to comply with the residency restrictions,” said Ross Loder, legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “We went from 4,300 to 1,200 (offenders who have to comply with the restrictions) when the law changed in 2009 to include only those who commit the most serious crimes against children.

“Instead of just restricting where a person sleeps, a bigger concern was where they go when they’re awake. There was strong legislative will to restrict residency among those committing the most serious sex crimes — a more tailored approach.”

As sex offender laws get more use, and the people charged with enforcing them evaluate their effectiveness, more changes seem likely.

 “I don’t know that there is any perfect solution,” Loder said. “There is ongoing, very important policy discussion. We’re all speaking the same language now.”


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