By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
TOPEKA — Britta Lucas’ fiancé, Steven Piersee, has been enrolled in the state’s Sexual Predator Treatment Program for almost four years.
The Lawrence woman said the program wasn’t helping him.
“They’re treated as though they are cattle,” Lucas said, referring to the program’s 220 residents in Kansas. “There is no treatment program.”
Lucas was among those who testified Monday before a state task force charged with coming up with a plan for reforming the program.
The program is housed on the campus of Larned State Hospital with smaller satellite facilities at the state hospitals in Osawatomie and Parsons.
Other residents’ family members offered similar assessments:
• “It’s a concentration camp,” said Dorthea Sipe of Topeka, whose husband has been in the program six years. “The program isn’t designed to let people out. It’s a circle, it just keep going around-and-around.”
• “It’s a total sham,” said Overland Park’s Robert Forman, whose grandson has been in the program for seven years.
• “I’m supposed to be part of my son’s treatment team, but nobody’s called me since February,” said Connie Tschantz of Burlington. “The system is completely bogged down. There’s no way to get out of there.”
In the past 18 years, almost 250 men have entered the program as the result of a judge’s order after being convicted for sex crimes and completing their prison sentences.
But only four have been released and at least 17 have died while being held in the program.
The program’s residents are civilly committed using a legal process similar to the one used to send people to one of the state’s mental hospitals after being declared a danger to themselves or others.
“This is not a program that inspires hope,” said Rick Cagan, executive director with National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas and a member of the task force.
The family members asked the task force to consider:
• Moving one of the Larned hospital units to a larger city — Wichita, Topeka, or Kansas City — which could allow access to a larger pool of employees;
• Running the program more like a hospital, less like a prison;
• Creating an advisory committee to allow family members to express their concerns;
• Studying other, more successful sex offender programs;
• Putting independent psychologists — rather than those employed by the state — in charge of the residents’ annual evaluations.
Residents’ annual evaluations are used to determine whether they’re allowed to advance to less-restrictive surroundings.
“Everyone there who was evaluated by Dr. Rex Rosenberg ought to be re-evaluated,” said Connie Mason, whose brother has been in the program 11 years.
Rosenberg, now retired, was the program’s chief evaluator in the mid-2000s. Mason said Rosenberg at the time made it clear to residents and their family members that he thought sex offenders were possessed by demons. Rosenberg did not attend the meeting.
“He used to tell us he could tell by looking in (residents’) eyes,” Mason said.
Kathy Van Dam, who has a friend in the program, said she was aware of an aide who is expected to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, because the hospital is often overcrowded and understaffed.
“A lot of people out there took early retirement,” she said. “And they haven’t been able to replace them.”
The task force also heard from Kimberly Lynch, the attorney at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services who is in charge of litigating lawsuits filed by the program’s residents.
Lynch said she and program officials have begun implementing grievance procedures that she hoped would address many of the concerns raised by program residents and their families.
“We are attempting to make improvements,” she said.
Lynch said she and two other agency attorneys were in various stages of responding to 40 lawsuits in district court; another 46 cases are before the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Most of the lawsuits, she said, involved disputes over lost or damaged property, unpopular policies, or a new law that requires residents to exhaust the program’s grievance procedures before filing a lawsuit.
Lynch told the group that despite complaints about the program’s policies, neither the Kansas Court of Appeals nor the Kansas Supreme Court has ever found them to be unconstitutional.
Robert Barnett, a Lawrence psychologist who often testifies as an expert witness in sex-crime cases, said he believed as many as 50 of the Larned program’s 220 residents should be released because they now are able to control their behaviors. He participated by speaker phone.
The program, he said, focuses too much on residents’ past behaviors and not enough on their current behaviors.
Jerry Rea, superintendent at Parsons State Hospital, disagreed, arguing that just because a resident could control his behavior doesn’t mean that he would. And the hospital, he said, should not be put in a position of releasing residents who remain a danger to society.
Barnett said Rea’s view was “extremely cynical” and had contributed to “shutting the (program’s) back door.”
Wes Cole, chair of the task force, said the group would forward a list of recommendations to KDADS by June 1.
“We’re here to listen,” he said. “We’ll make recommendations, but that’s all we can do.”
Rea and other program officials are expected to present their reform recommendations when the task force meets May 6.