RACINE — All three agencies responsible say they followed protocol, but the state nonetheless nearly housed a sex offender only doors down from his former victim.
The error reportedly came from the oversight of a single individual, but agency leaders say it shows there’s room to improve the system as a whole.
Whether it means giving the Department of Justice brochures to hand out to victims or more, the state Victim Services director said there are ways to prevent the error from repeating.
What went wrong?
The state is required to notify registered sexual assault victims when their assailant is scheduled for supervised release. The state is further required to vet offenders’ proposed location for proximity to their victims.
When they assigned the victim’s offender to live at 918 Lathrop Ave., all three state agencies involved report that they followed the required protocol. But something still went wrong.
The simple explanation is that the victim’s name wasn’t registered with the notification database maintained by the state Department of Corrections.
The victim thought she was safe because, she said, the Department of Justice’s assistant attorney general who litigated the state’s case assured her that if her offender’s status changed, she would be notified.
“I just kind of put it in his hands,” said the victim, whose name The Journal Times is withholding to protect her safety and privacy.
That assistant attorney general, Michael Schaefer, never passed the victim’s information along to DOC or notified her himself, and he was not legally required to. Whether Schaefer intended to do so is unclear.
At a hearing convened to find a new location for the offender, Schaefer told the judge he regretted not passing the victim’s information on.
A learning scenario
Legally, the DOJ is not required to notify victims. It’s the DOC’s job to inform those registered in the agency’s database when a sexually violent offender is up for supervised release, a process overseen by the state’s Department of Health Services.
Nonetheless, Lloyd Sinclair, who worked on the offender’s placement for DHS, said, “This is kind of a clarion call to the DOJ to leave no stone unturned.”
“We’re all interested in doing what we can,” Sinclair said, “even if we aren’t legally obligated to do so.”
Sinclair, the community development coordinator at DHS-run Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Facility for sexually violent offenders, said that all agencies involved are redoubling their efforts to ensure protocol gets followed, even though, in this case, it was.
This specific situation — an offender nearly placed in his victim’s neighborhood — is unique. No state official, victim advocate or legal expert contacted by The Journal Times could name a scenario of its kind.
Although unprecedented and improbable, Jo Winston, director of the DOC’s Office of Victim Services and Programs, said this mistake illuminates gaps in communication between the three state agencies involved in such cases.
Winston said her agency will likely work to increase coordination with the DOJ, ensuring that assistant attorney generals and others who come into contact with victims have brochures and other information they can give victims to help them connect with services.
Although around 27,000 victims are registered with the system, Wisconsin began its current victim notification and information database in 1996, about a decade after the victim’s assault. The victim said she had no idea that database or other services existed. Winston said that in some cases, victims from older, pre-1997 cases may not know about the resources and notification services available to them.
In this case, the victim connected with Schaefer and the DOJ years after her assault. If a DOJ representative had given her assistance or even just an informational brochure, the victim could have registered with the state, preventing the near-placement of her offender from happening.
“I just think information is critical for victims in exercising their rights,” Winston said. “And that’s our goal.”
The victim herself is now, officially, in the notification system and said she feels safer. She hopes to advocate for other victims of sexual assault, she said.
“I want to let them know they’re not alone, and that the resources are out there.”
Who to call for victim services
Racine County Victim Witness Services
To register for notifications with Department of Corrections