A state-funded residential program designed to teach young adults how to live safe, productive lives mixes 16-year old-girls in foster care with sex offenders in their 20s.
The program groups juvenile offenders — including registered sex offenders — with foster teens. Each person in the program lives alone in one of 15 apartments in a building on West University, near Kellogg and Seneca.
Dorothy Loyd, vice president for transitional living services at Ozanam Pathways, the nonprofit provider that operates the program, said Ozanam isn't the only provider that commingles offenders and foster teens. It occurs at programs across the state, Loyd said. Ozanam is following state policies, she said.
"If the program is guilty of anything," Loyd said, "it's for taking kids that nobody wants to work with."
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The state says it is beginning to move to a system that separates juvenile offenders and foster teens at facilities.
Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said he is concerned about the practice of grouping young people who have committed serious crimes with "extremely impressionable" young people in the state's care.
Stolz said that considering some of the youths face a "myriad of social problems" from being victims of child abuse and neglect, putting them into an environment with convicted "gang members, sex offenders and drug dealers" doesn't make sense.
"I just don't think that's good policy," he said.
The Ozanam program came under scrutiny earlier this month after a former employee raised allegations that sex offenders living at the apartments have too much contact with foster teens at the property, that clients sometimes lack food and that some incidents aren't properly reported.
The allegations led to investigations by Wichita police and the state's Juvenile Justice Authority and Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
No crimes or serious violations were found.
Loyd, the Ozanam vice president, said that "everybody and their brother has been down investigating... and we come back as clean as a whistle."
There have been reports of trouble at the property.
Police records show that from January 2008 to July 21 of this year, Wichita police recorded 142 incidents at the West University apartments — including reports of battery, assault, runaways, drug crimes and three alleged incidents of rape.
Between December 2009 and October 2010, police investigated three reports of rape there.
In the most recent rape case, in October 2010, the alleged victim was a 17-year-old girl, and the suspect was a 17-year-old boy. In a July 2010 case, the alleged victim was a 17-year-old foster girl, and the suspect was an 18-year-old male offender. And in a December 2009 case, the alleged victim was a 16-year-old foster girl, and the suspect was a 19-year-old man.
Charges weren't filed in the three cases, partly because the alleged victims weren't cooperative, police said.
Change will separate groups
The Juvenile Justice Authority, which has custody of offenders placed at the apartments, is moving toward a system where offenders and nonoffenders won't be grouped together.
In a July 1 e-mail, a JJA official told other officials that the new direction is "based on sound, evidence-based practices and research that supports the separation of juvenile offenders from the non-offending population."
In a statement to The Eagle on Thursday, JJA Commissioner Curtis Whitten said: "There has been an ongoing concern about the mingling of these populations, but the impetus of the new administration is enabling the Juvenile Justice Authority to move at a quicker pace toward resolving the situation."
SRS, which has custody of foster teens, says it supports the change.
For now, the change does not encompass the Wichita program on West University.
SRS says Ozanam Pathways, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., has served 98 youths in SRS custody at three Wichita locations since 2008.
Ozanam takes clients 16 to 23 years old.
JJA and SRS pay the nonprofit program $100 per day, per client to cover expenses including staffing, rent, food, clothing, furniture and linens, said Loyd, the Ozanam vice president.
Based on the former employee's complaints, a joint investigation by Wichita police and SRS began July 22. Police found no crimes that could be prosecuted and no lack of food at the University apartments, said Stolz, the deputy police chief.
Another investigation, conducted earlier this month by JJA, found that although registered sex offenders were living at the apartments, "there was no evidence... that these offenders were harming other youth placed there," a JJA report says.
The former employee asked The Eagle not to use his name, saying he fears being blacklisted within the social-service industry. He was recently laid off from his job as a life-skills coach and said it was because he raised concerns.
His allegations were echoed by a second former Ozanam employee who spoke to The Eagle. The second employee also asked that her name not be used, saying she feared being blacklisted.
Loyd, the Ozanam vice president, said she investigated the former employee's complaints and found them to be unfounded and found that policies were being followed.
She reiterated that Ozanam works with young people who have a variety of problems and who are difficult to place.
"For many of the foster care kids, our program is really their last option. There is really no other placement opportunity for them."
Some of the foster teens have been in more than 50 placements before they arrive at the Ozanam apartments, she said.
"It's hard for them to attach."
Loyd said it's up to the state agencies — JJA and SRS — to decide who gets referred to a transitional living program, which teaches youths how to live independently.
Juvenile sex offenders who receive proper treatment have a lower chance of committing a new sex crime than adult offenders, she said.
In December 2009, while still working for Ozanam, the former employee sent an e-mail to a supervisor expressing concern that vulnerable teens were being housed around sex offenders.
"Here we have multiple S.O.' s (sex offenders) living in close proximity to underage girls, some of whom are not even in the system but are here because they come from a troubled background."
The supervisor responded with this e-mail: "Right now, the only plan is that they are not to be in each other's apartments or signing out together. Beyond that, I'm not sure what we can do. I too am definitely concerned and just try to be extra attentive to what is going on over there."
At the time, Ozanam was operating two transitional housing programs — the one on West University and one near First and Ridge Road. It was about to launch a third program at apartments on South Mission.
Since then, Ozanam has closed two of the three programs, leaving the University property as the only remaining transitional living facility it operates in Wichita.
The other two were closed because government finances led to fewer referrals, Loyd said.
According to the state offender registry, three sex offenders — all in their early 20s — are listed as living at the University apartments. The three were in their teens when they committed their crimes.
Ozanam doesn't tell foster teens living at the apartments that some of the people living in the other units are sex offenders, the former employee said.
Although each client lives alone in an apartment, they share a common lounge and hang out together outside, he said.
The clients have curfews as early as 6 p.m. Staff are supposed to monitor them around the clock with the help of video cameras. Rules forbid physical contact between clients.
"They're not supposed to be in each other's apartments, but it's a daily occurrence," the former employee said.
He said that "in theory, we can watch them, but in reality... they get past us all the time."
SRS said that it has "no evidence to support the allegations (of) widespread sex between youth."