WECT Investigates: Halfway house for sex offenders in Wilmington

WECT Investigates: Halfway house for sex offenders in Wilmington
State ends sex offender housing program one month after WECT investigation. (Source: WECT)

There's a halfway house near downtown Wilmington for sex offenders just released from prison and many neighbors don't even know it exists.

After a similar facility in Charlotte recently shut down following public outcry, the facility in Wilmington is the only one of its kind in the state. The Department of Public Safety pays the ex-cons' room and board for 60 days while they transition back into society.

The All Family Recovery House is a nondescript home along Kidder Street on the outside, but inside there are eight beds for sex offenders. The surrounding area is full of kids, but none of the parents we spoke to were aware there were high-risk offenders living in the neighborhood.

"I'm very upset," resident Angela DeVane told us. "I have a 9 year old who plays in the neighborhood, and I wasn't aware of any of this."

While most people aren't thrilled for any ex-con to be moving in next door, finding out there's an entire house of sex offenders nearby causes even greater alarm.

It's a concern shared by New Hanover County's District Attorney, who was disturbed to learn the state was sending hard-to-place sex offenders from other parts of the state to Wilmington - and only Wilmington - upon their release from prison.

"What I'm concerned about is after they spend a couple of months in this transitional living situation, if they don't have a job, and they don't have a place to really stay, they are suddenly in a homeless situation that's very hard to monitor," DA Ben David explained.

We checked with the state to see if that was happening. Of the 29 sex offenders who have transitioned through the house since the contract with the state began, only two were from New Hanover County.

The other 27 committed sex crimes in other parts of the state, and were then sent to the Wilmington halfway house after getting out of prison. A dozen moved elsewhere after leaving the halfway house, but 15 others now call Wilmington home. Of those 15, three are homeless, which makes them extremely difficult for parole officers to track.

It's not easy to find a job or housing if you're a registered sex offender. So the All Family Recovery House helps them find employment, social support and purpose, with the goal being to keep them from re-offending.

The fact that AFRH has helped 12 of the sex offenders who relocated to Wilmington find housing here is a testament to the work the facility does to set registered offenders on a more successful path. Although it wasn't until recently that they started providing services for the state, the halfway house manager said AFRH has been operating in Wilmington for nine years without any problems.

The district attorney's office confirmed they were not aware of any specific problems connected to AFRH, but David is still concerned about the increased risk this poses in the Port City.

Many of these offenders can't return to their hometowns because their families live within close proximity to schools, parks, and similar facilities that are off limits for sex offenders under the law.

Amy Feath, the director of Wilmington's Carousel Center for sex abuse victims, understands that many people have little sympathy for sex offenders, but also says it is in everyone's best interest to try to help offenders upon their release from prison.

"These folks have to go someplace. There's not some deserted island we can just ship them all to. So it is important for us to set them up for success," Feath explained. "They have paid their debt to society according to the law."

Studies show meaningful rehabilitation reduces recidivism.

Still, Feath and David are both troubled that Wilmington's sex offender halfway house is the only one of its kind in the state.

"We acknowledge that it's a complicated problem. We simply don't want to be the only place in the state for these ex-offenders to be shipped to," David said.

Funding halfway housing for sex offenders is a pilot program for the Department of Public Safety, as the state tries to keep offenders from becoming homeless upon their release from prison.

There used to be two state-funded housing programs: one in Wilmington and another in Charlotte. But recent media coverage in Charlotte prompted such public outcry that its facility was shut down.

It's not surprising that a house full of sex offenders concerns the neighbors, but Feath says there are hundreds of other registered sex offenders living in neighborhoods all around us. She says this is a good reminder to check the sex offender registry to find out who is living near you, but warns that treating them as outcasts could backfire.

"If we are vilifying them, and not giving them a meaningful way to manage and reintegrate and be successful, then they are constantly going to be a drain on the community," Feath explained of the need for meaningful rehabilitation. "They are constantly going to be living under the bridge, or having a substance abuse habit or continue to re-offend, because they don't have any support to do anything else."

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