KJ grew up in Meadows Place, a 1-square-mile Houston bedroom community of modest 1970s and ’80s tree-shaded homes. In late 2007, she returned as a 33-year-old seeking to settle in a community she recalled warmly.
“I have great memories of this place,” she said. KJ — she asked that her name not be used for fear of losing her job; she was fired when her previous employer learned of her background — and her husband purchased a four-bedroom house near her childhood home. Her two boys attended her old elementary school, a three-minute walk away.
The bottom fell out four years later. A baby sitter the couple had hired in 2003 contacted police and revealed the two had pursued her for sex when she was 15. According to police reports and court records, KJ had left after the baby sitter said no. But, while she was at work, her husband later had sex with the girl.
Called into the police station in late 2011 and confronted with the by-then 23-year-old’s charges, KJ’s husband confessed. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation. KJ received 4 years of probation for indecency with a child by exposure as part of a deferred adjudication deal, and she was required to register as sex offender.
Although many sex offenders on probation are prohibited from being around children, KJ wasn’t. She maintained custody of her sons, whom she may pick up and drop off at school and activities.
Yet when she showed up to check in at the Meadows Place police station, she said police refused to register her as a resident and informed her she couldn’t live in her home. A city ordinance prohibited registered child sex offenders from living within a certain distance of places where children gathered; her house was too close to a city pool.
“But I already live here,” she replied.
“You can’t anymore,” she was told. In an unfolding legal battle, KJ stands to become the first Texas homeowner evicted from her own house for violating one of the ordinances.
State and local laws restricting where registered sex offenders may live after completing probation and parole have been around for a decade or longer. Many passed in the wake of a flurry of high-profile “memorial laws” named for children abducted and killed by strangers. While no Texas statute restricts where sex offenders can reside once they are released from state supervision, about 80 municipalities have adopted local ordinances prohibiting registered child sex offenders from living up to 2,500 feet near where children gather.
Violations typically come with a fine between $500 and $2,000 per day. Yet officials concede the restrictions rarely are invoked as criminal cases. More often, they function as a legal keep-out sign warning sex offenders they are unwelcome.
“It puts everybody on notice that we’re not going to tolerate these cases,” said Hutto Police Chief Byron Frankland, who pushed for the Austin suburb to adopt a 1,000-foot residency restriction soon after being hired this year.
Sara Bustilloz, public information officer for the Pflugerville Police Department, said she knew of no instances in which a person had been cited for violating the city’s rule prohibiting child sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, day care center, playground, youth center, public swimming pool or video arcade. But she noted the city now has fewer than half the number of registered offenders as when it enacted its residency restrictions in 2007.
“Based on our ordinance, they’re going to know how difficult it is to move here,” she said.
A new state law requires cities with fewer than 5,000 residents and such a restriction to have a process by which sex offenders who want to move into a restricted area can apply for an exemption. Most require a public hearing in front of the city council.
In West Lake Hills — where a city ordinance prohibits registered child sex offenders not only from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and youth centers, but also school bus stops — council members must quiz an applicant about his relationship with his mother before granting an exemption, among other criteria. Advocates say such procedures are unlikely to result in many applications or approvals.
Live “somewhere far away”
Residency restrictions reflect a belief that those convicted of sex offenses are uniquely dangerous and incapable of reform. “There is convincing documented evidence that sex offenders are sexual predators who present an extreme threat to public safety, are likely to use physical violence in the commission of their crimes and have a higher recidivism rate than persons convicted of other crimes,” states the ordinance in the North Texas town of Venus.
As the number of registered sex offenders in Texas approaches 90,000, however, studies have found many of those assumptions to be false. Studies show the vast majority of sex offenses are committed against family members or acquaintances, and that convicted sex offenders appear less likely to repeat their crime than those convicted of other offenses.
That means laws based on offenders grabbing random children off playgrounds have little practical effect on public safety. “The research does not support that residency restrictions, or exclusion zones, have any beneficial impact on safety, or recidivism, or any other objective you’re trying to achieve here,” Michele Deitch, of the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, told state legislators this spring. “In fact, there’s a growing body of research that shows residency restrictions increase sex offender recidivism rates” by driving offenders away from family and other support systems.
Offenders say restriction rules can be difficult to untangle. Frustrated with trying to identify where he was forbidden to travel, last year a University of Texas grad developed a mapping app to help other sex offenders comply. (West Lake Hills, whose ordinance requires its map of prohibited zones “be available to the public,” refused to release it to the American-Statesman.)
When Keith Gallegos moved from Florida to Venus in January 2016, he’d been off parole for more than a decade for his 1996 offense. But he was required to register as a child sex offender and abide by the city’s exclusion zones of 1,000 feet from places where children gather.
Using his car odometer to identify the boundaries, he found a house to buy. On the day of the closing, however, police informed him he’d mismeasured the distance from a community swimming pool; his house was only 850 feet away.
He canceled the deal. Three months later, Gallegos purchased another house, this time using Google Maps. Days after closing, Venus police told him their laser measurements showed it was 48 feet too close to the prohibited zone.
Even some police are ambivalent about the restrictions’ value. San Antonio’s ordinance prohibits registered offenders from living within 1,000 feet of city parks, including the River Walk. But Capt. Richard Martinez, supervisor of the city’s Park Police unit, said officers will cite violators only if they catch the attention of police for other matters.
As for actively checking to make sure no offender lives too close to a park, “We’re not going to do that, nor do we have the resources to do it,” he said, adding, “If you want to measure the ordinance in terms of how many citations we issue, it’s not very useful.”
Residency restrictions have been challenged in court in recent years. Massachusetts justices compared them to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. A pending Chicago case is fighting a state law that required two registered offenders to leave their established homes when a new child-related business opened near them. (The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear a Texas case challenging Lewisville’s 1,500-foot sex offender buffer.)
Yet the fear of child sex predators persists, and many citizens support residency restrictions — the wider the better. In a 2015 study, researchers from Nebraska asked residents their opinion of the state law prohibiting sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools and day care facilities.
Sixty percent said 500 feet was too close. Half of those thought the buffer should be at least a mile; more than 10 percent simply said registered offenders should be forced to live “somewhere far away.”
Those sentiments tend to be accepted by local officials, even those who understand the laws’ limitations. “I don’t think (residency restrictions) are the end-all and be-all,” said Michael Boese, police chief and city administrator for Venus. “But sometimes perception is important to the community.”
“My father is a child molester and went to prison for that. Trust me — I have no sympathy for sex predators,” said Bobby Jo Newell, mayor of Brazoria, which just enacted a new residency restriction ordinance. “People act like putting these laws on the book will protect children. Do I believe it’s going to stop the majority of them? No. Most of these crimes are within the family. I do feel it’s a false sense of security. But, it’s there.”
Playgrounds not only for children
The city of Meadows Place boasts a school playground with a large attached park, a community center and a nature park for its 4,600 residents. Yet this summer city officials went on a playground-building spree.
New equipment appeared on small lots in the city’s far east side, on Brighton Boulevard; and in its northeastern-most corner, on Kangaroo Court. Meadows Valley Park, near the city’s center, and Meadow Glen Park, on the southern border, each installed new play gear, as well. “We had to cut some expenditures out of the budget to do it, but we thought it was important,” said Mayor Charles Jessup.
A tour of the facilities, however, shows Meadows Place’s newest playground equipment to be an odd assortment of items.
Kangaroo Pocket Park’s additions consist of a single tetherball pole surrounded by a half-dozen tree stumps and a dimensional-lumber balance bar. In Brighton Park, a small tepee-looking structure made of crooked sticks lashed together with rope is paired with a 6-foot length of corrugated plastic sewer pipe and a single cheap plastic-disc swing hung from a tree.
That’s because the city’s newest playgrounds aren’t entirely about child’s play.
Texas law states that a park needs to have three pieces of equipment to be considered a playground. And Meadow Place’s ordinance says sex offenders cannot live near playgrounds.
The city’s eagerness for new playgrounds was spurred by a legal challenge. Two years ago, Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, an advocacy group for sex offender reforms, sent a letter to 46 so-called general law cities — those with fewer than 5,000 population — with residency restrictions, threatening to sue because Texas state law did not give them authority to pass the ordinances. Rather than wage a costly legal battle, about half rescinded the rules (including Venus, rescuing Gallegos from abandoning his new house.)
Texas Voices sued the rest, including Meadows Place. This spring, however, state lawmakers rode to their rescue, quietly slipping language into an unrelated bill in the legislative session’s waning days that gave the small cities legal permission to enact the restrictions. Since it went into effect, municipalities that repealed their laws are reinstating them.
Because the new state rule limited exclusion zones to 1,000 feet from child-gathering spots, however, Meadows Place had to adjust. The previous rule put the boundaries at 2,000 feet. The new playgrounds “gave us a much needed 1000’ Child Safety Zone in that part of the city,” Jessup explained in his September newsletter.
Thanks in part to the small parks and their new equipment, Jessup said all but 147 of Meadows Place’s 1,456 residences are now off limits to registered sex offenders looking to move into the city. He said a new pocket park is planned in the city’s north, which will expand the exclusion zone.
“It’s just a gut feeling”
Meadows Place eventually agreed to officially register KJ as resident sex offender. The pounding on her door began the day after, on March 1, just after 1 p.m. In the following days, it often came late in the evening, when she returned home from her job as a waitress.
“The police have the real rapid, aggressive knock, you know?” she said. “Like, bambambambambam!”
Each time she answered, Meadows Place officers would officially inform her she was in violation of the city’s sex offender residency ordinance because her house was 676 feet from the community pool. (Meadows Place Police Chief Gary Stewart did not respond to an interview request.)
The police issued tickets on March 2, March 6 and March 9. On the 16th, they issued her six separate tickets, the first at 10:45 p.m., the last 12 minutes later. By March 18, they’d issued KJ 13 tickets, each carrying a $500 fine.
“It’s like they were stalking me,” she said. She started driving around her block after work to make sure no cruiser was waiting for her. In the mornings, she peeked out of her curtains to see if she was clear to leave. She disconnected her doorbell.
A municipal judge dismissed the citations during the Texas Voices lawsuit. But Jessup, the mayor, said there was no doubt Meadows Place would fight for its residency restriction. A City Council meeting to discuss the legal threat was packed, he said: “We took a vote, and it was 100 percent” in favor of fighting to keep the sex offender exclusion zone.
Although Jessup said he is aware of research challenging the value of the ordinances, he said he trusts his instincts. “From my perspective as a parent at the playground, there’s enough things for me to worry about without worrying about sexual predators across the street. It’s just a gut feeling as a parent.”
The city passed a new version of its ordinance on Aug. 22. KJ’s attorney, Richard Gladden, said he believes she is entitled to stay in her home because a grandfather clause in the new state law says anyone who lived in the city before a residency restriction ordinance was passed can stay.
Meadows Place’s attorney, Grady Randle, disputes that, contending the grandfather clause applies only to residents who were in their home when the city passed its original sex offender exclusion zone law, in 2006 — a year before KJ bought her house. He said it’s the city’s position that KJ must move out.
In mid-September, police began showing up at KJ’s house again, issuing her two more tickets. “Since then I haven’t answered the door,” she said. A court hearing is set for Nov. 9.