By Jesse Bogan
ST. LOUIS - New filings in a class action lawsuit call on 200 rapists and pedophiles to be released, claiming the Missouri Department of Mental Health program that is supposed to treat them is “government at its worst.”
Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS, was created to work with sex offenders after they complete prison sentences. Civil courts determined the men were too likely to reoffend because of a “mental abnormality.” Now as mental health patients, they are held indefinitely in secure facilities in Farmington and Fulton until their risk falls to acceptable levels.
Since the program started in 1999, nobody has completed treatment. The lawsuit alleges the $25 million program is mismanaged, underfunded, overcrowded and is essentially a prison disguised as a mental hospital.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2009, claims problems with SORTS “arose out of the belief that the imprisonment of those branded as sexually violent predators were so reviled that no one would notice nor care when tucked away.”
The Post-Dispatch recently reported on internal state emails and memos that suggest that even administrators and employees of the program worried about its validity. In 2009, Missouri Department of Mental Health director Keith Schafer wrote that SORTS would be a “sham” if nobody completed treatment and was released. A former chief of operations wrote that the program was a “disaster waiting to happen.”
Those notes and others were included in Thursday’s court filing.
Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Debra Walker said department officials hadn’t received notice of the new filing. She said the issue was “a matter for the courts.” The Missouri attorney general’s office, which litigates the civil commitment cases, also declined to comment.
Missouri is one of 20 states that has civil commitment laws for sexually violent predators. Many of the programs started in the 1990s after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas’ law. Other states have fared much better than Missouri in showing that patients can progress through the program, according to the lawsuit.
By February 2005, Wisconsin granted 46 conditional releases and 20 final discharges; Illinois granted 18 and 1, respectively.
Missouri recently granted its first three residents conditional release, allowing them to leave SORTS a few hours at a time with strict guidelines. Missouri also recently opened an annex inside the facility at Farmington that is supposed to teach eight residents life skills they’ll need when they get out some day.
About 20 people are admitted to the program each year.
Plaintiff attorney Eric Selig, who recently took over the civil action lawsuit as lead counsel, said closing the facility was the ultimate goal.
The suit claims SORTS is “so far gone that it is irretrievably broken, cannot be salvaged and thus must immediately be shut down and all of its inhabitants set free. The constitution demands no other relief.”
Documents attached to the suit point to internal concerns about overcrowding. One 2009 report said the situation is “placing accreditation efforts at risk.”
In another email attached to the suit, Dr. Jonathan Rosenboom, former director of behavioral services at SORTS, wrote that he was “often struck by the unsettling conclusion that direct patient care is one of the last priorities when stacked against all of the other expectations.”
The Department of Mental Health has said the program meets national standards for hospital care and that overall funding has not been reduced since 2009.
In all, more than 500,000 internal records have been obtained in the lawsuit. The suit alleges that documents were previously withheld on the “erroneous claim that emails had been inadvertently purged from its computers and servers.”