The Puzzle of Housing Aging Sex Offenders

States are grappling with how to care for a growing population of registered offenders in long-term care facilities.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

When state officials finally released William Cubbage from the Iowa Mental Health Institute in 2010, they predicted he was too sick to hurt anyone again. But the octogenarian only became an even more notorious sex offender.

Between 1987 and 2000, Cubbage was convicted in four separate cases of assault. Then, a year after his release, he molested a 95-year-old woman in a nursing home. Neither the home’s patients nor their families had been notified of his history. The woman’s relatives were unable to sue, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the state was not legally liable. The state took Cubbage back, and in 2016 he was in the news again for allegedly trying to grope a care worker during a bath.

Cubbage passed away last month, but his case forced Iowa legislators to consider how to handle a growing population of sex offenders in long-term care facilities. Public outcry has led to multiple attempts to address the issue, including a push in February for a bill that would have established a committee that looked into the feasibility of building a long-term care facility specifically for the state’s 800 registered offenders, to keep them from being placed in traditional nursing homes (the bill didn’t receive final action). And while Cubbage’s case is extreme, he’s symptomatic of a larger puzzle in America’s long-term care facilities that no one’s managed to solve. As lawmakers in Oklahoma and Ohio have found, isolating aging sex offenders is easier planned than achieved.

“The problem is that you’re talking about a project that’s uniquely difficult when it comes to structural needs and safety,” says Amy McCoy, a public-information officer with the Iowa Department of Human Services. “You’re talking about things like hallways without corners. You’re also talking about building a place that isn’t a prison. It’s something entirely different from a traditional care facility. You want people in the least restrictive setting, but you also want to be able to respond if something does happen.”

Local lawmakers have been sounding alarms for at least a decade whenever sex offenders strike. With no federal regulations dictating how long-term care centers should handle offenders, solutions vary state to state. In 2012, Iowa’s Governor pushed a bill requiring nursing homes to notify residents if an offender moved in, but it died in the legislature. California’s Department of Corrections notifies nursing homes if anyone on the sex-offender registry applies for residency, and the nursing homes are required to notify residents and employees. Illinois facilities forbid offenders from having roommates and tests them for any special care needs before sending the results to local police and the Department of Public Health. (Requests to interview multiple nursing homes in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois for this story went unanswered.)

Just as Iowa’s now considering, Oklahoma passed law in 2008 to create a specialized nursing home for offenders. But not a single bid to construct the property was submitted.

A contractor’s reluctance to be involved with such a property could be due to its specialized requirements, but in the view of the sex-offender advocate Derek Logue, it’s just as likely another case of people not wanting any connection to the registry. Logue is the founder of Once Fallen, which calls itself the “leading reference & resource site for Registered Citizens.” A Cincinnati resident, Logue himself is registered in Ohio for a 2001 conviction of First Degree Sexual Abuse against an underage girl. At age 40, he calls himself “one of the younger guys”; most offenders who call for help finding a place to live or a job are in their 50s or 60s.

“If you look at the nursing homes that do take registered citizens, they tend to have below-average grades,” Logue says. “It’s the same issue [offenders] face when they’re trying to find a place to live. You’ll never be anywhere decent, you always end up with some landlord who doesn’t care about the property. We don’t exactly get quality service.”

Logue knows you won’t cry over his failure to score a luxury penthouse, but he counters that he’s served his time. And it’s his tribe’s pariah statues, he says, that makes registered offenders likely to need extra medical attention in their declining years. Beyond the Gordian knot that is the ongoing argument over the sex-offender registry’s effectiveness, constitutionality, and methods of inclusion, offenders are less likely to be employed, more likely to live in poverty if they do have full-time work, and subsequently less likely to have access to preventive care.

It’s also hard to gauge exactly how much of a danger they pose as seniors. Sexual assaults are already underreported crimes, and recidivism rates among all ages vary from study by study. Karl Hanson and Kelly Morton-Bourgon, a pair of sex-crimes researchers who work for the Canadian government, estimate that the average rate is likely around 13.7 percent. Meanwhile, multiple recent studies suggest recidivism rates seem to decline among the elderly. (It’s worth noting that Cubbage, who long suffered from Alzheimer’s, was tested by state mental health workers before his first move into a private home, and scored extremely low in the areas of understanding empathy and appropriate sexual conduct, according to a deposition from an administrator of Iowa’s Civil Commitment Unit of Sexual Offenders.)

Another blind spot is that almost no one is counting how many sex offenders require end-of-life care. Back in 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office counted 700 registered sex offenders living in nursing homes or intermediate care facilities. More recent numbers among the nation’s 15,600 long-term care facilities and their 1.4 million residents are hard to come by.

One organization that does claim to track the cases is A Perfect Cause, an Oklahoma-based advocacy group for increased oversight and safety regulations in nursing homes, especially background checks on residents and public notifications when facilities do accept a sex offenders. Over the last decade, the group’s founder, Wes Bledsoe, has testified before both state and federal committees pleading for tighter defenses. “It speaks volumes to us when we have so little regard for the safety and well-being of our people with disabilities and our elders that we would warehouse them with violent sexual offenders with no locked door between,” he told the Dayton Daily News last year.

On the organization’s website, Bledsoe claims to have tracked as many as 1,600 registered sex offenders in senior care facilities by cross-referencing state registries with Medicare databases. Among his more unnerving arguments: Nursing home’s failure to check backgrounds has allowed offenders banned from living within 1,000 feet of schools to slip in next door to multiple elementary schools and junior highs. (Bledsoe declined to be interviewed for this story.)

This complaint has some independent backup. The Dayton Daily News found six Ohio nursing homes housing unidentified sex offenders within or extremely near the legal protective boundary from schools.

For now at least, it seems as if this is a situation stuck without progress in either direction, despite both sides of the issue being desperate for reform. “Anyone else who gets out of prison, they get to come back and be part of society. How come I don’t?” Logue says. “I don’t want to be 70 and living in a prison cell they tell me is freedom.”