Official: Sunmount fears unfounded

TUPPER LAKE – A representative from the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities recently responded to questions about Sunmount Developmental Center.

The Enterprise contacted OPWDD Communications Director Jennifer O’Sullivan earlier this week to inquire about claims made in an anonymous report posted last week on CNN’s website, titled “Governor Cuomo releases pedophiles, rapists and arsonists into NY communities.” Questions directed to local representatives of Sunmount and OPWDD were all directed to O’Sullivan.

The post has since been taken down from CNN’s citizen journalism offerings. It was replaced by a message that says, “This iReport has been removed because it was flagged by the community and found to be in violation of the iReport Community Guidelines and Terms of Use,” but it had already made its rounds on social media websites.

The post, written by someone calling him or herself Ner4Get, focused on the closure of the Broome Developmental Center in Binghamton and claimed that would result in a flood of dangerous miscreants entering nearby communities. Similar fears have been expressed here about Sunmount in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign to shutter mental health facilities, such as St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, along with fears that Sunmount is also on the chopping block.

According to O’Sullivan, those fears are unfounded.

In an email response to the Enterprise’s questions, O’Sullivan wrote that there are no plans to close the Sunmount campus, although she didn’t say whether all current services there would remain.

In response to another set of questions in the same email, O’Sullivan confirmed that the Sunmount-run respite homes at 18 and 19 Hamilton Ave. were slated for closure. Respite care provides a place to bring someone with a condition that might otherwise require them to live in an institution full time. It’s often daytime care, but it can include overnights as well.

“OPWDD has, for many years, been actively engaged in downsizing and closing institutional capacity in order to assist as many as possible to live productive lives that are fully integrated in their communities” O’Sullivan wrote. “As has been previously stated, OPWDD will retain institutional capacity at two sites to serve individuals with intensive behavioral needs, the larger of which will be the Sunmount campus.”

O’Sullivan went on to write that OPWDD has approached the Tupper Lake Central School District to consider renting space in one of its schools, but the agency has no plans to relocate regional operations at this time.

That topic was brought up at the Tupper Lake school board meeting earlier this month when Mary Chartier, deputy director of the OPWDD Regional Office, and school district Superintendent Seth McGowan discussed the possibility of renting the high school’s Baker Wing to Sunmount for use as a regional office.

School board member and former Sunmount employee Dawn Hughes brought up a concern about sex offenders being brought into the office and thus into the school building. Chartier said the Baker Wing would only serve as a regional office, and people with sex offenses in their background wouldn’t come in. She said people screening sex offenders for residential placement would still go into Sunmount to screen them.

O’Sullivan wrote that individuals in OPWDD care who are a threat to themselves or others are never released into the community. She did not directly answer a question regarding whether or not individuals with a history of sex-related crimes are ever taken into the community by Sunmount employees.

“Prior to initiating any community visits, plans are reviewed by a statewide advisory committee to ensure that the appropriate level of supervision is provided,” O’Sullivan wrote. “Other than for medical treatment, no community visit will occur without specific review and approval of the clinical team.”

O’Sullivan wrote that the clinical team again reviews the person’s appropriateness for continued participation after each community visit.

“As a treatment facility directed towards assisting people to achieve integration to the community, these community visits are essential to assist people to demonstrate responsible behaviors under closely controlled conditions,” O’Sullivan wrote. “Individuals with a history of high risk behavior, including those who are Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) registrants, are assessed by highly trained clinicians prior to leaving a campus setting, and plans are developed to address identified needs, including the need for supervision.”

Those safety plans are reviewed by a statewide advisory committee, O’Sullivan wrote, and OPWDD will take action to request involuntary retention of any individual who is determined to be a present danger to self or others, if that individual requests discharge from a campus-based institution.

“While sex offenders live in many communities, only a very small fraction of all registered sex offenders statewide are individuals with developmental disabilities served by OPWDD,” O’Sullivan wrote. “All information regarding sex offender status for anyone who receives services from OPWDD and is a SORA registrant is made public on the Division of Criminal Justice Services web site, per the SORA law.”

A look at the New York state Sex Offender Registry revealed that there are 41 registered sex offenders in Tupper Lake. Of those, 29 have Sunmount listed as their residence.

By comparison, there are seven registered sex offenders in Saranac Lake and four in Lake Placid.

All sex offenders are required to register with the Division of Criminal Justice Services, but only level 2 and 3 sex offenders are required to register on the Sex Offender Registry.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services website, those levels are assigned by the sentencing court based on the likelihood of the offender repeating the same or similar offenses. A level 1 sex offender is considered a low risk to the community; a level 3 sex offender is considered a high risk.

Individuals charged with a sex offense who are deemed unfit to stand trial by a judge cannot be convicted and therefore do not have to register. That could include people who live at Sunmount’s Center for Intensive Treatment.

For more information, visit www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/nsor/.