Does a convicted and paroled sex offender live in your neighbourhood?
While police occasionally issue public warnings about offenders moving into communities, their addresses are not disclosed. In some cases, such individuals may live in a residential area for months or years without the knowledge of their neighbours.
Yet, when they are “discovered,” public opposition is often quick and outspoken. Abbotsford has seen several recent such incidents, with one involving convicted offender James Conway still unfolding in sister city Mission.
A similar situation occurred in Abbotsford in August 2012. When convicted online sexual predator Jeffrey Goddard was arrested outside his east Abbotsford residence, it was the first time his neighbours realized he was living on their street.
They were shocked to discover that not only was another high-profile sexual offender – Donald Michel Bakker – living in their neighbourhood, but he was sharing the same residence as Goddard.
Bakker, then 46, had served a 10-year sentence for sexually assaulting seven girls in Cambodia. Goddard, then 22, had served a 20-month sentence for posing online as various personas – including a police officer and a teenage girl – to lure eight youths aged 12 to 16.
Fast forward to August 2015, when residents in the Bradner area of Abbotsford learned via a public police warning that high-risk offender James Conway (in photo) was living in a home on their street.
Residents organized rallies, contacted politicians and started a Facebook page aimed at driving him away.
The City of Abbotsford began civil proceedings to oust Conway, saying that the home in which he was residing was not appropriately zoned. But he left the Abbotsford residence on Aug. 1, 2016, for a new home in Mission before the case went before the courts.
As citizens in Mission continue a similar high-profile public battle to remove Conway from their community, serious questions continue to be raised, starting with a legal system that many feel is not tough enough on sexual offenders.
Given that most of these individuals will be released into society at some point, what resources are in place to ensure citizens are safe? How are decisions made about where they will live? And what programs and services are in place to treat these offenders?
These are some of the questions The Abbotsford News examines in this special feature.
A NEW NEIGHBOUR PROMPTS PROTESTS
In August 2015, Abbotsford Police announced that convicted child sex offender James Conway was moving to Abbotsford. Within days, the residents of Joanita Place in Bradner discovered he was their new neighbour.
Residents put up posters on several streets in the area, warning that a “repeat child sex offender” was living among them.
Kim Iverson, who lives with her husband and kids on the quiet rural street, was among the first to lead the charge to get Conway to leave.
She said his presence disrupted the peace of the neighbourhood and left residents feeling unsettled.
There were fears that, despite Conway’s strict supervision conditions – including his wearing an electronic ankle bracelet that would alert authorities if he left his residence – children could be harmed, and it would take police too long to arrive.
Over the next year, citizens held several protest rallies and urged local politicians to get Conway out of their neighbourhood.
The City of Abbotsford launched a lawsuit, saying the home where Conway was living was not zoned for “commercial use,” but he left the community for Mission on Aug. 1 of this year before the case was heard before the courts.
Iverson said the residents of Joanita Place were “completely thrilled” to hear that Conway had left – they even held a barbecue to celebrate – but are concerned that nothing concrete can be done to prevent Conway from bouncing from community to community.
A residential area is not the place for people like him, she said, although she acknowledged that there is no easy solution to the issue.
Now, citizens in Mission are trying to oust Conway from their community.
Rallies have taken place outside of Conway’s residence on Dewdney Trunk Road, an online petition for his removal has been signed by more than 1,200 people, and a Facebook page (Protect the Children of Mission, BC) has been set up.
Angel Elias, a member of the group trying to get Conway out of the Mission home, said the citizens are driven by fear that Conway will re-offend.
His record includes three sexual offences against children, sexual interference of a person under the age of 16, sexual assault and arson.
BC Corrections has previously said Conway has a pattern of “sexual offending against female children in a predatory and opportunistic manner.”
Elias maintained, “Repeat offenders should be deemed a dangerous offender and be placed in jail or a facility that can house and manage these sick people.”
She said Conway should not be living in a residential area where children are nearby. The home where Conway is currently residing is adjacent to a school bus stop.
Meanwhile, the District of Mission is hoping to use its own bylaws to try to get Conway out of the community, saying the property is not zoned for care homes.
Conway, who has developmental delays and is a client of Community Living BC (CLBC), is currently living in the home under the supervision of WJS Canada, a company sub-contracted by CLBC.
The home is owned by a WJS employee, and WJS is currently conducting a conflict-of-interest investigation into the matter.
Mission Mayor Randy Hawes said he had no warning that Conway was being moved to his community, to a home less than a block from his office at the municipal hall.
“When BC Corrections put the warning out, on a Sunday on a long weekend in August, it struck fear in the hearts of all the parents in this city,” he said, referring to the press release informing the public of Conway’s presence.
Hawes said the warning about the “dangerous, predatory pedophile” drew immediate backlash and the local RCMP sent officers to monitor
Conway’s house on Dewdney Trunk Road to protect him from potential vigilantism from members of the public, rather than protect the public from him.
“How ironic is that?” he said.
Hawes said he was upset that BC Corrections gave no warning to the mayor and council about Conway’s move to Mission, especially after the agency apologized last year to people in Abbotsford for a similar lack of communication when he moved there.
“Their apology, apparently, was not heartfelt,” he said.
Individuals like Conway would likely be better off placed in a facility for mentally ill offenders indefinitely, or at least placed in a more remote area, said Hawes.
He said he hopes to see Conway out of Mission soon but if that is not possible he would prefer to see him on a farm in the municipality’s rural area.
When asked how he might respond to mayors and councils of other municipalities who would be as equally opposed to Conway living in their communities, he said: “To be blunt, I don’t care.”
Hawes said Conway would likely be more appropriately placed in a community where he came from, has family, has offended or, like Vancouver, has a dedicated sex crimes unit in its police force.
Hawes said he sees benefits to an American-style sexual offender registry, where the identity and location of every person on the registry is public, unlike in Canada where that information is protected by privacy laws.
“It just seems to me, if you are a serial offender, and you are deemed dangerous, I think you’ve lost your right to privacy, frankly. I think the protection of the public far outweighs the privacy issues for predatory repeat sexual offenders.”
OTHER ARTICLES IN THE SERIES: