A clinic that treats Portland-area sex offenders quietly moved into a nondescript office complex on Southeast Stark Street on March 1, two months after angry parents forced the clinic out of the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood in Southeast Portland.
It wasn’t easy to find new offices for Whole Systems Counseling & Consultation. Owner Johneen Manno said she started with a list of about 20 office properties and checked out more than half before signing a lease at Plaza 125, at Southeast 126th Avenue and Stark Street.
Manno’s options were limited. She didn’t want to rent near a school or a daycare center or in a dense residential neighborhood with a lot of children. But she couldn’t choose an isolated industrial area, in part because many of her clients use public transit.
Throughout the Portland metro area, therapists who treat sex offenders face the same limits. They have to balance their clients’ need for treatment that is confidential and accessible with the public’s fear of their clients.
“When (people) hear ‘sex offender’ in any context, it’s like going to a doctor’s office and hearing ‘cancer,'” said Thomas Brewer, supervising clinical psychologist at Sunset Psychological and Counseling Services, which has a contract with Multnomah County to treat sex offenders. “They react out of fear.”
But there are no state laws, local ordinances or official guidelines to direct these clinics to appropriate locations. Multnomah and Clackamas counties, which pay Whole Systems to treat a portion of the sex offenders under supervision, don’t provide input either.
Patrick Schreiner, district manager in the county’s department of community justice, said in an email that the county doesn’t have the authority to tell Whole Systems where to locate.
“Neither Multnomah County nor any of the other 35 Oregon counties have a say in where sex offender treatment clinics are located because there is not a provision under state law which governs where they provide services,” he wrote.
Jenna Morrison, the community corrections manager in Clackamas County, said clinics avoid areas where clients could violate the conditions of their supervision.
“You wouldn’t put an A.A. meeting in the back of a bar,” she said.
Clackamas County currently supervises about 350 sex offenders, while Multnomah County supervises 750. Not all of the sex offenders under supervision are receiving treatment.
While therapists must deal with limitations on where they can open their offices, it’s not an issue statewide, said Kraig Bohot, a spokesman for the Oregon Sex Offender Treatment Board.
“It’s never really been a not-in-my-backyard issue until the specific incidents in Sellwood,” he said.
Manno, a licensed counselor, started Whole Systems in 2003. Her clinic treats anyone affected by sexual abuse. Manno also trains educators and others on treatment of sex offenders and the rules that govern their conduct.
She has a five-year contract with Multnomah County that pays more than $225,000 and a one-year contract with Clackamas County for $47,500.
Whole Systems moved to 7304 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. in Sellwood-Moreland in December 2011. Manno attracted little attention until the following November, when residents held a community meeting to express anger about the clinic’s proximity to a Montessori school and a family-oriented neighborhood.
Residents also said Manno didn’t do enough to notify the neighborhood about the clinic when it opened.
Manno said she didn’t know there was a Montessori school nearby until after she had moved in. It was “very disappointing” when she found out, she said.
She added that she relied on her landlord to inform surrounding businesses of her arrival. “The public shouldn’t expect us to be the ones to get the word out,” Manno said. “I think Sellwood was expecting me to go out door to door.”
Whole Systems moved out of the Milwaukie Avenue office at the end of December. For the first two months of 2013, Manno rented space at the Mead Building, at 421 S.W. Fifth Ave., where other Multnomah County community justice programs are housed. She also rented an office in Oregon City.
As she was looking for a new office, Manno said, she drove through some neighborhoods to make sure her clinic would fit. But it was difficult because of the density of commercial, residential and office development.
“There’s so much mixed-use in Portland it’s hard to find something that doesn’t include housing,” she said.
Whole Systems is now next to a clinic that provides addiction treatment. Plaza 125 is also home to other mental health providers, attorneys, dentists and other white-collar businesses.
Manno said she thinks her new neighbors will be less upset about the clinic.
“There aren’t as many houses around us,” she said. “I don’t know of any single-family houses around us.”
In fact, single-family homes line the streets behind the office complex. There are also several apartment complexes nearby.
But people in the surrounding homes, as well as in the office complex, offered muted responses to news of the clinic’s arrival.
Of more than a dozen people interviewed, most said they hadn’t been informed that Whole Systems had moved in. But none expressed outright opposition.
Leah Hunter said she brings her 8-year-old son to a dentist in the complex once or twice a month. Any parent would be concerned about a clinic that treats sex offenders, Hunter said.
“But I would be more concerned if they weren’t receiving care,” she said. “Then they wouldn’t be monitored.”
Marcia Harris is the director of client education for Senior Helpers, which provides in-home care for the elderly and has an office in Plaza 125. She supports Whole Systems’ mission.
“Everybody can be helped and everybody deserves to be helped,” she said.
But Harris said she was initially miffed that she hadn’t been informed of the clinic’s arrival. “The more information you have, the better decisions you can make about your environment and your comings and goings,” Harris said.
Manno said she has sent letters to nearby businesses and held an open house. One person showed up.
The primary fear about having sex offenders nearby is that they will target random children. But studies consistently show that the majority of sexual abuse victims know their attackers. And not all sex offenders victimize children.
One of the challenges people have is they assume that people who sexually offend are all the same,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Beaverton-based Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “We know that that’s not true.”
Manno’s current concerns are based on her experience in Sellwood, where she said one news crew came to the building’s back entrance and knocked on the door. She worried that her staff and clients wouldn’t be able to leave without being on television. Manno said she doesn’t want their safety or confidentiality compromised.
She’s eager to explain her work to neighbors.
“The more they can know, the better,” said Manno, adding, “It’s natural to have fear, but a lot of that is based on not having all the information.”