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Neighbors force counseling clinic to move from Westmoreland

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - The Director of Resolutions Northwest Betsy Coddington, who co-owns the storefront occupied by the clinic, says that troubling questions raised by the intense community reaction remain unanswered.When individuals in Westmoreland recently heard that a psychological counseling clinic moved in a year ago at 7304 S.E Milwaukie Avenue – “Whole Systems Counseling & Consultation” – a firestorm of protest erupted in early November.

According to its website, Whole Systems “specializes in the treatment of adjudicated, mandated adult males and females who have been convicted of a sexual offense”.

Days before a “strategy meeting” was called, via widely-circulated e-mails, Llewellyn Elementary School PTA President Robin Springer, a former Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor, announced a meeting would be held at Staccato Gelato in Westmoreland on the evening of November 12.

In her email, dated November 10, and sent from a corporate account at “windermere.com”, she pointed out that the building which Whole Systems leases is owned by R&S Ventures, LLC.

In this email, Springer listed the building owner’s names – Ron Shaw and Richard Root – and listed both owners’ home addresses, found in the corporate records.

On November 12, at the announced hour, the meeting shifted from the gelato shop across the street to the boardroom of Windermere Cronin & Caplan Realty Group, Inc., which was soon filled to overflowing, with some would-be attendees out on the sidewalk.

Resident and parent Kathy Diamond joined Springer at the front table.

The meeting began by organizers sending around a sign-up sheet for what the organizers referred to as the “Sellwood Community Action Group”.

“This is our meeting,” Springer began. “We all need to have a united front. I don't want to go back and say ‘who, when, where, what’. It’s not a productive thing to do today. What we need to do is move forward and figure out how we're going to move together to get this entity removed from our neighborhood.”

After a hearty round of applause died down, Springer continued, “If that is not your goal of being here tonight, or anyone wants to have discussions about another way to do this, please feel free to walk out the door and you can go discuss that someplace else.

“If you want to stay in this room and figure out a way to get this business out of our neighborhood, then please feel free to stay, Okay?” Springer continued.

One of those urged to leave the room was Whole Systems’ Program Director Johneen Manno Verbeck, who left, holding a sheaf of literature in hand.

After telling the nature of Whole Systems’ business and clientele, Springer continued, “I cannot find any statute or City code or Ordinance and would prohibit this type of non-residential facility for people, in the neighborhood.

“So, to me, that’s a bigger question, which is why isn’t there some kind of protection in place to have a treatment facility?” Springer asked “I don’t care if it’s outpatient or inpatient. If it’s an outpatient facility primarily treating sex offenders, then it doesn’t belong in the middle of a neighborhood. It doesn’t belong less than a block from a [Montessori] school, or less than a block from the Boys & Girls Club.”

A couple sitting near the front asked if they could provide information regarding mental health issues. After heated words were exchanged, the couple was informed that they were attending a “private meeting”, and were asked to leave the room.

A woman, who said she was the owner of the Sellwood Montessori School, spoke up and said, “There was no outreach to us at all. Our children are very safe because they are always supervised, and my husband Joe is always out on the playground, as a deterrent – he’s a big guy.”

After detailing why she considers it a “safety issue”, the school owner added, “It’s almost like it’s been this big secret. There were some people that knew, but didn't tell for whatever reason. It may be a legitimate business, Mr. BEE, it’s your responsibility as a community newspaper said let the community know that business is there,” she said, to this reporter and to Editor Eric Norberg.

Outside the meeting, the school’s owner confronted Verbeck as television cameras rolled, saying, “You have never contacted us, ever, ever. We just found out on Thursday.”

Outside the meeting, Verbeck told the media, “I can understand where they’re coming from. I'm a parent myself. But we are trying to provide something that truly will help people become more safe.” Verbeck also told media that she’d “worked with the Boys & Girls Club”, creating a “risk management plan”.

Boys & Girls Club plan disputed

In a telephone interview, Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metropolitan Area Chief Executive Officer Erin Hubert said that their Vice President of Operations, Daniel Laurendeau, had attended the neighborhood meeting.

Due to the concerns raised at the meeting, and the mention that Whole Systems had proffered a “risk management plan”, they “pulled everyone in to the office to talk about this,” Hurbert said. “We found nothing in writing; no plan, letter of understanding, or ‘Good Neighbor Agreement’ – nothing,” Hubert said.

Staffers did say that, when they learned early that Whole Systems was moving in, a couple of staff members went to speak with the clinic’s director, “because they were concerned about it being so close to the Club,” Hubert said.

Hubert mentioned that she, and several of her staff members, were new in their positions – coming well after Whole Systems moved into the neighborhood.

However, Hubert also said she had not seen or heard of any reports of children who attend club functions being harmed or harassed.

THE BEE contacted the former co-director, Joe Marziello, now with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia Inc., by telephone. “Agreement or plan? No, we stumbled upon [the clinic] like you did. No, absolutely no.”

Although THE BEE contacted Whole Systems numerous times for an interview with Verbeck, she did not respond to the requests.

Verbeck did speak freely during the meeting out on the sidewalk to reporters, however, saying that, as mental health care professionals, they are required to balance the rights of her clients, who also include family members of sex offenders and victims of sex abuse, against the concerns of neighbors.

“People who have committed offenses also have rights that we have to follow and we have to follow our ethics,” Verbeck stated to a local television station reporter.

Pressure at the PTA

At the Llewellyn Elementary School PTA meeting on November 13, Springer, the organization’s president, started out with an agenda item called “Public Safety Update”, with 20 minutes allocated and not fully utilized.

Springer told the group that the landlord and tenant had come to an agreement to let the tenant out of the lease, and “go month to month”. “But she could be there up to six months, and that's unacceptable,” Springer said. “We must get her out of there now.”

A parent, Sean DuBois, suggested that parents should both put pressure on the counties that are contracting with the clinic – and change the rules so this kind of tenant could not operate in a similar neighborhood.

DuBois echoed sentiments stated at the previous evening’s meeting that a clinic treating convicted sex offenders would not be appropriate within any neighborhood.

Neighbors picket office building On November 15, a group gathered on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue to picket in front of the Whole Systems offices. When the television cameras rolled, protesters turned their picket signs to face the camera light and chanted, “What do we want? Get out! When do we want it? Now!”

Resident Shannon Quimby stepped forward as spokesperson. “We want them out of our neighborhood. And we don’t want them to move into any other neighborhood.”

Quimby said that, as a second-generation resident, she’s concerned for her son growing up in the neighborhood. “I do not believe that we should have 140 convicted sex offenders being bused in, taking transportation,n or driving here, to be counseled in a neighborhood, surrounded by children and women.”

Asked about her specific concerns, Quimby replied, “It’s very scary; that a sex offender will commit a crime. Just the thought of it is horrific. There have been reports of loitering, and an appropriate behavior, and harassment of young girls coming to and from school. Neighbors have complained and called the police, not knowing this clinic has been here.”

After the interview, Quimby asked why THE BEE hadn’t covered the story before the protests.

We told her that, when we first heard about Whole Systems in July, our research showed it was a legally-operating business with a City Business License – and that clearly Multnomah County officials knew of the clinic’s location, because they sent clients to their door.

Further, we continued, checking Portland’s “Crime-Mapper” system, both then, and now, we couldn’t find a sex crime reported in the area relating to the clinic. We asked Portland Police Bureau Public Information Officer Sgt. Pete Simpson to “double-check” – and he sent back a response that, in checking in area of the clinic, he found “not a single report at the address since at least December, 2009.”

Finally – about the accusation that THE BEE was “keeping a secret” from neighbors, we responded that seven individuals had contacted this reporter since July, telling of their concern about the clinic, but not one of them had had the courage of their convictions to allow their concerns to be quoted. Thus there was nothing left for us to report.

Quimby responded, “It’s just the wrong place for it – near a Montessori school and the Boys & Girls Club.”

As a girl walked past, the picketers encouraged her to turn around and speak with reporters, including THE BEE.

Over her smart-phone’s speaker, Sellwood Middle School student Caitlin Orrell’s mother, Connie Orrell, gave her daughter permission to speak with reporters.

“It's kind of nerve-wracking to find out that there is a childcare center a block away from the sex offender clinic,” Caitlin said. “It kind of scares me, because every month we have dances in the evening, and kids come out with their parents.”

She said she’s been walking past the clinic, along Milwaukee Avenue for about a year.

“Have you ever seen anything, or heard, anything going on here during that year?” THE BEE asked.

“Not really,” she replied. I see people standing around kind of looking at me, so I put up my hood and zip up my jacket and this quickly walk on home. But, actually, I usually see them down by the 7-Eleven Store [several blocks from of the clinic]. I see them looking at me looking kind of funny. Also people at that bus stop. There’s a lot of creepy people around.”

Shares unasked questions

It was suggested that the indignant neighbors seek mediation through Resolutions Northwest, a mediation service used by the City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement to settle neighborhood disputes.

In Springer’s e-mail, she wrote, “In a twist of irony, the director of Resolutions Northwest, Betsy Coddington, is also listed as the property owner [of the Woodstock neighborhood house street address] (along with Richard Root …).

Coddington spoke with THE BEE in Resolutions Northwest’s conference room.

“No one has contacted us to set up mediation,” she began.

“I really haven’t been involved at all, other than being told a lot of hearsay, from folks who I trust who have it, at least, half right.”

More than anything, Coddington said, she was really “discouraged and frustrated” by the way neighbors approached the process.

“I’m almost positive that the result would have been the same, even if a different process had been used. But, it seems that hysteria and fear-mongering is, in my mind, not the best way to resolve issues like this.”

The Woodstock resident said she and her husband were not brought directly into the hubbub. “Ron (Shaw) dealt with at all, apparently because they preferred to deal with him as a resident of Sellwood. He’s the one Robin calls ‘morally reprehensible’.”

Whole Systems will leave the neighborhood, Coddington said, but in her mind, questions remain unanswered.

“The biggest question is, ‘Is anyone going to step up and try to repair the harms that have been done?’ Not everyone has supported these hysterical meetings and protests, demanding this business move out immediately. Some people support Ron, and recognize all the good he’s done for our community.

For example, Ron Shaw, Vice President of Oaks Bottom Lions Club, sells the placement of American flags to area businesses during the holidays, she said. “It’s my understanding that some business and property owners wouldn’t buy a Lions Club American flag this year until Ron was replaced by someone else.

“Is there going to be any validity to comments made by any of the folks who have spearheaded this effort, and may be spearheading the next crisis? Has their reputation become one of distrust?

“Has anyone thought about what impact immediately moving [Whole Systems] has on the single mother who runs the counseling center? Where is the compassion for her and her family?

“Who’s next? That certainly a question that has run through my mind.

“Does Robin [Springer] now want to approve the next tenant we have in the building? How far does this go?”

When we spoke with the pastor of an area church about this story, the lingering question, “Who’s next?” was a very real and ominous one, he said.

“Did you know that six churches in the area hold weekly meetings for men who are seeking counsel and support to heal what they admit is ‘sex addiction’ to pornography and other forms?” the pastor wondered.

Whole Systems announced at the December 5th General Public Meeting of SMILE, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association, that its Westmoreland clinic would be gone by December 31st.

Just where it will move to remains unclear. At the same SMILE meeting, Springer and Quimby seemed to suggest that such a clinic should not be placed near any residential area of the city, and were circulating a petition asking that rules be implemented to require that restriction. They declined to consider expanding the petition to apply similar rules to facilities serving any other types of convicted felons.