There Are Very Few Places for Mentally Disabled Sex Offenders in America
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There Are Very Few Places for Mentally Disabled Sex Offenders in America

Prison is not a mental health facility.

David Kienholz’s room is a shrine to heavy-equipment brochures and toy tractors. Most days, he carries around a phonebook-sized catalogue whose cover reads “Caterpillar Performance Handbook.” The handbook is an annual compilation of farm equipment and engine parts, which Kienholz spends his free time memorizing.

In the common room of a community home in Missoula, Montana, Kienholz traces the black-and-white images of tractors with his index finger. “When it comes to book learning, it’s just over my head,” he says, his brow furrowed. He stares intently at the captions underneath the pictures. “I’ve been practicing, though.”


Kienholz, 40, was born with mild mental retardation. He’s one of roughly 8 million people in the United States with an intellectual disability (ID)—a spectrum term that encompasses a range of conditions, including severe autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and Down syndrome, in addition to mental retardation. The staff at the community home has to double-check that he does his chores and hover closely as he brushes his teeth.

His arms are mapped with scabs he picks open during bouts of anxiety. He oscillates between glee and angst with the capriciousness of an 11-year-old. He is also a registered sex offender. Kienholz lives with six other men who are both intellectually disabled and included on a national list of people convicted of sexual misconduct. Their crimes range from watching child pornography to masturbating in public to sexually assaulting a four-year-old relative.

Their house, nestled at the base of Missoula’s dimpled foothills alongside other modest ranch-style homes, belongs to a local nonprofit called Opportunity Resources, which oversees one of the only programs in America that offers reintegration services specifically for people with both an ID and a history of sexual delinquency. The community home’s staff keeps Kienholz and his housemates under 24-hour supervision, chaperoning them to work, the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and date nights, with the goal of teaching the men the risks and triggers that led to their offenses. The hope is that one day they can safely move back into society.


On a cold Friday night in November, three staff members play cards at a gouged wooden dining-room table. Two of Kienholz’s housemates sit across from them and flip through pages of a folder that catalogues movies the tenants have requested to watch over the years. The staff reviews and rates each movie before a tenant can watch it. If a film is not approved, it’s labeled with a brief warning next to its title. “Explicit violence against women,” “plot to kill a pedophile,” “rape scene,” and “child as the primary actor” ban a trove of Disney movies and Hollywood blockbusters. Corkboards pinned with medication routines and weekly menus line the bisque-colored dining room walls, next to schedules for community Spanish classes, church groups, and YMCA dancing lessons. Tonight is Kienholz’s weekly visit to the heavy-machinery showroom, RDO Equipment. Despite the dreary weather outside, he is upbeat and eager to get out of the house. Clutching the heavy-machinery operating manual against his chest, he walks through the kitchen and stands by a padlocked door next to the dining room table.

“Time for my Scooby Snack,” he says. A staff member glances at his watch and stands to unlock the door. He hands Kienholz a small plastic medicine cup of pills. Kienholz puts the cup to his lips and throws his head back as if taking a shot. “Okay,” he says, wiping his mouth, “let’s rock and roll.”

He fist-bumps each one of his housemates, zips his winter coat, and follows a chaperone out the front door.


An estimated 30-40 percent of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities will also be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life. Throughout most of the 20th century, the majority of America’s ID and mentally ill population was institutionalized in state-run hospitals. Abuse, neglect, and disease were rampant. The national model has slowly moved away from custodial facilities and focused resources on community programs and group homes, but it wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 that comprehensive civil rights were guaranteed to ID and mentally ill people by law. Still, many states have delivered inadequate programming in place of shuttered state-run institutions. The result has been a soaring prison population.

“Prisons are the new mental health facilities, but prison is not a hospital. That’s not the population those types of facilities were originally intended to serve,” says Robin Wilson, a forensic psychologist who has worked with sex offenders for more than two decades. While people with an ID account for only about 1 percent of the general population, they represent 1 in 5 federal and state prisoners—and anywhere from 2-40 percent of sexual offenders .

Kienholz’s parents, who both have an intellectual disability, gave him up for adoption at birth. Raised with little supervision by his grandmother and a fleet of uncles and cousins in rural Idaho, he endured years of physical and sexual abuse. An older cousin molested and eventually raped him while he was in his grandmother’s care. Sometimes Kienholz blurts this out mid-conversation with disconcerting abruptness before moving on to a new topic, as if he’d only noted the weather: “And that’s when my cousin raped me the first time. I’ve read a lot about wolverines.”


People with intellectual disabilities experience some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation. As many as 83 percent of women and 32 percent of men with an ID are assaulted at some point in their lives. Nearly a third of the men in Kienholz’s program, which is called Specialized Services, reportedly have been victims of sexual abuse. “It happens all the time,” says Kienholz’s counselor, Anne Harris. “People don’t realize just how vulnerable this population is.”

Whether childhood sexual trauma has any weight on an ID victim taking on the role of perpetrator is hotly contested. Harris says that for sex offenders with intellectual disabilities who were abused as children, their victimization may develop into a learned behavior—something they were taught at the hands of relatives and caregivers, and therefore came to view as normal. Despite their overrepresentation among sex offenders, there is currently no direct link between individuals with intellectual disabilities and an increased risk of committing a sexual offense. They are also more likely to waive their rights, make false confessions, and face longer sentences.

At 13, Kienholz was put on juvenile probation for fondling a nine-year-old male cousin. He enrolled in a court-ordered cognitive-treatment program in Idaho for youth who display deviant sexual behavior. The intervention was enough to keep him out of trouble for several years, but in 1996, shortly after his 18th birthday, he was charged with sexually abusing another young cousin. He was placed on the national sex-offender registry and put on probation. With limited supervision and support in place, he quickly racked up probation violations: He stole a pair of women’s underwear, left his residence against his probation officer’s orders, got a hold of pornography, and violated a no-contact order.


In 1999, Kienholz was sentenced to hard time and spent five years in an Idaho state prison among the general population. After another brief stint in jail in 2005 for failing to register as a sex offender, a case manager connected him with Opportunity Resources, which operates more than a dozen homes in Missoula for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He arrived withdrawn, depressed, and suicidal.

On the drive to RDO Equipment, Kienholz can barely contain his excitement. “I’m going to my favorite store,” he says three times during the trip. He drums on his knees and rubs his hands on his pants, calling out the make and model of heavy machinery we pass along on the way. His eagerness grows with each red light. “Dagnabbit,” he says. “You bloody light. Your mama’s a stop sign.”

Every week, Kienholz has to fill out an activity request form describing what activities he wants to do, what triggers he might encounter, and how he’ll mitigate the situation in the event those triggers arise. He’s not allowed to use multi-stall bathrooms. He’s not allowed to look at kids’ media, including cartoons. If a group of children suddenly descends wherever he is, he’s to leave the area with his chaperone immediately.

The RDO Equipment showroom is just outside of town, off a highway littered with used-car dealerships and steel-pole barns. Its industrial facade is lit up in neon John Deere green and yellow. Inside, the walls are lined with farming and lawn equipment. The air is thick with the smell of tire rubber. We arrive at almost 5 pm, and the store is empty save for a few salesmen and a cashier. The chaperone, a part-time employee and college student, tells me that he tries to schedule these visits for just before the store closes so they can avoid crowds and children. “It’s just easier that way,” he says.


Kienholz moves with purpose past a row of riding lawn mowers and snow plows, stopping only to size up the bright green tractor in the front of the showroom. At the toy aisle, he pulls out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and starts writing down prices and model numbers. “I’ve loved heavy machinery since I was just a kid, just knee-high to a grasshopper,” he says, studying the back packaging of a model dump truck.

Fifteen minutes later, he has touched almost every boxed tractor on the shelf. “Can we look at the pamphlets?” he asks the chaperone. They walk over to a sales center lined with cubicles. The salesmen barely lift their eyes as Kienholz walks through. He’s a familiar sight.

“My uncle used to tell me that I was too dumb and stupid to own any of this stuff,” Kienholz says, rotating a brochure rack. “He used to call my pamphlets ‘fire starters,’ cause he said that’s all they were good for.” He pulls out a handful of pamphlets showcasing different tractor models and reads their numbers out loud before tucking them under his arm.

The national sex-offender registry was developed in response to a string of heinous, high-profile sex crimes throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s. States responded with punitive legislation that varied from mandatory minimum sentences to indefinite detention. In 2006, many of these piecemeal laws came together under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act—a federal statute that provides anyone with a convicted offender’s photos, addresses, crimes, and recidivism risk with the click of a mouse. It also bars lifetime registered sex offenders from public housing, regardless of their treatment completed or disability. While the national registry has the potential to help protect communities, the barriers and stigmas it has led to can actually exacerbate recidivism, says Fabian Saleh, a forensic psychologist and an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “It creates further marginalization and isolation,” Saleh says. “This is why you may see people living under bridges, because they are not welcome within communities. They don’t get housing, they have a difficult time getting employment, and this is especially true for the intellectually disabled population.” The likelihood of violating parole increases significantly when an offender cannot secure housing or employment. In 2015, the California Supreme Court overturned key components of a decades-old law that enforced such housing restrictions through “predator-free zones.” The court wrote that the restrictions not only barred offenders from 97 percent of available housing; it increased their chances of becoming homeless, prevented them from getting jobs, and limited their access to “medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative social services.”


Nearly all of Missoula’s rental-management companies refuse to rent to sex offenders, regardless of their disability or treatment completed. Those offenders who do manage to find a place to live still often struggle to make ends meet. This is especially true for offenders with an ID. Under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are able to pay workers with disabilities less than the Federal minimum wage if the disability impacts the worker’s “productive capacity.” The men in Kienholz’s house work five days a week at an Opportunity-owned woodshop, carving lumber and plywood into construction stakes, gateposts, and picnic tables. For Kienholz, it’s not uncommon for a 36-hour workweek to garner a $153 check—roughly half of the state minimum wage.

Even with housing and employment, the men in Opportunity’s program have trouble integrating. When the first Specialized Services community house was purchased eight years ago, Ken Brown, the director of the program, spoke to neighbors about the intentions and the safety measures the 24-hour staff had in place: All tenants are subject to random room and body searches. Weekly meetings with a therapist, caseworker, and for many, a parole officer are mandatory. Drugs, alcohol, and porn are prohibited. Tenants must remain at least arm’s-length away from other people at all times. Staff read all mail prior to tenant receipt and review all coupon books and newspapers, blacking out any material containing children or sexually suggestive images. Still, some of the neighbors have pushed back against the organization’s presence, including verbally harassing the tenants and threatening them with physical violence.


Of the 28 registered offenders enrolled in Opportunity's Specialized Services, Brown estimates that 13 will need lifetime support. The rest are expected to transition back into the community when their treatment is complete, which can take years depending on parole conditions, court orders, and their personal progress. When Kienholz completed parole in 2011, he was given the option of continuing in Opportunity’s program with the financial support of Disability Services. He didn’t think twice about it. Without the buffer Opportunity offers, he’s worried how he’ll be treated in the community. “People want us dead or locked up forever,” he says. “They don’t even know what I did and they hate me.”

On a frozen afternoon in December 2014, Kienholz, two staff chaperones, and two of his housemates load into an Opportunity van for their weekly drive. Every Sunday, the group drives through town to a fringe of urban wilderness to count deer. Kienholz opens his tractor catalogue and readies his pen. Months of tallies are inked across the back page. He spots the first deer in a suburban yard just a few blocks from the community house and marks the page. He is the only one keeping count.

The houses in town are ablaze with Christmas lights and mechanical reindeer. “Those deer don’t count,” Kienholz says. His housemates laugh. Our warm breath fogs the car windows, creating a misty canvas the men quickly cover with finger drawings. The drive is punctuated by bursts of excitement each time we come upon a white tail prancing through a front lawn, or over a crosswalk, or across a snow-dusted prairie.

The conversation fades as we reach downtown Missoula, the streets gaudy with Christmas décor. It’s a difficult time of year for many of the clients in the Special Services program. Either because of distance or court orders, most will not see their families for the holidays. At a red light downtown, the silence breaks. The doors of a local movie theater open and spew a festive crowd onto the sidewalk. The Sound of Music has been showing all weekend at the theater, and within seconds the corner is streaming with children bundled in winter coats like plump little elves. Toddlers rest on their parents’ hips while their older siblings stomp and shriek with laughter.

“Look down, gentlemen,” the chaperone driving commands. The men respond on cue and drop their gazes to their laps. The driver takes a quick detour, and we pull away from the crowd and onto a quiet neighborhood street with houses dressed in garland. The driver looks over his shoulder and checks the mirrors.

“All right,” he says, “we’re safe.” The men lift their heads.

Update 12/14/17: A previous version of this story was titled, "Should the Law Treat Mentally Disabled Sex Offenders Differently?"

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