As many as 54 registered sex offenders were ushered out of a trailer park on the outskirts of Allapattah last week by probation officers from the Florida Department of Corrections after the state discovered the park was too close to a center for troubled youths.
The offenders were told to leave because of a strict Miami-Dade County ordinance that doesn’t permit them to live within 2,500 feet of a school or anywhere children might congregate. The ordinance exceeds the state’s 1,000-foot limit and has caused headaches over the past several years for local and state officials, as well as sex offenders, who are forced to shuttle from place to place as children’s gathering spots are discovered.
This is the third high-profile removal of offenders since 2007, when a group was found living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Last year another group was forced to leave a Shorecrest street corner.
This time the issue is a school for troubled kids called The Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services, which is within 2,500 feet of the River Park Trailer Court at 2260 NW 27th Ave., where the offenders were living. State officials say they only recently learned the trailer park was near the youth center, though the center has been a drop-off point for troubled kids for the state’s Department of Children & Families for years.
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“We were unaware that facility was considered a school,” said Misty Cash, deputy communications director for the state Department of Corrections. “When we became aware, we’re going to do what the law says.”
The Miami Bridge houses mostly runaways and troubled children who are too old for foster homes. About four months ago, when representatives from the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust visited the Miami Bridge, they realized its proximity to River Park.
Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book said his staff then contacted corrections, and Corrections Circuit Administrator Maria DiBernardo told Book the Miami Bridge wasn’t listed as a gathering spot for children, as it should have been.
A Miami-Dade County website shows River Park is within 2,500 feet of several sites where children congregate, including the Miami Bridge. A disclaimer on the site says the information is gathered from a multitude of sources and may not be up to date. Most of the offenders removed from the trailer park now spend evenings at a warehouse district next to train tracks at Northwest 71st Street and 36th Court, in unincorporated Miami-Dade across the street from Hialeah. They sleep outside without a roof over their heads, urinating and defecating in a nearby field behind some trees.
Some sleep in their cars, others in small tents. State law forces the offenders to register with local and state authorities once they leave prison and after they find a place to live. They must remain there between 10 p.m. at night and 6 a.m. They can leave during other hours of the day, but still must retain a 1,000-foot distance from places where children gather.
One of the offenders who have been sleeping in the parking lot since Friday is Ernesto Rodríguez, 74. He’s a cancer survivor who breathes through a hole in his throat. .
“We have no power here. I have to wait until the morning to go home and clean my throat,” said Rodriguez, who sleeps on a stretcher at night.
Another offender living there who only gave his last name as Rodriguez, said, “They treat us worse than they treat animals. If they see a dog on the street, they rescue him.”
Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Det. Robin Pinkard said the department’s sex crimes unit doesn’t have an issue with the offenders’ new location. The county’s website also shows it’s clear of gathering spots for children.
“They checked it out and it’s not in violation of the Florida statute or county ordinance,” said Pinkard.
Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, lost a legal battle in 2009 when her agency fought on behalf of the group of sex offenders who were living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The ACLU argued the state’s 1,000-foot law should preempt the county ordinance. The case was dismissed, a ruling later affirmed by an appeals court.
“It is Draconian, it is counterproductive,” Kayanan said of the county ordinance. “It should distinguish between offenders that pose a true danger to society and those who don’t.”
Last week’s removal of the sex offenders has become commonplace since the county passed its sex offender ordinance in 2007. The removal also highlights the complexities of dealing with the offenders at various government levels.
Most of the men at River Park had been living at the trailer park, mostly out of sight, for years. They were only removed last week after Miami-Dade police and state corrections planned an enforcement action — then got their signals mixed.
Police were ready to take action on July 29, after conferring with the State Attorney’s office. Before they did, the department’s sexual crimes unit told the state of its plan. That forced the hand of DiBernardo, Corrections’ circuit administrator, who issued an email to her staff on July 29 that the offenders would be receiving notice by local police that they had to move within five days.
“They [sex offenders] will also need to be instructed by their probation officer that they must move and case notes entered. We can’t tell them where they should go. They will be required to find an address and you will need to check to see if it is not in violation of the ordinance,” wrote DiBernardo.
What DiBernardo didn’t know at the time was that county police had decided to back off the plan to remove the offenders.
“We were going to do an enforcement detail,” said Miami-Dade police Spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta. “But some issues came up, so we got the halt.”
When probation officers showed up at the park last week it caused a mad scramble, with about four dozen sex offenders packing up and leaving hastily. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show there were 54 offenders living at River Park. State officials believe there were actually only 45 there at the time.
Cash, the corrections spokewoman, said the state was unaware the trailer park was “within the hot zone.” She said the state didn’t even know Miami Bridge was a school. She wouldn’t blame anyone for the mix-up, saying her department acted only after meeting with the county school board and law enforcement officials.
“We gave [the sex offenders] written notice on Monday [July 29] that they had to leave by Friday, ”Aug. 2, Cash said. “The offenders were given notice in writing. I know some of our officers did go.”
The plight of the sex offenders first surfaced in 2007 with the discovery that many were living in a makeshift shantytown under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. As the camp grew, national news outlets picked up the story and local leaders like the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust were pressed to find them housing. Most of the offenders moved to Homestead. Then in early 2012 another group of offenders were found living on a sidewalk in the Miami neighborhood of Shorecrest, just off the northwest corner of Northeast 79th Street and 10th Avenue.
They were forced to leave after Miami commissioners turned a vacant piece of nearby land into a park. A fire station is now being built on that street corner.