Gaps revealed in sex offender info, youth safety policies

Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office says it must rely on offenders for information; Local groups lack youth protection policies

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 6, 2013 in Breaking News

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Recent interactions between a registered sex offender and a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth services agency have revealed gaps in both law enforcement knowledge about some sex offenders’ past crimes and the strength of youth safety and protection policies among Charlotte’s and the region’s most recognizable and active LGBT community organizations.

On Tuesday, qnotes published an in-depth report exploring a new non-profit organization, EMIRE House, and its founder Brian Brigham, a registered sex offender convicted in a South Carolina federal court in 1999 for possession of child pornography and for communicating with and sexually enticing a 13-year-old male and 16-year-old male.

Tuesday’s report was first prompted by Brigham’s January visit to the offices of Time Out Youth, which serves young people ages 11-20.

“We wanted to make sure we did what we could to make the community aware of who he is and what his history is,” said Laurie Pitts, Time Out Youth’s programs director, who noted concern about Brigham’s outreach efforts and his desire to work with young adults ages 18-26.

Brigham has said he is doing nothing illegal and shouldn’t be judged by his past. His wants his new organization to help young adults in need of housing, jobs and education and has said he deserves a second chance.

“My past is my past,” he said. “I’m not proud of my past. I’m not proud of what has happened and what hasn’t happened. We are not the sum total of our past. We are what our present is, period.”

‘All precautions’

In late January, qnotes requested information on youth safety and protection policies and practices from 10 organizations in Charlotte, as well as two statewide organizations in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Time Out Youth had some of the most stringent policies. The group requires extensive background checks and reference checks for volunteers and also requires them to attend a mandatory, day-long orientation prior to beginning their work with the organization. Each volunteer must also sign an agreement clearly outlining standards of behavior and conduct.

“We take all precautions to make sure our youth are safe,” Rodney Tucker, Time Out Youth’s executive director, said, “We put every protection in place so that when they are here, it is safe for them to be here.”

Tucker said his group’s policies were put into practice immediately after Brigham’s visit to the organization’s offices. When he and other staff discovered Brigham was a registered sex offender, Tucker said he instructed his staff not to allow Brigham back on the premises. Tucker also consulted with members of his board of directors.

Tucker also said his organization felt the need to report the incident to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. CMPD Spokesperson Keith Trietley could not find a report regarding Tucker’s Jan. 20 call and police apparently took no action on the matter. Trietley could not comment on whether Brigham was currently the subject of a police investigation.

Brigham might have violated state law when he visited Time Out Youth. In North Carolina, some registered sex offenders are prohibited from visiting some locations frequented by minors. Specifically, offenders convicted of rape or other sexual contact with minors or any offense where a victim was under the age of 16 years old, are prohibited from being on the premises of any place where social, recreational or educational activities for minors are regularly scheduled.

A subsequent investigation by qnotes also found that Brigham was likely using Facebook under a pseudonym. He also admitted he had recently signed up for Twitter. State law prohibits all registered sex offenders from creating or maintaining accounts on social networking websites.

Brigham told qnotes he wasn’t aware of any of the restrictions and thought they applied only while on parole or probation. He said he only went to Time Out Youth’s offices to meet Tucker, with whom he had spoken a day prior.

“I went there to meet Rodney [Tucker] during the day and I deliberately went during the day because most people are in school,” Brigham said. “I honestly had no idea. I went there to meet Rodney because he called me. It was my first time there.”

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office is tasked with compiling and maintaining information on local sex offenders. Director of Communications Julia Rush said any law enforcement agency, including local police, “should respond to a concern about a registered sex offender they feel may be a threat to children.”

“…[T]he Sheriff’s Office frequently responds to questions and concerns about registered sex offenders, up to and including making visits to the questionable locations,” Rush said via email.

Tamara Rhode, who oversees the county’s sex offender registration process, encouraged members of the public with concerns or questions to call the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office’s registration department. “They may also contact any arresting agency for immediate action,” she said via email.

Gaps in law enforcement knowledge

The report on Brigham’s recent activities has also revealed some gaps in the accuracy of information available to local law enforcement agencies.

Brigham’s listing in the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry, available online to the public, omits specific information about the types of crimes for which he was convicted and notes his victims were 15-years-old. A federal indictment to which Brigham pleaded guilty, obtained through PACER, noted his victims were 13 years old and 16 years old.

qnotes asked the sheriff’s office about the discrepancies.

“His conviction is a federal offense which we do not have copies of the court documentation to determine the age [of the victims],” said Rhode, who also noted that her agency is not required to document the specific crimes committed by those offenders convicted in out-of-state or federal courts. Such offenders are listed as being “Registered as a Result of Out of State Conviction.”

Rush said some data listed in the sex offender registry is sometimes provided by the offenders themselves.

“We did request more information from the court, but have not received anything further,” Rush said. “Some of our information is based on what the defendant provided us. This is a concern the Sheriff has voiced for years, but in many cases, communicating with other law enforcement and government agencies is very difficult. The public’s perception of information-sharing is akin to the CSI shows where merely a name garners a wealth of information. We could only wish!”

Despite the discrepancies in this one case, Rush said most offenders are honest about their crimes and the sheriff’s office does follow up.

“We do have conversations with other jurisdictions to get verbal information and we do research via the internet to get as much information as possible, but we also note information provided by the person registering as well – and you would be surprised how upfront these individuals are; unfortunately, in many cases, paperwork just comes more slowly,” Rush said.

Most groups lack policies

Other community organizations in Charlotte and across the region have varying experience with youth safety and protection policies. Most said they do not work with minors and felt they didn’t have a need for such policies.

The LGBT Center of Raleigh, like Time Out Youth, does have organizational policies and practices in place. Center Executive Director James Miller said his organization also requires criminal and sex offender background checks and training for volunteers.

Similar policies do not currently exist at other organizations, including Campus Pride, Equality North Carolina, Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, South Carolina Equality and the Charlotte Business Guild. Representatives for each of the organizations said they do not work directly with minors.

Charlotte Business Guild President Teresa Davis said Guild membership and leadership are limited to those ages 21 and over. Yet, the group is also currently attempting to attract a younger, more diverse membership and said such questions “raise valuable issues.”

“To the extent that [the Guild] tries to become more attractive to younger folks (meaning folks in their 20s as opposed to folks 60+), we need to be aware of issues raised in the questions above,” Davis wrote via email in response to qnotes’ policy request.

Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte Director John Quillin said his group briefly allowed those under 18 to join the chorus but later changed their policy. They do not now allow minors to participate.

O’Neale Atkinson, operations manager for the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, also said his group didn’t have a specific policy.

“Typically, if an LGBTQ youth under the age of 18 comes to The Center for resources we do refer them to Time Out Youth (TOY),” Atkinson said via email. “Since TOY has a long history of focusing on LGBTQ youth 20 years and younger we try to utilize them as a resource for our young LGBTQ community whenever possible. This policy of referring to TOY is a common referral made by all volunteers and staff of The Center.”

Atkinson said the Center’s recent move to a larger and more accessible facility has prompted a review of the organization’s volunteer policies.

“We are currently in the process of rewriting most of our volunteer documentation to better reflect our current location and needs,” he said. “Our goal is to have updated policies and procedures for volunteers and staff in place and to host an updated volunteer orientation training for both new and old volunteers in February.”

Representatives from the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, One Voice Chorus and Charlotte Pride Band did not respond to the request for comment.