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Laura Ahearn

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner and Valerie Catright have considered running for the state senate district 1 seat.

State Sen. Ken LaValle’s (R-Port Jefferson) announcement he would not be seeking reelection has suddenly bolstered both party’s efforts to get a candidate into the 1st District seat.

Several Democrats have already stepped up to run, including Parents for Megan’s Law founder and Port Jeff resident Laura Ahearn, Suffolk County Community College student and Mount Sinai resident Skyler Johnson and Tommy John Schiavoni, a Southampton Town Board member.

Johnson said he thought it was good LaValle was retiring after so long in office. The young Democrat took a shine to a primary that “allows people to hear what candidates have to say, to help us flesh out our ideas.”

Ahearn thanked LaValle for his years of service, adding that now the venerable senator is no longer running, she “looks forward to continuing meeting and listening to voters of the 1st Senate District.”

Suffolk Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer did not return multiple requests for comment, but has made previous statements to other newspapers that have perked the ears on both sides of the aisle. 

Quickly upon the news of LaValle not seeking another term coming out Jan. 8, rumors quickly circulated who else was on the shortlist. While some rumors pointed to Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant wishing to seek the seat, she strongly put the idea aside, saying she did not want to step into that arena. 

The other person most rumored to be running was Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who has yet to make an official announcement but responded to inquiries by saying, “The county chair indicated that I would be running — his statement is correct.”

On the Republican side, rumors circulated that Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) would look to take up his cousin’s seat, but the town councilman said he currently resides outside the district boundaries and cannot run for the position. 

Suffolk Republican chairman, Jesse Garcia, said he already had a shortlist for Ken LaValle’s seat that included Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), Riverhead Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, and even Brookhaven council members Dan Panico (R-Manorville) and Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point).

Palumbo said while it would be a step-up, his current leadership position in the Assembly, and the young age of his two children, one 12 and the other 15, might make it a tough call. 

“It wouldn’t foreclose a future run,” he said.

When asked about the prospect of running, Bonner said, “There are a lot of people exploring their options. … I’ve been approached by numerous people to consider it and I am. It’s a conversation I’ll have to have with my family and husband. It is a decision that’s not to be made lightly.”

 

Laura Aheran. Photo from campaign

Laura Ahearn, longtime crime victims advocate, is ready to take on a new challenge, running for state senate. For 43 years the state District 1 seat has been held by Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), but she said it’s time for change. 

“Many members of the community are grateful for his [LaValle’s] service as I am, but it is time now for a new voice and an advocate like me to fight furiously for our community,” Ahearn said. 

For 25 years, the attorney said she has worked to keep the community safe from sexual predators. Ahearn also founded the Crime Victims Center “from a room in her home” and over the years established it into a nonprofit organization that has worked with local, state and federal law enforcement. 

“There are some serious flaws in the criminal justice reform that took place Jan. 1 that makes our communities very vulnerable.”

— Laura Ahearn

The center’s educational programs have been shown in numerous school districts, along with local colleges and universities throughout Suffolk County. 

“I want to take my advocacy experiences, my legal skills and use it to help our community, children and families up in Albany,” the executive director said. “I know my experience over the past 20 plus years positions me to take on other issues as well.”

Some issues Ahearn hopes to tackle is the recent bail reform issues and MS-13’s infiltration into Long Island schools. 

“There are some serious flaws in the criminal justice reform that took place Jan. 1 that makes our communities very vulnerable,” she said. “Bail reform was absolutely needed, because people who couldn’t afford cash bail were incarcerated, that’s not fair. But we haven’t looked at what the implications are for the community and for victims.”

Ahearn said the recent reform needs to be amended to add some discretion for judges who may need to hold certain offenders who may be eligible for automatic release. In addition, she said law enforcement and probation officers need to be given more resources to further monitor offenders of violent crimes. 

On the MS-13 front, Ahearn stressed we need to make sure we are giving schools the resources and funding they need to ramp up their security to protect students.  

Cost of living and keeping young professionals in Suffolk County have been vexing issues for elected officials. Ahearn knows this firsthand. 

“I have two grown children and they can’t afford to live on Long Island — high taxes are driving our kids out off the island,” she said. “We have to ensure that they have fair wages, educational opportunities, safe work environments and affordable housing.” 

The Port Jefferson resident said in terms of job opportunities she thought Amazon would’ve been a great opportunity for the county and if elected will strive to continue to bring businesses into the district. 

Other issues on the challenger’s radar are the ongoing opioid epidemic, curbing nitrogen pollution in local waterways, marine/wildlife conservation, phone scams targeting the elderly, tick-borne illness, among others. 

Ahearn, who graduated from Dowling College, Stony Brook University and Touro Law School, recently had a campaign kick-off event Dec. 10 and said she is looking forward to meeting and learning from movers and shakers in the area. The senate district stretches from eastern end of Suffolk County to the eastern end of Town of Brookhaven.  

“As time moves forward, I’m going to learn a lot from the advocates in the community — I’m not an expert on some issues and I want to learn from those advocates who are those experts. They have to educate me, so I can represent them,” she said. 

The attorney said the position requires one to work with everyone, something she has done for two decades, helping develop, implement and manage crime prevention programs and assist in drafting a number of state, local and federal laws. 

“I really love what I’ve been doing,” she said. “Voters have a decision to make and I have a demonstrated history of fighting for our community and if that’s what they want — someone who will fight furiously for them — then they should vote for me.”

Within the Crime Victims Center, a children’s play therapy area is designed to allow children to play out their trauma with a therapist, and to prepare for court appearances. Photo by Alex Petroski

In a time of changing cultural and societal norms related to the treatment of victims of sexual abuse, Laura Ahearn now has a movement behind her decades-long mission.

The founder of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center, a not-for-profit organization, has been a relentless advocate for victims since the late ‘90s. What started as a small operation running out of her Three Village home advocating for sex offender registration has grown into a three-pronged program that is used as a model by other advocacy groups. The CVC assists victims of child sex abuse and rape, provides  services to victims of violent crime, and assists elderly, disabled and minor victims of all crime. Its mission is now virtually a daily part of the national conversation.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment.”

— Laura Ahearn

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations like ours that have worked with child sexual abuse and adult victims of sex crimes to be able to open up a dialogue now with a higher volume of a voice with state, local and federal legislators,” Ahearn said after attending a breakfast at Stony Brook University that featured lawmakers from across Long Island and all levels of government. The meeting was part of a daylong event designed to start a conversation about localizing the national #MeToo movement, a social media campaign started by Tarana Burke, a survivor of sexual violence. Burke also attended the SBU event.

“The #MeToo movement has created an ideal climate for us to call upon legislators to help us change a culture which has minimized sexual harassment, and a society or environment whose prevailing social  attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Ahearn said.

The group has a list of legislative goals it would like to advance in 2018, like criminalizing “revenge porn” and advancing the Child Victims Act, a state law that has passed the Assembly but not the Senate, which would extend the time frame for a victim to bring forward allegations against an abuser.

Victim advocacy

Though its actual functions have evolved over the years, advocating for victims remains Ahearn’s and the CVC’s primary objective.

The center, with locations in Ronkonkoma and Patchogue, is a certified rape crisis center.
The group has long provided advocacy for child victims of sexual abuse, and has since added advocacy components for adult rape and adult domestic violence victims. In 2006, the mission shifted to provide support for victims of all violent or hate crimes.

“These are cases that are failing between the cracks and no one was helping them,” said Ahearn said, a New York State licensed attorney and social worker.

“You feel like ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”

— Sally McDonald

Since 2015, the organization has been fed cases from the Suffolk County Police Department and District Attorney’s office through a cloud-based computer software program, allowing the CVC to directly contact innocent victims to begin providing support under the direction of Mike Gunther, CVC’s director of advocacy and victim services. The cloud program has served to streamline a process it had been carrying out since 1999. Ahearn said the CVC has helped to recoup $5.5 million for Suffolk County crime victims from a county fund to cover unexpected costs for innocent victims, as some have health insurance costs or other expenses to cover in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. Currently, the CVC has between 2,500 and 3,000 cases it’s handling, and its founder said the organization is always in need of more case managers.

The group regularly sends advocates Diana Shuffler and Diana Guzman to Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a New York state initiative established to aid victims of human trafficking in every aspect of getting their life back on track, and put legal issues behind them. Prior to the program’s inception, Guzman said victims of human trafficking picked up for other crimes like prostitution were treated like criminals. The CVC even works with the FBI.

Sally McDonald, a certified therapist and victim advocate at the CVC who is passionate about the work  she does, said she has cases with victims ranging from 4 years old to adults in their 60s.

“It’s exciting — it’s so nice to see anybody do well, but especially a child,” she said of seeing someone’s life improve as a result of her work. “You feel like ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”

Ahearn stressed the importance of following up with victims and ensuring his or her traumatic incident is truly behind them.

“Whenever you’re dealing with any kind of violent crime or trauma, unless there are support services, those are individuals that are going to need help,” she said. “If they’re not getting the help they need … those kids whose families were victims of violent crime are going to gravitate toward who they believe is going to protect them, and in those communities that would be the ones that, believe it or not, are the perpetrators.”

“Whenever you’re dealing with any kind of violent crime or trauma, unless there are support services, those are individuals that are going to need help.”

— Laura Ahearn

The Ronkonkoma office features therapy rooms for all ages, including a child therapy room where kids are prepared for what to expect in a court setting, or play out personal trauma using a sandbox, toys or art therapy.

Sex offender monitoring

Megan’s Law gets its name from an incident in the mid-‘90s in which 7-year-old Megan Kanka from New Jersey was lured into a neighbor’s home, sexually assaulted and murdered. The culprit was a twice-convicted sex offender, and after a nationwide lobbying effort, Megan’s Law was passed in 1996 and required all 50 states to release information to the public about known convicted sex offenders.

Ahearn was one of those involved in the lobbying effort, and Parents for Megan’s Law was born. In 2014 the CVC implemented a new monitoring program to keep addresses and other important information about the county’s roughly 1,000 registered sex offenders current. Ahearn’s sex offender monitoring staff is comprised entirely of retired law enforcement officers, who regularly check up on the people on the list face-to-face to ensure their information is accurate and up to date.

The organization also has a Megan’s Law helpline as well as a tip line, should community members want to report anything related to a registered sex offender in their area.

Prevention

When describing the CVC’s prevention arm, Ahearn uses an analogy. Imagine you’re fishing, she says, and three separate times during the day you have to dive in the river to save people who were drowning as they headed downstream. How many times would you have to dive in the water to save a life before heading upstream to see why so many people are falling in the water and nearly drowning?

Led by prevention program manager Kim Malone, the CVC provides workshops for children, teens, parents and adults designed to empower them with knowledge and skills aimed at protecting against sexual abuse and abduction.

The CVC offers workshops for schools and organizations geared toward every age group.

To contact the Crime Victims Center call 631-689-2672 or visit www.parentsformeganslaw.org.

This story was updated Jan. 31 to correct the spelling of Laura Ahearn’s name.

By Elana Glowatz

Suffolk County is entering obscure territory this year as some sex offenders drop off the state registry and others have lost restrictions on where they can live.

Laura Ahearn has advocated for local governments to have the power to regulate where registered sex offenders live. File photo
Laura Ahearn has advocated for local governments to have the power to regulate where registered sex offenders live. File photo

It was exactly one year ago that the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that local laws restricting where sex offenders could live were invalid, following a lawsuit from a registered offender from Nassau County who challenged his own government’s rule that prohibited him from living within 1,000 feet from a school. Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote in his decision that “a local government’s police power is not absolute” and is pre-empted by state law.

State regulations already prohibit certain sex offenders who are on parole or probation from living within 1,000 feet of a school or other child care facility, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, but the local laws went further. In Suffolk County, Chapter 745 made it illegal for all registered sex offenders — not just those on parole or probation — to live within a quarter mile of schools, day care centers, playgrounds or their victims. But following Pigott’s decision, that law, while still technically on the books, is no longer enforceable.

To make matters more complicated, Jan. 1 marked the beginning of the end for some of the lowest level sex offenders on the state registry.

Offenders are grouped into one of three levels based on their perceived risk of committing another sex crime. On the lowest rung, Level 1 offenders who have not received special designations for being violent, being repeat offenders or having a “mental abnormality or personality disorder” that makes the person “likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses,” according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, are only included on the registry for 20 years from their conviction. The New York State correction law enacting that system has just turned 20 years old, meaning the earliest offenders added to the registry are beginning to drop off.

The Sex Offender Registration Act obligates Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, as well as those with the additional designations, to remain on the registry for life, although there is a provision under which certain Level 2 offenders can appeal to be removed after a period of 30 years.

At a recent civic association meeting in Port Jefferson Station, Laura Ahearn from the advocacy group Parents for Megan’s Law — which raises awareness about sex crime issues and monitors offenders — gave examples of offenders set to come off the registry this year, including a man who raped a 4-year-old girl, and another who raped and sodomized a woman.

But it doesn’t stop there.

“It is thousands over time that are going to drop off,” Ahearn said.

A database search of Level 1 offenders along the North Shore of Suffolk County turned up many offenders who had been convicted of statutory rape or possession of child pornography, and who had served little to no time in jail. However, there were more serious offenses as well.

“You know when an adult man or an adult woman rapes a 4-year-old, that is just shocking. That [should be] a lifetime registration.”
— Laura Ahearn

Some of the undesignated Level 1 offenders who were convicted shortly after the Sex Offender Registration Act was created include a Smithtown man, now 43, convicted of first-degree sexual abuse against a 19-year-old; a 61-year-old Rocky Point man who sexually abused a 12-year-old girl more than once; a Huntington man, now 40, who sexually abused an 11-year-old; and a Rocky Point man convicted of incest with a 17-year-old.

Ahearn’s group has argued that sex offenders are more likely to reoffend as time goes on. According to Parents for Megan’s Law, recidivism rates are estimated to be 14 percent after five years and 27 percent after 20 years.

One midnight in January, Suffolk County police arrested a 48-year-old man, later discovered to be a registered Level 1 sex offender, in Fort Salonga after the suspect was allegedly caught undressed inside a vehicle with a 14-year-old boy. Police reported at the time that the two arranged the meeting over a cellphone application and there had been sexual contact.

The man had been convicted of sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old girl in 2003 and was sentenced to six years of probation. His new charges included criminal sex act and endangering the welfare of a child.

“So it makes no sense logically” to let Level 1 offenders drop off the registry after 20 years, Ahearn said in Port Jefferson Station. She has advocated for the terms to be extended or to have offenders appeal to be removed from the registry, like Level 2 offenders can after 30 years, so it can be decided on a case-by-case basis.

It’s a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing, because you know when an adult man or an adult woman rapes a 4-year-old, that is just shocking,” she said. “That [should be] a lifetime registration.”

Even if the offenders remain on the registry, the court ruling that struck down restrictions on where most offenders can live has made matters trickier.

Ahearn said the fact that multiple layers of local government had enacted restrictions contributed to the situation.

“What happened is it got out of control,” she said.

County and town laws previously restricted sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds. File photo
County and town laws previously restricted sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds. File photo

Below the Suffolk County level, for example, the Town of Brookhaven had its own restrictions that prohibited offenders from living within a quarter mile of schools, playgrounds or parks.

There are bills floating around the state government that would tighten restrictions on where certain sex offenders could live, but the only one that has gained traction is a bill state Sen. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa) sponsored, along with state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), that would return to local governments the power to regulate where offenders can reside.

“Local laws designed to protect children against registered sex offenders are enacted in response to unique conditions and concerns of specific communities and should act in complement with existing state law,” the bill’s summary read.

Although the bill passed the Senate last year, it died in the Assembly. But Venditto reintroduced his proposal this year.

For more information about sex offender laws or to search for sex offenders in a specific neighborhood, visit the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services at www.criminaljustice.ny.gov or the Parents for Megan’s Law group at www.parentsformeganslaw.org.