A homeless father, fleeing an abusive domestic situation with his two little boys, felt safe when the state found them emergency shelter earlier this year in a Plymouth condominium complex.
And for the first time in a long time, there was someone there to help, a neighbor who picked up groceries for them at a nearby food pantry, drove them to a playground, and stopped by with his niece and nephew so the kids could play.
But unbeknownst to the father, that friendly neighbor, Robert E. Lebaron Jr., was a registered sex offender with convictions that included child rape. In May, police arrested him on a charge of indecent assault and battery against one of the father’s boys.
The father, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his sons’ identities, is furious at state officials for not warning him who lived next door.
“This is sickening,” said the father. “You don’t move two children next to a sex offender when you are trying to keep people safe.”
The alleged assault on his son is cited in a scathing new state audit, which found that the state’s housing department was not warning families and pregnant women when placing them in shelters where registered sex offenders were living or working.
The report by State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump’s office found that the Department of Housing and Community Development from July 2016 to June 2018 didn’t routinely check the Sex Offender Registry Board before making emergency housing placements to determine whether offenders were staying there, even in shelters where families live in close proximity and share common areas.
As part of the audit, Boston police ran eight shelter addresses through its sex offender database and discovered Level 2 or 3 sex offenders listed at all of them. Two had been convicted of child rape.
In an interview, Bump said that people seeking emergency housing assistance, including domestic violence victims with young children, would hardly be in a position to search the state sex offender’s online registry or ask local police departments whether sex offenders are living nearby.
“That is clearly not top of mind for a family that is homeless and being placed in an emergency setting,” Bump said. “The state really has an obligation to take these precautions on behalf of the people we are serving.”
Auditors found that the housing department’s policy was limited to checking on whether anyone seeking emergency housing was a registered sex offender. Yet even when they were, the agency didn’t share that information with shelter residents or independent contractors who handle emergency placements for the state.
That failure may create unnecessary risks for shelter residents, the audit found. Auditors recommended that officials notify shelters when they were placing sex offenders there and at least once a year compare the addresses of the shelters with those of registered sex offenders, then notify the shelters if they find matches.
When confronted by auditors, housing officials initially took issue with the audit’s findings, saying they routinely notify shelter contractors when placing sex offenders there and are not obligated to check the state’s registry to determine whether other offenders are living or working there.
But in May, they amended their response, saying they had recently learned a parent who was placed at an apartment complex where scattered units were used as shelters had alleged that a registered sex offender molested one of his children. It was the same father who was interviewed by the Globe.
“They initially pushed back saying they felt their policies and procedures were adequate,” Bump said. “Unfortunately, it took a reported act of child molestation to get the agency to recognize that it needed to strengthen the protections for these pregnant women and families.”
In its response to the audit, the housing agency wrote that the alleged incident reaffirmed the department must be vigilant about the safety of children.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development said Thursday that the agency recently adopted some of the audit’s recommendations.
Staff will compare shelter addresses with those listed by sex offenders on the state registry at least twice a year and notify shelter providers by e-mail if matches are found, she said.
In addition, shelter providers will alert families “at initial safety orientation” if level 2 or 3 sex offenders “could be present at the shelter site/building,” the spokeswoman said.
Bump said her office will conduct a review in six months and ask housing officials to detail what steps it has taken to address problems.
The father and his two boys were placed in the Plymouth apartment complex in February. At that time, Lebaron’s name wasn’t publicly accessible on the sex offender website because he was classified as a Level 2 sex offender prior to a July 2013 law that added Level 2 offenders to the website, according to Felix Browne, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. His name was added in May when he was reclassified as a Level 3 sex offender, Browne said.
The state contractor that placed the family, NeighborWorks Housing Solutions, declined to comment, citing privacy laws.
Lebaron has pleaded not guilty to the current charges and is being held on $100,000 cash bail.
The father said Lebaron knocked on his door after learning he had just moved in with his sons and appeared sympathetic and friendly.
“He seemed genuinely concerned that I was struggling with two kids,” said the father. “This guy made me believe he was somebody to help me. I’ve had nobody to help me in two years.”
But after a month, the father said, he warned Lebaron to stay away from his family because of concerns he had molested his son, who is autistic and doesn’t speak.
He did a Google search of Lebaron and a story popped up from a decade ago, detailing his 2008 arrest for failing to register as a sex offender.