In 1991 Michael Dunsmore was charged with a second-degree sexual offense and sentenced in Washington state to two years supervised probation followed by one year of unsupervised probation. He served six months in jail, credit for time served, and then started completing his two years probation.
By 1992, he had completed a required sex offender treatment and, in 1993, he was discharged from probation in Washington. He moved to Montana shortly afterward and moved on with his life – so he thought.
Over the next decade, Dunsmore was married twice and helped raise six kids. He was not reported for any issues involving sex crimes after the original charge. Regardless, he was required to register as a sex offender each year, which he did, up until 2005. That was the year he was involved in a helicopter logging accident.
“I blew five discs in my back and I had a sciatic nerve issue,” Dunsmore said. “I couldn't walk for 11 and a half months. We lost our home. Workers comp had put me in a hotel room in Evergreen. The last thing I thought about was, ‘Oh, I better call and register.’”
Due to his failure to register, Dunsmore was sentenced to five years in prison and chose to take prison time over probation. “I wasn’t going to do probation,” he said. “I already knew what that felt like.”
Dunsmore got out on parole in 2010. When he was released, he found out he would have to wear an ankle monitor and create weekly schedules for his parole officer to approve.
He was not in good health, and he finally visited a doctor who gave him an MRI and told him they needed to do bloodwork under the suspicion it might be cancer. He called his parole officer to let him know he’d need to get some blood work done, but the officer told him, “no.” He told him that the blood work was not on his schedule and that he needed to put it on his schedule ahead of time in order to go. He told Dunsmore that he would have to do it another week.
“I was terrified about the possible diagnosis, which was stressful enough,” said Dunsmore. “Additionally, how do I put blood work on a schedule a week before I even know I need it? How was I supposed to know I would need blood work?”
“That’s your problem,” he recalled the officer telling him.
Dunsmore had been released on parole for several reasons, one of which was that he had been part of the sheet-metal workers union since 1995 and he was guaranteed a job with them that would have paid $28 an hour. Though that was a reason the parole board granted him release, once he tried to take the job, his parole officer would not allow him to do it. The job required travel, and his PO said he was not allowed to travel, even for short-term jobs. So now, Dunsmore found himself in a position in which he was in danger of violating his parole because he was not employed. And, perhaps worse, he had to suspend his membership with the union, which cost him much more than a secure income.
“I lost my pension, I lost my retirement, I lost everything because due to my unfair parole restrictions, I couldn't fulfill my end of the deal,” he said.
In 2013, Dunsmore failed again to register as a sex offender. According to documents, Dunsmore was now off parole and probation and had been thinking of returning to Washington. But after several weeks, he couldn’t find a steady job or place to live, so he returned to Montana. Montana law requires people to re-register when they return to live in the state, but Dunsmore says that wasn’t clear to him because he hadn’t officially set down roots anywhere else--and he had only been absent a few weeks.
“It was a simple mistake and misunderstanding,” Dunsmore said.
The consequences for failing to register this time were steep. Dunsmore received 15 years with five suspended and was released from prison on parole in 2016. The court recommended 36 conditions for Dunsmore to the parole board, which included some key conditions that have been particularly hard.
He was prohibited from using a cell phone, video, or internet. He was also prohibited from traveling without authorization of his parole officer before leaving an assigned district. And he was told he could not be around anyone under 18 without a trained chaperone.
It became clear that the chaperone condition would impact every corner of Dunsmore’s life when he tried to start his own business, AM Handyman Services. The idea for AM Handyman Services was so Dunsmore could work under the conditions of his parole a little easier and, in the process, also work toward a more successful life for himself.
By this point, Dunsmore had a new parole officer and she initially approved his decision to start the business, but then told him he was not allowed to work in or on homes with children in them.
That was the case even though his violation---the reason he had been incarcerated and subsequently put on parole---was failing to register and not an offense of any kind against children.
“As if I could know who had children and who didn’t when I was bidding on a job,” he said.
The restrictions led him to shut down the business. He had other ideas for work that fit his skillset, like working security for concerts. But his PO officer wouldn’t let him, because children attend concerts.
Dunsmore estimates he filled out 136 job applications after he shut down his business. And that’s when he came up against one of the other conditions that would hinder his ability to succeed in the system. The condition that did not allow him on the internet was interpreted by his PO as not letting him on computers, at all.
“And so for those jobs I never got one phone call back,” he said. “Why? Because every one of those applications was on paper. Nobody wants paper applications anymore.”
Thomas Keith Smith, a consultant from the Missoula Job Service wrote a letter to probation and parole in support of Dunsmore in which he said, “In the time I have worked with Michael I have seen him pursue several avenues of employment, but due to the limitations imposed by the Dept of Corrections, he has been unable to accept viable employment offers he has received. It is also an unrealistic expectation to expect Michael to attain employment without the use of a computer with an internet connection or a personal email account...I wish to advocate for his need to utilize modern technology...”
In the letter, Smith offered his availability to address questions or concerns. According to Dunsmore, no one in the probation or parole office followed up on the matter.
Dunsmore said he was willing to do what it took to find a job, but he also had bigger aspirations for his future. His neighbor, an architect, had mentioned to Dunsmore that he should learn how to use AutoCAD, which is commercial design and drafting software.
“He told me that with my field experience I could be working for architectural firms, because a lot of times architects don’t have the additional knowledge of understanding construction,” Dunsmore said. “So blueprints keep getting sent back. He told me firms could eliminate all of that by having someone like me, with 30 years of field experience under my belt.”
The neighbor recommended Dunsmore take a 10-week class to get the certification--but, of course, it would require a computer.
“My PO said, ‘Well, you might get online.’”
Banning him from attending this course and other online resources was keeping him from getting back on his feet.
Dunsmore’s violation was administrative, not a matter of reoffending. He was originally convicted 25 years prior and hadn’t reoffended.
“Somehow, I was given more restrictions in 2016 than I was when I originally was out on parole. It doesn’t make sense,” Dunsmore said. “Now all of a sudden, without any new conviction, I can't do anything. But in order to get a job and maintain it, in order to better my life, I need tools.”
In April 2018, Dunsmore started receiving disability checks for $686 a month. He could have--and wanted to--work more, but the restrictions on internet and requirement that he not work anywhere there might be children, kept him from doing so. He was scraping by, let alone finding any foothold to become a productive member of society.
Dunsmore has worked hard to save official paperwork and emails from the courts and probation and parole. He has also kept copies of documents from anyone who has advocated for him. For instance, Mary Buenz, an investigator for Family Court Services who was working on a parenting plan for Michael’s three youngest daughters, expressed in a 2013 letter to the District Court, that his treatment in the system has been unfair.
“During this period of time, I found him to be honest and forthright,” she wrote. “He became frustrated at times, but...in my opinion he had reason to be frustrated… During this time he found stable employment and housing. I believe, based on my interactions, that he is certainly capable of succeeding.”
Another character reference sent to the District Court came from a pastor at Michael's church, who expressed that he felt 100 percent comfortable having Michael around his family, including his children and that he believed Michael has a positive support network that will help him stay on track. “I know that Mike has made many poor choices…[but] when I talk to Mike, I do not see a man who is simply trying to work the system,” the pastor wrote in a letter. “I see a man who is going the extra mile to make permanent changes in his life for the good.”
Dunsmore said that the probation and parole system has been so difficult to navigate, but the hardest part is how it has affected his children. He has three step kids, whom he raised that are now 30, 28 and 26. He also has three biological kids that are now 18, 16 and 14. He said the situation had such an impact on his biological kids that they required mental health counseling for seven years. Even though they were born long after his original crime, his 5-year absence from their lives due to not registering has forever changed his relationship with them.
Dunsmore and his wife Jody divorced after 9 years but he says they kept a good relationship. They have seven grandkids together, but Dunsmore has to have a qualified chaperone with him in order to see them.
“I haven't been able to see my biological kids without a chaperone,” he said. “And I'm not allowed to just go see my grandkids because their parents--my step kids--aren't approved chaperones. And I raised my step kids. You know?”
“Yeah, I’ve screwed up, I've done a lot of things I wish I hadn’t. But when you can't get a job, when you can't get a place to live, and then they throw on top of it you can't go to school; how am I integrated back into society? How am I getting a fair shake? There's no rehabilitation. There isn't. We need probation officers that are actually social workers, people that have compassion and empathy. Somebody that's working for a job agency to help you find housing, to help you find jobs. Somebody that's in your corner. Not somebody that keeps beating you down and stepping on you every day. In my experience, it's better to be in prison than it is on parole.”
“It hurts my family as much as it does me. And my heart goes out to my kids. They don't know what to think. They are the ones suffering.”
He says three of them have had to get help through Flathead Community Mental Health and that the person they work with there has sent letters to his parole officer saying, “These kids need to be with their dad.”
Dunsmore continued to reach out to his parole officer to have her amend the condition regarding his kids.
“She doesn't care, that's the whole point. There is no caring, she is totally numb to it. And she has no empathy for anybody involved in any of her cases as far as I can tell.
It’s just been a downward spiral and an uphill battle,” Dunsmore said. “How am I supposed to move forward from here?”