#childmolestor | Psychologist at Minnesota sex offender program charged with sexually assaulting two clients


A psychologist who worked for more than six years at a state-operated treatment center for sex offenders in northern Minnesota has been charged with sexually assaulting two men while they were in custody at the facility.

The psychologist, Michelle D. Brownfield, 38, of Duluth, was charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving the men, who were undergoing treatment for sexual offenses. A warrant covering Minnesota and its border states has been issued for her arrest.

The assaults occurred between 2016 and early 2018 on the campus of the state’s secure treatment facility in Moose Lake, including in rooms where clients undergo psychological assessments and polygraph tests, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Carlton County District Court.

The charges follow a six-month investigation by law enforcement authorities in Moose Lake and come as Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program faces renewed criticism over the historically low rate of release from the program’s prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Some men have been held at the treatment centers for years or even decades after completing their prison terms for sexual offenses.

Max Keller, a Minneapolis attorney representing Brownfield, said in an e-mail message Thursday that his client “categorically denies all the criminal accusations in the criminal complaint, and she will be proven not guilty when all the evidence comes out.” He declined to comment further.

In February, a federal appeals court in St. Louis allowed a group of clients at the program to proceed with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota’s system of confining sex offenders indefinitely after their prison terms — effectively turning the program into what they say is a de facto life sentence.

The appellate court’s decision, which did not weigh on the merits of the case, followed weeks of unrest at the Moose Lake facility, where early this year detainees went on a two-week hunger strike to protest their indefinite confinements and demand a clear path toward release into the community.

The Star Tribune does not identify sexual assault victims without their consent. Before the charges against Brownfield were filed, both of her alleged victims told the Star Tribune in several interviews that they felt pressured to engage in sexual acts with her because of her position of authority, and fears that she might recommend against their release if they resisted her advances. Both of the alleged victims had been civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) for past sexual crimes and were being treated at the center in Moose Lake.

“It’s insane,” Eliseo Padron, a client at the Moose Lake facility and one of Brownfield’s alleged victims, said in one of the interviews. “I mean, you are talking about the person who does the evaluations of sex offenders. … That’s who we were having sex with.”

In a written statement, DHS Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson said the agency could not comment on individual personnel matters due to data privacy laws, but he said any allegation of sexual contact between a staff member and a client is “taken seriously, treated with urgency and examined thoroughly.”

An agency spokesman added that DHS’ licensing division conducts background studies on all new employees who provide direct services, and supervisors in state-operated facilities are required to verify credentials of all staff.

“We expect all staff to maintain strict professional boundaries at MSOP,” Johnson said. “That’s essential in any therapeutic setting, and anything less is unacceptable.”

Duncan Brainard, the other client at Moose Lake identified as an alleged victim, said he engaged in more than a dozen sexual acts with Brownfield before the psychologist abruptly ended the relationship.

“I was completely shattered,” Brainard said. “I feel like there’s no way that I can ever trust the system moving forward.”

State employment records show that Brownfield was employed at MSOP in Moose Lake from Aug. 8, 2014, to Dec. 21, 2020. Her duties included providing psychological assessment services, including evaluations of sexual arousal, to clients who have been court-ordered to undergo treatment at MSOP. Individuals in her position would share results with authorities in the program and provide expert testimony before state panels that consider whether a client should be discharged or have a reduction in custody.

Her job also involved providing “leadership and clinical direction” to other psychologists and staff at the MSOP, according to state records.

The Minnesota Board of Psychology still lists Brownfield as a licensed psychologist through February 2023, and there is no record on its website of any disciplinary action taken against her. Daniel A. Wilson, a client at Moose Lake who co-founded a group of detainees pushing to close MSOP, said program psychologists are in a “unique position of power” because clients fear that a critical psychological evaluation could result in longer confinements and other retribution.

“A lot of guys would have difficulty saying ‘no’ to sex with any staff member here because they are desperate. They want to go home and they want to be free,” Wilson said. “This is someone who can write anything she wants about us.”

In court documents, authorities in Moose Lake say they obtained text messages in which Brownfield expressed romantic feelings for Brainard, describing it as a “true Romeo and Juliet scenario,” while expressing concern over leading a double life and putting her career in jeopardy.

Authorities say Brownfield’s phone contained sexually explicit photos and a booking photo of Brainard. Her phone also contained entries in which she described being sexually aroused during evaluations of clients in the program, according to the criminal complaint. Padron, meanwhile, told investigators that he had multiple sexual encounters with Brownfield starting in the fall of 2017. The two would meet in an assessment room at Moose Lake and engage in sexual discussions and perform sex acts. In one instance, Brownfield met Padron in a room where polygraph tests are conducted on clients and they engaged in sexual intercourse, according to the complaint.

“It was physical,” Padron said of his relationship with Brownfield. “She was aggressive and, well, I like aggression.”

Under Minnesota state law, any employee of a secure treatment center who engages in sexual intercourse with a resident or patient is guilty of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Consent by the client is not a defense under the law.

Padron said Brownfield would seek out opportunities to meet with him under the guise of helping him with his treatment. Once the two were behind closed doors, Brownfield would describe her sexual fantasies and would encourage Padron to engage in the explicit conversations, he said.

Later, Padron said that Brownfield attempted to conceal the misconduct by urging him to put pressure on his fellow client and friend, Brainard, not to reveal any text messages from her. Padron said that Brownfield urged him to use “any means necessary,” including threats, to keep the texts private.

After being contacted by the Moose Lake police, Brownfield continued to send texts discussing the investigation including reasons she gave to law enforcement to avoid meeting with them, the criminal complaint says.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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