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Arrested Development

A Denver therapist wants to lock up sexual predators -- forever. But patients say the treatment is just making them bitter.

Gordon Petersen, a psychiatrist in private practice, has seen several T.H.E. clients who were referred to him for help with other problems, such as mood disorders. Strict supervision is necessary for repeat, violent offenders, Petersen says, but not milder ones. "The main problem I see with T.H.E. is its failure to discriminate between someone who's very sick and someone with an isolated episode who doesn't require supervision for the rest of his life. Not everyone is severe, and if you treat everyone as though they are, you're not doing your job."

T.H.E. requires offenders in medium containment to visit SLAs every weekend as a way of involving them more in their treatment and supporting those in maximum containment. Rosberg was assigned to visit a home in Montbello, where four sex offenders were living without any official supervision. The widely accepted theory among authorities in Colorado and elsewhere is that the best watchdogs for sex offenders are other sex offenders -- a theory many perpetrators and communities find laughable.

One afternoon in August 2001, Rosberg went to the Montbello SLA for a barbecue -- just a bunch of sex offenders outside enjoying the warm summer day. "We could have been having an orgy, God only knows," Rosberg says, rolling his eyes. While he was in the kitchen, he claims, another sex offender fondled him. Although Rosberg reported the incident to his therapist and to the police, he says nothing ever came of it.

Anthony Camera
Psychologist James Selkin says T.H.E. is overkill for most patients.
Anthony Camera
Psychologist James Selkin says T.H.E. is overkill for most patients.

Hopelessness started setting in after that. He was learning that other offenders had been in the program for several years, and no one, it seemed, could get out. When offenders enter T.H.E., they aren't told how long they'll be in treatment - only that they'll remain in the program until they've successfully completed it. But no success stories have ever been shared with them.

Tom and Rosberg say it's unclear what T.H.E. expects of offenders. "They don't see anything through to completion," Tom says. "They just skip around a lot. There are certain things that the Sex Offender Management Board says need to be done before you can complete a treatment program, but T.H.E. will never say you've successfully completed any of them. I expect they'll keep me here for ten years or more. Either that or they'll put me in prison."

Rosberg, Tom and others in T.H.E. say their hopelessness is exacerbated by the shame they are made to feel by their therapists -- many of whom are just interns or nurses, not licensed therapists.

"When I first started at T.H.E., one of the therapists stressed to me that I'm a sex offender. She said, 'How does that make you feel?' I said, 'Well, it's a label.' And she said, 'No, how do you really feel, deep down?' She told me to think about it for a week and then come back and tell her. After group, one of the guys told me, 'You're going to have to tell her you're a horrible, sick person, because that's what they want to hear.' So I went back the next week and told her that I'm a bad person," Rosberg says. "What therapeutic value is there in that? Just beating someone into submission and making them think there's no hope of getting better isn't therapy."

As part of their therapy, sex offenders in T.H.E.-- and every treatment program in Colorado -- take routine polygraphs; that way, their therapists will have some idea whether they've been reoffending. During the sexual-history polygraph, Rosberg explains, "You have to tell them everything you've done that involves sex since you were in the womb."

In addition, "maintenance" polygraphs are given at least every six months to make sure they're staying honest. The sex offenders have to pay for the exams, which cost about $225. If the perpetrators fail their polygraphs, additional restrictions are placed on them. If they continue to fail the exams, T.H.E. uses the results as a reason to kick them out of the program and send them back to prison -- even though polygraphs aren't admissible in court.

Rosberg failed all four of his polygraphs and admits that he lied because he was angry that he had to keep answering the same questions. Because of his deceit, T.H.E. decided he'd have to move up a containment level and into an SLA.

When he learned this, Rosberg says, he fell deeper into despair. Upon the suggestion of his probation officer, who'd reportedly noticed his mood change, Rosberg started seeing a private therapist and was diagnosed with depression.

When Rosberg brought up the fondling incident during a meeting with his T.H.E. therapist and probation officer, he claims the therapist told him, "You live among sex offenders; you should expect that kind of thing."

Rosberg was initially shocked by the statement, but he now says that his therapist's attitude is indicative of the way T.H.E. views its clients: as parasites on society.

As such, former and current clients point to what they say are T.H.E.'s medieval treatment methods, including the penile plethysmograph (PPG), which as recently as January 2002 was under investigation by the European High Court of Human Rights. The device not only measures offenders' arousal but supposedly proves that they can't get away with lying. An offender can't say he's no longer thinking dirty thoughts about little boys when, in fact, the "peter meter" shows otherwise.

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