Arrested Development

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

Even Veeder's own therapists sometimes disagree with his methods.

"Mental-health professionals are more interested in being dispensers of treatment than protectors against harm," Veeder says. "With sex offenders, you don't have the rewards of traditional therapy. It's like being the parent of an autistic child: The problems are never-ending.

"Some of the worst people I've seen working with sex offenders are licensed therapists," he continues. "They're wedded to their need to see themselves as effective, and they don't want a contentious relationship with their client. I've had to fire numerous licensed therapists because they were too traditional."

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.

That's why Veeder hires interns and nurses. Besides, they're cheaper.

"Just holding the line is all you can hope for with these guys," says Gerry Moore, a longtime victims' advocate and T.H.E. boardmember. "You might be able to get these guys to admit they're dangerous, but that's about as far as you'll get."

Although there's no known cure for sex offenders, Veeder says treatment is still possible. Just like chemotherapy prolongs a cancer patient's life but doesn't cure him, sex-offender therapy helps an abuser live safely within society. "We teach relapse prevention," Veeder says. "All sex abuse is preceded by thoughts and feelings that lead up to it. So we give them techniques to practice to become more conscious and attentive of their thoughts. They can do covert sensitization, where we give them regimes: They think a deviant thought and then they do an interruption, where they rehearse and visualize a negative consequence, like getting arrested."

Yet his whole mantra has been containment as solution, giving credence to the critics who say it's essentially the Hotel California. "T.H.E. is famous for revoking nearly all their clients before they have completed probation," says James Selkin, a clinical psychologist who started the Darrow Clinic, the first outpatient sex-offender treatment program in Colorado, in 1979. "Greig Veeder was one of the people responsible for developing the Department of Corrections' philosophy about the management and treatment of sex offenders, which is to lock them up for as long as possible, and when they're out on the streets, to make the probation so onerous that most of them get their probation revoked and return to prison. For most clients in T.H.E., the program is overkill. It sets standards for conformity that are so stringent that most people fail and go back to prison. There's a certain risk attached to living in a free society, and if you believe people deserve a second chance, you have to realize that some of them will fail."

But Veeder says sex offenders don't deserve second chances the way other people do; their second chances need to come with rigid restrictions. "We have a clear reputation for being the most controlling program in metro Denver. I'm running their personal lives," Veeder says of the 71 men in T.H.E., 23 of whom live in an SLA. "They want to live their lives with the same freedoms as you and me, but I have to look them in the eye and say, 'You can't live your life with the same freedoms as me; you can't even masturbate to the same things I do.'"

Despite the program's toughness, he says his therapists treat their clients with compassion. "We do not tell them that they're bad people, and if we do, it's a screwup. But shame them? You're damn right. They need to learn some shame. Shame is a productive function, and given the amount of disregard they have for their victims, shame is in way too short a supply.

"They feel like they're being imposed upon in some Draconian way," Veeder continues, "but sex offenders have to realize that there's a certain powerlessness they must face. They have to orient their lives around their problem, just like diabetics have to orient their lives around their diabetes."

And lumping all kinds of sex offenders together is a way of keeping them powerless, he explains: "Every sex offender is treated as an individual in no other way than us getting to know the specifics of how he goes about producing his victims so that we know how to limit his liberties. They want to be treated uniquely because they want you to respond to them, not them to respond to you."

Veeder understands why sex offenders don't like having to relinquish control of their lives for the greater public good; they'd rather be left alone, he says, and live in secrecy, where their deviant deeds thrive. Despite the complaints of the men in his group, surprisingly few clients have taken their concerns to the Sex Offender Management Board, the group that oversees sex-offender treatment facilities; Veeder says only four grievances have been filed against him and his therapists in T.H.E.'s entire history, and none resulted in disciplinary action.

As much as they may not like T.H.E.'s methods, however, sex offenders and experts say it's the isolation and hopelessness T.H.E. fosters that's most unusual about the program -- and most harmful.

Philip Tedeschi, who sits on the Sex Offender Management Board and worked at T.H.E. for a decade before forming his own treatment program a few years ago, chooses his words carefully when speaking of his former employer. Although he has a lot of praise for T.H.E., he says sex offenders shouldn't be made to feel isolated.

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