Robert Wayne Rosberg is a convicted sex offender.
Some would say he shouldn't be allowed the luxury of rejoining society. He should be locked up forever. Castrated. Even killed.
But since none of those measures are possible, a judge ordered Rosberg to enter Teaching Humane Existence, a nineteen-year-old Denver treatment program for adult male sex offenders whose founder believes there is no cure for his clients. Rather than rehabilitation, the goal is containment and group therapy to help the men control their urges. For Rosberg, that meant reporting his every action and desire to his therapist, having his penis wired to an arousal detector and feeling hopeless.
The head of T.H.E., Greig Veeder, says the methods, which also include making patients sniff vials of ammonia and rancid meat, are simply realistic approaches to handling "these people." If Veeder can convince the community and the legislature that he's right, T.H.E., a nonprofit, hopes to obtain state funding to open a 300-man sex-offender campus in the metro area, where patients would live under tight supervision, presumably for the rest of their lives.
But Rosberg and others who want help for their problem -- who believe help is possible -- say there's nothing humane about T.H.E.
Robert Rosberg led what he considers a normal life with a normal childhood. The tall, fit 46-year-old was born in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, the only son and oldest of four children. "My dad was an executive who turned around failing companies," Rosberg says with his slight Southern drawl. His mom was a homemaker. "We moved every two to three years until we ended up in Texas when I was sixteen and stayed there." But there is something vulnerable about Robert Rosberg -- a result, perhaps, of growing up gay in the South.
Rosberg went to Texas Christian University for three years (where he had his only healthy adult relationship, which lasted two years) but dropped out to take a job with Safeway. He worked in several of the chain's stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, making sure their computers operated properly. In 1990 he moved to Denver to take a position with Safeway's Rocky Mountain headquarters, but he later left for his present job at a construction-equipment manufacturer, where he's a freight expeditor.
Two years after moving to Colorado, Rosberg met a fourteen-year-old boy through a co-worker. Rosberg became close to the boy's family and, with the mother's permission, often had the teen stay overnight. Rosberg says the boy told him that he was attracted to older men, and the two would cuddle and "rub up on each other," on their nights together. "I woke up one night and he was on top of me, trying to penetrate me through my underwear," Rosberg remembers. "I pulled him off me." But on another night, Rosberg tried to perform oral sex on his young friend. The boy resisted, and Rosberg claims he didn't push it.
It was during this time that the boy confessed to Rosberg that he'd been molested by an uncle and assaulted by Denver police officer Anthony Helfer. (Four years later, Helfer would be sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually assaulting teenage boys.) After the fellatio incident, Rosberg says he advised the boy to tell his family what had happened with Helfer and his uncle. "But then he told his uncle that I had assaulted him, and the uncle called the police, and I ended up getting arrested."
Rosberg pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a child and was sentenced to four years of probation and one year of therapy. He also had to place his name on the state's convicted sex-offender registry and inform his employer.
"At the time, I felt like he was the aggressor because he approached me. I figured there was rape and there was consensual sex, and if it was consensual, it was okay," Rosberg says. "I wasn't forcing him; he was happily coming to my house, and he always instigated it. But I am the adult, and I should have stopped it."
He didn't, though, and seven years later, he would again have sexual involvement with young men. In July 1999, Rosberg was riding his bike around the Cherry Creek Reservoir when it started raining. He decided to wait out the storm beneath a shelter, where he met someone -- a young man Rosberg thought was in his twenties. He bought the man a beer at the marina, and the man asked Rosberg if he wanted a ride home. Rosberg accepted. "I offered to buy a pizza to thank him, and he asked if we could rent a movie instead," Rosberg says. The young man didn't want to rent just any movie, however: He wanted to see a porn film featuring anal sex.
Rosberg agreed to the young man's movie choice, and the two went back to Rosberg's apartment. "I went to the kitchen to get a drink, and when I came back, he had his pants around his ankles and was masturbating," Rosberg recalls. "And one thing led to another."
After the young man left, Rosberg returned the movie, but the guy called him later that night and asked if he could come back and watch the rest. "He called me all the time," Rosberg says. "He turned into a real pain in the ass."
When the young man stopped by his apartment several days later, he told Rosberg that he was seventeen years old. "I almost died," Rosberg says. "I thought he was 23 or 24. It wasn't the sex thing that bothered me; it was that I'd bought beer for him. After that, I tried to disassociate myself from him."
But in August, the seventeen-year-old and a friend stopped by Rosberg's apartment, acting odd and looking around. A few days later, someone broke into Rosberg's home and stole his turntable and speakers; he now believes the two young men were casing his place. Rosberg reported the burglary to the Aurora Police Department and then called and warned the boy that the cops would be contacting him and anyone else who'd been in his apartment in the last month. "He got all pissed off, and I never heard from him again," Rosberg says.
But it wasn't the last he heard from authorities. When Rosberg called the police to check on the status of the burglary investigation, a detective asked him to come down to the station. When Rosberg got there, the detective didn't want to discuss the break-in; she wanted to talk about the seventeen-year-old. He'd told police that Rosberg sexually assaulted him.
Rosberg heard nothing more about that accusation until March 2000, when he was served with court papers. A second incident from the summer of 1999 had finally caught up with him as well. That same July, Rosberg had befriended another young man, one who was fishing in a pond near his Aurora apartment building. The boy brought some of his friends to Rosberg's apartment, and, Rosberg claims, they took wine coolers out of his refrigerator while he was showering. He took away the alcohol, he says, but the kids found something else: porn on Rosberg's Internet television.
After they left his apartment, one of the teens was caught shoplifting at a Target store; when a security guard smelled alcohol on his breath and asked how he'd gotten it, out came the story about Rosberg, the wine coolers and the Web TV.
The then-44-year-old Rosberg was charged with five counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and one count of promoting obscenity to a minor. The seventeen-year-old changed his story twice, so police did not pursue any sex-related charges in that case, Rosberg says. In December 2000, Rosberg pleaded guilty to the obscenity charge and to one of the delinquency charges; he was sentenced in March 2001 to ninety days in jail and ten years of intense supervised probation. His probation officer recommended treatment, and the judge agreed. So after Rosberg got out of jail, he was sent to Teaching Humane Existence, where he was expected to remain for the extent of his probation.
Even though Rosberg hadn't been charged with a sex crime for the 1999 incidents, the circumstances of the case -- and the fact that he was already on the sex-offender registry -- were reason enough for him to be assigned treatment.
In July 2001, Rosberg went to his first group therapy session at T.H.E. And that, he says, is when he really started serving time.
Upon admittance to T.H.E., Rosberg was immediately placed in the medium-containment program, which mandated twice-weekly group therapy and individual sessions every two weeks. He didn't have the freedom of the low-containment offenders, who have to attend therapy only once a week, or the constraints of the maximum-containment offenders, who must live with other sex offenders in what are called Shared Living Arrangements (SLAs).
On Tuesdays, the ten men in Rosberg's group met to discuss the "tools" they could use to prevent themselves from reoffending. The room where they met, in T.H.E.'s former offices on South Bellaire Street, was a drab space with bare walls, furnished only with chairs and a dry-erase board. "You'd go up to the board and write down your critical issues, and if there was time left after talking about your critical issues, you'd talk about the tools," Rosberg remembers. "People would write down serious things they were dealing with, like depression, but they were hardly ever acknowledged by the therapists. Those issues would stay up there for weeks. One guy talked about masturbation all the time. I didn't want to hear that. How is that supposed to help me? Most of the time we'd talk about issues in the SLAs, like who's fighting who, and who owes who money."
On Thursdays, Rosberg's group session was open to general discussion, but he says he didn't get much out of it. "You're competing with nine other guys for your issues," he says of the hour-and-a-half sessions.
"Tom," a T.H.E. client, shares Rosberg's views on the therapy sessions. But he's mostly concerned with T.H.E. lumping all sex offenders together in the program. Tom was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman and can't understand why he's in group therapy with men who have sodomized little boys. "The treatment plan is formulaic. The same thing is used for everyone," he says, adding that his was a one-time offense. "I am not a predator. I believe I belong in therapy, but I don't believe I belong in a program like this."
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.
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.
Once a year, clients at T.H.E. are brought into a room where, individually, they sit down before a screen. With their pants down and a wire attached to their penis, they view pastoral scenes of lakes and falling leaves. They use a slide-show clicker to advance to the next photo, and with each click, the pictures grow more risqué, although none are pornographic. Some are of women in lingerie, others are of shirtless men. Many are of children. All the while, an audio recording of a man whispering suggestive things plays. "I'll never forget this: There was a photo of a newborn baby and a voice-over saying, 'I'd like to snap you up and carry you off,'" says Rosberg. "It was just sick."
His PPG revealed an attraction to adult men and primary-school-age boys. Rosberg admits being attracted to teenagers and young men but disputes being turned on by younger boys. "That was an out-and-out lie," he says of the finding.
Another method T.H.E. clients complain about is the use of noxious smells as a deterrent to perversion. On their own time, sex offenders are supposed to sniff a vial containing ammonia or rotten meat whenever they start to entertain a deviant fantasy. In the daily journals they're required to keep, the offenders are supposed to report all of their sexual thoughts and the methods used to stave them off. Sometimes they're quizzed about their truthfulness on those matters during polygraphs.
For the opportunity to participate in this therapy, patients pay $500 a month.
Greig Veeder, executive director of Teaching Humane Existence, isn't surprised by the criticism. He's heard it all before. Sex offenders, he says, are adept at coming up with excuses for their behavior and blaming everyone but themselves for their predicament.
Denial and minimization are hallmarks of a sex offender's psyche. These men, he explains, often blame the victim for seducing them, even when the victim is a child; they often portray themselves as victims; and they lie constantly, saying that the only offenses they committed were the ones for which they were caught. As proof, Veeder cites Colorado Department of Corrections statistics: In 1998, DOC records showed that the median number of known victims per sex offender was two, but after taking polygraphs, offenders revealed that they'd assaulted a median of 184 victims before being caught.
Given the mental distortions of sex offenders, it's a colossal understatement to say that Veeder has a tough job. And it was a job no one else wanted nineteen years ago when he started his program. A Missouri native who had earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work, Veeder was working with abusive husbands and was on the board of the Colorado Association for Sex Therapy in 1983, making him one of the only professionals in the state dealing with men, sex and violence.
A Jefferson County probation officer who had been noticing a spike in his sex-assault caseload approached Veeder about starting a treatment program for sex offenders. The early 1980s marked the beginning of a rise in sex-crime arrests that has yet to subside; Veeder attributes the increase to the feminist and domestic-violence movements of the 1970s. "Other forms of abuse were getting more recognition, and that led to more awareness and more reporting of sexual assaults," he says. Without fully realizing what he was getting into, Veeder agreed to help.
"There were very few people doing treatment for sex offenders at that time and no literature in the field," he recalls. "I spent the next decade spending my every waking hour thinking about what to do with these people. I traveled the country talking to everyone I could about this and borrowing ideas, and it rapidly became apparent that there's no cure for these people."
It also became apparent to Veeder that treating sex offenders is contingent on keeping the public safe. "Containment is central to treatment; it is treatment," he says. "It's just like not drinking and staying out of bars is treatment for someone who's trying to get sober."
No one, he says, wants to believe that the problem is as bad as it is, even though the numbers are astounding: According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, there are 7,766 registered sex offenders in Colorado, and Veeder says that one out of three girls and one out of six boys are sexually abused by the age of eighteen. Widespread denial of the problem, Veeder says, is the reason the drastic measures he advocates are hard for many people to support.
Polygraphs and PPGs, he says, are crucial. Without those tests, he has no way of knowing what his clients are doing when they're not under his watch. But Veeder and the members of T.H.E.'s board of directors realize that not all therapists agree with those methods. Still, PPGs are the most widely used tool for measuring arousal because they're the most accurate, according to Josh Davis, one of just seventeen PPG technicians in Colorado. The other option, the Abel Screen, is used by only three treatment providers that he can remember. Rather than detecting an erection, the Abel Screen measures the amount of time an offender looks at a potentially stimulating photograph -- the theory being that the more someone is aroused by an image, the longer he'll stare at it.
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."
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.
"It's important to take a humane and ethical approach to treating sex offenders so we're not creating a population of modern-day lepers, because that doesn't help them want to become better," says Tedeschi, who runs Resource Center for At-Risk Youth, a juvenile offender program, and Sexual Offense Resource Services, a program for adult men and women. "We need to find a balance between authority, intrusiveness and support. If we don't provide strong support for offenders, we can see an increase in depression and hopelessness, and that contributes to risk, because we know that those are reasons these men offend."
And as extreme as Veeder's methods might seem -- even he concedes that sniffing ammonia or rotten meat is "very primitive" -- they are perfectly allowable under state law. A law Veeder himself helped create. In the early 1990s, there was confusion within the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice about how sex offenders should be treated. "The head of Criminal Justice called Greig, and Greig called me and said we need to come up with some guidelines," recalls T.H.E. boardmember Moore.
A group of probation officers, district attorneys and therapists in Arapahoe County had been meeting voluntarily for two years to discuss the need for standards; once Veeder was approached about it, he and his colleagues helped write legislation that in 1992 created the Sex Offender Management Board. Over the next few years, the board, whose 21 members are appointed by the different criminal justice and mental-health agencies they represent, came up with standards and guidelines for the treatment, evaluation and supervision of sex offenders. The board's current role is to make sure that the state's 126 sex-offender treatment providers follow those guidelines, which include reducing offenders' denial and defensiveness, developing relapse prevention plans and improving perpetrators' social skills.
The offenders in T.H.E. seem most concerned with when they can leave; according to Veeder, that's the first question they ask upon entering T.H.E. "Let's go to Craig Hospital and ask the paraplegic if he'll ever graduate to full ambulatory ability and ask him how much he likes never being able to do that. Being a sex offender is a handicap they have to learn to live with, and they can't overcome it," Veeder says. "We've graduated a few people, but not many. One was later found in a child-care center in Central City trying to make friends. Another came to group on a volunteer basis, saying he didn't need to use the treatment tools anymore. He was later caught pissing in public."
Stephen Brake, a sex-offender evaluator, close friend of Veeder's and former T.H.E. boardmember says the Sex Offender Management Board, on which he currently sits, doesn't take positions on treatment programs. "The restrictions T.H.E. places on offenders are really necessary for the community, as well as for the offender," says Brake, "even though it's hard for the offender to realize that. Most offenders in most treatment programs are unhappy about the restrictions placed on them. I'm not sure complaints about T.H.E. are any more or less than in any other program."
Veeder says he always operates under the assumption that graduation is possible. But, he says, placing too much emphasis on graduation enforces the offenders' minimizing attitude. If they think they can just pass a few chapters and get out, they'll feel that what they did wasn't that bad, and they'll go on to repeat the cycle. "We've never kicked someone out prematurely," Veeder says. "We've always erred on the side of keeping them in our program too long."
Because T.H.E. receives only a few small donations from private foundations and nothing in the way of government grants, its revenue is almost entirely dependent on clients. But Veeder scoffs at the criticism that he only stays in business by preventing his clients from graduating. He maintains a day job as a consultant to private businesses because the pay at T.H.E. is so low; in addition to overseeing the whole program, Veeder runs two group therapy sessions a week. Still, he earned just $24,000 from T.H.E. last year. "Even if there was an attempt to create a revenue stream, the revenue is really bad," he says. "If some kind of revenue stream is a racket, then every business is a racket," he says. T.H.E.'s revenue last year was $258,077, and its expenses were $250,210.
Rosberg was unhappy with T.H.E., but the program also had its concerns about Rosberg. Veeder determined this past May that Rosberg wasn't amenable to treatment and needed to leave. Rosberg, his therapist wrote in his termination papers, "has demonstrated a consistent lack of honesty, investment and motivation in treatment." Among other things, the therapist noted that Rosberg "stated in a staffing on February 27, 2002, that he was not convicted of a sexual offense and was not a sex offender, and also stated to his probation officer that he was not 'really' a sex offender.
"Mr. Rosberg has been provided numerous occasions within group and individual treatment settings to discuss any issues or concerns that he has, and he has consistently failed to take advantage of these opportunities, typically stating that he has nothing to discuss," the letter continues. "Given Mr. Rosberg's significant level of resistance to treatment and denial regarding his offenses, it is T.H.E.'s opinion that Mr. Rosberg's risk to the community necessitates a more structured setting."
That setting was jail, where Rosberg bailed himself out after only 36 hours. Upon instruction from his probation officer, Rosberg applied to The Offenders Group at Aurora Mental Health Center, another program for adult men. Rosberg wasn't sure the treatment program would even take him -- if it didn't, he'd have to go back to jail or even prison -- and he was worried that it could be another T.H.E.
But four weeks after his termination from T.H.E., The Offenders Group at AMH accepted him, and Rosberg immediately sensed it was different. There, he says, he had hope of getting better -- and someday getting out.
Like T.H.E., AMH requires clients in its intensive sex-offender program to attend group therapy sessions twice a week and one-on-one sessions every other week. It also charges $500 a month for its services. However, AMH doesn't operate SLAs -- only four treatment programs in the state do -- nor does it use penile plethysmographs to measure the arousal of its 150 clients. Instead, it is one of the three facilities using the Abel Screen.
"Mental-health centers, according to state law, can't use anything intrusive," explains John Murphy, program director of The Offenders Group at AMH and a member of the Sex Offender Management Board. "And we can't use noxious stimuli, like ammonia." Murphy's program is unique in that it's affiliated with a mental-health center, which has to follow the state's guidelines for treating mentally ill patients; independently owned and operated programs do not fall under the auspices of the state's mental-health treatment guidelines. To Rosberg, everything about AMH seems more humane.
"In my introduction at Aurora Mental Health, I said, 'I'm Robert Rosberg, and I'm a sex offender,' and they said, 'Oh no, you're so much more than that,'" he recalls. "At T.H.E., they always talked about our negative core beliefs, but at AMH we talk about our core beliefs; the word 'negative' doesn't precede anything. But it's not like they're easy on you at AMH. During my first meeting with my therapist there, she grilled me like a fish on a barbecue about my sexual history and about why I failed at T.H.E.
"I feel like the staff at AMH cares; they want to see you succeed, and they go out of their way to help you. My therapist at AMH will confront me when she thinks I'm lying, and she rewards me when I'm telling the truth," he says. When he admitted lying on his first polygraph at AMH, his therapist rewarded the confession by honoring his request to attend church. "She asks me tough questions and she expects honest answers, and I'm happy to give her that.
"I learned more in my first two sessions at AMH than I ever did at T.H.E.," he adds, explaining that he came to realize that he'd been victimized himself: When he was in his twenties, a doctor assaulted him, and so did a neighbor. "I had never considered myself a victim before."
But to Rosberg, the best part of the program is that it can be completed. "The mindset of the clients at AMH is so much different; they know what's expected of them and what they're required to do to graduate. It's up to you to do it, but it's all spelled out in writing," Rosberg says.
AMH's program takes anywhere from three to five years to complete, and the private nonprofit agency, which also doesn't receive any government funding, keeps a two-inch-thick binder containing the three phases of lessons offenders must complete before they can exit the program. In the first phase of treatment, offenders learn to take responsibility for their crimes as well as for what triggered them to commit them; they also learn how to manage their stress and anger. In the last phase, offenders spend a lot of time trying to empathize with their victims and understanding the consequences of their actions; they also learn how to stop deviant thoughts by remembering those consequences.
"About 40 percent of our clients successfully complete the program the first time around," says Murphy, who adds that he has no way of knowing how many graduates have gone on to reoffend. However, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice estimates that 45 to 50 percent of offenders in treatment fail to comply with their requirements.
Murphy is adamant that his program is not a revolving door for sex offenders and that his therapists don't handle clients with kid gloves. "Our program is tough. The number-one responsibility for any sex-offender treatment program is community safety. Obviously, a sex offender isn't allowed to go to Elitch's or the playground, and we use polygraphs to make sure they're not going places like that," he says. "But we also have a fifteen-foot rule; if a sex offender comes within fifteen feet of someone eighteen years old or younger, he's required to log it and report it to his therapist and probation officer. He can't have any contact with kids, including his own: no phone calls, no birthday cards, no Christmas gifts."
Rosberg doesn't like not being able to talk to his nephews, who live in Texas, but he doesn't mind the other restrictions. Anything, he says, is better than T.H.E.
Although Veeder was largely responsible for shaping the state's philosophy about sex offenders, he hasn't escaped without his share of troubles.
Last year, Montbello residents discovered that four sex offenders were living in an SLA on their block and no one from the neighborhood had been notified. After residents raised a stink about the homes, Denver's zoning board shut down four SLAs across the city because they were in violation of an ordinance forbidding group homes of three or more unrelated adults in residential areas with predominantly single-family homes. Several other cities and counties in the metro area also passed laws limiting the number of sex offenders who can reside together. Most of the 23 men in T.H.E.'s SLAs now live together scattered around different apartment complexes in Glendale and Denver.
Some of Veeder's colleagues in the local sex-offender treatment community say they lost respect for him after that. The men in his program rented out the homes under their names, not T.H.E.'s, so to many people it looked as though T.H.E. was trying to slip sex offenders into neighborhoods. "This is why he needs to open a facility now to house sex offenders," says one. "It's his fault the SLAs got shut down in the first place."
Veeder says he wasn't trying to surreptitiously place offenders in neighborhoods. "They were already in neighborhoods. There were no options that didn't put them in proximity to some kids or near some school," he says. "We just tried to have them live together so as to destroy their privacy as much as possible."
Veeder hopes to break ground on the Sex Offender Containment and Research Facility, or S.O.C.R., in the next five years, but at this point, he's only pitched the idea at one town hall meeting, at the Denver Public Library on October 15. He won't yet disclose the locations he has in mind for the facility, but it will need to be located close enough to a metropolitan area for its inhabitants to get to and from work each day.
Treating patients with the intention of someday releasing them will not be the goal at S.O.C.R. If it were, Veeder says, the entire project would be undermined. "You'd lose the ability to control people in a limited setting," he explains. Men living on his campus would only be allowed to attend work, much like the criminal-justice system's halfway houses.
In addition to keeping society safe from offenders, S.O.C.R. would give therapists the rare chance to study many sex offenders in a controlled setting. Even with polygraphs, therapists can't be sure what their clients are doing outside of their care. But if they are all living in the same place under strict supervision, the polygraphs will be more reliable indicators of the perpetrators' honesty and adherence to restrictions. There is no facility like it in the country -- or even the world -- as far as Veeder and other local treatment providers know.
Veeder isn't sure yet what it will cost to house and treat the 300 offenders, but his goal is for S.O.C.R. to be cheaper than prison. The offenders themselves would have to contribute money, but the state would also have to pitch in, he says. Veeder's dream will be difficult, at best, to achieve. The first challenge will be finding the funding, and now is not the best time to expect the cash-strapped government to hand over money. "I'd love to think we're going to grab a bunch of legislators and convince them to take money away from other programs and put it into this," says boardmember Moore. "It's going to take a public outcry to get this thing going, and I don't know how long it will take to generate that."
The second big challenge will be getting approval to have it built. Communities cry foul when there are four sex offenders living together in their neighborhoods, so who's going to want 300?
The Sex Offender Management Board as a whole hasn't taken a position on the facility, but boardmember Brake is in favor of it. "I think the idea of a campus is a good one," he says. "There's not enough time or resources in outpatient treatment programs to provide the kind of in-depth monitoring and therapy that many sex offenders need."
The Colorado Department of Corrections is equally non-committal, with DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan saying, "It's really a policy decision for the General Assembly and the community. There is no easy answer for what to do with sex offenders, but the research tells us that when we can keep sex offenders in groups, there's greater accountability than when they live alone."
Rosberg and others in T.H.E. disagree. "The accountability part of the SLAs is a log on the front door that you sign when you're leaving. They can say they're going to church to worship, but that's no guarantee that they aren't actually going to the park to look at children," Rosberg says. "T.H.E. says the polygraphs show if they're lying about where they go, but I don't know about that."
T.H.E. clients worry that if a huge facility opens, even more people will be subjected to a program they consider cruel and unusual. "They can't even protect people in SLAs," Rosberg says, referring to the resident he claims assaulted him. "How do they expect to do so on a campus?"
If such a campus ever opens, Rosberg says, people who weren't sentenced to prison for their crimes will be living as though they're behind bars. "There's no therapeutic value to clustering a bunch of criminals together; if you quarantine a bunch of people, they'll just get angry, and that, to me, increases their potential to reoffend. What they're proposing is a prison outside the prison system."
At least in prison, inmates have the hope of someday getting out, Rosberg adds. Psychologist Selkin worries about the ethics and legality of placing offenders in a private facility for the rest of their lives. "I think there are some sex offenders who merit life sentences, but that's the business of the State of Colorado, not Greig Veeder," he says.
If Rosberg had to choose between going to prison and going to the sex-offender facility, he'd choose the former.
"I want to what they call 'normalize,'" adds Tom. "I want to get back in the real world, but I'm afraid I'll never be able to if Greig creates this Veederville."
Rosberg probably doesn't have to worry about being sent to that campus. What he does have to worry about is whether he'll ever get to see his family again.
He wants to move back to Texas, but the conditions of his probation won't allow it; he can't even travel where he wants within Colorado. Under the state's sex-offender guidelines, convicted perpetrators -- regardless of whether they've assaulted a young boy or an old woman -- can't have any contact with children under the age of eighteen unless they get written permission from their probation officer.
Rosberg is currently on a ninety-day probation period at AMH; when that ends in January, his therapist will determine whether he's treatable and can remain in the program or whether he should return to jail. Rosberg feels he's making progress at AMH and wants to stay. But someday, he wants to move back to Texas and enter a treatment program there.
If the court ever allows him to transfer to Texas, he may ask a judge there to modify the terms of his probation so that he can see his five nephews. Rosberg has three sisters but is closest to Julie Molina, who has two sons, ages six and eight.
"To separate families is awful," says Molina, who lives in Houston. "Two years ago on Thanksgiving was the last time my sons saw Robert. I remember how much fun they had with him then. My eight-year-old thinks his uncle is the coolest person in the world."
Rosberg was close to Molina's sons before his last conviction; he frequently called them, never forgetting a birthday.
Now Molina has to find ways to explain to her boys why they can't talk to or see their uncle. "I've told them that Robert works nights and sleeps all day and that that's why they can't talk to him. When Robert calls me, he calls late at night and lets it ring twice so I know it's him, and then I call him back," she says. "We tell the kids they can't answer the phone because we get sales calls and to let Mommy and Daddy get it. One time the phone rang and it said 'Robert Rosberg' on the caller ID and my older son picked it up. Well, Robert couldn't just hang up on him, so he had to document the call and report it to his probation officer."
Molina says she'll tell her sons the truth when they're older, but she won't provide details. "I'll just tell them that Robert did something to get in trouble."
Rosberg's trouble has actually brought him and his sister closer together. They had drifted apart for a while, but since Rosberg's latest arrest and subsequent admission into T.H.E., the only thing that's separated them is the distance between Denver and Houston. Molina talks to him almost every night, and when Rosberg grew depressed after the alleged assault in the SLA and hopeless over the thought of never getting out of T.H.E., she flew to Denver and stayed with him for eight days. "I was so scared over his mental health," she says. "He cried all the time. The things they made him do in therapy were so awful."
Rosberg's other sister, Sarah Robinson, agrees. "I don't think the punishment fit the crime," she says. "He was being treated like a pedophile. I know Robert has always liked younger men, but I don't think he's a pedophile."
Robinson doesn't talk about her brother anymore with her two sons, ages six and three, because she says it's too painful for her older boy, who wondered on his fifth birthday why his uncle hadn't sent him a present.
Robinson and Molina want Rosberg back in Texas because he's all they have. Their father was murdered in 1985 during a robbery at an Arlington coin store he owned, and their mother died in 1993. "We don't have a mom and a dad, and not being able to see Robert is killing me," Molina says. "I'm very ill with a heart condition; I can die at any moment, and we can't spend this time together."
If his sisters could have their way, Rosberg would be able to see his nephews; they both say they trust their brother implicitly. "He could come here and live with us -- that's how much I trust him. In my and my husband's wills, Robert is listed as their guardian," Molina says. "I don't believe he's a pedophile. Maybe I'm naïve, but I don't believe that."
Rosberg's other sister rarely speaks to him.
He insists he'd never harm his nephews. "I'd cut my hands off with a chainsaw before I'd touch them," he says. But could Rosberg ever harm someone else?
His answer may be proof that he's come a long way since his early days of denial at T.H.E. "You have to be realistic. You can't say it will never happen again," he says. "But that's what I'm in treatment for."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Pot Shops That Sell to Minors Hurt the Whole Industry and Here's Why
Fri., Oct. 9, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 2:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 5:00pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00pm
- Bet the Local Record Store Named One of America's Best Will Surprise You
- Dear Mexican: What Is the Bolo Tradition for Godparents?