Arrested Development

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"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.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon