Two years ago, Bill and another roommate launched a countywide search for a therapist who would accept them as clients. They had little choice in the matter: Parole officers insist that all sex offenders participate in a treatment program—or else risk being sent back to prison. But when you’re a sex offender, it can be difficult to find a therapist willing to take you on. For weeks, the two men scoured the Yellow Pages and made calls. Eventually, they found a social worker named Bill O’Leary who agreed to treat them. His office is only a fifteen-minute drive from the house, but few of the men have cars. “It would take the guys three or four hours to get here for a one- or two-hour session,” O’Leary says. “As the winter came, I felt bad.”
Near the end of 2006, O’Leary started making house calls, running group-therapy sessions every Sunday morning in the living room. The turnout ranges from five to eight and usually includes Mickey, Bill, several sex offenders who live elsewhere, plus a former resident who comes back each week even though he’s no longer on parole. Mickey and Bill always put out a candy bowl and make a pot of coffee.
Some of the men in the house may have tried to forget their crimes, but part of O’Leary’s job is to ensure that those who come to group therapy aren’t able to rewrite their histories. When a new person joins the group, everyone has to tell the story of his crime—no making excuses or skipping over crucial parts. A central tenet of sex-offender-treatment programs is that sex offenders can’t make any progress if they don’t address their actions, motives, patterns of behavior. It’s not enough just to say that they’ll never do it again. “The problem is that you probably never thought you were capable of this in the first place,” John explains. “So if you say you’ll never be capable of doing it again, you’re wrong.”
“You probably never thought you were capable of this in the first place. So if you say you’ll never be capable of doing it again, you’re wrong.”
John doesn’t take part in group, but he participated in a six-month sex-offender-treatment program in prison, then worked as a peer counselor for another eighteen months. Of all the men in the house, he is the most candid about his crime. His victim was the wife of a co-worker. “I assaulted her, tied her up, and forced her to perform oral sex on me,” he says, repeating a sentence he’s said countless times before. The facts of his crime may be no more horrendous than those of his housemates, but discussing it so frankly with him—and realizing I was about the same age as his victim—made the conversation especially chilling. Yet the more we spoke, the more I realized that his willingness to discuss his crime so openly seemed to suggest a different sort of future.
Usually, the conversation in group is about the day-to-day problems of life as a registered sex offender. Some topics come up again and again: Mickey’s struggle to control his temper, Bill’s passive-aggressive tendencies, the frustrations of job-hunting, the challenge of finding a girlfriend, the difficulties of living by parole rules. Avoiding contact with minors, for instance, is not always as easy as it sounds. What happens when you go to McDonald’s and the person behind the register looks like she might be 16? What do you do if you’re exiting the bus and the woman in front of you asks for help with her stroller?
On a recent Sunday morning, O’Leary, 36, reclines in a chair in the living room, hands clasped in his lap, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a white thermal underneath a green T-shirt. Group is supposed to last just one hour, but often the men have so much they want to talk about that it stretches on for nearly three. On this morning, the conversation turns to a favorite subject: the lowly status of sex offenders.
“As far as I’m concerned, the worst criminal that should be watched is the drug dealers,” Mickey says. “They’re the ones who are turning the 16- and 17-year-olds into prostitutes.”
“Does a crime define a person?” O’Leary asks. “You know drug dealers that you met in prison that you felt good about—and there were others you felt were dirtbags.”
“I don’t like none of them,” Mickey insists.
Of course, they know that they are liked even less. “You ask the question to an average Joe: ‘How do they feel about sex offenders?’ And: ‘Oh, I hate ’em. Kill ’em, kill ’em,’ ” says another sex offender.
“I always said this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Mickey says.
The topic of how sex offenders are perceived by the public provides fodder for debate all week, continuing long after the therapy session ends. The residents, especially John, monitor the news closely for any mention of sex offenders. “I can’t blame society for wanting to register sex offenders. C’mon,” he says. “But I think they should also register drug dealers, guys who do drive-by shootings, arsonists. Let’s be honest. There are a lot of things that are dangerous to children. But what scares people is that they feel vulnerable to us. They really feel like they can’t have their kids go out on the street because one of these guys might grab them. Because what do they see? They don’t meet me, Mickey, guys who are living fairly normal lives. All they see is the news: This guy tried to pull a kid into a car, this guy murdered a little girl. This is all they see.”