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Marie Clark walks into the consultation room chuckling. A little boy just came by to see whether her ten-year-old son was at work with her. The minute the boy walked into the waiting room, all the men got up and left.
They were sex offenders, waiting for their state-mandated group therapy at Clark's Behavioral Science Institute.
"He thought he scared them," she explains. "He probably saw their faces -- they are not supposed to be in the same room with children." She chuckles again. "Sometimes they think we set them up, but we don't."
Clark sits down in a straight-backed armchair, feet flat on the floor, knees well apart, braced for anything. Her red pantsuit clashes with the room's powder-blue serenity, and she glares at the floral sofa. "I hate pillows," she says. "When I picked that out, I didn't realize it had all those pillows."
She played college basketball, and even at age 48 she has an athlete's physical presence -- heavier now but solid, without squish or billow. As for her personality, it's as bold and sure as a slam-dunk, and it vibrates with the same energy. Too restless to sit behind a desk, she usually roves around the office, loses her coffee along the way, finds it hours later, gulps it cold. She can spin every detail of BSI's $500,000-a-year operation on one fingertip.
Clark always dreamed of owning her own business. She started BSI in 1988 after six years spent directing Missouri's first sex-offender program, known as MoSOP, for the state corrections department. "I wrote the Missouri Sex Offender Program," she says proudly. "Nobody knows the history of where all this came from but me." Her eyes darken. "They're changing the program now. Jim [LaBundy, chief of sex-offender services] thinks I do 'shame-based therapy.'"
Tilting her head, she adopts a syrupy tone: "'Oh, they are so ashamed.'" Then she leans forward. "No, they're not," she says. "They're caught."
Though "sex offender" reads as a single vile concept, the category takes in everyone from the brutal rapist who forces sex on strangers in a sadistic lust for power to the drunken fraternity pledge who coulda sworn his date was willing. A sex offender is anyone convicted of a sex offense -- from indecent exposure to sodomizing a five-year-old. Unless they're classified as sexual predators, offenders eventually wind up back in the community. If they have served their full sentences, they need only register with the state. But if they're on probation or parole, they're required by the Missouri Department of Corrections to receive therapy until they're "off paper" -- released from state supervision.
That's where Marie Clark comes in. Along with a handful of other providers in the St. Louis area, Clark offers group-therapy sessions for every offender who's still "on paper." (Clark works with about one-fifth of the estimated 450 sex offenders now in treatment here.) Offenders must pay for their own treatment; BSI charges the going rate of $150 per month. Therapy typically goes on for about five years. There are also sixteen-week "nonoffender" courses, which must be completed by a "supervisor" -- a friend, relative or paid stranger who agrees to take charge of the offender in public situations. In addition, Clark works as a consultant, presenting workshops all over the state. She won't reveal her fee for these presentations, but consultants with far less cachet command well over $1,000 a day, plus travel expenses.
Past participants say BSI's therapy sessions can be brutal. Fred Jones (a pseudonym) says that at his first BSI session, "Marie barged in, handed this guy a piece of paper and said, 'Sign this.' It was a confession that he had skipped sessions and withheld funds from BSI. He looked at her and said, 'None of this is true.' She threw the paper down, took her pen and threw it across the room and ordered him to crawl over, get the pen and crawl back to sign the paper. Then she started mentioning her close relationship with his parole officer. She got him so scared that he crawled over and signed it."
Clark denies the account: "I've never done anything like that, never in my life! And 'withheld funds'? You can't enter our office without paying. It says on the wall: 'Payment due at time of service.' You don't pay, we won't see you. You can't come in."
She does, however, recall other incidents Jones relates. For instance, the time she "came into group yelling at the top of her lungs," telling an offender who'd gone with his supervisor to the St. Louis Science Center -- technically in violation of the agreement he'd signed with BSI not to go anywhere that children frequent -- "that he couldn't possibly be that stupid and she was sure he had victims left behind at the Science Center now." He says she'd "point to people and shout, 'Child molester! Pedophile! Exhibitionist!' and say how despicable they were. When one man was recounting his criminal act, which was a misdemeanor, and was very much ashamed of himself, she said, 'You should be disgusted, I hope you vomit all over that white shirt you're wearing.'"