Hard Case

Marie Clark's group-therapy sessions are a sex offender's worst nightmare. Her down-and-dirty approach gives some of her colleagues the willies too.

In recent years MoSOP has reinvented itself, housing the state's 4,000-plus offenders in a "therapeutic community" and integrating treatment plans as individualized and multifaceted as sexual behavior itself. "The old MoSOP wasn't clinical; it was more like 'beat 'em up,' says Jim LaBundy, the state's chief of sex-offender services. "Heavily confrontational, what I would call a shame-based program. Now it's humanized. We see the whole person, not just the offender. That doesn't mean we don't hold them accountable. But healthy people are less likely to relapse."

Clark, meanwhile, has tailored her methods along the lines of the old MoSOP. Law-enforcement officers love her because she has worked "inside the wire." She speaks the same tough, vigilant language they do, doesn't coddle or make excuses. She watchdogs her clients' behavior like a prison guard, setting conditions stricter than any judge would impose -- and requiring clients to sign an elaborate contract at the start of treatment that precludes them from suing for violations of their rights. And she often testifies as an expert witness for the prosecution.

Whereas many therapists protect the boundaries of group sessions in an attempt to create an atmosphere of trust, Clark welcomes officers of the state's Board of Probation and Parole to sit in on her group-therapy sessions. Veteran supervising officer Karen Tindall says about one-third of her caseload consists of rapists who got probation without ever serving time. Her primary goal isn't their personal growth, she says, it's keeping them from reoffending -- so she saves her toughest cases for BSI. "She holds them so accountable," Tindall says. "They just don't fool her."

Jennifer Silverberg
“Once you get people to take responsibility for their own behaviors, then you can work on their self-esteem,” says Marie Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
“Once you get people to take responsibility for their own behaviors, then you can work on their self-esteem,” says Marie Clark.

Most Missouri regions have a sex-offender-treatment coordinator -- a licensed clinician who monitors therapists' credentials and methods. St. Louis has Mary Davis, a former supervising officer for the probation-and-parole board who now serves as the local sex-offender coordinator for the DOC. Davis acts as the liaison between the department and the therapists and also evaluates the providers' programs, reports and credentials regularly. In the year she has had the job, Davis has cut the list of local state-approved providers from about fifteen to just five.

Davis says she values Clark's decades of experience and willingness to collaborate with the board. When she first worked as an officer back in 1988, Davis says, it was Marie Clark who taught her everything she needed to know about sex-offender patterns and treatment. Now Davis is nearing completion of a master's degree in social work, and she has arranged to do her internship at BSI. Local therapists arch their eyebrows at this close alliance, given Davis' control over who receives state approval and case referrals. "I don't see any conflict of interest," counters Davis, noting that her job only involves auditing the therapists, not doing therapy herself.

Complaints to the state licensing board are confidential, but Clark freely admits that at least eight or nine have been filed against her. One came from Anthony Schuham, a licensed counselor who was shocked when BSI deemed his client a bad risk despite his having scored within the normal range on a psychiatric test. Clark recommended that the man be incarcerated. "Basically, my concern is that the Behavioral Science Institute plays fast and loose in its interpretation of psychological test data, and in its 'therapeutic' practices," Schuham wrote last spring to Pamela Groose, executive director of the State Committee of Psychologists, elaborating on the formal complaint he filed in 1999. "This is not a game of horseshoes in which 'close counts.'"

Paul D'Agrosa, the attorney who represented Schuham's client, prevailed on the judge to ignore Clark's recommendation and give his client probation. "He moved to Texas, where they're traditionally tough on sex offenders, and he's going through sex-offender therapy with flying colors," reports D'Agrosa, flipping through a file of monthly progress reports. "His clinical status is 'very low risk for reoffending.'"

D'Agrosa is one of nearly a dozen defense attorneys whose ears steam at the mention of Marie Clark. "I have children of my own; I'm no advocate of sex offenses," chimes in attorney Dan Juengel. "But I don't see what BSI is doing as positive in any way. I've heard nightmare stories from my clients about Marie Clark. We don't refer our clients there any more; we ask the judges to send them to a different counseling agency."

Adds another attorney, who asked not to be identified: "There's a significant amount of hostility generated in the classes at BSI, a lot of threats about revocation of probation. I think part of it is to humiliate the people so much, they could never stand to be back there. I've gotten that sense from Clark's program more than anyone else's."

What frustrates defense attorneys the most is the Catch-22 they say is written into Clark's program: If a client has pleaded guilty to a particular act but Clark feels he needs to be admitting to more, she stays on him until he does. If he refuses, she says he's in denial and reports to the state that he is making no progress in treatment -- whereupon his probation or parole can be revoked and he can be sent to prison. If, on the other hand, he admits to worse than what got him convicted, that too is noted in his file and relayed to the judge when it's time to decide whether to release the offender from state supervision.

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