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.

Mark Robinson, a counselor who has worked with sex offenders, notes that not only is it possible for someone to be wrongfully convicted, but defendants also sometimes plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit in exchange for probation, rather than risk a trial and a stiff sentence. "One guy was worried that he'd be convicted regardless, so he waived his right to a trial and plea-bargained, but without ever confessing to the crime," says Robinson. "He was booted out of Marie's program because he wouldn't confess to something he said he didn't do."

Lawyer Scott Rosenblum puts it bluntly: "My experience with Marie Clark is that she's more interested in getting these guys to admit to something, even when they have steadfastly maintained their innocence, than she is in actually administering the therapy."

Rosenblum still marvels at the faith of the probation-and-parole officer who told him, "I have never heard of someone being wrongfully convicted -- never -- in a sex case."

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.

The complaints filed against Marie Clark are essentially moot: The state of Missouri cannot impose discipline or revoke her license, because she's not a licensed therapist. "My problem's passing the test," Clark says cheerfully. "One time they told me not to put 'therapist' after my name. In 2000, they told me to practice as a 'psychological assistant' or something. I don't even do therapy, so I don't care."

Yet when Clark teaches classes for the Missouri Baptist Children's Home, the facility distributes a biography that says, "She specializes in the treatment of adult and adolescent sexual offenders and the treatment of incest families." A probation officer's report from 2002 refers to Clark as the offender's "therapist." Her company's name sounds like that of a research center, and indeed BSI offers a long list of psychological services. Yet Clark's staff consists of a receptionist, two therapists and Clark's partner Christie Lynch, who holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and comes in once a week to do intake interviews. (A second partner, Priscilla Grier, died of cancer two years ago.)

"Marie does everything," says Lynch. "I'll call her in and say, 'Can you talk to this guy -- is he getting by on me?' and she's amazing. She'll just ask a few questions and walk out and say, 'He did this, this and this; he's as guilty as guilty can be.' She knows what to ask, and she gets those certain questions answered the way she's expecting, and it's just another confirmation. Guilty, guilty, guilty."

State records reveal that one of Clark's therapists, Ramona Prater, has not been licensed by the state since 1996. Clark says Prater showed her a license that doesn't expire until September. "I thought my license was in order, but it is not," Prater confirms. "As soon as I learned it was not in order, I quit practicing. I'm not trying to do anything illegal."

Sex offenders who have gone through BSI say the therapists run the groups but Clark sets the tone, storming into the sessions a few times each evening to yell, curse and throw her clipboard. Clark says she occasionally visits the group sessions, and she describes case after case in which she has decided the tone of treatment, determined what disclosures must be reported to a parole officer, ordered that a wife or mother be coerced out of denial, judged whether a client is lying and so on.

Judith Becker is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona and past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, the professional organization whose standards now govern Missouri's treatment system. "The importance of licensure is that there is a governing body to oversee the therapist's practices," Becker says. "Licensing bodies have ethical codes, and people have to abide by those codes. When someone has no license, a client has no recourse."

Clark did try, twice, for licensure as a marriage and family therapist. She was denied for the second time this past August because she did not meet the education and supervised-experience requirements.

A few years ago, somebody tried to explain Clark's approach by speculating that she was once attacked by prisoners.

Absolutely false, says Clark: "Never even had a fingernail broken."

She grew up in a southern suburb of Chicago and attended Eastern Illinois University on both academic and basketball scholarships. She majored in math and chemistry but foundered in college algebra during her freshman year, and by spring her parents withdrew her with a severe ulcer. "When I came back, I was scheduled to do finite math and I didn't know a way around it," Clark recalls. "A friend said, 'Change your major; then you can take what you want' -- and we were standing in front of the psychology building.

"Once I got involved in psychology, that was it," Clark continues. "The professors were friendlier, more accessible. The math professors were like The Paper Chase. But the psych profs wore jeans and put their feet up on their desks. It helped me to relax."

Soon Clark was taking graduate-level courses and teaching. One of her professors, Sue Stoner, remembers her as an entrepreneur even then: "We didn't have Xerox machines, so she had this machine in her dorm room, and she'd make copies to sell to the other kids."

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