That is the central question raised by Pervert Park, a film about the people nobody wants as their neighbors—convicted sex offenders—that offers possible insight into curbing the rise of sexual crime in the United States. The often-disturbing, enlightening documentary, which won a special jury award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, airs on POV (Point of View) on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 10 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.) Now in its 29th season, POV is the winner of a 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Pervert Park by Scandinavian filmmakers Frida Barkfors and Lasse Barkfors takes place at Florida Justice Transitions in St. Petersburg, Fla., founded in 1996 by Nancy Morais, the mother of a sex offender who had difficulty finding a place to live after his conviction. It looks like your average trailer park, but this is the place 120 residents call home. Their lives are heavily regulated: Offenders are forbidden by law from living within 1,000 feet of any place children congregate. The residents are required to check in with the Florida State Police twice a year, are monitored by satellite surveillance and are listed in a sex-offender registry easily available online as a phone app. But the park also provides space for small businesses, including a hair salon. All of the program’s staff are convicted sex offenders as well.
There are currently more than 800,000 convicted sex offenders in the United States, and the country has seen an estimated 15% increase in registered sex offenders over the past five years. But the film offers a mindset-challenging look at this deeply stigmatized category of criminals. According to Florida Justice Transitions president and CEO Jim Broderick, the park’s residents want to “become productive members of society and want to give back.”
The documentary does not stint on candid discussions of the offenses committed by the residents, who say they feel free to open up in-group sessions led by therapist Don Sweeney. Stories vary from that of Jamie, a 22-year-old man caught in an Internet sting after expressing interest in having sex with a minor—which Sweeney characterizes as a common case of entrapment—to far more disturbing and unforgivable crimes.
A resident named Patrick confesses to an early infatuation with pornography and a life marked by failed personal relationships. He raped a young Mexican girl, which he characterized as an act of revenge “against all women.”
Several residents tell of being sexually abused as children. Will says he was “fondled by a babysitter when I was 6 years old.” As an adult, he exposed himself to a young girl and spent several years in jail.
A harrowing story is told by Tracy, who says her father began having sex with her when she was a child. She was later abused by her mother’s boyfriends, which “caused my body to want those same feelings.” She eventually had sex with cousins and underwent an abortion at 11 years old; she would later have sex with her own son.
According to therapist Sweeney, Tracy was “groomed” for abuse by her father, who insisted sex was a natural way to show affection. She in turn groomed her son by asking his “permission.” He continued the cycle of abuse, later molesting a 3-year-old boy.
“I don’t see myself as a victim,” Tracy says, but adds that she wishes she had been able to talk about her troubles much earlier in her life, which might have helped her take steps to resolve them. “The cycle can be broken,” Sweeney insists.
Pervert Park raises significant questions. Should America give these criminals a second chance? And can their experiences help in devising a successful strategy for reducing the growing number of sex crimes?
“The typical reaction of normal citizens is, ‘We don’t care. They committed a crime and we don’t care if they die,’” says Sweeney. Yet one offender says it is time not only for greater public understanding of sexual crimes, but for the offenders to take the lead in stating their case. “You have to look at the bigger picture,” he says. “Nobody will stand up and fight for us, and that’s why we’ve got to do something about it now.”
“These are the crimes that are often too painful or uncomfortable to discuss,” say filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors. “These are the people no one wants to live amongst. These are the neighbors we wish away and, through sex offender laws and labeling, literally and figuratively move to the outskirts of our towns and our lives. And yet there they are, 1,000 feet away from our schools and our parks and playgrounds and churches.
“Although many of their crimes are unspeakable, what do we, as a community, gain from our willful silence? If we hope to curb the cycle and culture of sexual violence, is there value in exploring the lives of sex offenders, regardless of how heartbreaking and difficult it might be?”
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