“That’s when these people are on their best behavior,” said Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor at the University of Washington and a sex crimes researcher.
But at least one local counselor familiar with ITM supports their work while appreciating the fears.
“I understand the concerns about the neighbors,” said Clifford Levin, a Gainesville psychologist who has worked in the field of sex offender treatment for more than 30 years. “To be fair, there are some sex offenders that are dangerous to have in your neighborhood,” Levin said, adding that typically these are pedophiles who likely don’t make up much of ITM’s clientele. “There’s credibility for the neighbors’ concerns,” he said, “but most of the clientele would not be an imminent danger.”
ITM has been operating in Gainesville since the mid-1990s, according to program director Alvin Butler. A counseling and mental health facility that has on its staff psychologists, mental health counselors and clinical social workers, it began with the help of Ted Shaw, who previously worked in the sex offender unit of the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center and earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Florida. Shaw, a well-respected member of the field, died in 2012. Both the state Department of Corrections and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers recommend ITM.
Butler has said ITM treats sex offenders, but not at its new location. ITM has one other center, at 225 SW Seventh Terrace, adjacent to the Innovation Square area. The area is home to a number of businesses, whose owners have not had any issues with their neighbor.
“(We’ve had) no problems with them,” said Buddy Wise owner of Wise’s Pharmacy, two buildings down from ITM.
The Gainesville Police Department shows three incident reports at the location in the last five years. One involved a letter delivered to an ITM therapist from the estranged significant other of one of her clients in 2012. A second involved a stolen cell phone in 2015. The third, in February, involved a missing juvenile who was seeking anger management treatment at the facility. According to Levin, Village Counseling and ITM are pretty much the go-to places in town for sex offender treatment.
“I respect them highly,” said Levin of ITM. “I would refer to them and do refer to them.” “A lot of people don’t want to work with adults just due to concerns and stereotypes and the community fears, in which a lot of them are unfounded,” said Robert Edelman, a licensed juvenile sex offender therapist and CEO of the Village Counseling Center in Gainesville.
According to Edelman, ITM has a “great deal of integrity” and he worked with Butler for about six years. “I don’t have any concerns with him,” Edelman said.
Edelman worked with Shaw for a time and still remembers his motto: “I’m keeping the community safe and children safe by treating adults to help offenses from happening.”
On May 19, several neighbors and business owners near ITM’s new NW Sixth Street location went before the city commission to raise concerns about the center. There are seven child-oriented institutions less than a mile from ITM, according to Maria Huff Edwards, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the Grove Street Neighborhood. Residents were worried about children riding an RTS bus with sex offenders. One woman said she was approached on her property by a man from ITM who asked about fruit in her yard. She said her family had since built a fence. Deborah Hart, a clinical social worker who operates a business across the street from ITM, worried about possible impacts on her clients.
“I have a counseling practice, I treat trauma survivors. I also treat survivors of, sometimes, sexual violence,” Hart said. “I bought my building because I wanted to be in a pleasant place to do the very sacred work that I do with trauma survivors.”
She also spoke of being threatened by individuals wanting to park in her lot and then go to ITM.
“They back in so you can’t see their license plate. That seems inappropriate. When I ask them to leave they say threatening things to me, so that means I need to protect the people coming to my place.”
Neighbors have met with police about their concerns. Butler has said repeatedly ITM isn’t treating sex offenders at the Sixth Street center. To treat sex offenders there, ITM would need a special-use permit, which it has not requested. But City Commissioner Craig Carter said that when Butler gave him a tour of the center, he said sex offenders were being brought in through the back entrance. Butler vehemently denied saying that. Carter said he would take a lie detector test. Butler said he would pay for it. The Sun interviewed Butler for this story, but over time he has become cautious in what he divulges. He said at one time there were four businesses in town providing such services for adult sex offenders but declined to reveal who else is providing the services now because of the recent negative attention ITM has received. Levin said he knows Butler and it would be out of character for him to sneak people in a back door. He said when he heard that allegation, he laughed out loud.
“At best, it was a misunderstanding,” Levin said.
Ackerman, the University of Washington professor, said fears about being attacked by a sex offender on the street are unfounded.
“The vast majority of people who are victimized are victimized by someone they know,” she said. “It’s over 80 percent.”
Ackerman also says offenders aren’t going to offend near areas where they are seeking treatment because they know they’re being watched. Levin said treatment involves getting sex offenders to acknowledge the victim. He has seen offenders rationalize their behavior to the point where they’re convinced they haven’t harmed anyone.
“It helps them to understand and take accountability and reasonability for their actions,” Ackerman said. “It helps them understand why they offended in the first place. It helps them have empathy.”
As for residents’ concerns, she said the centers provide a vital service. “We should be encouraging and having faith and trust in treatment providers,” she said.
Those familiar with the sex offender term point out the term’s vagueness.
“The net of the label of ‘sex offender’ is cast so wide that the label itself doesn’t really tell you that much about the actual person that is being labeled,” said Public Defender Stacy Scott.
She said the designation can cover someone who was 18 and had a consensual relationship with someone younger, to someone who molests a young child.
“That label can stick with someone for life so even a juvenile can be labeled a sex offender for life for a crime they committed as a juvenile,” Scott said. “We see a lot of people get caught up in that net, that’s really … they aren’t the people the public is worried about.”
Scott recalled two cases in recent years in which young male defendants were involved with underage girls whose parents were fine with the pairing because it looked like the relationships were heading toward marriage. When the relationships fell apart, the parents pressed charges. Above the offender category on the risk scale are sexual predators. Predators are repeat offenders or those whose crimes are more violent. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a sex predator is someone convicted of a sexually violent offense. Scott said these can be repeat offenders or someone who has raped or sexually battered a child under the age of 12. Certain offenders and predators may also be subject to restrictions on where they can live, based on their probation terms or restrictions laid out under Florida law, depending on where the offense occurred and the victim’s age. Such restrictions keep certain individuals from living within 1,000 feet of school, playground, park or child care facility.
As of May 2016, in the county’s unincorporated area, 16 offenders and one predator were subject to such restrictions, according to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. While Alachua County doesn’t have an ordinance that further restricts where predators and offenders can live, a Gainesville ordinance prohibits offenders and predators from living within 2,500 feet of a park, school or daycare center. GPD checks in on offenders and predators within its jurisdiction to make sure they are complying with these restrictions.
Ackerman said research shows placing such restrictions on offenders doesn’t reduce the risk of reoffending and doesn’t have much effect at all. “The public believes these policies work and they don’t,” Ackerman said. “You take people and you isolate them …and you put in place barriers for social interaction, you destabilize them.”
When people can’t find housing or job opportunities in addition to a lack of social support, it causes them a lot of stress, she said. Instead, she said, the focus should be on prevention and treatment.
“Treatment is a really, really positive thing,” she said. “Once caught and with treatment these people do not reoffend. (We see) very, very low rates of recidivism.”
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