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05/23/2013

'Sex Offender Village' offers rare haven for the shunned and the shamed

They are among the most shunned and shamed of convicted criminals.

For good reason, sex offenders -- especially those who have assaulted children -- have to be monitored after their release, but there is little help or rehabiliation available for those who want it.

A remarkable short OpEd documentary on the New Times website paints a surprisingly moving portrait of a "Miracle Village" in southern Florida where more than 100 registered sex offenders have settled since 2009.

Once a housing settlement for sugar cane workers, a Christian ministry made the village available for sex offenders in 2009 -- provided they are not "medicaly-diagnosed pedophiles" or have committed sexual acts of violence against strangers.

Because many American states forbid convicted sex offenders from living near children, schools, parks or even bus stops, many find it near impossible to find a place to settle.

In one infamous case, dozens of men were forced to live under a Miami bridge.

The short five-minute documentary on the "Miracle Village" lets the men tell their stories in their own words.  

"Once you have the label, you are on the Internet for the rest of your life," says one man who says finding any kind of work is next to impossible.

"If it wasn't for this place we would be homeless," says anothe man who lives in the village with his mother. At 18 he says he was convicted of having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend.

"We live in a society that is terrified of sex offenders, sometimes with good reason. But in some cases the perpetrators, and not just the victims, are denied justice," say the film producers who hardly come at the issue with any illusions about the gravity of the crimes.

One is a public defender, the other is a filmmaker who has covered rape and other sex crimes from the victims' point of view.

"The term “sex offender” simply covers too wide a range now, painting the few truly heinous crimes and the many relatively innocuous ones with the same broad brush," they say.

Most states in the U.S. also have public sex offender registries and that has led to some tragedies.

In 2009, a man from Nova Scotia travelled to Maine to kill two men whose names he found on the Internet, before turning his gun on himself.

Canada does not make its sex offender registries public and in general restrictions against convicted sex offenders are not as strict.

In fact,  in a recent investigation the Star exposed some of the glaring loopholes in the National Sex Offender Registry.

But in Canada as in the United States, there are few facilties that offer any help or hope to convicted sex offenders who may want to change their lives.

As the "Miracle Village" documentary points out, that can make things worse and less for everyone, not just the offenders.

Julian Sher is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter for the Star and the author of two books on sex offenders and child exploitation. He can be reached at jsher@thestar.ca and on Twitter @juliansher.

Comments

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The weird thing is I first found out about the existence of this place when it was featured on an episode of Dexter.

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