There are over 500,000 convicted sex offenders in the United States, according to a text crawl at the start of Pervert Park, a documentary that aims to do the near-impossible for the most stigmatized of crimes: stir sympathy for child molesters and sex offenders.
Prohibited by law from living within 1,000 feet of anywhere that children frequent—including schools, churches, and bus stops—most find it tough going to find jobs or housing once they’ve paid their debt to society. And after serving their time in prison, most exit the criminal justice system only to find themselves struggling in a world that shuns and vilifies them.
Updated numbers actually peg the national count even higher, at over 805,000 registered sex offenders in 2016. That makes for a vast number of sex offenders living on the street, living without access to counseling and support programs, and prone to committing sex crimes again. But down in the state of Florida, 120 of them live in a uniquely supportive safe haven—a St. Petersburg trailer park run by the Florida Justice Transitions program, the rare housing outfit to actually welcome rehabilitated sex offenders into its ranks.
Within this community of pariahs Swedish-Danish filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors find a complex cast of subjects to share their stories in Pervert Park, which takes its title from the nickname locals have ascribed it over the decades. It’s no secret who lives here in rows upon rows of aging mobile homes in an unincorporated section of Pinellas County, Florida.
Locals call them “baby rapers” and vandalize the park at night, explains the park manager, who is himself also a sex offender. One resident holds up a sack of dead rats someone stuck in his clothes dryer. All he can do is shrug. At the park’s regular group therapy sessions—one of several crucial transitional services the Palace Mobile Home Park offers—one resident, convicted for flashing, voices his frustration that a probation officer alerted his employer of his sex criminal status.
“I feel I’m set up for failure every day,” he complains.
Most of the park’s residents seem to have made peace with the fact that this will likely be business as usual for the rest of their lives. Tracked by ankle bracelets and required to report in twice a year, they live strictly monitored lives under heavy restrictions.
“Accepting responsibility becomes probably the most important thing that anybody in my situation can do,” says Will Heffernan, a man who was convicted of molesting an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old child. “Believe it or not, I think just about all of us have a conscience, and conscience really works on you. It makes it become the most important thing to you to address the issue and make it right before you can move on.”
Heffernan, like the film’s other subjects, bares his tortured soul to the camera as if he’s still working through the decisions that drove him, against better judgment, to prey on his victims. He’d long been in denial of his own homosexuality, he says, and that in part drove him to commit his crimes. But “it’s too easy to say that’s the reason,” he adds. “The real fault lies in the individual. The real fault lies with me.”
Tragic tales abound in the emotional film, which if you couldn’t guess is an extremely challenging watch. Anyone might find some empathy for William Fuery, a resident and program staffer who does maintenance and security work for the park as he shares his difficult history. Molested by a female babysitter as a child and raised in an abusive home, he lost his wife and baby to a drunk driver as a young man. “I tried to kill myself for 20 years,” he tearfully admits.
It’s far trickier to resolve the crimes that eventually landed him behind bars. Years later, still in that mindset of emotionally traumatized nihilism, Fuery was sent to prison on one molestation accusation he denies—but owns up to a second offense that he suggests was partially triggered by his own childhood abuse.
Vital bigger picture conversations about how society receives these rehabilitated sex offenders take place in group therapy sessions led by counselor Don Sweeney, a passionate advocate for the men and women in his charge. He strongly criticizes the justice system’s tendency to go after an increasing number of young adults on the Internet, like Jamie Turner, a tattooed, comic book-loving 22-year-old with a shock of bright purple hair who was caught answering a Craigslist ad for a person he believed to be a 30-year-old woman. She asked him to have sex with her teenage daughter—but it was a trap, and he went to prison for a year.
“In hindsight it’s so obvious, their tactics are so childish,” laments Turner. “But I was caught up in it.”
“That’s pure entrapment,” chides Sweeney. “They’re not child molesters, but that’s what they’re being labeled. That’s a testament to how desperate they are to keep the sex offender machine going. The real offenders are the families. They’re not reporting anything so now they’re manufacturing them. They’ll spend money on the prison system, which is the moneymaker for the politicians and governments now. You can take out stock on Wall Street on prisons in Florida.”
The filmmakers chronicle a wide array of offenders and offenses, from a happily married father of two who was nabbed for soliciting a cop posing as a 14-year-old in an online chat room to the fidgety man who describes driving across the border to Mexico, kidnapping a 5-year-old girl, and raping her as the film intercuts serene footage of him in his trailer home cleaning out his fish tank.
But the most astounding and complicated testimony comes from Tracy Hutchinson, the lone female offender interviewed in the film, who describes how her sexual abuse as a girl at the hands of her father led her to an abortion at age 11 and years of unhealthy relationships as an adult. By the time she had a son of her own, she ended up sexually abusing him. Years later at the age of 13, he continued the cycle of abuse by molesting a younger child.
What Pervert Park illuminates is that no matter the gravity of the individual offense—be it flashing, rape, child rape, or just being dumb enough to get nabbed in a To Catch A Predator-style online sting—the system paints all sex offenders with the same brush, and does little to stem the cycle of sexual abuse that keeps creating generation after generation of victim-abusers.
At Sundance, Pervert Park won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for calling attention to one of society’s most taboo subjects. More recently, an ongoing legal dispute between Jeff Shadowens, the landlord who owns Palace Mobile Home Park, and the manager of Florida Justice Transitions has thrown the future of the program into question over $16,000 in allegedly unpaid rent on several trailers.
“There isn’t anywhere else,” Hutchinson told ABC affiliate WFTS Tampa Bay in April. “Unless I want to live in the woods somewhere.”
“I was the one who brought in the AA, the NA meetings,” ex-manager Jim Broderick complained to the Tampa Bay Times a week later. “The sex offender counseling—that’s my thumbprint. The program is gone, he [Shadowens] is just a landlord.”
“Nothing is going to change,” promised Shadowens amid ongoing lawsuits with Broderick. “I’m not going to put sex offenders on the street.”