See Inside Florida’s Trailer Park Community of Sex Offenders
Palace Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, operates much like any cooperative living facility. Its 120 residents benefit from a community environment in which the neighbors know one another by name, work together to maintain the grounds, and throw the occasional barbecue. The residents at the park have one thing in common—all have been convicted of sex crimes.
The documentary Pervert Park, which airs July 11 on PBS, combines footage of the residents’ daily lives with one-on-one interviews that allow viewers to see the former offenders beyond the crimes they committed.
“Before we went there, we hadn’t really questioned what a sex offender was,” Frida Barkfors told TakePart of the film she codirected with her husband, Lasse Barkfors. “We had completely bought into what the mainstream media portrayed,” she said, noting that much of that narrative focuses on strangers lurking in alleys ready to pounce on any unsuspecting child.
Some of the residents featured in Pervert—like Patrick Naughton, who kidnapped and raped a five-year-old girl—fall into this category. But the Scandinavian couple also met residents who were labeled sex offenders for a broad range of other offenses, including possession of child pornography, agreeing via the internet to meet a teen for sex, and public urination.
Anybody convicted of any one of nearly two dozen sex offenses in Florida is required to register as a sex offender for his or her entire life. As names, addresses, and personal information are readily available for public access, offenders are also required to live a minimum of 1,000 feet away from places that children frequently gather, such as schools and day care centers. That’s why Nancy Morais created Florida Justice Transitions, the nonprofit that runs a residence program at the trailer park. Her son struggled to find a place to live as a registered sex offender.
In 1996, Congress passed Megan’s Law, which requires states to produce a public registry of those who have committed sex crimes. Twenty years later, there are more than 800,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S.—though, as TakePart documented last year, the registries are riddled with errors.
The effectiveness of the databases and the restrictions associated with them have long been called into question. In 2007 Human Rights Watch called for the elimination of residency restrictions, arguing that they infringe on basic human rights. Multiple studies have found that sex offender registries do not reduce recidivism rates.
Pervert Park focuses on what does appear to be working—therapy. In group counseling sessions, the residents talk about underlying anger issues and personal traumas.
Several of the offenders were sexually abused as children. As a child Tracy Hutchinson was habitually raped by her father. She went on to sexually abuse her son, who then went on to abuse a three-year-old. Florida Justice Transitions counselor Don Sweeney believes that proper therapy for both Hutchinson and her son could have broken the cycle of abuse.
“Offenders will continue to act out until they’re stopped and they understand their behavior,” he explains in the film. “Treating one offender might prevent 10 more victims from being created.”
With help from Sweeney, the residents create their own support system and hold one another accountable. Fewer than 1 percent of the residents at Florida Justice Transitions recidivate, according to the organization’s tally.
But the Barkfors are hesitant to say that it’s an ideal living arrangement for sex offenders.
“If they could choose, they would not be there. They want to live with their families. They want to heal. They want to reintegrate into society,” Frida Barkfors said. “They’re not able to do that because of the registry and because of all the restrictions that you have to live with as a sex offender.”