By Linda Pressly
Miracle Village lies deep in a sea of green. This is sugar cane country, south Florida. At the edge of the everglades, and over two miles from the nearest town, around 200 people live in the small, neat bungalows.
More than 100 of them are registered sex offenders - people who were found guilty, and have usually served a prison sentence, for a sex crime. There is one woman, the rest are men. Some of them viewed child pornography, or molested their own children.
Others abused minors when they were in positions of power - there is a teacher here, a pastor, a sports coach. There are those who have been to prison for exposing themselves. A number of residents were convicted because they had sex with underage girlfriends.
Under Florida's state law none of them can live within 1,000 feet of a school, day care centre, park or playground. Cities and counties have extended those restrictions up to 2,500 feet - about half a mile. And in some places swimming pools, bus stops and libraries are out of bounds too. The effect has been to push sex offenders out of densely populated areas.
The laws of Florida have made Miracle Village an attractive option. It was set up in 2009 by the late Dick Witherow, a pastor with Matthew 25 Ministries.
He saw the difficulties sex offenders faced when trying to find a place to live. Although they can travel pretty much anywhere during the day, at night they must be at an address that complies with the residency restrictions.
|Miracle Park Geese|
"We try not to accept people with a history of violence or drugs, or to take any diagnosed paedophile - that is, someone who can only become sexually aroused by a child. We want to protect the people who are already here and those who were living here before us."
[name withheld] moved in 10 years ago - back in the days when it was known as Pelican Lake and was home to cane-cutters and their families. He arrived in South Florida from Jamaica in 1962, and spent his working life harvesting the sugar that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Retired now, he spends his days tending an extensive garden of cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas - a whole range of fruit and vegetables that he gifts to his neighbours.
"It's a very peaceful place, no one troubles nobody," he says. And how does he find the dozens of sex offenders who have moved in over the last few years? "They're good people. I've made plenty of friends. The only thing we miss is the kids, and the school bus don't come here no more."
A few children do live at Miracle Village - Florida's laws don't stop sex offenders from living in the same neighbourhood as minors, although their terms of probation may ban them from having any contact with them.
[name withheld], a 22-year-old, is a registered sex offender prohibited from speaking to anyone under the age of 18. When he was 19, he had what he says is a consensual sexual relationship with a 14-year-old. He believed she was older.
"I knew her for a year, and we dated for a few months", he remembers. "Her parents testified against me, and I was sentenced to two years' house arrest followed by eight years' probation."
When he violated the terms of his probation by speaking to the younger brother of a friend, he spent four months in the county jail. Then the judge ordered him to move to Miracle Village - the alternative was a lengthy prison sentence.
A talented musician, [name withheld] plays drums for the band that leads the services in the small church at the heart of Miracle Village.
This is a Christian community dedicated to helping sex offenders rebuild their lives, but non-Christians are accepted, and everyone is welcomed at church. There are anger management and bible study classes. And, as a condition of their probation, most of the sex offenders attend psychological treatment programmes. Some of the offenders have jobs in local towns.
With its neatly cut lawns, and luscious, tropical vegetation, this is an idyllic, rural community. It is easy to forget that some of its residents have committed serious and shocking crimes.
[name withheld], the executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, was a top youth racquetball coach. In the early 1990s he was convicted of sexual contact with 11 minors. As a born-again Christian, he says he is using his experience as a sex-offender to influence others.
"I can see through these guys' stories. So if we get someone here and they say, 'I'm not guilty, all I did was look at a picture. I say, no. You're guilty, period.' Because the only way you're going to change is to admit you are wrong."
At the Methodist church in the nearby town of Pahokee, some of the sex offenders from Miracle Village provide live music for the services. They are appreciated members of the congregation, and one of them is a preacher here.
But having so many sex offenders close by has unnerved some locals. Kathy was raped at knife-point when she was a teenager. Decades after the event, she is still struggling to come to terms with her experience. And she isn't impressed with Miracle Village.
"I don't think it's a miracle at all," she says. "Maybe it is for the sex offenders, but for me it's more like a nightmare on Elm Street."
Pahokee's Mayor, Colin Walkes, believes people are coming to terms with their unusual neighbours living just outside the town.
"I know at first there was a lot of opposition to them, because the whole thing was about protecting our number one asset - our kids. But we're moving on, and this is a country of second and third chances for people who make mistakes. As long as law enforcement is involved and there are no problems, the community will accept them."
|Detective Courtney Minton|
She visits weekly to verify addresses, and check residents have registered all their details in accordance with the law.
On a scorching Thursday morning in June, she cruises around in her red pickup truck, stopping at the houses on her list. Some people are not in because they are at work, so she leaves a calling card. At one home, she talks to an offender's wife.
Back in her truck, she reflects on her job - often she has an intimate knowledge of someone's crimes.
"The offender I just checked on is a case I worked on a few years ago as a detective - he was molesting his daughters. So I made the charges against him, and worked the investigation. Then he went to prison, he got out, and now it's my job to be checking on him," she says.
Detective Minton has a case-load of 300. There are 900 registered sex offenders in Palm Beach County. Across Florida there are around 55,000. Enforcement of the residency laws is expensive.
And there is a debate about whether the restrictions actually make the population safer. Campaigners say there is no empirical evidence to show that recidivism rates are lower among sex offenders who live away from places like schools. Supporters of the laws claim it is common sense - if you let sexual predators live close to anywhere lots of children gather, more will be at risk.
Many of those residing at Miracle Village do so because they cannot find anywhere else in Florida that complies with the law. For others it is home. So what would happen to the community if the residency laws were revoked so sex offenders could live anywhere they chose?
"Sex offenders would still live here," says Pat Powers. "It's very peaceful out here in the middle of nowhere."