Quelling a shoplifting compulsion

NEWPORT BEACH — Some people call them teacher of the year, family doctor, engineer or Girl Scout leader.

Nancy Clark calls them clients.

For 15 years, Clark has run a shoplifting addiction treatment program on Old Newport Boulevard. Many clients attend in lieu of possible jail or prison sentences.

Despite stereotypes about petty thieves snatching items out of financial desperation, many of the folks in the program are well-to-do. They see shoplifting as an addiction that gives an endorphin rush on par with drugs.

One prerequisite for clients enrolled in Nancy Clark & Associates Inc.'s treatment program is that clients only steal items they can afford. The program is not for those who steal to support a drug or alcohol addiction — there's another group for them.

Clark enforces a strict dress-and-grooming code during the 12-week program: no tank tops, men must be clean-shaven, and hats and sunglasses are forbidden.

"I don't want somebody to look like the Unabomber when they come to my office in the morning," she said.

That isn't an issue for many in the largely female group. Many of the clients are professionals or publicly lauded in the community, but quietly steal items to satisfy an urge often begotten by feelings of loneliness, anxiety or frustration in their personal lives.

"The clientele I work with usually can afford the products," said program director Kathy Escher. "They are professionals. … The risk-taking in shoplifting can work as an antidepressant. It's just like any other high with any other addiction. The pleasure area of the brain that's stimulated can be addictive."

Many of the stolen items are meaningless or unusable to those who take them. Clark knows of someone who stole a single shoe and another who amassed three storage units worth of items, spanning a 25-year "career."

According to Clark, some shoplifters are triggered by small stores filled with tchotchkes, while others feel a compulsion to act out in the aisles of big-box retailers.

The program aims for the root of why clients steal, emphasizing individual treatment coupled with group counseling to build a support network where they can share feelings that compel them to steal. By the group's estimates, they have a 4% recidivism rate of those who re-offend after completing the program.

One client named Elizabeth, 42, has been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. She said Clark's program helped her understand that she isn't alone in her struggle with shoplifting.

"This is a real problem," said Elizabeth, whose last name is being withheld by the Daily Pilot to protect her identity. "This is something you have to manage for the rest of your life. I'm a good, moral person. I know it's wrong to steal. … For so long I didn't realize why I was doing it. Basically you're trying to fill a need."

Elizabeth has been in Clark's program since her late 20s, and although she hasn't stolen anything in eight years, she won't go more than a few months before attending a group meeting.

"They are so, so helpful," she said. "It's basically my lifeline to make sure I stay OK."

Many clients are afraid their close family ties will be jeopardized if they share their compulsion with whom they are closest.

"We've got people who were married decades and decades, and they are dealing with this on their own," Clark said. "These people imagine they'll never be invited to Thanksgiving again."

Elizabeth said rather than tell friends about her shoplifting addiction, she told them she had a DUI when the court mandated her to wear a GPS ankle device.

"It was more acceptable to say I had a DUI than, 'I got caught shoplifting,'" she said. "You hear of people getting DUIs, and people know I'm not an alcoholic. They thought that was just bad luck. That's more acceptable than to say, 'I have a shoplifting problem.'"

Kate Corrigan, president of the Orange County Criminal Defense Bar Assn., has worked with Clark and her team since the early 1990s.

"She is someone who is selfless," Corrigan said. "She is someone who really takes great care in helping people turn their lives around … She's one of a kind."

Although some of her clients arrive by court mandate, Clark doesn't see criminals when she meets a client.

"We look at the person behind the crime," she said. "There's a story behind these people."

In Clark's office, dozens of awards and certificates line the bright teal walls — many from groups grateful for Clark's work.

One portrait of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus stands out amid the checkerboard of frames. The gilt-framed picture was a gift she received while at the public defender's office, where she worked from 1973 to 1990.

Beneath it, in Spanish, reads: Our lady of the sacred heart, lawyer of the difficult and desperate causes.

"They said I work with hopeless causes," Clark said. "Our motto is 'There's hope in every heartbeat.'"

lauren.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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