Monday, 20 September 2010

Sex Offenders

To my surprise, some of my most rewarding work has been with sex offenders. They often pose the greatest challenges because as a group they are more likely to be in denial and prone to minimisation in terms of their behaviour. This in turn means they remain a high risk of re-offending and pose a serious threat due to the nature of their offences, which are invariably disturbing and serious. Being responsible for a generic caseload both in and out of prison, I have had my fair share of cases in this category, but for many years felt that the prognosis would always be bleak in terms of trying to make any progress in reducing the risks they posed. I always felt it most unlikely that clients displaying seriously deviant sexual behaviour were going to be amenable to change.

But then some years ago I was offered the chance of joining two other colleagues in running a self-styled Sex Offender Project based on group and individual work. Although we were only allowed about a day a week each, we still managed to set up a 'core' group, a 'maintenance' group and 'adapted' group for the learning disabled, in addition to individual work with very high risk clients. The latter had typically been released from long prison sentences on Parole Licence, specifically in order to take part in the project and resided at probation hostels. Due to the level of risk they posed they had to be escorted for individual sessions. The maintenance group was designed both for those who completed the core group programme and for voluntary attenders when their order had finished. (Yes, just imagine that concept nowadays!) We accepted referrals at all stages, right from PSR and even undertook to write the report for the referring PO. Management just allowed us to get on with it, but paid for a consultant to give advice and support every few months.

The whole project had been running successfully for a number of years, designed in-house by my experienced colleagues, with each aspect tailored to an individuals needs, as was felt appropriate. Imagine that, no manual, no bureaucracy, no monitoring. They were halcyon days indeed and we did amazing work with some of the most scary and damaged people I've ever met. I will always feel priviledged to have had the opportunity of proving beyond doubt that even the most dangerous of offenders can and did respond to some skilfull, patient, understanding counselling. In some cases it took a great deal of time, but there were no time limits, no prescriptive programme and no video or tape recording.

I mention all this because what I am describing is now history and has been replaced with something very different, the authorised and highly prescriptive Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). This now operates in all probation areas and is available in certain prisons. Run strictly according to a manual, sessions are video-recorded to ensure compliance with the programme and tutors performance is monitored afterwards by so called 'Treatment Managers'. All dreadful nomenclature in my view. Admission to the programme is by no means automatic and for example excludes those in denial or those with learning disabilities.

Now, as I declined to put myself forward for this new initiative, it would not be fair to say too much, beyond perhaps the not-surprising observation that I remain sceptical that the 'one size fits all' approach is right. Clearly it would not have benefited the vast majority of our clientele. So, in a sense, I've come full circle in feeling that once more there is a group of sex offenders for whom the prognosis remains very poor indeed. Progress?  


  1. The previous governemt liked to control and measure things. Schools, the NHS, Police, and it seems the probabtion service all suffered from this it seems, as well as others. Basically they encouraged a cuture where everything was about adhering to guidelines and achieving targets, rather than actually achieving anything. While obviously targets are an attempt to measure achievement, they invariably distort things by focusing all effort on meeting the targets, while other equally important things are neglected.

    I am hoping that things will improve under the current government, that professionals will be trusted more to know how to do their job without being micro-managed from the center. Time will tell if that hope is justified or not.

  2. SOTP is too rigid and prescriptive, no doubt about that, but it can be extremely responsive if there are a couple of things in place including appropriately trained and experienced staff and Treatment management/supervision that goes beyond following the box ticking TM guidance to be more like professional clinical oversight. YOT's are better as far as this goes, thanks to much better multidisciplinary/multiagency work, but even there they're moving towards the standardised AIM 2 programme.

    The extent to which intervention with the client/offender's wider family has been overlooked is criminal, even if it were the accredited partner programme.

    @A.J. Wimble
    No, professionals will not be trusted more or allowed to use their judgement. The SOTP intervention work will eventually be farmed out to agencies other than the Probation Service in the interests of cost cutting. There are already moves to move SOTP work into the hands of the PSO grade staff mentioned elsewhere in this blog. I understand that in prisons it is often delivered by prison officers.

  3. On the worst offenders responding to counselling, see the James Nayler Foundation. For sex offenders, "Circles of Support and Accountability" have some success. A sex offender phoned me and moaned for twenty minutes, but I could not see what I could do for him, and eventually asked what he wanted. He said, "I want you to make it so I don't have to fear any more". I wish I could.

  4. Abigail - thanks for that - The Lucy Faithful Foundation used to be a great resource but funding was always the problem for residential places.