Breaking the cycle of offending

The public's tendency to demonise sex offenders can increase their chances of re-offending. Julia Stuart reports on a support project that reaches out to them
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The Independent Online

Three men are relaxing on a sofa in a house in Surrey, drinking tea and discussing England's poor rugby performance. The conversation turns to their holiday plans. One says he fancies camping this year. The two men then ask the youngest, Simon, who's 23, how his job in a café is going. It's fine, he replies, but he'd rather be doing something more demanding. He's thinking about applying for an apprenticeship, he says. The others seem impressed.

Simon (not his real name) is a convicted sex offender. A few years ago he kidnapped and indecently assaulted a 17-year-old girl. Since his return to society a year ago, he says that it is conversations such as these that have helped him abstain from re-offending.

What seems to be a blokish chat is, in fact, a meeting of a support group modelled on a Canadian scheme, which has seen reconviction rates in sex offenders drop by over half. The only such "circle of support and accountability" in Britain, it was set up with Home Office funding by Donald Findlater, the manager of Wolvercote Clinic, in Epsom, Surrey, the UK's only residential clinic for sex offenders.

The circle consists of the abuser – referred to as the "core member" – and four trained volunteers who offer friendship and support. For the first three months, the volunteers met Simon individually once a week, perhaps for a drink, a meal or a walk in the country. There were also weekly meetings as a group. As Simon has gradually found a place for himself in society and formed healthy relationships, the meetings have become less frequent.

But how does something so apparently simple as befriending a sex offender help him refrain from committing further abuse? "The label 'sex offender' pushes people away," explains Findlater, himself a volunteer. "We know from research that offenders feel very isolated, unloved and uncared for. They become more risky when emotionally isolated and suffering from poor self-esteem. If you combat the social isolation by giving them a sense of community and self-value, then they are less likely to think: 'Nobody cares, and I don't care about anybody else, either.'"

One vital element of the friendship, he says, is that it is mutual. "Caring for others and recognising that they have feelings and are due respect makes it much tougher for an offender to go out and cause hurt to another human being."

Britain's 110,000 convicted sex offenders living in the community are offered some support from police and probation services, but those professions' role is not that of a befriender. "People don't judge you in the circle," says Simon. "They are there because they care. Probation and police judge you constantly."

Simon pleaded guilty to what was his first offence, and was sentenced to six years. He felt no shame about his crime. On the contrary: "I felt totally justified because of events in my past. I didn't really care at all for the victim," he says.

After serving three-and-a-half years, during which he attended a sex offender's treatment programme that "scratched the surface", he was released on parole in April 2000. One of the conditions was that that he attended Wolvercote Clinic for further treatment. By the time he left, in February 2001, he felt "very, very ashamed" of his crime. "I knew more about how it had happened," says Simon. "It really brought home what I'd done. I sort of understood what the victim felt, but not completely, because that's not going to happen."

Did he think he might re-offend at that stage? "I knew it was a possibility. I knew which situations to avoid, which feelings to recognise and how to deal with them."

Simon immediately started working in a café, the one place that didn't ask whether he had a criminal conviction. About a week later he joined the circle, based in Surrey. As well as Findlater, the other volunteers are Steve, a clergyman, Grace, who works in the building industry and Kevin, a church worker.

Simon had no significant friendships. "Most of my friends were shocked by what I had done and didn't want to know afterwards. And I had moved to another area, because I was too well known." He says he has found the circle "very helpful. It has enabled me to talk to someone about my feelings, and about what's going on in life. If I'm angry about something they can suggest another avenue and help alleviate those feelings.

"The circle challenges me, gives me goals and helps keep my mind focused on doing other things. If I hadn't been in it I would have probably stored a lot of my feelings away inside myself."

Does he think that without the circle he may have re-offended? "Possibly. I may have felt I had no one else to turn to. At the time of my offence I felt very much alone in the world. While there were people there, I couldn't approach them. My self-esteem was like a crumb on the floor. I didn't care. I'm now a lot more confident than I was. I'm still wary of people, but I'm more optimistic and happy in myself. I know who I am."

Findlater says he has "absolutely no doubt" that Simon is now less likely to re-offend. "Every day of getting on with life is another day of thinking: 'I can do this, and I don't have to harm anybody else,'" he said.

The British project is not, however, without its disappointments. Its first core member (Simon is the second) moved to Wales after several months, fearing reprisals after telling someone about his past. Too far away to be supported by the group, he re-offended. He confessed to the police and is currently back in prison.

Encouraged by the progress he has seen in Simon, Findlater hopes that the scheme will become as widespread in the UK as the Canadian project, which started in 1994 and now has around 50 circles. Last year an evaluation of 30 core members who had been in circles from 12 months to six years found that three had re-offended. According to recognised risk-assessment scales, researchers would have expected the figure to be at least seven. They also found that the crimes were less severe than those for which the men had initially been imprisoned.

A Home Office funded project worker is currently setting up circles in Hampshire, the Thames Valley and Sussex. But volunteers are thin on the ground. "There aren't many people putting their hands up, saying, 'I'm on for this'," admits Findlater. The project is targeting churches – both clergy and parishioners – a method that proved successful in Canada. "I think sex offenders get such a bad press here that to propose to Joe or Jane Bloggs in the street: 'How do you fancy volunteering to support a sex offender?' is a bit of a challenge."

Volunteers also have to put in a considerable amount of time. Once deemed suitable, they undergo a 15-hour training programme, and then have to give up two or three hours a week for the next 12 months.

Grace says that she volunteered because she "believed in Man's potential to be reformed and re-integrated into society. I have had my share of difficulties, but I have been blessed with a network of friends whose support and acceptance of me have been fundamental to my well-being. I feel good about the fact that in a small way I am able to offer that to someone else."

For Steve, being a volunteer has been an invaluable experience. "It's hugely rewarding," he says. "This is a great opportunity to make a difference in society. If people are worried about sex offenders re-convicting, this is something they can do about it. Rather than burn their house down, or chuck them out, they can actually help put lives back together again, rather than tearing people apart. You share your life, your being and your friendship with somebody who isn't a monster, just somebody in trouble."