Outside The Frame

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 was hailed by the government as the
framework that would protect the public, specifically children and
families, from sexual offenders. The act, which came into force in
May 2004, made new provisions for sexual offences and improved
clarity by providing definitions. It also updated schedule one of
the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, to take account of the
current understanding of sexual offending and advances in
technology, for example by including the offence of grooming over
the internet.

The act states: “Sexual crime, and the fear of sexual crime, has a
profound and damaging effect on the lives of individuals and
communities. A responsibility rests on the government adequately to
protect everyone in society from such crimes, especially those who
are particularly vulnerable to abuse, such as children and persons
with a mental disorder. We believe that the new framework of sexual
offences, notification requirements and orders provided for in this
act will give such protection.”(1)

Is this a realistic claim? For those sexual offenders within the
criminal justice system, the act has added to the arrangements for
multi-agency public protection – which place a duty on police and
probation in partnership with other agencies to assess and manage
risks posed by offenders in England and Wales – by enhancing their
ability to track, control, and monitor sexual offenders.
Restrictions on foreign travel and other preventive measures, such
as sexual offences prevention orders that restrict who offenders
can associate with and where they go, have increased flexibility in
protecting children.

Although now more robust, these arrangements still miss a large
proportion of sexual abusers who fall outside the criminal justice
system. This group of sexual abusers may be either historical
offenders who are not subject to current licence or notification
requirements or both, or individuals who have had allegations made
against them but about whom there is insufficient evidence to meet
the burden of proof required for a criminal prosecution.

In these circumstances, the onus for the protection of children
falls on social services departments. Their starting point is a
core assessment following the national assessment framework.(2)
This assessment explores three areas: the child’s developmental
needs, family and environmental needs, and parenting capacity.
Sexual abuse affects all three areas, but a core assessment does
not necessarily include a sexual abuser assessment.

Social services departments are a source of expertise in
undertaking and co-ordinating core assessments, yet many lack the
specialist knowledge to complete an assessment on a sexual abuser.
The current emphasis on multi-agency co-operation might suggest
that the obvious place to look for specialist sexual abuser
assessments would be the probation service, because of its training
and experience of working with this particular client group. But,
as there is no specific funding for those sexual abusers who fall
outside the criminal justice system, or sufficient sex offenders
within the system to occupy probation officer time, this resource
is generally not available to social services departments.

To obtain specialist assessments, social services often resort to
commissioning independent professionals. But there is no regulatory
body for independent specialists, there are no standards to which
they must adhere, and monitoring quality is problematic. And with
no specific budget the funding of such reports often takes place
via section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Such spending can quickly
drain a budget that has many other demands made on it.

Further problems arise for both the assessor and the commissioning
social services department when treatment is assessed as an
essential part of the risk management plan. Sexual abuser treatment
is provided through the accredited programmes run by the probation
service. But the priority for the limited places goes to those
offenders within the criminal justice system. Provision of
programmes outside the probation service is geographically patchy
and expensive.

In September last year at the international conference held by the
National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers, the Home Office
announced that between four and five residential treatment centres
were to be set up in the UK following research into the
effectiveness of the Wolvercote clinic.(3) While this is
encouraging news, such centres will take time to come onstream,
treatment is lengthy, and places will remain limited and, rightly,
focused on more high-risk offenders. The setting up of these
centres will still leave a gap for those abusers outside the
criminal justice system who could benefit from community-based

The independent assessor may be aware that a recommendation for the
sexual abuser to undertake treatment is an unlikely event, and the
risk management plan may therefore become unworkable. The assessor
faces a dilemma: whether to provide a report that focuses on risk
reduction and keeping the family together but is unrealistic and
unhelpful; or to carry out a simple risk assessment that reflects
the risk that may result in the child or children being removed
from home.

Without treatment provisions, social services departments are also
left with the dilemma of either trying to work with the family and
an untreated sexual abuser, or removing the child or children if
the risk meets the necessary thresholds. Current research suggests
that the accredited sex offender treatment programmes run by the
prison and probation services are effective in reducing the risk of
some, although not all, of the offenders who complete

Treatment programmes are expensive. Community programmes are more
economical than residential ones, but the financial and emotional
costs of removing children from home are arguably higher. The
divide between the criminal justice system and the child protection
system can be a costly one, especially for children.

This issue was considered by Jon Brown at the conference of the
International Association for the Treatment of Sex Offenders last
October.(4) He recommended that sexual offending in our communities
should be tackled from a child protection perspective that includes
all abusers, and not from a criminal justice system perspective
that excludes a significant proportion.

Jo Hebb is an independent trainer and consultant to
agencies whose work brings them into contact with sexual abusers.
Her social work career has spanned the probation service –
including family court welfare work – forensic mental health, and
social services as a team manager within children and

The government has made claims that the Sexual
Offences Act 2003 provides a framework that will protect vulnerable
people, especially children. This article looks at gaps in the
framework and the particular problems they cause for social
services departments.
(1) Home Office, Sexual Offences Act 2003,
(2) Department of Health, Framework for the Assessment of Children
in Need and Their Families, HMSO, 2000
(3) H Ford and A Beech, The Effectiveness of the Wolvercote Clinic
Residential Treatment Programme in Producing Short-term Treatment
Changes and Reducing Sexual Reconvictions, National Probation
Service, 2004 www.probation.homeoffice.gov.uk

(4) J Brown, Working with Sexual Abusers Within a Child Protection
Context, presentation to the International Association for the
Treatment of Sex Offenders conference, Athens, 2004


  • Home Office, Explanatory Notes to Sexual Offences Act 2003, www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk,
  • Home Office, Sex Offenders Strategy for the National Probation
    Service, www.probation.homeoffice.gov.uk, 2004
  • S Gillen, “Expert witnesses in the dock”, Community Care, 5-11
    February, 2004


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