Lights go out on treatment

This summer saw the closure of the only residential treatment
facility for child sex offenders. Wolvercote Clinic in Epsom,
Surrey, stands on government land earmarked for development and no
alternative site has been found despite government reassurances.
Since the clinic’s work was suspended in July, the 11 resident
offenders have been treated by Wolvercote staff in the community.

But if a well-respected treatment facility can be closed down
before an alternative site is available, what does this say about
the government’s belief in the effectiveness of treatment for child
sex offenders? Can their behaviour be successfully treated?

It is ironic that on the day the Wolvercote’s suspension was
announced, Home Office minister Hilary Benn announced a review of
residential treatment for sex offenders by the National Probation

There are several treatment options for a child sex offender –
professionals working with them are careful not to use the term
“paedophile” which they say is misleading. It reinforces the
“stranger danger” myth and implies that child abusers cannot be
“ordinary” men living in any family or neighbourhood. The National
Probation Service in England and Wales is the main provider of
community treatment programmes. There are three accredited sex
offender treatment programmes and each probation area runs one of
them. Twenty-seven prisons have treatment programmes for sex
offenders, including one for women at Styal Prison, Manchester. A
few health services also run programmes as does the NSPCC, in
partnership with the probation service.

Research indicates that cognitive behavioural therapy is most
successful in working with sex offenders. This involves teaching
offenders to re-evaluate their attitudes to victims and offending,
and providing them with behavioural controls to avoid further
offending. Treatment programmes challenge an abuser’s reluctance to
accept responsibility for his behaviour, look at cycles of
offending, relationships and attachment, self-management and
interpersonal skills, the role of fantasy, victim empathy,
prevention and lifestyle changes.

The Wolvercote Clinic was opened in 1995 by child protection
charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. It offered a residential
assessment service as well as a treatment programme for men with or
without convictions for sex offences against children.

Donald Findlater, deputy director of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation
and manager of the Wolvercote Clinic, says while the clinic’s work
is suspended the work done by his staff in managing and learning
about sex offenders’ behaviour will cease and “as a society we will
be less well armed and less cautious”. He feels the closure of
Wolvercote is a child protection tragedy.

The year-long residential programme was more intense than any other
treatment in the country, so the clinic accepted men assessed as
high risk or of high deviance. Out of the 305 men who were assessed
or treated, the clinic is aware of six who have been reconvicted of
sexual offences.

But the Wolvercote has been operating for less than a decade, and
Findlater is the first to admit this is not long enough to know
what is really going on. Stephen Shute, professor of criminal law
and criminal justice at the School of Law, University of
Birmingham, agrees that a large group of child sex offenders need
to be monitored over a long period of time to gauge whether there
has been any treatment effect. But, in the UK there is little
long-term research into reoffending or reconviction rates of child
sex offenders following treatment, so whether treatment can
permanently change behaviour is still unknown. However, there are
optimistic results particularly in Canada where large-scale,
long-term research found that well-designed cognitive behavioural
therapy schemes reduce convictions by 40 per cent.

In the UK, the longest timescale covered by research is six years.
In a follow-up of men undergoing probation-based treatment
programmes, “a clear treatment effect was found” in that only 10
per cent of the men who were classified as benefiting from
treatment were reconvicted after six years, compared with 23 per
cent of men classified as not responding to treatment.1

Shute and his colleagues recently carried out research for the Home
Office on reconviction rates of sex offenders who had served long
prison sentences.2 It followed a sample of 192 sex
offenders, 60 per cent of whom had committed offences against
children. None of those imprisoned for an offence against children
in their own family were reconvicted of a sex offence after six
years. But more than a quarter who had committed a sexual offence
against a child not in their family were reconvicted of another
sexual crime.

Findlater is sceptical about these results. “Our experience is that
many men do not stay put within the family. Out of 10 incest
offenders, I would expect up to six to have committed offences
outside the family. It does not mean they’ve been convicted of

Reconviction numbers over such a short timeframe will never tell
the whole story, he says. Some men in the lower risk, lower
deviance group may not have stopped, they may just not have been
caught. Or, they may have put their offending behaviour on hold or
be waiting for the next generation, their grandchildren, so they
may not be caught for another 15 years.

Dave Matthews, acting children’s services manager at the NSPCC Dove
project in Derby, agrees: “We know that reconviction is not a full
guide to reoffending. It’s a largely hidden problem and we know
that about 75 per cent of children who are abused don’t tell anyone
about it. It’s about risk management. Knowing puts us in a better
position to deal with it.”

The project has run a treatment programme since 1993, but started
running a Home Office-accredited community sex offender group work
programme in partnership with the West Midlands probation service
this year. Like the Wolvercote, it also has a risk assessment

Offenders undertake the programme either as a condition of a
community sentence or as a condition of a post custody license.
High-risk offenders undertake a 240-hour cognitive behavioural
treatment programme and low-risk offenders a 100-hour programme. As
a two-year course, it’s too early to predict effectiveness, but
Matthews says: “The more we know about what adults do that is
abusive to children, the better able we are to protect them. That’s
why it’s important to put this in a child protection

There is still a lot of uncertainty as to the effect that treatment
programmes have on reconviction or reoffending rates. While it may
work for some, others will be resistant to it. The difficulty is
knowing the right ones to select, says Shute: “It should be an
option, but the jury is still out – this is an area in which more
research is called for.”

Findlater says that the public’s wish for child sex offenders to be
locked up for life is unrealistic because only 23 offenders out of
the whole prison population, which reached 72,000 this month, will
not be let out. So surely treatment and monitoring play a vital
role in protecting children.

Findlater adds: “If we can work with people who would have been in
the community anyway, if we can reduce reconvictions, that’s worth
having surely.”

Meanwhile, 11 more child sex offenders are now living in the
community rather than in the secure confines of the Wolvercote
Clinic. That doesn’t sound like a very good child protection plan.

1 Anthony Beech et al, Home Office Findings
, 2001, from 020 7273 2084

2 R Hood, S Shute et al, “Sex offenders emerging from
long-term imprisonment”, British Journal of Criminology,
42, 371-394, 2002

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