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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