Circles shape sex offenders’ lives on the outside

Pioneering work with sex offenders is spreading throughout the UK in the form of circles, a model that offers offenders a network of support to prevent their reoffending. Rowenna Davis reports

When Paul Gadd – better known as rock star Gary Glitter – touched down at Heathrow Airport, he threw the spotlight on how the UK deals with its 33,000 registered sex offenders. A raft of policy announcements followed from home secretary Jacqui Smith including increasing foreign travel orders from six months to five years and launching child sexual offender disclosure pilots – a system that allows parents to apply for private information on paedophiles in their localities.

Such policies are based on the idea that sex offenders are incapable of rehabilitation. But not everyone thinks this way. Amid this tidal wave of punitive policy, a new model of rehabilitation is emerging based on the principles that protecting children and supporting sex offenders are complementary goals.

The Circles model involves providing sex offenders with a support network of community volunteers. The group, or circle, meets regularly (see box, right) with the aim that a positive influence will keep offenders from reoffending.

The first circle was formed in Canada in 1994 (see box below) and now this system of circles is beginning to spread throughout the UK. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation piloted some of the first circles in 2001. Today, there are almost 50 in operation nationwide, run by a mixture of statutory and voluntary providers. A new umbrella organisation, Circles UK, was recently given £165,000 to oversee these groups.


Although it is too early to say how well these circles are performing in the UK, the results to date are consistent with those from Canada, where the risk of reoffending by committing sexual crime is reduced by about 70% for offenders participating in circles. This figure is particularly astounding given that circles are formed around medium to high risk sex offenders. In the UK, 60% of this group is likely to reoffend within 20 years of leaving prison by current estimates.

Donald Findlater, head of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, believes the low recidivism rates for those using circles are the direct result of the sense of connection they provide. “Loneliness, emotional isolation and poor problem solving are all risk factors for offenders. Circles connect them to communities with safe and effective boundaries.”

Jim* is a registered child sex offender and the “core member” of a circle that has been running with five volunteers since last November. Although the circle only meets as a whole every two weeks, Jim will normally see each member of the circle individually in the interim.

“Just the fact that they’re at the end of the phone makes a difference. I’ve made some friends outside the circle but there is always a barrier – there will always be things about my past they don’t know.”

On call

Agreeing to be on call for a sex offender may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but Sarah*, one of the volunteers supporting Jim, insists she is proud of her role. “I think of it as a sort of neighbourhood watch scheme.”

New research from Canada suggests that the risk of reoffending depends upon the number of positive social influences an offender has in their life relative to the number of negative influences. If a sex offender is so stigmatised by society that their only friends are other sex offenders, then they are unlikely to change. Circles are based on the assumption that if offenders are placed in communities with more positive views about the rights of children, they are likely to do better.

Circles are made up of volunteers rather than paid statutory workers which makes them more effective, believes Findlater, as the fact that they aren’t paid means “they offer a more genuine sense of belonging,” he says.

Disclosure pilots, on the other hand, do the opposite and some practitioners argue that disclosure could be dangerous because it actively reduces the likelihood of inclusion.

The vast majority of sex offenders are not registered on statutory lists, and more than 80% of sexual offences take place in the home of either the victim or the offender, Findlater says. In these circumstances, policies that perpetuate the stigma attached to sexual offending are unlikely to make our children safer – they will just bury the problems deeper into our homes.

No illusions

Findlater believes circles could benefit up to half of all sex offenders in the UK. But he is under no illusions that the model could safeguard all sex offenders. “Some offenders are beyond treatment and need locking up,” he says. “Others simply can’t connect. We worked with one sex offender who was the victim of child abuse. His whole past had taught him that you can’t trust adults. Whatever we did, he kept the volunteers at arms length.”

At present, Lucy Faithfull offers volunteers a two-day training programme and supports them with a professionally qualified liaison officer. It is keen to emphasise that circles are a supplement – not a replacement – for existing statutory services. “We don’t want sex offenders to think that we play by a separate set of rules,” says Findlater. “We are part of the public protection agenda.”

Police and probation officers have been invited to attend group meetings, and in several cases circle volunteers have worked with the police to return the offender back to prison to prevent a likely crime.

Ultimately then, circles work because they provide support and accountability. As Jim puts it: “For the first time in my life I am able to accept responsibility for my actions and see the consequences for my victims. My circle encourages me to maintain positive thinking that I have an alternative future. The choice is mine.”

* Names have been changed

Circles in Canada

When high risk sex offender, Charlie Taylor, was released from prison after serving his full-term in 1994, there was an expectation that he would offend again. Taylor’s release and settlement in Hamilton, near Toronto was met by a media and public outcry. But volunteers from the local community, led by the Rev Harry Nigh, came forward to form a “circle of support and accountability” around Taylor and were able to prevent him reoffending. A similar group was formed around high risk sex offender Wray Budreo who was released in Toronto.

Read our expert piece on circles in Canada

‘I still wonder why the volunteers don’t walk away’

Case study: former sex offender Kevin

In a small back room in west London, a circle of men and women mingle around a tea stand. Kevin* is a former sex offender, the rest are volunteers from his local community, ordinary people who want to help him keep his pledge to change.

Kevin smiles at me and shakes my hand. I’m offered cake. Like the volunteers, I find it difficult to square these human gestures with the knowledge of this man’s offences. Kevin spent 10 years in prison after being convicted for rape and indecent assault of his daughter over a 12-year period.

Kevin uses the circle as a space to discuss the problems and challenges of life after prison. “I feel more vulnerable now I’ve moved into my own flat,” he says. “I’m a middle-aged guy, I’ve got no girlfriend and I keep myself to myself. I feel like people are suspicious.”

Terrified of the reaction his offences might provoke if they became public, Kevin keeps his history hidden. The only people he truly trusts are the members of the circle. It is clear that this group constitutes almost all of Kevin’s social life.

One would be forgiven for thinking that providing this intimate support would clash with the circle’s second function – ensuring accountability. But as the meeting unfolds, it becomes clear that it would be difficult to provide one without the other. If Kevin thought his group was stigmatising him, he would never have the confidence to publicly confront those corners of his psyche that could lead him to reoffend.

As the meeting goes on, it becomes clear that Kevin is in real need of support. “This is a bad month,” he says. “There are a lot of anniversaries with bad connotations. There are birthdays I can’t forget. I miss my family and it doesn’t get any easier.” He stops to wipe away some tears.

The circle members remind him that he has suffered a genuine loss, and ask him to look at “three positives” that have occurred in his week. Kevin talks about the small band he has joined, the few people who have come for tea in his new flat and the satisfaction of pulling up his old carpet. The group keeps him focused on the alternative, more positive life that he can build if he continues not to re-offend.

Kevin says he is emotional about the level of support that he receives from his community. As the circle draws to a close he says: “To this day I still wonder why they don’t walk away.”

Published in the 6 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the heading Road to Rehabilitation

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