Training staff to work with learning disabled sex offenders

Support staff at a learning disability provider now have a better idea of what is behind clients' challenging behaviour thanks to training in working supporting people who offend sexually, finds Natalie Valios.

Affinity Trust head Leo Sowerby says the training has improved practice

Councils responsible for learning disabled adults who have offended sexually have increasingly been turning to charity Affinity Trust to support them in recent years. The learning disability charity specialises in supporting adults with complex needs and challenging behaviour to return from out-of-area placements to live safely in their communities.

However, when the trust started being commissioned to do this work, chief executive Leo Sowerby realised that the support staff working with this particular client group needed specialist training above and beyond what they already received.

“All our staff are trained in risk assessment but when you move into an area of supporting people who might have committed a sexual offence there is a different dimension, for example, public safety and the involvement of other agencies,” he says.

Affinity Trust called in Respond, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities who have been affected by trauma and abuse, to provide targeted training to specific staff supporting those whose behaviour is challenging or who have committed a sexual offence. So far, 77 have gone through the training process.

Behaviour has roots in abuse

For support workers to understand the people they work with they need to be aware that “extreme challenging behaviour often has its roots in abuse or neglectful early childhood”, says Respond’s chief executive, Noelle Blackman.

“We want staff to understand the human part of this person. Yes, their behaviour is often risky and dangerous, but there is also a victim and that part of the person needs attention too.”

To avoid a cycle of cruelty like that seen at Winterbourne View, staff need to be invested in, she says.

Risks of fostering bullying environment

“If you don’t train them and supervise them to consider and reflect on their work, then a mindlessness can set in and it becomes a ripe environment for a bullying person to enter and take control. Organisations need to have an eye on what creates a healthy environment, because then it would be noticeable if something like Winterbourne View was happening.”

The training from Respond takes two days and the main objectives are for support workers to be able to identify and understand the key features of sex offending and best practice in assessment and management of risk; show a knowledge of individual and group psychodynamic approaches to working with learning disabled sex offenders; and understand legislation in the field of learning disability and sexual abuse.

Case studies make it practical and accessible, says Blackman; staff are encouraged to bring their own examples of challenging scenarios so these can be explored and worked through.

The main outcome from this training is “seeing a real change in the ways [staff] understand the difficult behaviours they are supporting people with”, says Blackman. “Because they have a new psychological understanding of that they can be more sensitive in their responses.”

Training improves community support

Sowerby agrees: “This training improves our ability to support someone to live and remain in the community because staff have a greater understanding of the background that might have led to this situation and of the legislation, for example if they have a community treatment order.

“The underpinning point is our belief that there isn’t a need for places like Winterbourne View. People can be successfully supported in the community if safeguards are in place and key to that is having the right staff with the right training.”


How training built empathy for client who had offended

Donald* has moderate learning disabilities. Twelve years ago he was living in a residential home when he was accused of sexual offences at a day placement, including sexually assaulting a female care worker. He was sectioned and detained in an out-of-county secure hospital.

Four years ago, Affinity Trust was commissioned by the local authority responsible for Donald to work with him so that he could move back into the community. He was placed in shared accommodation in a fairly remote location with another client in a similar situation, supported by an all-male staff team. He was also given a community treatment order. 

Tony White* manages Donald’s support team and he and his team were trained by Respond before they started working with Donald.

“We weren’t experts, we needed training that showed us how to understand their history and why they offended; in what situations they might offend again; appropriate measures to put in place – what’s too punitive and what is reasonable. It gave us practical tips that we could take away.

“Donald had had a difficult childhood and so had no awareness of appropriate sexual boundaries. Without the training it would have been next to impossible to have enough staff with the correct approach to have the empathy to see that the majority of people with learning disabilities who are sex offenders have been subject to abuse themselves.”

While Donald was on his community treatment order the support team gradually started building up unsupervised time. He moved to a local town a year ago and now has three support workers.

“It’s going really well,” says White. “He does voluntary work, he takes the bus to college and he has even become engaged.”

Considering his history, this is something the team is really proud of. “The frustration of not having a relationship contributed to him offending in the past. We identified singles clubs for people with learning disabilities and had strategies in place for if he struck up a relationship with someone who was too vulnerable.”

When he met someone they put a strategy in place, working with the local authority and both their social workers, to ensure his girlfriend was safe. They are confident she is not at risk.

“I’m currently supporting five others with similar case profiles and I don’t feel we would be able to achieve these outcomes without the Respond training,” says White.

“It would have been a stressful time because we wouldn’t have had the confidence to take some of the steps that we have and feel that we had fully considered things and put in place all the necessary measures.”

*Names have been changed



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