Most of us have a network of family and friends that we can depend on – they’re the ones we call on in times of need.
We turn to them for advice, but they’re also there to point us in the right direction when we’re heading down the wrong path.
So what happens if you commit a repulsive crime such as child abuse and your friends and family turn their backs on you?
It might not seem to matter so much when you’re serving time behind bars – but what about when you’re released back into the real world?
Statistics show that a sex offender is much more likely to re-offend if he or she feels isolated, lonely and not part of the community.
That’s where Circles of Support and Accountability comes in.
It’s a project run by Herts Probation, first set up in 2009, which sees volunteers give their time to become a ‘friend’ to a paedophile.
- Just because someone is accused or convicted of a child sexual crime doesn't mean they are a pedophile!
But this isn’t a tea and sympathy kind of scheme, the focus is helping the offender – or ‘core member’ as they’re referred to in the programme – to become a useful member of society.
Project manager Annabel Francis said: “It is comparable to a friendship group in that they are there to support.”
“That could be emotional support, practical support like form filling and practising for interviews, and logistical support.”
“It’s not tea and sympathy but it is supportive.”
“But that’s in the context of if anything changes with your risk, or you have broken any of your terms, then we will be reporting it to probation and there will be consequences.”
People are all too quick to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to these types of offences, but unless those released from prison are managed in some way, they are almost certain to re-offend. That means another child’s life could be ripped apart.
- Almost certain to re-offend? Where is the facts to back that up? From the many studies we've read, this is simply not true. Some may fit this stereotype, but many do not.
And that’s why Annabel is so passionate about the scheme. “I think child sex abuse is one of the most horrific crimes to commit. The fallout from it for the victim is so extensive.”
“I don’t want to see it happen any more and the only way I can think of doing that is to work with people who are likely to perpetrate that behaviour.”
She manages a team of more than 100 volunteers across the Eastern region – covering six counties including Herts – who, in groups of up to six, meet once a week for a few hours with an offender.
These are mostly people who have been released from prison but sometimes it involves those who have been given community orders as their punishment rather than jail time.
Meetings take various forms, ranging from a formal sit down talk to meeting up for coffee or having a kickabout.
And like our ‘normal’ friends, the volunteers are there to find out how the person’s week is going, how they’re feeling, but also to flag up to Annabel any potential worries of risks.
Volunteers never meet a core member on a one-to-one basis.
“Predominantly this is because of how manipulative this particular group of clients can be,” said Annabel.
“Sometimes they don’t even mean to do it, it becomes part of their character that needs to be chipped away at.”
Every meeting is minuted and Annabel holds regular get-togethers with the volunteers, including a compulsory one-to-one at least every three months.
In some cases where volunteers have had concerns it has led to the offender being re-arrested or recalled to prison.
Of the 100 helpers, there are just eight men and Annabel says more are desperately needed.
She said: “Across the board volunteering is a very female activity – that is just a trend for all volunteering. When volunteering is seen as a caring role it becomes more female.”
“There is a temptation for everybody to ignore sex offenders, to think ‘If I have something to do with a sex offender, then somehow I’m doing something wrong’.”
“I think people see it as the worst of the worst and I don’t think people want to be associated with that, which I can understand.”
“But I think people need to look at it in reverse. To think ‘If sex abuse is so bad. then what can I do about it to reduce the likelihood that someone is going to get hurt?’”
“They’re not locked up for life, they don’t get castrated, they don’t get hanged.”
“You can either campaign the government to bring back the death penalty or you can be volunteering for circles.”
In the Eastern region 16 circle groups – which each run for 12 months – have opened and closed and another eight are under way. To date none of the core members has re-offended.
The scheme is based on a project that was started in Canada back in 1995 when a group of Quakers befriended a sex offender.
Today, there are projects running across the UK.
The stages of applying to become a volunteer:
- Fill out an application form.
- Get two character references.
- Attend a two-day training course and assessment.
- Undergo one-to-one interviews.
- An advanced CRB check will be carried out.
- To find out more visit www.circles-uk.org.uk or call Annabel on 07775 010443.