Sky News, working with Circles UK, recently produced a sensitive and informative documentary on Circles of Support and Accountability. The documentary can be viewed here. Circles of Support and Accountability operate across the country, and consist of groups of volunteers in local communities that work with people with convictions for sexual offences and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour to minimise their alienation and support their reintegration.
In this blog, Circles UK CEO Riana Taylor explores some of the key messages that can be taken away from the documentary and her experience of making it, for organisations in the voluntary sector doing similarly complex work.
We need to talk about perpetrators of sexual abuse and how we want to treat them in our society
Few organisations in the UK provide services for perpetrators of sexual abuse. The prevalence of sexual abuse is, however, extremely high and rising. The Crime Survey for England and Wales, estimated that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 3.4 million female victims and 631,000 male victims. Approximately 3,000 people with convictions for sexual offences are released from prison every year. A Home Office Report estimated the true costs of sexual crime to be £12.2 billion for 2015/16 with an estimated 1,259 million offences.
The majority of people do not report the sexual abuse they have been subjected to, to the police, and where these crimes are reported, successful prosecutions and convictions are rare. For the scale of the problem in the UK, services are generally under-funded and a truly preventative approach to the issue of sexual abuse is sadly lacking. We must increase services for victims and survivors of sexual abuse, but to prevent further victims we also need effective services for perpetrators. A perpetrator treatment and management strategy with sufficient financial investment in the issue is long overdue.
Work with perpetrators prevents further victims of sexual abuse and saves resources
One of the most poignant parts of the documentary is an interview with ‘Rachel’, a sexual assault survivor. ‘Rachel’ said she supported and championed the work of Circles because she saw how it helped to prevent further sexual abuse. She spoke of the need to prevent further offenses and protect people from becoming victims. Her message is particularly powerful because of her personal experience of the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual abuse. It is important that the documentary places ‘Rachel’s’ personal story in the context of the wider issues, allowing her to respond to the concerns many people hold about working with perpetrators of sexual abuse.
The recent reduction of probation funding for Circles has led to a reduction in services, thereby further reducing the already limited number of interventions that are available to perpetrators of sexual abuse in the UK – and potentially making our communities less safe. The estimated true cost of sexual offending often focuses on criminal justice related costs, but this hides the far greater and more devastating cost to victims of sexual abuse – the countless lives that are damaged and for many, never fully repaired. The cost of a Circle (or of any effective intervention for perpetrators of sexual abuse) is small in comparison.
Those coming out of prison with convictions for sexual offences need both support and accountability
The documentary showed clearly how a Circle provides a careful balance between holding the person (called a ‘Core Member’ in a Circle) to account, whilst offering much needed support. Rigorous research and evaluation on the effectiveness of Circles show that they complement the risk management done by the statutory agencies and provide an additional public protection mechanism.
Those with convictions for sexual offences are stigmatised and marginalised for their behaviour and are often dangerously isolated when they leave prison. Many are shunned by families, partners and spouses and other networks when their abusive behaviour comes to light. Access to employment, accommodation and other mechanisms to enable them to reintegrate in a constructive manner into the community is frequently denied. Circles offer them a lifeline by providing this necessary support and by assisting them to build appropriate networks and relationships; all of which helps to reduce reoffending.
Circles Volunteers – working from within to make their communities safer and make a difference
Those who access a Circle often present a high risk of harm and reoffending. Many are individuals damaged by adverse childhood experiences including child abuse and neglect. A high percentage present with autism spectrum conditions or intellectual disabilities. Research tells us that complex behaviour change cannot be achieved by treatment interventions and professional services alone. It also relies upon interventions built around relationships that develop trust and a sense of individual worth and belonging in society. These types of interventions are particularly effective for people who are socially isolated, alienated from their communities and shunned by family and support networks – all the issues that most perpetrators of sexual abuse face.
The work of Circles volunteers is extraordinary. The nature of the work requires unique dedication and commitment, and volunteers can face resistance from their families, partners and friends. The fact that Circles are delivered by volunteers who give their time for free, is often one of the key things which positively influences the Core Member to change their behaviour. Through Circles volunteers, communities are given a stake in how we deal with perpetrators of sexual abuse in our society. A large percentage of voluntary sector organisations that work in the criminal justice sector provide at least a portion of their services with the help of volunteers. This way of working is particularly valuable, as it gives communities an active role in helping to reintegrate those with convictions back into society.
Working with the media to change public attitudes
The Circles Sky News documentary is an example of balanced and sensitive reporting of a difficult, and sometimes controversial issue. It captures the complexity of dealing with sexual abuse and how and why Circles works with perpetrators to achieve the goal of preventing further abuse. This documentary is the result of detailed planning and work that took place over many months. We are grateful to the Sky News journalist and her team who made this happen. As a result of the documentary, Circles UK and Circles Providers received more than 90 enquiries from people interested in volunteering. But more importantly, the public response to the film was overwhelmingly positive – so much so that Sky News took the decision to extend the viewing time. This shows that factual and sensitive reporting can be very effective in raising awareness and informing public opinion.
Voluntary sector organisations often lack the capacity to do extensive media engagement, and the work involved in producing a documentary such as this one should not be underestimated. However, where possible, it is worthwhile for voluntary sector organisations to cultivate good relationships with journalists and documentary makers who are aiming to portray complex issues in a balanced and informed way. The voluntary sector works at the forefront of many issues hidden from mainstream society and therefore has valuable insights to contribute to public education and awareness.