2 February 2010: Circles of Support and Accountability

Speakers: Stephen Hanvey Chief Executive Circles UK
                  A Core Member
                  A Circles Volunteer
                  The Right Reverend James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool
Julie Morgan MP (in the chair)
Lord Dear
Lord Dholakia
Lord Fellowes
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
Madeleine Moon MP
Baroness Masham of Ilton
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Kate Akester
Mark Day PRT
Sarah Graves
Edwina Grosvenor, Bishop of Liverpool’s office
Juliet Lyon, PRT
Aileen Murphie, National Audit Office
Teresa Reynolds
Simon Sauze, Lucy Faithful Foundation
Peter Selby, Nat Council for IMBs
Sarah Vero PRT
Scott Vrecko


Julie Morgan MP opened the meeting and thanked everyone for coming. She began by noting the apologies of Lord Corbett, who was recovering from an operation on his leg.  She hoped the meeting’s best wishes for a speedy recovery would be conveyed to him. She also presented the apologies of Baroness Stern, who, with many others from the group, was attending a memorial service for Baroness David.  Baroness David had been a longstanding member of the group, and Julie Morgan wished to pay tribute, on behalf of members, to the work she did in the field of penal affairs, and indeed in many other fields.  The other Vice Chair, Lord Ramsbotham, was away in Libya.

She went on to introduce the speakers. She was delighted to introduce Stephen Hanvey, Chief Executive of Circles UK.  She did not know how many members were aware of this group’s work, which involved an innovative community approach to reducing sex offending. She had read about it in preparation for this meeting, and was very impressed by what she had read. It seemed to offer such an eminently practical and humane approach. She would hand over to Stephen Hanvey who would introduce the work, and his co-speakers.

Stephen Hanvey began: 

Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to present Circles of Support and Accountability. Before handing over to my colleagues, Rosemary and Mike,  to give you a practical sense of what we are about, perhaps I can provide some comments by way of context.

So without wishing to sound too melodramatic, somewhere this evening four or five members of the public are getting ready to meet with a known sex offender. They’ll  then spend an hour and half with him, or  less likely  ‘her’, having a cup of coffee and a discussion in a probably chilly room, in a neighbourhood centre or  faith-community building, and anyone  else on the premises  will not know quite why this  group are  there,  or who they are.  This Circle of Support and Accountability meeting  will be the  one  occasion in the week when the  Core Member, as we term him, will know that these local people are  not out ‘to out  him ‘ - but to help him keep to his  intention not to commit any further offences and to take  his  place in the local community. He will have made an explicit commitment not to reoffend, and the volunteers have agreed to provide him with their support and to encourage him in his attempts to integrate safely and responsibly back into the community.  The volunteers  will all know the  nature of  the offence behind the  conviction , and that any indication of  a return to dangerous thinking, distorted attitudes or  behaviour on the  part of the  Core Member must  result in the statutory services  being notified, with a likely recall to custody. That is part of the understanding of accountability which sits alongside the support of the volunteers, in giving time, company, modelling appropriate relationships, fun and the chance to experience being someone who is seen as more than the sum of their offending past.  

Boundaries will have been carefully outlined, only first names used by the volunteers, and any communication between the Core Member and volunteers during the week will be acknowledged, as Circles do not have secrets. Secrets have been part of the problem.  The Core Member will be both affirmed for the efforts and progress they are making, and challenged if someone in the Circle feels uncomfortable that he is denying his responsibility or trying to manipulate the conversation, in a manner that spells risk.

Some 62 Circles, managed by 10 local projects, are currently in operation.  Local partnerships of probation, police and voluntary sector criminal justice agencies, including national organisations such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, SOVA, and the NSPCC are now involved in this community-based model, which has its roots  in Canada during the 1990s – an extraordinary story in itself.

The model is  about reducing  reoffending by known medium and  high risk sex offenders, and helping them, through the skills and time of carefully selected and trained  local people, to manage dangerous inclinations and  patterns of relating, and instead to become responsible, contributing members of society. Circles have been in operation in England and Wales since 2002, when tentative pilots were set up by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Quaker Peace and Social Witness. The growing evidence that they work, that they do indeed reduce reoffending amongst this notoriously demonised group, was sufficient for the Home Office and then the Ministry of Justice to support the development of the model, which led in turn to the creation of Circles UK, which it is my privilege to represent, as the umbrella organisation set up to provide advice, national standards and training to new and developing local Projects. The evidence from Canada, through matched control group studies indicates a reduction of 70% in reoffending. We’re  now seeing  colleagues in Holland and Belgium take up the  model, using the  materials developed  in England and Wales over the  past 7 years, and despite the extraordinarily difficult  financial climate we  have a continuing hope that this community initiative, which draws  on restorative  justice  principles, and acknowledges the need to manage real risk, can become integral to better safeguarding  and crucially, to community cohesion.

I’m delighted and grateful to be able to invite Rosemary a  volunteer, and Mike - just first names  you’ll appreciate,  in accordance with our maintenance of boundaries – both of whom have been Circles members for  some time, to tell you their stories, as  members of  a Circle run  by the  Lucy Faithfull Foundation.

Given the real risks to the safety and well-being of those convicted of sexual offences, at a time particularly when public interest has been further stirred by the News of the World announcement last week of the roll-out of the public notification scheme (‘Sarah’s law’) could we ask that all present convey nothing from this meeting that might jeopardise the privacy of Mike, in particular.
I will now pass over to Rosemary.

Rosemary began:

I’m here as a volunteer member of a Circle of Support and Accountability. Our circle has five volunteer members and one core member: Mike is the core member. Our circle is administered by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a child protection charity whose mantra is ‘No More Victims’.  So contrary to what you might read in some newspapers, Circles of Support are not support groups for sex offenders. We’re not having parties to help them. They are instead a means of protecting the public, using the public themselves.

It is something I heard about on the BBC World Service late one night when I couldn’t sleep, and I also read an article in the paper, and as soon as I heard about Circles I could not imagine not wanting to get involved. It seemed like such an obvious thing to do, a fantastic way of approaching, in a very different way, a real problem that we have.  So I tracked down the Lucy Faithfull Foundation via the Quakers, over the internet.

You might be wondering what sort of person volunteers to get involved.  Speaking for myself, I am a mother of two children. As far as I know my children have never been abused, but I could very easily imagine how awful it would be if they had. So I have a very real interest in ensuring there are ‘No More Victims’. By profession I am a commercial lawyer. I am also a member of the part time judiciary, and in that capacity I sit in the Crown Courts. I am ticketed to try serious sex offences so I do see rape and sexual abuse from a different side, and I am very well aware of the effect on the victims of child sexual abuse. So I have an understanding which again makes me interested in this very different way of trying to approach the problem.

As I said, I tracked down the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and I was trained about three years ago now. I had an intensive two-day training over a weekend – we were not being trained to become counsellors: we are not counsellors, and we are not therapists, we are volunteer members of the community.   We were given some insight into the sort of triggers that set off sexual offending, and also some insight into the distorted thinking that sometimes underlies offending, and very often the legacy of abuse that was visited on the offender himself or herself, when he or she was young. The patterns repeat themselves, which just shows the need to act and step in and break that cycle so it doesn’t keep on repeating, over and over again.

Where do we fit in? As members of a Circle we are volunteers. We are an additional layer of protection for society. We sit on top of the police and probation services in respect of a medium or high risk sex offender, almost always somebody who has been in prison, and always somebody who has committed to living an offending-free life in the future.  That’s a prerequisite and we sign a contract that binds that person to do his best not to offend.  Whether people like it or not, sex offenders, apart from a very few very serious offenders, will be released into the community. They will finish their sentence in the community. They will be supervised by probation for a period of time, but not for ever. So unless you subscribe to the tabloid ‘castrate them and lock them up for life’ position, that is a fact of life. Circles are only there for people who have been categorised as medium or high risk, so it’s a very serious business.

The authorities don’t ease off because a Circle is in place. Probation and police are still going to be there supervising, having visits, monitoring.  But with the best will in the world they can’t be there all the time.  Unless you have unlimited funding, you cannot monitor somebody 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I know there are a few very dangerous people who probably are monitored like that, but we can’t as a society afford that for everyone.  So Circles are there as another layer of protection. I like to think of it as a kind of Neighbourhood Watch. It’s people from the community who are adding that layer, and adding those eyes and ears to help protect the community.

When our first meeting began it involved a very frank disclosure from Mike. That’s part of the procedure and a prerequisite. You have to know exactly what the offending was. And as you can imagine, that’s a very difficult and fraught meeting.  It requires understanding on the volunteers’ part of why the offending happened, but also the sorts of triggers that may lead to it happening again. What can we look out for? What might you do that might put us on guard that you might begin to offend again?

The meetings take place on a weekly basis to start with, and then less often as time dictates. The meetings are minuted, the police and probation are always given a copy of the minutes, and they are invited to attend the meetings if they want to. I’m bound to say we haven’t had a great deal of attendance.  We have had a probation officer attend, but obviously they are busy people, our meetings are held in the evenings, and they have other commitments.

Lucy Faithfull staff often attend the meetings. They are always there to give us support. If they can’t come to a meeting they get the minutes. They are always on the end of a phone or an email, if we’ve got difficulties. I know that if I ring the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, someone will be there, day or night. If there’s a real emergency they’ll be there to talk to, to advise us, and to listen to us. So we do feel well supported, and that’s very important.  Between the formal meetings, every volunteer will have contact with the core member. It may be a phone call, it may be a meeting, a walk, a movie, a spot of lunch, a coffee, a chat, just to see how things are going and what can be done.

There are two things the name tells you: Support and Accountability. I’d like to start with the support. People coming out of prison may feel that they’ve done the hard bit. Prison no doubt is hard, and if you’ve been to Grendon, as many sex offenders will have been, many of you will know it as a therapeutic community, where you do a lot of work and have to speak very openly and address your issues.  It’s very hard:  years of therapy and facing up to what you’ve done, and perhaps realising for the first time the effect of what you have done on your victims.  But that’s the easy bit.

When you come out into the greater wider world, you discover that you really are seen as the lowest of the low. Mike often says that if you are a murderer you do your time and then you become an ex-murderer. You never seem to become an ex-sex-offender. You are always regarded as a sex-offender. You are always frightened of vigilantes. No one ever looks up to you as a hard man. Some murderers might have a reputation as being hard men, and have a bit of glamour. You certainly don’t get that as a sex offender. You are probably cut off from all your family and friends: they’ve all disowned you. You’ve got nobody. You’ve got the problem of how you make new friends. Can you do it on an honest basis, if you don’t tell them what your past is? If you do tell them what your past is, are you risking your safety or risking them saying they don’t want to be your friend? How do you judge when you can make a disclosure? Or do you just stay at home and do nothing?

So there’s a terrible feeling of isolation, and that’s where a Circle can really help. That’s why we’re in contact all the time, meeting, talking on the phone, trying to stop that isolation. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that if you are somebody who is very isolated, feeling very vulnerable, the temptation may be to turn to people who are even more vulnerable than yourself. That may mean child victims. It may turn you back onto your previous course. So we are there to help you to lead a law-abiding life, to ensure there are no more victims.

We are also modelling appropriate relationships. At one of our very first meetings, one of our members turned up with a cake. A nice thing to do, she’d baked a cake.  We’re just being normal people, showing what friends are like, acting as friends and caring for each other.  I’ve also given support by writing letters. When Mike’s had problems and nobody will listen, I might write a letter as a responsible member of society. I may get listened to. Visiting the Housing Office and just being there as a helping hand, to stop the loneliness and isolation.

Then there’s the accountability, which is obviously very important. We challenge and question. If there’s a danger of reoffending, we have to tell the authorities, we have to tell the police, via the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, and the chances are that the Core Member will be recalled. That has happened. We have to look for the triggers. We have been trained to ask some very penetrating and challenging, and often very personal questions: what are you using a laptop for? Why have you got a mobile phone with a camera on it? Who are you taking photos of? You’ve got a new girlfriend: has she got a pre-pubescent son? Is there a pattern here? What’s going on? Why are you taking a shortcut past the school? What are you fantasising about?  It can become very personal, and very difficult, and it can be very embarrassing. We’ve had some conversations over lunch that have been more frank than I can ever imagine having with anybody else. You learn to do it, and I’ve grown by doing that. But we do it because we have to. We may be embarrassed but we know it’s the right thing to do.

So overall it’s a fantastically rewarding thing to do. I know I’m doing something really useful. I’ve seen the support that we give. But I am also aware that there aren’t enough Circles to go round. If any of you were to visit Grendon Prison, as I have, and sit in the sex offenders wing on one of their afternoons where they’re sitting together for a group session, maybe 20 people who’ve committed the most awful offences and are talking about them in therapy, they will all say: when I come out, how do I get a Circle? And the answer I am afraid for most of them is: well you won’t. There’s not enough money, and frankly not enough people who have volunteered so far. There’s always a short supply. But onwards and upwards: Circles are growing!’

She then handed over to Mike, the Core Member:

I’m really honoured to be asked to do this. I am an offender. I had a history of abuse with my family over a period of ten years, for which I was given a ten year sentence. I found out about a place called Grendon when I first went to prison and decided I really needed to find out why I have become the person I have become. I spent four and a half years in Grendon. As Rosemary says, there is very intense therapy. It’s not easy, and it’s quite scary when you suddenly realise that really  everything’s always been about me, and not about my family or anybody else.

I found out about Circles while I was in Grendon because Quakers had visited the prison, and I managed to arrange a Circle because I was coming up for release. Unfortunately that fell by the wayside, because rather than being released into the Thames Valley area I was told that I had to come back to London, because no other borough would take responsibility for me. When I came back to London I was told by my probation officer that the Lucy Faithfull Foundation would like to interview me with the possibility of becoming a Core Member of a Circle. From my perspective that meant that there was somebody up there smiling at me. I got to meet my Circle, and I had to give a very frank and detailed explanation of my behaviour. Also part of the pattern that led me onto the course of offending was that I come from a very seriously abused childhood, both sexually and physically. I began to repeat the pattern of my own experiences.

With the Circle I have been allowed to be less isolated – I wouldn’t say I’m totally un-isolated. I find it difficult to make new friends. Again it’s this disclosure thing: when do you tell somebody about your past? I want to be very honest.  If I tell somebody about my past that’s because I value them as a friend. I’ve disclosed to two people outside my Circle successfully. They’ve been supportive and understanding.  Circles really have made the difference between me living behind closed doors, with the curtains shut, and being allowed to begin to break back into the world. Again, there’s a commitment not to reoffend. That’s one of the things Circles is about: No More Victims. I totally support that.

So after this disclosure, and from then on I began to meet members of the Circle socially. I have an interest in art, and reading; I have been out to the British Library, art galleries, we’ve met up for coffee. I can’t express how valuable that has been to me.  Again, the other choice would be – what would it be like if I had reoffended? I had made the commitment not to reoffend while I was at Grendon. That was the whole reason for going there. (Pause - I feel so nervous, I’m not usually so nervous.)

The only people I associated with when I was in a hostel were other sex-offenders. Some of them were child sex-offenders. Some of them were rapists of adults. They were the only people I could relate to who were not judgmental, which is difficult, because they are not appropriate people to be mixing with. I have no contact with anybody like that now, since I’ve moved from the hostel.

Circles do such incredible work. I’ve been challenged very heavily at times. Without going into details: where do I get my sexual relief from? What do I fantasise about? How do I maintain appropriate behaviour? Sometimes it feels like I’m being interrogated, and it is uncomfortable, but that’s par for the course.  I am very aware that Circles are very successful. They are cheaper than keeping somebody in prison. The cost of keeping me in prison for a year is £35-40 thousand pounds. Circles are a much cheaper alternative, because they work.  You have to support Circles because there are children out there that are not affected yet, but may become victims.

One of the things I learned in Grendon as well was that I can ask for help. If I felt I was leading up to offending, in a situation where I thought things were getting risky, it’s actually a lot easier to say: ‘Look, I’ve got a problem’ rather than spend the rest of my life in prison. I wish I’d known that, 30 years ago. Had I been able to say that, ok I might have had to move out of my family home, but my daughter would not have suffered at my hands. I think I’ll leave it there.

Stephen Hanvey thanked Mike for his eloquent testimony. He then said how delighted he was to introduce the Bishop of Liverpool, who had spoken at the Circles UK conference.

Bishop James Jones began: ‘Mine is just a post script really to what Mike has shared with us. Thank you very much for your commitment to be honest and, through your honesty with us tonight, to open the window on a subject which many of us have thought about but never had access to till this evening, when you have shared yourself in the way that you have. The only point that I want to make, so that we have time for questions, is that I am aware from the statistics that over 80% of the people who are sex offenders have a history similar to your own, in that they have been abused sexually as children. Although I don’t think there are any statistics to tell us the number of children who have been abused who have not gone on to be offenders.

Many of us in this group are very committed to the principles of restorative justice, where you bring the offender face to face with the victim. The extraordinary fact is that, with the sex offender, they have already been brought together in one person, because the offender is both offended victim and offender.  It seems to me that, when it comes to therapy, the disconnection that has happened between the victim-hood and the offender has to be mended and reconnected. I felt that when I was listening to you I was listening to somebody who was actually in the midst of that struggle of linking being a victim with being an offender. I think that presents Circles UK with a unique challenge. And that’s why when I was at the national conference I was asked to contribute to this session I was only too glad to do so, because at the conference I observed that here were people who were grappling with something that was unique. So I wanted to be here, and sit next to you, and hear your story.