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Why this mustn’t be the end of the line for Circles: what the recent Sky News Documentary revealed and why it matters

Adele Robinson and a team from Sky News, working with Circles UK and Circles Providers recently produced a sensitive and very informative documentary on Circles of Support and Accountability (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8Hdcz_fXQk). This evoked extremely positive responses from the public, so much so that Sky News decided to extend the viewing. What are the key messages that we can take away from this documentary?

a. We need to talk about perpetrators of sexual abuse and what to do about it 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 (published at the end of 2017), 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. Of the 71,905 people with convictions for sexual offences that are eligible for Multi-agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) in the UK in March 2017, 73% were registered with the police. About 3,000 sex offenders 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 Economic and Social Costs of Crime, 2015/16’).

The Me Too Movement, high profile public enquiries into child sexual abuse and other initiatives have highlighted these official figures as only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of people do not report the sexual abuse they have been subjected to or reports to the police do not result in high numbers of successful prosecutions and convictions. There has also been numerous reports on how stretched police resources are and the NSPCC recently stated that we need more emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention as we can’t arrest our way out of the problem. For the scale of the problem in the UK, services are generally under-funded and an almost entirely reactive approach is taken to the issue. 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 more services for perpetrators. A perpetrator treatment and management strategy with sufficient financial investment in the issue is long overdue.

b. Work with perpetrators prevents further victims of sexual abuse and saves resources

One of the most poignant parts of the Sky Circles documentary is the interview with ‘Rachel’, a rape survivor. This incredible woman said she supported and championed the work of Circles because she saw that it helped to prevent further sexual abuse and she has children of her own, whom she wants to protect. Her message is a powerful one because it comes from someone who has experienced the true cost of sexual abuse. Her view should matter.

The recent reduction of probation funding for Circles received significant attention in the media and from key stakeholders, supporters and survivors. The Sky News documentary refers to this within the context of how Circles reduce the risk level of those that access a Circle and assist in reducing sexual reoffending. Since probation funding was cut some Providers have stopped running Circles, 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 2 offending often focuses on criminal justice related costs, but far more chilling is the cost to victims of sexual abuse – those countless lives that are damaged and broken and never quite fully repaired. The cost of a Circle (or of any effective intervention for perpetrators of sexual abuse) is small in comparison.

c. 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 and subtle balance between holding the person (called a Core Member in a Circle) to account, whilst offering much needed support. Research and evaluation on Circles show that they complement the risk management done by the statutory agencies and provide an additional public protection mechanism. Circles are not a substitute for this work, but they act as an additional layer to keep our communities safe. Those with convictions for sexual offences are stigmatised and marginalised by 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 very necessary support and also by assisting them to build appropriate networks and relationships; all of which helps to reduce reoffending.

d. 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 is also reliant upon interventions built around relationships that develop trust and a sense of individual worth and belonging in society. These interventions are particularly effective for people who are socially isolated, are alienated from their communities and shunned by family and support networks – all the issues that most perpetrators of sexual abuse face.

The fact that Circles are provided by Volunteers is quite extraordinary. These Volunteers are particularly special as the nature of the work requires unique dedication and commitment and they often face resistance from their families, partners and friends, which is touched upon in the Sky documentary. The fact that Circles are delivered by Volunteers who give freely of their time is often one of the key aspects that positively influences the Core Member to change their behaviour. Through the Circles Volunteers, communities are given a stake in how we deal with perpetrators of sexual abuse in our society.

e. Working with the media to change public attitudes

The Circles Sky News documentary is an example of balanced and sensitive reporting of a controversial issue. It captures the complexity of sexual abuse and how Circles can provide a way to help prevent further abuse. This documentary is the result of very detailed planning and work that took place over many months. We are grateful to the Sky News journalist and her team. As a result of the documentary Circles UK and Circles Providers received more than 90 enquiries from people interested to volunteer. But more importantly 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 do much to raise awareness and inform public opinions.

Riana Taylor
CEO, Circles UK
June 2019

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Confidentiality statement

Circles UK, as the umbrella charity for Circles Providers across England Wales can provide information on the availability of Circles across England and Wales and how to volunteer for our work. Circles UK itself does not provide advice or counselling. In a situation when anyone contacting us provides identifying information and raises our concerns that a child is at risk, or a criminal offence has been committed of which the police may be unaware, we will pass that information onto the appropriate agencies.