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Release from prison can be followed by rehabilitation

Volunteers are helping sex offenders face what they have done, Riana Taylor tells Philip Halcrow

Sex offenders have to recognise their own risky behaviour

A FEW months ago Riana Taylor received a phone call from someone saying that she should look at a copy of a newspaper. The paper was carrying a story about someone who had been receiving help through a Circle of Support and Accountability. Riana, the chief executive officer of Circles UK,

which co-ordinates the regional Circles, remembers: ‘The report was about a paedophile who had been released from prison. A neighbour had caught on to their identity and had talked to the paper. As a result, the person had to be moved, because there was a risk of vigilante activity. They had been to prison, served their sentence, were released and while on licence with the probation service linked up with one of our Circles of Support and Accountability. They were complying with the conditions of their licence, were trying to get back on an even keel and refrain from reoffending. But then the neighbour spoke to the newspaper.’ Riana, who previously worked on the transformation of the criminal justice system in her native South Africa as part of Nelson Mandela’s first government and in the UK probation service, noted not only the story but also reactions to it.

‘The story went around the world through online media, and I followed the comments that people were posting online in reaction to it. In the UK, there were some messages of support, but we received loads of hate mail and abusive comments on our website, Twitter and Facebook. In contrast, the Dutch response was to wonder what the problem was – the person had been to prison and served their sentence.

‘In the UK, the prevailing attitude was that they were unwanted in the community and were a horrid person. Let’s be clear: they had done extremely harmful things – we at Circles UK would be the first to say that. But having been to prison, they were attempting to reintegrate into the community and were making good progress. Most people, however, seemed to think they should be back in prison.’ Circles of Support and Accountability surround released sex offenders with four to six volunteers who aim to assist in their rehabilitation.

Riana explains: ‘It’s about helping people face what they have done – that’s why the name talks of “accountability”. Sex offenders tend to deny what they have done, but they have to realise the harm they have caused and recognise their own risky behaviour. ‘The name of the Circles groups also

includes the word “support”, because the volunteers help the sex offender to reintegrate into their community.’

Each circle of volunteers meets with the sex offender on average once a week and liaises with statutory bodies, such as the police, probation and social services, and other professionals, such as psychologists. Together they identify the level of risk posed by a sex offender and the specific problems with which they need help to stop them reoffending.

‘Those problems could include practical needs, such as housing or budgeting,’ says Riana. ‘It could also be the building of relationships, because many people who commit sexually harmful behaviour are socially isolated. When the public and family and friends find out what they have done, they’re often shunned – and that is an additional risk factor in their committing further sexual abuse.

‘The volunteers may also help them with employment. It is extremely difficult for sex offenders to find work. No one wants them.

Obviously, someone who has abused a child shouldn’t be placed in a school, but there’s no reason they can’t work in a role where they pose no risk.

‘Our groups also look at people’s psychological needs and do trauma-related work. I don’t believe that sex abusers are born that way – they are often shaped by

experiences. Very often they reveal that they themselves suffered abuse in the past.’ Riana suggests that rehabilitation may take different forms as each person is unique. The ultimate hope is that an offender can reach a stage where they will not even want to commit an offence again; in some cases, though, rehabilitation will, at most, entail the offender recognising their risky behaviour and managing it, ‘like a reformed alcoholic recognising triggers and staying away from drink’. Prevention as well as punishment is needed, she says.

‘At Circles UK we’re often called friends of paedophiles, as if we support sexual abuse. We don’t. We find sexual abuse abhorrent and we want to avoid further abuse. We believe that society needs to help people who suffer abuse – and that can sometimes be the abuser too, who may have suffered the trauma of abuse themselves; secondary victims, such as the partners, parents and children of an abuser who often suffer ostracism; and the primary victims.

‘If society doesn’t take a preventative approach by trying to rehabilitate offenders and supporting their families, we will just make more and more victims.’

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