working with paedophiles

Treatment in the Maelstrom: The Challenge of Working with Paedophiles in the Community

 - Adrian G. Smith

I have no doubt that all of those working in the UK’s Criminal Justice System share a deep commitment to achieving the twin goals of reduced recidivism and greater protection for the public.  Yet it would seem that the reactive policies of successive Governments and their administrations have served to weaken the resolve and efficacy of practitioners, during the past 15 years. 

Public protection can only be achieved by either locking people up and throwing away the key, or alternatively, by effecting a positive change in offender behaviour.  Of course it’s not feasible, nor desirable to lock everyone up, so it’s important to find a way to help offenders rehabilitate and learn to lead more pro-social lives.  Fortunately, Probation workers, psychologists, therapists and social workers have long had plenty of ideas based on firm research and experience about how to go about achieving this.  What is not so fortunate however is that it has become increasingly difficult to develop and deliver these approaches within the current criminal justice environment.  This is not simply to do with limited or fragmented resources (undoubtedly a factor) but is more a reflection of an increasingly risk-averse and inflexible operating environment.  The level of shut-down is even greatest when it comes to addressing sexual offending and in particular sex crimes against children.

The ‘moral panic’ that fed all this can be traced back to the turn of the Millennium with the News of the World’s ‘name and shame’ campaign aimed at outing paedophiles, following the tragic murder of Sara Payne.  Two weekends of published lists of alleged paedophiles complete with ‘mug-shots’, quickly resulted in major riots on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth and an increasingly volatile national public opinion. The newspaper’s actions fuelled fear and paranoia and made it very difficult for practitioners or public commentators to express a rational and considered outlook. Suddenly the public were seeing examples of deviant behaviour and potential paedophilia almost everywhere they looked.  The national media found that they could easily feed an increasingly prurient and angry readership by trawling for local stories which could become national outrages.  This had value in raising readership and winning new subscribers enjoined in moral outrage.  A series of high profile documentaries on the main television channels quickly added to the angry reaction and further stirred the maelstrom.

Sadly, modern UK Governments seem to find it impossible to risk being seen to look for proper perspective and to listen to expert advice about how they should respond.  Instead, the administration current at the time quickly embraced knee jerk responses to each identified new case.  The Probation Service for example was tasked with developing a system for reviewing each case that had resulted in a serious further offence (SFO), which it did (not untypically) with integrity, honesty and some degree of naivety. 

The pattern was set.  Each time an offender was charged with an SFO (whether they were convicted or otherwise) a full review of the way in which the case had been managed would be conducted by the Probation Service.  Findings were identified and actions put into place, designed to ensure that similar failings would not be repeated. 

This rapidly became an industry in itself and in London alone, following just one case, (Hanson and White[1]) over 80 separate actions were implemented.  The many hundreds of aggregated learning points and actions across the total of SFO cases eventually had the effect of increasing the level of bureaucratic red tape, with multiple targets and controls which bogged down the practitioner and slowed practice.  Ironically the pitch was set for a less mindful form of case management which was led by rote and routine.  Offender managers for their part began to develop practice that was underpinned by caution, defensiveness and slavish adherence to rules and procedures. This was not the environment to explore new approaches and initiatives that might address sexual offending.

So by the mid-noughties, we had a community justice model which was overwhelmingly focussed upon a defensive strategy.  Instead of developing treatments and positive interventions, the task was to identify, classify and manage the level of risk posed by the individual.  A new industry of multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) was designed to control and restrict the movement of potentially dangerous offenders.  Whilst it would be churlish to ignore some of the excellent partnership-based working and quality of risk-management and control procedures that were now in place, the space for innovative treatment work was nonetheless being squeezed to death!  So rather than attempting to be hard on the ‘causes of crime’ and seeking to rehabilitate, in line with Tony Blair’s early mantra, policy was instead focussed upon controlling and managing crime (see Kemshall 2003).

Little has happened in society to change that approach since then and this is hardly surprising when one considers the hard line, that media and Government has taken, when faced with apparent failures by those practitioners and managers charged with the unenviable task of protecting society.  As David Millar put it at a recent Loudoun Trust Symposium[2], ‘we don’t have the power to make the guilty feel guilty, so we make the innocent feel guilty instead!’  Wendy Fitzgibbon (2011) has described this process in alarming detail, noting in the case of Baby P, how The Sun newspaper invited its readers to sign a petition calling for the sacking of social workers and managers responsible for the child’s welfare.  Of course the relevant Minister, Ed Balls, was quick to oblige with the dismissal of Director of Children’s Services Sharon Shoesmith.  Fitzgibbon also highlighted another cause celebre of the time, that of the murder of two French students by Dano Sonnex, which resulted in the enforced resignation (by Jack Straw) of the Chief Probation Officer of London, David Scott.   She noted the knee jerk reaction of Government:

‘...Ministers pay increasing attention to the media rather than the political process.  This dictates a quick high profile reaction to events.’ (ibid. p.85)

Add to the mix the more recent scandals of historical abuse by celebrities (Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and others) and it is no wonder that the public has run out of tolerance and fear paedophilia in particular, as something suddenly endemic and out of control.  We seem to have developed a perfect storm or maelstrom in which society lurches between outrages, resulting in our collective exhaustion and sense of crisis.

What price then, for calm and rational delivery of appropriate treatments for such perpetrators?  It is not easy to face the media or the public at large with proposals for interventions, which might work (or might not), and even then, can only be effective if given sufficient time and resourcing. Yet surely it is the patient and skilled implementation of effective interventions, that will reap the greatest rewards for society - ultimately leading to a reduction in further offences and consequently, to the protection of the public.

In the past, the Probation Service had been more encouraging of its practitioners to develop techniques and methods, with a view to changing the behaviour of sex offenders.  Notably during the 1980s this was based upon psycho-dynamic techniques and delivered to groups of offenders rather than individuals. This approach was something which was cutting edge at the time, as most work was still undertaken on a one to one basis.  Programmes such as the Berkeley Group, Avon and Pier Groups were able to take a number of calculated risks, experimenting with desensitization techniques and adopting a psycho-dynamic approach.  The Pier Group, which ran successfully in Kent from the mid 80s into the 90s was even supported by the Portman Clinic, which was famed for its reputation as leading exponents of Psycho-analytic methods.

The problem for such programmes was that they required time to achieve change and this was measured by the Portman as within years, and certainly not months.  The delivery of treatments for sex offenders in the community was simply too slow-moving and difficult to measure in terms of efficacy, for the increasingly urgent needs of the Probation Service.  Something that brought this dilemma into sharp focus was the emergence of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which began to be imported from North America.  These approaches seemed to offer the potential for relatively short interventions (measured in 20-30 sessions) to achieve realistic and targeted movement in attitudes and thinking processes.  The systematic delivery of this manual-based approach provided practitioners with a methodology that could be justified in terms of ‘scientific’ concepts such as measured dosage, sound targeting of needs/risk and programme integrity (McGuire 2000). It was possible for practitioners to claim a principled position and point to research-based evidence supporting rehabilitative approaches. 

Cognitive Behavioural programmes were soon developed for use with sex offenders and were formally accredited by a national panel for use in both prison and probation settings.  These programmes have continued to be developed or revised over the years to meet specific identified needs. There is for example, now an adapted version for offenders with learning difficulties, and programmes specifically targeted at internet offenders, as well as specific modules for prisoners and for those in the community.

Two of the main packages delivered by Probation Services, Community Sex Offenders Group Programme (CSOGP) and Thames Valley Sex Offender Group Programme (TVSOGP) use similar methods of intervention and follow modular paths, which are timed to meet offender needs and status.  Both programmes are intended to provide challenge to offenders’ thoughts, attitudes and emotional responses linked to their offending behaviour.  This involves exercises aimed at increasing self awareness, addressing problematic thinking processes (cognitive distortions) and confronting ideas and perceptions.

The introduction of individual action plans or offence focused targets reflects the assumption that whilst a cure is not feasible, it is possible to introduce elements of self control within the individual.  Thus this rational approach implies that the treatment goals of the programme are far more achievable, giving hope to the practitioner and offender alike.

A chief difficulty however, is that even these modular CBT programmes are highly resource intensive and are not always immediately available.  It is also necessary for offenders to be subject to sufficient length of sentence (either of imprisonment and/or supervision in the community) for these programmes to be completed.  NAPO, the Probation Officers’ own union was sufficiently worried about this, that it used the media to raise concerns, pointing out that ‘sentences allow no time for rehabilitation, increasing the risk of reoffending’[3]

Even where the length of community sentence appears sufficient, the slightest delay, legitimate or otherwise can soon play havoc with schedules and stretched resources.

A convicted paedophile abused a girl of five after treatment he was ordered to take was delayed – because he was away on holiday.... The trip away delayed the start by a year... but the scheme was again postponed because of “insufficient resources”.

Daily Mirror April 2013

These cognitive behavioural sex offender programmes are normally delivered by trained specialists who operate outside of the normal offender manager role.  This of course has the advantage of ensuring that such practitioners are properly skilled and experienced. The downside however is that the offender manager (OM) who has most of the long term contact with a paedophile or other type of sex offender, is often less skilled and experienced and tends to rely heavily on the specialist programme to provide the effective intervention.  In an ideal world, the OM will seek to build on the learning and experience of the offender who has attended the programme but all too often, this is affected by a dearth of skills or experience in working with sex offenders.

The recent privatisation of two-thirds of the Probation Service, has served to leave higher risk cases in the management of the public sector service (by definition, most sex offenders) which may increase the relevant experience of the OMs holding the cases, although this still remains to be seen, as new systems bed down. The corollary of this however, is that 2/3rds of the former service (Community Rehabilitation Companies) will be operating with minimal knowledge and expertise in identifying, challenging and managing risky behaviours amongst their charges. 

Paedophilia, general sex offending, violence and domestic abuse is invariably well hidden within families and the general population; it is certainly not confined to offenders who have previously been defined as ‘high risk’. OMs working within the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) must be alive to this and able to recognise warning signs. The private companies owning CRCs will need to invest in appropriate training and support for their officers, though they may well argue that the need for this was never made explicit in the contract specifications for which they had tendered.  An organisation charged with identifying and escalating concerns about risk to the public sector National Probation Service, will necessarily require its staff to hold sufficient skills and knowledge, if it is to carry out this activity satisfactorily.

Since the middle of last year, the National Probation Service (NPS) has been busily implementing a complementary risk management system for Offender Managers working with male sex offenders.  ARMS (Active Risk Management System) is designed to address the fact that previously there has been no approved structured framework for working with male sex offenders within the NPS.  ARMS had been successfully piloted in two former Probation Trusts and within two police areas.  Practitioners working with the model reported it useful in providing structure to supervision and aiding the identification of dynamic risk factors.  The intention is to complement existing risk assessment tools, by enabling an assessor to recognise, prioritise and organise information into a suitable framework.  This can be shared within Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) and has the added advantage of providing an assessment held in common and in shared language with police forces. 

One potential benefit of ARMS is that it seeks to take account of ‘protective’ factors which research studies have linked to successful desistance from offending.  This could therefore encourage more of a collaborative strength-based approach to offender working, which fits well with the some of the cognitive behavioural programmes for sex offenders delivered within the organisation.  Potentially this can help OMs to work more collaboratively and proactively with the specialist providers of sex offenders’ group programmes for their supervisees.  So far though, research evidence is limited and the actual implementation on the ground is still in the early stages.  The focus also remains determinedly on risk management and containment; there is little indication that NOMS is seeking to encourage a stronger focus on rehabilitation and change beyond limited CBT techniques for encouraging self-control and self-management by the offender.  I fear that the statutory services in the UK will not be taking a more expansive and prioritised approach to treatment anytime soon!

It doesn’t have to be this way however.  In November 2014 Channel 4 screened ‘The Paedophile Next Door’ which featured Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Medicine.  This is a treatment centre which enjoys considerable backing from Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Party (CDU).  The Institute’s unique programme of therapy provides voluntary treatment to paedophiles and guarantees confidentiality about anything that happens during sessions. This means that potential offenders have somewhere they can go, in order to address their paedophilic tendencies without the risk of being arrested or named and shamed.  After Channel 4 screened the programme the Institute was inundated with calls from British Paedophiles desperate to seek treatment, many of whom had never been convicted for any offence. 

Last November, The Guardian featured the Institute and quoted the family of April Jones, the five year old Welsh girl murdered by Mark Bridger in 2012, who had appealed for help for paedophiles who seek it.

‘It would be better to try to help them before they ruin someone else’s family’[4]

Germany is no different to the UK in having a worrying level of sexual offending.  Indeed there are an estimated 250,000 individuals in Germany with paedophilic tendencies, yet the state is prepared to think more expansively in order to find solutions. Why is this?  What is it about the UK that predisposes it to knee jerk and short term responses?  Could it be down to a dangerous mix of media-induced moral panic and weak reactive Government?

In order to lessen the number of attacks by paedophiles or other sexual offenders, it is necessary to provide treatment and challenge which goes beyond simply monitoring and control. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with monitoring and control; indeed most of us should feel comforted by the quality of surveillance and multi-agency working between and within our UK agencies.  We need more than this however; the default mode of restriction and control can only achieve so much.  Meaningful and effective treatments should be an essential part of the armoury of community interventions.



Fitzgibbon W., (2011) Probation and Social Work on Trial: Violent Offenders and Child Abusers, Palgrave Macmillan

Kemshall H., (2003) Understanding Risk in Criminal Justice, OU Press

HMI Probation (2006) Serious Further Offence Review: Damien Hanson and Elliot White

McGuire J., (2000) Cognitive Behavioural Approaches, Home Office Publication

Probation Instruction 15/2015, Implementation of the Active Risk Management System (ARMS): National Offender Management Service


[1] In December 2005, Damien Hanson and Elliot White were convicted of the murder of John Monckton and the attempted murder of his wife Homeyra Monckton on 29th November 2004, at a time when both men were under the supervision of London Probation Area.

[2] Loudoun Trust Symposium on Mandatory Reporting – Central Hall Westminster 12th November 2015.

[3] The Guardian 29th March 2010

[4] Coral Jones quoted in The Guardian 17th October 2015 ‘Incurable but not alone: paedophiles learn how to resist with pioneering counselling’ p.27



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