Sunday, 19 May 2013

Thoughts on Sex Offending

I tend to be a man of routine. The radio comes on at 5.15 each day and of course is tuned to BBC Radio 4. Saturday's are a bit different because by 5.45 it's not the usual Farming Today, it's iPM and the main contributor yesterday was Lydia Guthrie speaking of her work with sex offenders.

Now I suspect that as with most aspects of probation work, the general public has only the vaguest notion of the challenges this group poses us and how we go about trying to ensure that the public is protected from any possible further and similar offending.

I had not heard of Lydia before, but she seems to have risen pretty quickly up the ranks at Thames Valley Probation having qualified in 1998. She specialised in sex offender work, becoming their Treatment Manager and then progressed to the dizzying heights of Co-Lead National Trainer for Sexual Offending Groupwork Programmes, presumably at NOMS HQ. 

Clearly she is an expert in this field and presumably has been highly influential in the development and operation of accredited SOTP throughout the probation and prison service in recent years. It was not always like this of course and I have previously written of my own involvement in a small part-time project developed by colleagues in-house. Sadly in my view, all were swept away when the accredited and highly-proscribed courses were introduced some years ago now.

Given this, clearly it could be said I that I came to listen to Lydia with some pre-conceived thoughts as I've always been critical of the new courses as being a one-size-fits-all approach, in stark contrast to our own very-much individually-tailored efforts. In particular my experience has taught me that unless perpetrators are given the time and space to talk about their own often very troubled past first, it is pointless and counter-productive to force them to discuss their offending behaviour. 

I think they have a right to be listened to as victims themselves, and before progress can be made in getting them to critically analyse the fact that they have gone on to create more victims. In my experience they are hardly ever regarded as having possibly been victims, and has never formed part of current accredited SOTP work. To be honest I think it's a big mistake and helps foster resentment and much unhelpful anger and resistance in many clients.

To be honest I also find the whole nomenclature surrounding current SOTP to be unhelpful with references to 'Treatment' Managers and it being 'delivered' in two hour chunks over a 200 hour programme. It's so symptomatic of a process-driven policy, rather than one that should be person-centred. Thinking how it might feel as a recipient, it would annoy me greatly. I want to be 'treated' as an individual and I think most people do.   

It came as no great surprise therefore to hear Lydia skirt around these issues when asked questions as to the reasons people commit sex offences and how repeat offending might be prevented. It was good though to hear her discuss the fact that many offenders have sexual preferences that include children and that such inclinations have to be challenged continually, but it was disappointing to say the least that probation hardly got a mention at all as having a role in on-going monitoring. Instead we heard that 'the police should have every means at their disposal to ensure we knew where they were 24/7 and that probably meant satellite tracking.' 

Such monitoring has it's place of course, but virtually all licences eventually come to an end and the most effective way in which the public can be protected in the long-term depends on the quality of the work that has been undertaken with each sex offender. I remain unconvinced that the present extremely proscribed methodology is best, despite what the evidence might indicate.

For a start we all know that there are significant numbers of sex offenders that are not suitable for standard SOTP either because of their denial, ability to manipulate or level of intellectual functioning. Any evidence of re-offending rates could be as a result of any number of factors, not just SOTP completion and might include involvement by Circles of Accountability and Support for instance. 

In a nutshell what this says to me is that SOTP as presently organised is not the best, or should be regarded as the only approach and that it can never replace individually-tailored work and interventions by highly-trained and experienced probation officers. 

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18 comments:

  1. I agree about the language of treatment and process – all very medical model. I agree that you need holistic approaches that factor in the facts of life, such as the increased risk of offending presented by those who have been victims.

    We have the monolithic SOTP. Does it work? I have no idea. I am not suggesting we let a thousand flowers bloom, but I do think a range of approaches to reducing risks would be sensible. Why not be flexible as there are arbitrary aspects to sexual crimes. I am thinking of the age of consent. It varies even across Europe: 13 in Spain, 14 Austria, 15 France. Though we often witness a puritanical urge to stereotype, we know that offending covers a spectrum from under-age sex to incest and those rarer assaults by strangers. Sex criminals can act individually or in groups, small and large. I am also mindful of the political fact that for thousands of years it has been a weapon of war revenge.

    Even in probation I think there is a shaming of sex offenders, a tendency to stereotype... maybe that partly shapes the 'one size fits all' SOTP programme. Programme is another no-nonsense word, imagine having the temerity to call it therapy, that sounds too empowering for the perpetrator, whereas treatment is more demanding of passivity.

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    1. Yes I've always felt unhappy with the 'treatment' label but as you say the alternative one of 'therapy' - well blimey that's harking back to our social work roots and ethos - that's all been knocked out of us right?

      Thanks for a bit of support on what I know is a touchy subject in probation practice.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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  2. Jim

    Good to see you getting off the subject of privatisation for a while - it was starting to get a little repetitious.

    You make some interesting points here. There is something of the captured by psychology in the way that the accredited programmes have become so rigid. I understand why - and in truth this is better than the making it up as we went along that I practiced in the 1980's. I agree that probation staff have increasingly come to do it by the book with sex offenders - and given how much 'treatment input' many sex offenders get I always think that there is a risk that many simply learn the 'correct responses' rather than opening up themselves to fully undertand why they do what they do and what they can do differently.

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    1. There's still a bit of therapy going on Jim, although it may have been knocked out of probation. You've clearly not been to Grendon for a while.

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    2. Well I'd have hoped that HMP Grendon was still doing things differently, it being the only prison where all prisoners engage in the principles of a therapeutic community.

      I've had a few guys who've been through its portals, sadly with only limited success, abject failure or who went on to re-offend spectacularly. It just goes to prove that the business we're engaged in is definitely not easy or straightforward.

      Prison Service management has always been suspicious of what goes on at Grendon, but I'm sure its methods prove effective for some and well worth the extra resources it no doubt costs.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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    3. I think I might be tempted to say that there should surely be a happy medium between making it up as we did in the 80's, and the utterly constrained and proscribed programmes of today. Effectively it's put the tin hat on any innovation and helped to de-skill many officers.

      I'm sure you're right about some clients learning the correct responses, in which case it's all pretty much counter-productive, or possibly even worse. A situation I would venture to suggest was entirely predictable.

      Thanks for the warning in relation to reader fatigue regarding privatisation. I'm conscious of this danger and will endeavour to try and strike a balance. Of course it would help if people feel like suggesting some topics, or tell me what the issues are in your office, hostel, prison, court or other specialist team.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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  3. We generally worship at the altar of scientific research these days, forgetting too readily that many aspects of life are not scientific and not amenable to scientific analysis. I speak as a psychology graduate from pre-electronic kit days. "Clinical evaluation" becomes the much despised "anecdotal evidence" and the only measure that is acceptable is proper scientific evaluation. However, scientific method demands that all but the "variable" under examination be rigorously controlled, so that any significant outcome can be confidently attributed to the effect of that variable. Hence a tightly defined and controlled programme, which may not yield any benefit, but can at least be shown confidently to have been ineffective. Thus, the one size fits all approach allows proper evaluation of the results which is more important to the evaluator than any benefit to the person on the receiving end. A programme also has the benefit of discounting the uncomfortable truth that even with training, some people are far better than others at this kind of work.
    I also worked with hypnosis at one time. My university studies had "proved" that only a small percentage of the population could be hypnotised and then to no great depth. This conclusion was reached by carrying out the research on students recruited from the Union coffee bar, given no explanation of what hypnosis was or was not, and each subjected to the same induction method. In later clinical practice I discovered that if the client had a reason to be hypnotised, had misconceptions about hypnosis dispelled, and was approached with an induction method that they felt comfortable with, then lo and behold, it was very rarely that I encountered a client who could not achieve a suitable depth of hypnosis for treatment purposes. Of course, all of that is anecdotal because I didn't control all the variables; but then I wasn't doing research, I was engaging in therapeutic work.

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    1. Ian,

      Many thanks for that very full insight. Needless to say I fall well to the side of anecdotal in the argument. Clinical evaluation and scientific evidence in our line of work has always worried me enormously.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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  4. Wholly disagree Jim. Some accredited programmes are appallingly proscriptive with manuals written is that they can be delivered by those with little or no experience, the abysmal TSP being the obvious example.
    I'm only familiar with TVSOGP, but the models it uses are good, have a great deal of flexibility to suit all participants and an important part of it is on personal life history. Our TM's value and encourage creativity and responsivity in how the material is delivered so that it meets the individual need.

    I've met Lydia, she delivered the advanced SOTP training I attended. I think she came across very well in the interview.

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  5. I am with you on variety of approach. I have a man who came out recently having done SOTP, and said he had learned an enormous amount, he was full of praise for HMP Whatton. But I also have a person whose violent offence had clear sexual elements - but because he is denying it (in the teeth of a lot of evidence) he is 'unsuitable' for any work inside - so cannot reduce his risk. Outside, we would be doing something with him. As it is I can't see him ever coming out.

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    1. The thing is we must be seriously out of step here because Lydia's talk has received rave reviews via twitter. One size definitely doesn't fit all, as any PO worth their salt would know full well.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Jim

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    2. And it is my observation that Tvsop is not a case of 'one size fits all'

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  6. I have had the pleasure of attending SOTP as an offender in 2011.

    I can say that the six months worth of counselling I undertook at HMP Doncaster prior to starting SOTP at HMP Risley was immensely beneficial. I had been abused physically and sexually in the past and the counselling allowed me to exorcise those demons.

    The counselling allowed me to view the events leading to my abuse in a very different light. Up until that point, I had assumed those events were my fault and that it was ‘normal’.

    Attending SOTP without that counselling would have proved a somewhat negative and tearful experience. It certainly focussed my awareness on victim empathy.

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    1. Hi TW.

      I'm glad that you had a positive experience. I wish you all the best for a safe and offence free future!

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  7. TW,

    Thanks for that and I'm very glad you were able to benefit from specialist counselling. Many of our clients would similarly benefit, but sadly such services are simply not generally available in the community. Actually I'm surprised it was available in custody.

    Cheers,

    Jim

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  8. Hi Jim.

    I've just found this blog post, and as subject of it, I though I'd introduce myself. You raise some interesting and valid questions about the nature of the SOGPs, but you have made some incorrect assumptions about my views and my values which I'd like to reply to.

    Firstly, I have never worked at NOMS HQ, and had no involvement in the development of the SOGPs. I have had the privilege of running the TVSOGP for many years, as a facilitator and supervisor, and latterly as a trainer.

    The process of engaging anyone in offence focussed work has to start with helping the individual to construct a coherent narrative of their development, and to understand the function of their offending. The TV-SOGP is very far from a "one size fits all" programme. It uses a wide range of active and experiential methods. The style of facilitation which I, and many others, advocate, is based upon a respectful and compassionate approach, driven by the aim of reducing harm to future victims.

    People who aren't able to, or don't want to, talk about their offences (so-called "deniers") should never be excluded from groupwork programmes - we need to find constructive ways of working with them. I have always been a very passionate advocate for finding ways of involving them through hypothetical and one-step removed methods. Putting pressure on people to admit offences, or publicly taking responsibility, does not reduce risk and can be harmful. This is a topic I've delivered countless training sessions and workshops on in the last 10 years.

    The TVSOGP explicitly recognises that people who have sexually offended are more likely than the rest of the population to have been victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse themselves. It is built into the central value base of the programme that the group members need to be offered the opportunity to build a more coherent understanding of their life narrative, and of why they committed their offences (or behaved in such a way which led to them being convicted, if they can't talk about the offences). Having been victimised or maltreated is never an excuse for sexual offending, but it can be part of the explanation, and offering the chance to work it through can be an important part of reducing risk.

    The style of facilitation which I support, along with many others, is based on balancing compassion and respect for the individual with a commitment to reducing risk of further reoffending. The programmes have come a very long way since the late 1990s, when I know that shame-inducing practices were the norm.

    As for "treatment" being the only answer..... this is not and has never been my view! I was an SPO in a field office, and I know how few people convicted of sexual offences can access programmes in custody or in the community, for a variety of reasons. Good one to one supervision by properly trained and supported Probation staff, plus close working with Police and Children's services, is essential. The groups are part of the equation, but only a part.

    You mention Circles of Support and Accountability, who are are an incredible organisation. I am very close to some of the original founders in the UK, and have had the pleasure of training many of their volunteers around the country, in topics such as working constructively with resistance, mindfulness, motivational working and attachment theory. I wish more people had the opportunity to have a Circle.

    In short, Jim, you have raised some good and valid questions about the SOGPs. But, you have made some very incorrect assumptions about my views and values on topics which I hold dear. If you'd wanted a discussion, I'd gladly have engaged in one. I'd be very grateful if you'd reply, and consider posting an amendment.


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    1. Lydia,

      Well done for finding this from way back in the year - I'm not sure how many people can ever be bothered to search the archives - but possibly a google search alerted you to it.

      I've re-read the blog post and don't feel it requires any fundamental amendment and in any event your very full response will remain for any readers who might venture upon the piece in the future.

      In essence I think my comments and observations remain a valid view and I notice these gained a degree of support from other contributors. My main issue remains with the degree of proscription and the nomenclature associated with 'treatment'.

      My guess is that the interview you gave was much longer, but was edited by the BBC without discussion and hence probation hardly got a mention.

      Thanks for commenting and getting in touch.

      Cheers,

      Jim

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  9. Hi Jim.

    Thanks for replying. I didn't search the archives; I was told about your blog by a colleague who had read it. She sent me the link, as she thought I might like to comment. She knows me well, and thought that it did not portray my views, or my approach to working with people, in an accurate light.

    I think that you raise some very legitimate questions about SOGPs, but that in an attempt to link your blog with the radio interview which I did, you have misrepresented me, by closely associating me with aspects of the SOGPs which you are critical of. It would have been a courtesy to have sent the link to me when you posted it, so that we could have had a more timely dialogue.

    My belief is, and always has been, that this is work that we do with people, rather than to them. There are, no doubt, people in the SOGP world who would think in the manner which you are critical of, but I am most definitely not one of them!! Anyone who has ever attended a training session which I've run, or co-facilitated a group work session with me, will tell you that I'm very very keen to be responsive and respectful. The manual is a guide, not a rule book, and we have to engage with people in a manner which works for them, whether that's auditory, visual, active, through the use of metaphor, experiential exercises, or story telling. As they say, "If they can't learn in the way we teach, we have to teach in the way that they learn." This applies for everyone, whether they be a professional or a client.

    I'm currently trained in using mindfulness and compassion based working, I'm studying attachment theory, and about to start training in systemic family psychotherapy, just to give you a clue about my wider value base! I'm just as happy drawing pictures with a client, or using mindfulness meditation, as I am doing more formal CBT type work.

    You are correct in your assumption that the interview was much longer. I thought that Probation got a fair mention in the edit, and certainly lots of Probation folk who listened thought the same. I've done lots of radio stuff since, and have always been keen to raise the profile of Probation and the great work that we do. I am also keen to emphasise how victim-focused Probation work is, as many people assume that we are all about the offender, and less concerned about victims. I am proud to have been a Probation Officer for so long, and its a huge part of who I am. In case you are interested, it came about because I emailed Radio 4 to complain about some coverage of a sexual murder, which I thought was too graphic and sensationalist. The producer of iPM called me to discuss it, and invited me to do the interview.

    On another note, I have really appreciated your recent blog posts about TR and the negotiations. It's so valuable to share this information more widely.

    Best wishes,

    Lydia

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