Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Reprint 2 Sex Offenders and Thoughts on Sex Offending

The recent discussions regarding Alex Cavendish has lead into quite a lively debate about SOTP generally and I'm minded to make a further dip into the archives, this time from 2010 'Sex Offenders' and 'Thoughts on Sex Offending' 2013. Whereas yesterday's post has been viewed 595 times, the respective figures for these two old posts are 303 and 884. As a bonus I've included some comments from the second post.    

Monday, 20 September 2010
Sex Offenders

To my surprise, some of my most rewarding work has been with sex offenders. They often pose the greatest challenges because as a group they are more likely to be in denial and prone to minimisation in terms of their behaviour. This in turn means they remain a high risk of re-offending and pose a serious threat due to the nature of their offences, which are invariably disturbing and serious. Being responsible for a generic caseload both in and out of prison, I have had my fair share of cases in this category, but for many years felt that the prognosis would always be bleak in terms of trying to make any progress in reducing the risks they posed. I always felt it most unlikely that clients displaying seriously deviant sexual behaviour were going to be amenable to change.

But then some years ago I was offered the chance of joining two other colleagues in running a self-styled Sex Offender Project based on group and individual work. Although we were only allowed about a day a week each, we still managed to set up a 'core' group, a 'maintenance' group and 'adapted' group for the learning disabled, in addition to individual work with very high risk clients. The latter had typically been released from long prison sentences on Parole Licence, specifically in order to take part in the project and resided at probation hostels. Due to the level of risk they posed they had to be escorted for individual sessions. The maintenance group was designed both for those who completed the core group programme and for voluntary attenders when their order had finished. (Yes, just imagine that concept nowadays!) We accepted referrals at all stages, right from PSR and even undertook to write the report for the referring PO. Management just allowed us to get on with it, but paid for a consultant to give advice and support every few months.

The whole project had been running successfully for a number of years, designed in-house by my experienced colleagues, with each aspect tailored to an individuals needs, as was felt appropriate. Imagine that, no manual, no bureaucracy, no monitoring. They were halcyon days indeed and we did amazing work with some of the most scary and damaged people I've ever met. I will always feel privileged to have had the opportunity of proving beyond doubt that even the most dangerous of offenders can and did respond to some skillful, patient, understanding counselling. In some cases it took a great deal of time, but there were no time limits, no prescriptive programme and no video or tape recording.

I mention all this because what I am describing is now history and has been replaced with something very different, the authorised and highly prescriptive Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). This now operates in all probation areas and is available in certain prisons. Run strictly according to a manual, sessions are video-recorded to ensure compliance with the programme and tutors performance is monitored afterwards by so called 'Treatment Managers'. All dreadful nomenclature in my view. Admission to the programme is by no means automatic and for example excludes those in denial or those with learning disabilities.

Now, as I declined to put myself forward for this new initiative, it would not be fair to say too much, beyond perhaps the not-surprising observation that I remain sceptical that the 'one size fits all' approach is right. Clearly it would not have benefited the vast majority of our clientele. So, in a sense, I've come full circle in feeling that once more there is a group of sex offenders for whom the prognosis remains very poor indeed. Progress? 


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. 



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.

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 understand why they do what they do and what they can do differently.

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.

Wholly disagree Jim. Some accredited programmes are appallingly proscriptive with manuals written so 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.

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 focused 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.


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

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


  1. Probation Officer9 August 2017 at 09:24

    The SOTP is not fit for purpose. I'm not just saying this because the findings suggest so, which is enough. I've never thought it very productive for a group of sex offenders to be group discussing their offences within a programme of 'treatment' that in reality follows a prescriptive user manual. Individual interventions and counselling yes, group therapy even yes, group sharing and CBT no.

    I find most advocates of SOTP programmes are the group 'facilitators' themselves. I'd like to say this isn't because they want to maintain their jobs and their associated false self-belief they're more important than other probation officers and other programmes outside of the probation service.

    On the point of Alex Cavendish, if true, because of the nature of his conviction, the restrictions he may be subject to and being in the public eye he should have been more transparent. I do think he would have been better coming clean, now the genie is out of the bottle, and continuing his work. Regardless of his conviction there is a place for him and his work, he shouldn't have given up.

    1. Re Alex Cavendish, the furore has been so reminscent of a witchhunt that it's no wonder he kept quiet and has decided to disappear. He must of known what would happen - it was so easy to predict. I find the reasons given by those who outed him to be completely lacking in genuine need for what they did. If you asked Alex, as I did, whether AC was his real name, he was quite open about the fact that it was not. As many writers, journalists etc practise under a nom de plume (I can think of over five fiction writers off the top of my head who have at least one or more nom de plumes) it is not unreasonable for anyone to write under one regardless of their personal circumstances. Why should it be any more acceptable to writer under a pseudonym after having committed a heinous murder (or even several) than for a sex offender? Sex offenders are not all the same and not all of them are going to reoffend. Screaming that people have a right to know is self centred and ridiculous. Some people are comfortable revealing personal details and some are not. Those outing Alex would not want their most shameful personal details splashed all over twitter if they hadn't wanted them shared so they shouldn't do it to others no matter how justified they may feel in doing so. Do unto others etc. We have no idea if Alex's conviction for historic sex offences was genuine given the difficulties and questions these historic prosecutions raise and many have been found to be completely bogus as the past few years have shown with conviction after conviction being successfully appealed. I would also point out that it is very difficult in the UK to get a conviction over turned and many people spend decades in jail for things they didn't do and never get a conviction over turned because they cannot satisfy the appeal court's very narrow grounds for appeal. We may never know the real truth of the matter but unless Alex was actively molesting people upon release and thus an actual and ongoing danger to the public, he has served his time and that should be the end of it.

    2. Probation Officer9 August 2017 at 11:19

      Since he writes from the point of view of 'ex-prisoner with inside knowledge' then he should not hide his conviction. By hiding his conviction and hiding away since it's 'out' he is perpetuating the myth that sexual offenders are worse than others and cannot change, or that they are not worthy of the opportunity to change. As I said, he should continue his work and show that all offenders are still people and should be given a chance.

  2. There isn't just a problem with SOTP but all OB programmes. I spent 3 years inside and probation constantly tried to get me on to various OB programmes to address my alleged offending. I got rejected for all of them except one because I simply did not fit the criteria in one way or another (not dangerous enough, wrong sort of offence, maintaining innocence etc). The one I did do was one morning a week for several weeks in education run by one of the education staff who was a really nice person but rather clueless. The course was ridiculous. It was dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and was a one size fits all jobbie that had no real evidence of effectiveness behind it. It was supposed to be a mini thinking skills course for those rejected by the actual thinking skills course. It wouldn't have changed anyone's thinking it was so bland and so badly delivered. We all passed with flying colours (not difficult to do when it was obvious what you were expected to say and do). I can safely say this course had absolutely zero effect on anyone in the group that took the course or anyone else who had taken it. Delivering vague one size fits all things is a really stupid waste of time and resources. You could get rid of every single OB course in UK prisons and I bet the reoffending rate would either not change or like the SOPT debacle has proven, reoffending rates would actually drop. Until the prisons system is willing to invest in high quality talk therapies for every single inmate which is tailored to their needs, you may as well not bother.

  3. OB programmes in prison have little to do with changing people's attitudes or even a serious attempt to reduce reoffending.
    OB programmes simply provide the authorities with a means of plotting a prisoners route through the system on a tic box process that be can held up to say we've done this with him and done that with him.
    OB programmes in prison are a bit like prison dinners. Obligated to feed you, but is the quality acceptable, or the quantity sufficient?
    Not really, but it doesn't matter, they've been fed, the box is ticked, job done.



  5. I post this link to this horrendous case not because of the sexual offences committed, but because the police paid £10,000 to a convicted child rapist for information.

  6. Should we apply a hot poultice? Do we bleed the patient with leeches? Do we duck them in the pond? Or rub them with snake oil? Over millenia society has come up with the widest variety of creative, cruel or simply malicious "treatments" for various ailments. More recently the rapid development of scientific, medical & academic research has allowed for appropriate means to be used to treat people with various conditions, e.g. physiological, psychological, psychiatric, etc.

    Do we know what is at the root of sexual offending? Is offending against children fundamentally different? Is there a common causation? Is it an 'illness'? Is it contagious? Can it be learned? A psychological phenomenon? A psychiatric event? A moral deficit? A conscious choice? An inherited state of being? Or just simply, a human condition?

    I have no idea. I worked with many sexual offenders (adult:adult, adult:children & children:children) over many years and each individual presented with their own 'story'. The style of work was predominantly on a one-to-one (sometimes two-to-one) basis in the vein described by Jim Brown previously, and mostly (but not for all) alongside & informed by more specialist work being undertaken by experienced therapists - some in a secure environment.

    I don't recall that any one of those I worked with offered what might be termed a 'satisfactory' explanation for their offending beyond a blurry & incoherent combination of emotional spaghetti & feeling driven to resolve powerful sexual &/or violent urges. I would guess it was about 50:50 in terms of accepting responsibility for committing the offence vs. ongoing denial, not remembering &/or victim blaming.

    On that anecdotal caseload snapshot alone I never understood how one-size-fits-all sotp could possibly be effective. But my voice wasn't important. I'm just pleased I kept away from 'accreditation'.