Delivering circles of support and accountability to protect communities from sexual harm and sexual reoffending


Circles South West Marks National Child Exploitation Awareness Day on 18th March

To mark National Child Exploitation Awareness Day, Friday 18th March 2022, our Operations Manager blogs about Circles South West’s work towards ‘No More Victims’ of sexual abuse.

Working with people who have committed acts of sexual harm is a controversial issue. It understandably triggers strong reactions in most people, and particularly for victims and survivors of sexual abuse. The picture often painted in the media of monsters roaming the streets, ready to prey on children and adults alike does little to allay the fears and concerns that we might have.

However, for those of us who have worked extensively with people who have sexually offended, we know that vilifying and isolating them will increase the likelihood of them committing further offences. As unpalatable as it might be, we need to treat these individuals as members of our communities, help them to integrate and lead useful lives whilst of course, monitoring them and their behaviour to ensure that everyone stays safe. We know that this approach offers the best route to rehabilitation and desistance (stopping offending and staying stopped). This is what we all want and this is what Circles South West does.

Circles South West is a regionally based charity whose vision is ‘No More Victims’ of sexual abuse. Our core work is with the perpetrators of sexual harm – helping reduce the risk of sexual re-offending – and we also offer specialised programmes for partners, relatives, friends and supporters who have been affected by their offending.

For adult perpetrators, we offer Circles of Support and Accountability. Small groups of Volunteers from the community are trained and supported by professionally qualified coordinators to work for a period of 12 months with an individual “core member” (someone who has sexually harmed) to address factors identified that might increase their risk of sexual reoffending and help them work on thoughts and behaviours that will enable them avoid these risks (protective factors). Typically, four volunteers form a circle for each core member so that there is mutual support and collaboration for the volunteers, and the core member benefits from a range of personalities and opinions. The initial stages of the circle are often anxiety provoking for the core member who typically lacks self-esteem, is socially isolated and has little experience of meeting and talking with people apart from Police and Probation Officers. However, we see that once core members feel relaxed and listened to, they are able to share their thoughts and feelings openly, which enables progress to be made towards helping them adopt a more fulfilling and safer life.

“Circles is a proven way of not only enhancing risk management of high risk offenders within the community, but ensuring that they develop the necessary skills to manage their own risk in the longer term” – Probation Officer

“The information from the Circle meetings has proved invaluable in raising concerns around significant attitudes and behaviour. In my opinion Circles is clearly supporting the risk management process” – Police Officer

“I understand and appreciate what the volunteers offer … I have taken on board their advice and suggestions and feel like my life has totally changed and I am much more confident” – Core Member

“I will miss the companionship, opening up to people, getting good advice, and chance to be open and question my thoughts” – Core Member

For young people who display harmful sexual behaviour, we also offer Circles of Support and Accountability although the focus is different to an adult circle. It will support the young person and help with practical things like exams, job interviews or college applications and social skills. The young person will be held to account but the circle is more activity based to encourage them to gain the confidence to discuss openly with the volunteers, their thoughts and feelings.

“The Circle came along at a perfect time because the young person had completed much of their intervention with the YOS and needed ongoing support from a service that was not embedded in the criminal justice system so that they could continue to re-build their identity away from offending” – Youth Offending Service Manager

“Circles has been invaluable. …….. the consistency, intelligence, and dedication of the people involved has shone through. I can’t currently think of a third-sector organisation I’d recommend more” – Social Worker

Research demonstrates that the Circles’ approach is effective and there are projects across the UK and Europe. Recent Independent evaluation of the impact of Circles of Support and Accountability coordinated by Circles South West concluded that:

“Circles of Support and Accountability are an important part of a community-led, strengths-based and restorative approach to reducing the risk of future sexual abuse” – Research in Practice

Circles South West also offers separate programmes to address problematic ‘technology assisted’, online sexual behaviour for adults and their partners and for young people and their carers.

For example, the (adult) ‘Inform Plus’ programme is a psycho-educational group course for those who have been arrested, cautioned or convicted for internet offences involving indecent images of children. It provides an opportunity for participants to explore their offending behaviour in a structured but supportive environment, and to devise strategies for avoiding future internet offending. Inform Plus can also be delivered on a 1:1 basis.

The (adult) ‘Inform’ Programme is an educational-support group course for partners, relatives and friends of anyone who has been accessing indecent images of children online. It offers a safe space in which people who are struggling with the emotional and practical impact of internet offending can bring their questions and anxieties and begin to explore them in a supportive environment. Inform can also be delivered on a 1:1 basis.

Another initiative supporting ‘secondary victims’ of sexual abuse is ‘Breaking the Cycle’. This is an education and awareness-raising programme for women with children who are in, or have been in, relationships with men whose sexual behaviour towards children has caused concern or led to conviction. It aims to enhance the woman’s ability to protect her children from sexual abuse. This can be delivered on a one to one or group basis and referrals come, in the main from Children’s Services.

Wagner et al (2015): ‘Engagement in the programme appears to be associated with an enhancement in the relationships between Child Protection Services and the non-offending partners. This has positive implications for the safeguarding of their own children’.

Circles South West also offers training and consultancy to professionals and volunteers working with people who have sexually harmed. This includes:

• 1-day open access courses
• Bespoke training designed to meet an organisation’s specific needs
• Professional group supervision
• Individual non-line management supervision.

To find out more about our work and get involved please contact or follow us on twitter @CirclesSW

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