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


Introducing Circles: ReBoot

No-one can have failed to recognise the growing concerns regarding the exponential rise in child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) being accessed on line. The Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse suggests that the internet is “likely to feature in almost all cases of child sexual abuse”.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) states, “what was already a recognised phenomenon has now cemented into a grave and widespread threat to our children”. The IWF processed a record number of reports of online child sexual abuse in 2020. Stop it Now, the helpline set up by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation to offer help for those viewing CSEM on line, had its busiest year to date in 2020.

This tsunami of online sexual offending has, without doubt, been exacerbated by lockdown. However, widespread internet access over recent years has also created more opportunities for people who pose a sexual threat to our children to access appalling images and videos of children being abused. The triple engine of anonymity, accessibility and affordability was identified some years ago as one explanation for the increased use of the internet to commit sexual offences.

People who access online child sexual exploitation material are an eclectic group whose route to offending is varied. For many, according to Mike Sheath from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, “porn is an entry drug …..they go down what I call an escalating pathway”. An increased use of on- line pornography with rape and abuse themes desensitises its users and can lead them to viewing illegal material. Isolation and stress can exacerbate the likelihood of this.

Without going into all the pathways to online sexual offending which have been identified by different academics and researchers, the unfortunate result has been that law enforcement agencies are being “overwhelmed” by the number of cases of online child sexual abuse. Simon Bailey, Norfolk Chief Constable and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection has said that police “can’t arrest our way out of the problem”. Agencies responsible for the assessment and management of people who sexually offend are constantly looking at innovative ways to fulfil their responsibilities and third sector organisations like Circles South West work with them to assist in this.

It is to this end that we have welcomed the opportunity to take part in a pilot programme developed by Circles UK called Circles ReBoot. Together with our sister project Circles South East, we are each offering Reboot Circles to core members who have been convicted of accessing CSEM. Circles ReBoot consists of 12 sessions, run over a 6-month period and focuses on encouraging the core member to recognise their strengths, whilst identifying and working towards goals for a positive and law-abiding life. They learn new skills, which assist them in developing self-awareness, self-efficacy and ways of coping with the challenges of daily life. The Circles ReBoot approach is consistent with current thinking and research as to what is most likely to reduce future re-offending. The intention is to look to the future with hope, without ignoring the past. Circles ReBoot is aimed at those who are assessed to be at low to medium risk of causing harm but have a likelihood of re-offending. The pilot is being evaluated by researchers from Royal Holloway, London and the University of Lincoln.

Circles South West is coordinating ReBoot Circles in South Gloucestershire, Bristol, Gloucestershire and Dorset. Volunteers are trained specifically to take part in these Circles, as the content is more prescriptive than standard Circles. It is anticipated that the pilot will be completed by December and the evaluation results should be available in 2022. We are very grateful for the support of the Offices of the Police and Crime Commissioners of Dorset, Gloucestershire, Avon & Somerset for match-funding the Trust funding secured by Circles UK.

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