An initiative that sees normal members of the public socialising with the likes of convicted paedophiles and rapists is being run in Leeds for the first time. Crime reporter Sam Casey found out how Circles of Support and Accountability works.
ON the first floor of a city centre office building in Leeds, self-confessed paedophile and sex addict Jack is talking about how he is trying to keep control of “problematic thoughts”.
“When I used to walk through town and I’d see an attractive woman, I would completely fixate on her and try and capture a mental image of her,” he says.
“Now I’m able to glance at her and then concentrate on something else.”
The 39-year-old is discussing his progress since he started meeting once a week with two men and two women who, until relatively recently, he had never met.
They are members of his ‘circle of support and accountability’ – the title given to a charitable initiative being run in Yorkshire for the first time.
Since June, they have all volunteered their time, unpaid, to spend an hour with Jack each week.
Some of the sessions, like this one, are set aside to discuss the psychological issues he is dealing with.
Others are spent taking part in social activties. Jack’s circle, for example, has taken him out to play pool and, after he expressed an interested in cooking, to the supermarket to get ingredients for meals. Volunteer Kate, a 44-year-old mother of two daughters, is well aware that many people would find the notion of willingly spending time with someone capable of the crimes Jack has admitted unpalatable at best.
But, after studying the law around sexual offending as part of a degree course, she became interested in how Circles worked and now believes she can make a real difference.
“On a personal level, I think it’s necessary to help people like Jack.
“You can’t just throw them out on the streets and leave them to it,” she said.
“He’s just a guy who has done some things he’s not proud of or happy about.
“He has insecurities and problems like everyone else – his are magnified because of what he’s done. But he needs help.
“If I can sit here for an hour a week and it reduces the risk of him reoffending, it’s worth it.”
Inspired by the work of a church in Canada in the 1990s, the Circl es UK charity was set up to provide social contact for criminals who had served their sentences and were living in the community again.
Working in conjunction with the Probation Service and police, the idea was to give them structured interaction with other members of the public once they were no longer subject to legal controls.
Offenders who take part – called “core members” within the programme – are all on the sex offender register, are assessed as being socially isolated and are classed as posing a high risk to the community.
They must get involved willingly and have to admit to the crimes for which they have been convicted. The first time they meet the volunteers in their circle they must reveal the details of their offending.
‘Jack’ – not his real name – was released from prison at the end of last year having served an eight-year sentence for stealing £15,000 from a company, as well as committing a series of thefts and robberies, to fund his addiction to prostitutes.
After his arrest for those offences, he also admitted to having gone unpunished for sex offences against children. He told police if he was released from prison he would commit further crimes.
After being freed last year, he moved into a hostel before finding accommodation in Beeston, Leeds.
He said he was keen to do something which would help him stay crime-free.
“I was desperate to try Circles because I didn’t want to go back to prison and I was fed up of seeing psychiatrists – that wasn’t working for me,” he said.
“I was scared of being isolated when I came out.
“It’s early stages, but just the human contact, people being there for me, is making a difference. I live on my own in Beeston, I don’t really know anyone and I don’t have a good relationship with my family.
“The most important thing for me is that I’m challenged on my behaviour. If I’m on my own no-one’s there to correct me.”
It’s an illustration of how many people want to help that the charity is oversubscribed for volunteers.
Anyone who wants to become a member of a circle has to fill in an application form before being interviewed for the role. Only once they have undergone two days of training are they accepted onto the programme.
Another of the volunteers in Jack’s circle is Geoff, a 62-year-old full-time carer, father of two daughters and grandfather of three.
He said: “I care for people very deeply.
“I have the capacity not to look at what Jack has done, but to look beyond that to look inside. He’s a man like I am. He has done his time, he’s been in prison.
“He needs help, encouragement and support. I have the capability to encourage him. I’ve found it very rewarding, I’ve really enjoyed it.
“We’re helping to rebuild his confidence and self-esteem.
“Seeing him from the first moment he walked through the door to sitting with him an hour a week and listening to his fears and his doubts and what could make him go off the rails, I feel like we’re making a difference.”
Jack’s is one of two circles running in Leeds, with a third currently being set up.
The expectation is that each core member’s circle lasts for about a year before the group is disbanded. It costs £11,000 a year to run each one.
Melva Burton, director of Circles in Yorkshire and Humberside, said the potential benefit of the investment was difficult to quantify.
She said: “We’re working with some of the riskiest people in the community. If they reoffend, to get them back through the system, before they get to prison, costs £143,000 and that’s before you work out what it costs to keep them in prison.
“And you can’t even begin to put a price on the human cost to the victim.”
As well as the social activities and discussion sessions, Jack has learned relaxation techniques designed to help him keep a lid on the deep-seated issues that caused him to offend in the first place.
He admits they may never go away – but is confident he can continue his progress.
He said: “I can’t be cured of it, but I can learn to live with it – to manage it. The risk will be there forever, so what I can do is learn to control it.”
What about the victims ? It seems to me that there is a continuing trend for the abusers to get more support and help then the victims !!!!