Some years ago I was a trustee of a national charity called Circles. It was probably not the most popular charity in the country since its aim was to help sex offenders re-integrate into society. These were men who had served a prison sentence for serious sexual crimes. They had been placed on the sex offenders register and released back into the community subject to conditions, and under supervision by the Probation Service and the police.
The charity, which was largely funded by the Ministry of Justice, worked with volunteers who acted as mentors to the offenders. The full name of the charity is Circles of Support and Accountability because it aims to offer help but also to ensure that the offender is held to account.
It is called Circles because a small group of volunteer mentors, plus the offender, form a circle of support and accountability. The group meets together regularly to talk issues through and one of the volunteers offers individual support to the offender, who is called the core member. The volunteer will meet the core member, probably weekly, to have a chat, go to a cafe, take a walk, and generally be friendly and supportive. They will continue this relationship for a year or so.
The first days and months after a long sentence are a real struggle for anyone leaving prison, but these offenders will have restrictions placed on them which will make it even harder to resume normal relationships. They are among the hardest of ex-offenders to bring back into society – for obvious reasons. It may be a condition of their release, for instance, that they are never alone with a woman. It will not be easy for them to speak to those they meet about their past or the reasons why they were in prison. They may have been rejected by their family and previous friends. There may be little sympathy for them or hostility towards them in their community. Some have been known to be attacked.
Part of the accountability role is exploring all of this with the offender. The charity is not trying to minimise the gravity of the offence or do anything that leads the offender to deny his past. The volunteers are trained to help the men acknowledge the past and the sexual impulses that they may still have and to manage their behaviour. If there is to be change, there has to be real self awareness, an understanding of what they are really like with all their flaws and failings.
The offenders themselves often talk about how hard their journey has now become. One I recall spoke about his fears and anxieties – fear of meeting people, fear of going out, fear of himself, fear of having his past revealed and anxiety as to whether he had the strength of mind and will to move forward. Another spoke about the sheer burden of shame he felt and his anger, directed at himself, because to some considerable degree he had blighted the rest of his life.
The volunteers come from all sections of society, though when I was involved quite a few were students who simply wanted to do something worthwhile outside of their studies and personal life. They do not necessarily have or need any particular expertise – other than the desire to make a difference and a willingness to cope with disappointment if things do not go entirely smoothly.
The ultimate aim of the charity’s work is to see behavioural change and as a result have fewer victims.
When I have been to community meetings after a high profile sex case has been in the news, I often have people tell me that the offender should be locked up and the key thrown away. I don’t usually mention my past involvement with Circles, but I do try to get people to think beyond that immediate reaction. Sex offenders do serve terms of imprisonment – but then come out. What should happen next? The worst of all worlds would clearly be to leave them with minimal support with the risk that they fall back into old ways.
These offenders need help if they are to re-integrate into their community in any meaningful way. But that must be support with accountability. Circles has it exactly right.
Victim Support Homicide Service – help for eyewitnesses
Continuing with the theme of support, Police and Crime Commissioners have a role in assisting where they can the victims of crime. But who are the victims of crime?
Clearly, the primary victims are those who suffer the crime directly – the resident whose house is burgled or whose car is stolen, the woman who has been abused for years by a violent partner, for example. But there are often other, secondary victims of crime who should not be forgotten and they too may need help. They include those who witness the most shocking of crimes, homicide.
I was recently given a presentation by the charity Victim Support. They have been commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) since 2010 to support the families of those who have been killed. This followed campaigning on behalf of such victims by Sara Payne, the mother of Sarah Payne, the seven year old who was murdered in 2006. This is an independent service – independent of the police and local authorities – and can be accessed by anyone bereaved as a result of a homicide. An online service was introduced in 2021 specifically for children and young people.
When the MoJ recommissioned Victim Support this year the service was enhanced. Face to face support will be given to children and young people, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a homicide, and support for those affected by crime-related major incidents involving fatalities. In addition, support will also now be available for those who directly witness a homicide or major incident.
I very much welcome the inclusion of eye witnesses to homicide (murder or manslaughter) among those that the charity will help. Being present when someone is killed can be utterly traumatic, harming people mentally or emotionally as a consequence. They too need support.
From time to time the Director of Sales and Marketing for the Civil Service College Limited sends me unsolicited details of courses they run to support people in their working lives. They vary from the useful to the unbelievable. Last week I received the latest in their Personal Development series: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is explained as “a condition where we feel we don’t deserve the position or responsibility we have….. and have the feeling that we are a ‘fraud’”.
The blurb asserts that Meryl Streep, Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou all ‘suffered from this condition’. (I think what they are getting at here is something I have some personal knowledge of – though I wouldn’t call it Imposter Syndrome. One of my sons was once a professional actor and when he lived at home we went through the emotions he went through – waiting for the phone to ring about an audition, dealing with rejections, the nerves before the performance, anxiety about the reviews – and all the while knowing that past success did not guarantee future work. Yes, I’m sure Meryl Streep did sometimes feel a failure. My other son was a scientist. As it happens, a theoretical physicist, where having your theories tested by others was a regular part of the life scientific. Yes, you had to be humble and learn from the insights of others. And when I wrote books I knew how vulnerable you immediately made yourself. As well as articles in journals I learnt to live with reviews on Amazon.)
But leaving all that aside, the Overcoming Impostor Syndrome course, we were told, would enable us to overcome our feeling that we don’t deserve the job we are doing.
There seems to be no understanding that if such a syndrome exists and the actress, the scientist and the author all suffered from it, perhaps that was one of the reasons why they achieved what they did. A bit of imposter syndrome keeps us on our toes, doesn’t allow us to be complacent, makes us keen to learn from others. It’s a good thing.
Now the opposite – Aren’t You Lucky To Have Me Working For You Syndrome – really is a problem. But I doubt whether such people would ever sign up for a course to overcome that affliction.