James (not his real name) was in his early 20s and sinking into depression after the death of his father when he started to visit anonymous online chatrooms. There he formed a relationship he now recognises as “really unhealthy” with a man who encouraged him to download indecent images of children.
James describes his arrest – his first contact with the criminal justice system – as shocking. He had only the vaguest idea that this activity was illegal and understood it as victimless. “I think very differently now,” he says.
Part of that change in thinking James ascribes to the support he has received from Circles UK, a charity offering unique community support to some of the country’s most vilified offenders. He was referred to the charity by the probation service after he received a suspended sentence and community order and was placed on the sex offender register for 10 years.
Circles UK is one of a handful of organisations offering creative approaches to help tackle escalating online child abuse – the viewing and sharing of sexual images of children, as well as grooming – as experts warn that the scale of the problem demands a response that goes beyond arrest and punishment to prevention and support.
The Internet Watch Foundation reported in April that the number of webpages dedicated to making money from child sexual abuse material had more than doubled since 2020, while Office for National Statistics crime data showed that the number of online child sexual offences had risen by 20% since 2019, averaging 233 a week in the year to March 2023.
“The prevalence of online abuse has increased dramatically, in particular since Covid lockdown exacerbated some people’s isolation and sexual behaviour online,” says Liz Hickey, who has developed a Circles ReBoot programme specifically for individuals like James who have accessed child abuse material online.
“There is emerging evidence that this growing cohort of offenders requires a tailored approach that differs from traditional interventions for face-to-face abusers. This is because many of them believe their activities are victimless and don’t recognise that they are contributing to a global industry of child exploitation.”
Introduced from Canada by the Quakers in the early 00s, the original Circles programme offers a local network of volunteers who support and hold accountable their “core member”, a child sex offender who wants to reintegrate into their community having served their sentence. Recent evaluation found a 18% reduction in risk to others.
Circles ReBoot is based on that proven methodology but involves structured sessions over six months that focus on building the core member’s strengths and confidence and developing offline hobbies and relationships as well as coping mechanisms for future challenges.
Meeting up with a group of strangers who knew only this defining fact about him initially made James anxious. His fear that people will find out about his conviction and judge him harshly follows him everywhere, he says. But the Circles volunteers “were the complete opposite”, he says, and taught him tools to use when that anxiety becomes overwhelming. “You think about what you can see, smell, taste … It’s about being in the here and now, rather than ruminating.”
The weekly sessions include setting manageable goals, such as keeping active by playing exercise games on his console with other family members, who have remained supportive since his arrest.
“It’s really good company, gets you out of the house and keeps you focused on what’s good for you,” says James, who is struggling to find paid employment since his conviction.
Prof Derek Perkins, a co-director of Lincoln University’s onlineProtect Research Group, who is working on an evaluation of the Circles Reboot programme, says he can understand why many members of the public consider these offenders unworthy of help.
“But if your objective is to reduce that kind of offending, you have to bite the bullet because it does mean working with these individuals to reduce their risk factors,” he says.
Donald Findlater, the director of the UK’s leading child sexual abuse prevention initiative, Stop It Now!, a helpline for people worried about their own sexual behaviour online or that of family members, says offenders like James benefit from focused interventions because their typical profile is different from contact offenders.
“Unsurprisingly, almost all are male, but otherwise they come from a cross-section of society, have no previous convictions, are often employed, live with family including their own children. They are not the loners of popular imagination. They could easily be our friends, our family, our neighbours.”
The exponential growth of this offending means “we have to recognise we cannot simply arrest our way out of this problem”, says Findlater. “The work of the police remains vital, but additional interventions, including those delivered online and at scale, can be a real gamechanger.”
Tailored interventions for at-risk groups are key, he says, having just launched the Shore website for teenagers worried about their sexual behaviour.
The majority of offenders Findlater deals with mention their online porn habit, which some describe as an addiction, and how that draws them to more extreme sexual content.
“They don’t see themselves as paedophiles, they just think of it as part of their porn habit, only a bit younger. Many view their online activity as very separate from their ‘real life’,” he says.
Recent Stop It Now campaigning emphasises the real-world consequences, as well as the impact an arrest can have on an individual’s partner and children.
Many of these offenders will not require “a big psychology intervention,” Findlater says, but benefit from learning practical skills to manage their online life, in particular future use of legal porn, being transparent with family and friends and also developing offline hobbies.
This is precisely what the ReBoot programme encourages. Circles volunteers – some of whom are parents who believe the programme makes all children safer, and some of whom are survivors of sexual abuse themselves – have told the Guardian about the impact of setting small achievable goals for offenders and offsetting sometimes crippling guilt and shame.
“These people are vilified, often losing touch with their loved ones,” says one coordinator working in the south of England. “There’s no excusing their offences, which are horrific, but that fear about people finding out can be debilitating and leave them at risk of returning to old behaviours.
“The Circle group boosts their self-esteem and confidence and is a way of showing that people in their local community will give them a second chance.”
#charity #offers #community #support #online #child #abuse #offenders #Child #protection