Circles ReBoot: A Circle of Support and Accountability specifically for Individuals who access Child Sexual Exploitation Material – Riana Taylor and Liz Hickey
On 29th September 2020, Circles UK was delighted to launch online, an innovative new programme – Circles ReBoot. Over 100 professionals attended the event to learn about this new Circle targeted specifically at individuals who access Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM) (indecent images of children).
CSEM and the exponential increase in its use present a significant challenge for criminal justice agencies. In April 2020, the National Crime Agency estimated that at least 300,000 UK citizens pose a risk of online sexual harm to children (https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/news/onlinesafetyathome ).
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) lead for Child Protection and Investigation, who attended the launch, told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that up to 600 children were being safeguarded each month as a result of investigations. But he warned that “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem, and we have to look at a far more holistic approach … we are at saturation point.” IICSA also heard that while the UK hosts only a small amount of the material itself, it is the “the third greatest consumer in the world of the live streaming of abuse” (BBC, July 2020).
Since the COVID-19 lock down was imposed in March 2020, a number of organisations reported significant increases in online abuse. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported an increase of almost 50%. From March to July, its hotline logged 44,809 reports of images compared with 29,698 the year before. At least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse were blocked during lockdown (https://www.iwf.org.uk/news/millions-of-attempts-to-access-child-sexual-abuse-online-during-lockdown).
Research indicates that a different approach is required for individuals who access CSEM than for those who commit contact sexual offences; those who access CSEM demonstrate fewer anti-social traits and their attendance at a traditional, intensive sex offender treatment programme can be counterproductive. (Babchishin et al, 2018). According to the Risk-Need-Responsivity principle, these individuals would benefit most from a “lower dosage” package. In response to this challenge, the Circles UK team designed a new Circle programme – Circles ReBoot.
What are Circles of Support and Accountability (‘Circles’)?
The vision of Circles is ‘no more victims’. The Circles help make communities safer by assisting those who engage in harmful sexual behaviour, and are at risk of doing so again, to self-manage inappropriate thoughts and behaviours, reintegrate safely into the community and lead responsible lives. The Circles model is a community-based approach which utilises local Volunteers to both support and hold accountable sexual harm causers. Each Circle comprises of professionally trained and supervised Volunteers and a ‘Core Member’ (the perpetrator) whose involvement is voluntary. Traditionally, Circles work with high risk, contact abusers over a period of 12-18 months. More recently the approach has also been adapted for those with intellectual disabilities and young people.
What is Circles ReBoot?
This programme is part of the Circles brand and will be delivered by Volunteers following the underlying principles of Circles. Circles ReBoot is shorter (12 sessions over 6 months) but more structured than a traditional Circle and was designed specifically with CSEM in mind. The target audience are men and women over 18, assessed as presenting a medium or low risk of harm.
The design, approach and programme content of Circles ReBoot are underpinned by relevant research on desistance, trauma, self-regulation and the Good Lives model. During the design phase, the programme benefitted from the advice of Professor Derek Perkins and Dr Hannah Merdian from onlinePROTECT at Lincoln University. They have developed a new assessment tool specifically for individuals who access CSEM; this tool will be an integral part of Circles ReBoot and will be used at specific points in the Circle.
The Circle is strength-based since offending behaviour work that recognises and harnesses the skills and aptitudes that an individual possesses have been shown to be most effective. Core Members are encouraged to take responsibility for their own life – they identify areas of their life they want to focus on and define and work towards specific goals. Setting realistic and positive goals for the future has been identified as a significant element in achieving an offence free lifestyle.
During a ReBoot Circle, the Core Member works through ‘Keys for Change’, learning new skills which assist them in developing self-awareness, self-efficacy and ways of coping with the challenges of daily life. The Keys for Change are intended to address aspects of life frequently apparent in the lives of those who access CSEM (e.g., social isolation, difficulties managing negative thoughts and feelings, issues around identity). In the final sessions of the Circle, the individual has space to reflect on what they have learnt and plan for the future. The intention throughout the Circle is to look to the future with hope, without ignoring the past.
A pilot of the first ReBoot Circles will be delivered by Circles Providers in the South East, South West and Merseyside and be subject to independent evaluation overseen by Dr Merdian from Lincoln University. This evaluation will follow the RE-AIM approach (https://www.re-aim.org/about/what-is-re-aim/) to ensure that the implementation and sustainability of the Programme is sufficiently considered and tested.
The intention is to start the pilot and evaluation in December 2020 (COVID-19 restrictions permitting) which will inform any changes that may need to be made to the programme before it is fully implemented. It is the intention of Circles UK to share the evaluation findings at an online event to enable shared learning of CSEM perpetrators with other professionals. This will contribute to the development of an evidence base in an area which is still under-researched and understood – despite staggering statistics and the devastating impact on victims and survivors.
Riana Taylor, CEO Circles UK
Liz Hickey, National Quality Manager, Circles UK (co-designer of Circles ReBoot with Louise Pitman, Circles UK)
Babchishin, K. M., Merdian, H. L., Bartels, R. M., & Perkins, D. E. (2018). ‘Child Sexual Exploitation Materials Offenders: A Review. European Psychologist (2018), 23(2), 130-143.