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Supervision of Harmful Sexual Behaviour Practice, what’s that?’ – Karen Martin

This is what I was asked, all be it with a hint of irony, when I recently delivered training to a Local Authority children’s service team to experienced practitioners who were engaged and committed to learning how to appropriately and effectively assess harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) to ensure positive outcomes for children and families. Whilst it gave me a sense of positivity and satisfaction to see a Local Authority invest in training its staff and recognising the importance of this area of work, I started to question the value of investing in training if there is no ongoing investment in supervision and development. When I explored this statement further it was apparent for this team of practitioners, that they felt despondent about the quality of ongoing supervision by their line managers following their own training in this area of work.

This is not an unfamiliar narrative when I have engaged practitioners and social workers in conversations about their experience of supervision when working with cases involving HSB. Often reporting at worst that supervision is non-existent and at best it is task orientated, focussing solely on case management, with a distinct lack of belief that their supervisor knows anything more about this area of work than they do; and often managers aren’t even trained in the assessment framework that practitioners are using. Harmful Sexual Behaviour is an area of practice that is both cognitively and emotionally challenging in which professionals are having to make sense of conflicting, complex and difficult information from a range of different sources to manage risk and safeguard effectively. The subject is emotionally laden with staff having to live the traumatic experience of not only what the young person has done to someone else but also often the highly complex traumatic life events of the young person themselves. Add a world pandemic and this area of work suddenly becomes even more complex: The importance of effective supervision in the field of HSB is paramount.

In Severson and Pettus-Davis’s (2011) study, exploring the experiences of parole officers supervising convicted adult sex offenders, the participants described negative perceptions of the amount of support available to them in the workplace and a belief that the support that they were provided with was superficial. Similarly, in a study by Almond (2014) focussing on the practitioner experience of the impact of working with HSB, highlighted that participants largely felt unsupported with the work they do with too much focus on targets and case management rather than the nature and impact of the work itself. There was also a sense that practitioners often felt their supervisors were not highly skilled or knowledgeable in the subject of HSB and so this gave them little confidence in the supervision they were receiving.

There are four key functions of supervision: to support staff; to educate and impart knowledge; to facilitate analysis of the information presented; and, to support understanding the pathway in to the HSB. It is much more than a case management model of supervision where discussions around timeliness and quality of reports are discussed. A safe reflective space is needed in which a practitioner can analyse and discuss complex information and make meaning of it in the context of all domains of the child’s life alongside their HSB. Practitioners will need support and a safe place to challenge their own values and beliefs and reflect on how their internal biases might be impacting on the work they are doing. A supervisor needs to hold the worries of the practitioner and allow them to understand how this area of work might be affecting their personal lives, both their intimate relationships and also in relation to their own children. A supervisor needs to be able to recognise the signs of burnout, vicarious traumatisation and compassion fatigue and know what to do when they recognise this. Supervision of HSB work is a complex task.

The prevalence and impact of sexual abuse is highly likely to have been impacted upon during Covid-19 and whilst the British Government pledged over £76 billion in 2020 to support those deemed most vulnerable, including those impacted by sexual abuse and violence, I’m not sure what emphasis is placed on this funding to support professionals in this field of work. Working with sexual abuse during Covid-19 has presented further challenges to practitioners. They have had to find and develop more creative ways of working and learn to use technology to engage and support intervention. Practitioners during this time have reflected on their anxieties of being unable to always assess risk accurately due to lack of face-to-face contact (Ferguson, Pink and Kelly, 2020). Supervision that was once face to face in a quiet, work related environment is suddenly taking place in people’s front rooms, or their bedrooms. Alongside having to manage their own childcare responsibilities and workloads as well as having often to share technology with other family members whilst maintaining privacy, working with HSB has become an even more complex task.

The importance of effective supervision for staff working with HSB is even more critical at this time and consideration must be given to the quality of supervision that is being offered, whether there is enough investment in supporting managers to feel skilled and equipped to supervise effectively in this area of work, or to ensure that staff have access to high quality supervision outside of their more general line management.

Karen Martin, Independent Trainer and Consultant


Almond, T. (2014) Working with children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: exploring impact on practitioners and sources of support. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 20, 333-353.

Severson, M, & Pettus-Davis, C. (2011) Parole Officers’ Experiences of the Symptoms of Secondary Trauma in the Supervision of Sex Offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 20(10), 1–20.

Shelby, R., Stoddart, R., & Taylor, K. (2001). Factors contributing to levels of burnout among sex offender treatment providers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16, 1205-1217.

Steed, L., & Bicknell, J. (2001). Trauma and the therapist: The experience of therapists working with the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies.

Emergency funding to support most vulnerable in society during pandemic – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (accessed 31st January 2021)

Social work & child protection being creative during COVID (researchinpractice.org.uk) (accessed 31st January 2021)