Working effectively with Online Offenders: The Safer Lives Experience – Jenny Greensmith
Safer Lives works mainly with men who are under police investigation for online sexual offences. We currently have offices in Leeds and Manchester, with a third in the pipeline, and work with clients from across the UK. Our clients must self-refer but they often learn about us from the police, children’s social care services, lawyers or from a simple Google search. When we started in 2014, we immediately realised how suicidal the men coming to us were, and it became unsurprising to us that CEOP and NHS research found a 1 in 27 suicide rate among those 750 men who were arrested under Operation Notarise. We quickly located suicide prevention training and re-adjusted our work to make client safeguarding a priority. This was when we first realised the importance of absolute flexibility in service provision for this client group, whose emotional health often rapidly deteriorates as fear of what is to come sets in. For that reason, we always work one-to-one with clients as we find that it provides the greatest individual impact.
Our clients have consistently spoken of feeling hopeless following their initial police involvement. We provide realistic information and advice about the criminal justice system and social care involvement, thereby laying a sound foundation for further behavioural work. Our programme is based on an understanding that no one can plan to change if they lack the hope that their future can be more than just an existence. We always acknowledge that there will be difficult adjustments to men’s lives post-conviction and our success depends on clients knowing that we will be truthful with them. If we believe a custodial sentence is likely, we honestly and realistically explain how that might look. Our background as Probation Officers gives us insight into the realities of a prison or community-based sentence.
In online offending, the forensic evidence is usually clear cut and is generally found by the police, resulting in a very strong case. Therefore, most of these men come to see us already knowing and accepting their guilt, and willing to speak more openly than when there is a chance guilt won’t be proven. In our experience, they are also more open than they are post-conviction, when the uncertainty of what might happen is removed and there is a greater time distance between life when they offended and the life they are now trying to rebuild.
Because we know that responsivity is key, we ensure that we see clients within 7 days of their making contact, if they want a meeting that soon. We endeavour to make our office bases feel like safe environments: secure, private, comfortable, with a warm handshake and a reassuring smile (and a mug of Yorkshire tea).
There are confidentiality statements to be agreed and understood, and safeguarding information to be taken. We ensure we have GP details so that, where necessary, we can escalate any mental health concerns.
We are now a maturing agency and are making evaluation and research part of our work. We already know some of the things our clients value:
- A safe space to talk. In our experience, the truism that “men don’t talk” is something of a myth. Indeed, we often find it difficult to stop our clients from talking and have had to learn how to ensure sessions are boundaried and do not overrun. Having time and space to talk, with no-one but ourselves listening, means that clients get used to talking about sensitive and difficult issues, and this is something they commonly take back into their family and personal lives. This growing confidence to speak to others about their vulnerabilities leads to a new coping strategy for when times get tough, or tougher still.
- Not being judged. We are an independent agency and the men are our direct clients. They can therefore be confident that we will neither judge them, nor breach confidentiality unduly, as we are not accountable to outside agencies for our funds. Yet, although we do not claim to be a child protection agency, we believe that safeguarding children is one of our work’s most significant outcomes. We also know that many offences are committed in conflict with the perpetrator’s natural values. We believe we can all relate to times when we have acted in ways that conflict with our own values, and so we are in some ways not so different. Relatability is essential if we are to refrain from judgement and therefore finding commonality rather than difference is the greatest aid to our collaborative working relationships.
- Personalisation. Research and literature reviews indicate that there are different typologies of offender, who require distinct treatment styles and approaches. Yet there is no common agreement as to what the typologies are, nor how treatment should differ between typologies. We take a single approach to client engagement: we personalise work within a semi-structured programme that provides some rigour and direction for the client’s own need for secure boundaries. We do this partly because we believe it is effective, but also because it is seemingly what most clients want. And despite their offences, we believe that, when clients are thinking rationally and in a safe space, they are the experts on themselves.
There should be nothing revelatory about what we do. It is clever only in its simplicity. No matter what settings we as workers find ourselves in, or codes of practice we must follow, there is always something we can do to make the client’s or offender’s difficult journey feel safer for them, and thus for others whom we are all trying to protect.
While the above all sounds straightforward and is based on common sense, we all falter, and at times struggle, with some of what we hear. Our clinical supervisor spends 12 hours with us each year. It isn’t a huge amount of time so we depend on each other to debrief, reflect, co-work at times and admit when we’re uncertain of the best way to work. We also drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of biscuits!
Jenny Greensmith, Co-director,
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