Circles of Support and Accountability in Britain
A ’Circle of Support and Accountability’ is where a group of volunteers from a local community form a Circle around a sex offender, who is the 'Core Member'. Each Circle has four to six volunteers, who are fully informed of the Core Member's past pattern of offending.
Volunteers have to be prepared to make a substantial commitment of time, over a period of one year in the first instance. They must be willing to befriend the Core Member, but don’t need to be experts. They need to be responsible people with their feet on the ground, mature about their own sexuality. They are screened, trained and supported by the Circles scheme.
The offender is identified while still in prison. He/she will be a high-risk sex offender, with high levels of need and little or no support from family or friends in the community. Most will have committed offences against children, but some have offended against adults.
If possible, the Circle will meet with the Core Member before he is released. At the first meeting, Circle members make a contract with one another, which will include being committed to openness within the Circle, confidentiality beyond it and a respect for consensus decision-making. The Core Member will promise that there will be no more victims at their hands and will commit him/herself to following his/her release plan.
The Circle then aims to provide a supportive social network that also requires the Core Member to take responsibility (be ‘accountable’) for his/her ongoing risk management. Members provide support in such things as developing social skills, finding suitable accommodation or finding appropriate hobbies and interests. It also helps them to recognise patterns of thought and behaviour that could lead to their re-offending. Within it, the Core Member can grow in self-esteem and develop healthy adult relationships, maximising his or her chances of successfully re-integrating into the community in a safe and fulfilling way.
To begin with there will be contact between the core member and a volunteer every day (shopping trips, cups of tea, phone chats) and weekly meetings of the whole Circle. Birthdays and other special days are celebrated. Gradually the frequency of meetings lessens, but if any concerns arise, the frequency will be increased again and the core member will be challenged. If necessary the Circle will inform the police or probation authorities.
Circles was first developed by Mennonites in Canada in the mid 1990s. There are close connections between Mennonites and Quakers in Canada, and some Quakers became involved in Circles. The Crime and Community Justice Group became aware of it, and were impressed. They proposed to the Home Office that a workshop should be run to inform key players in Britain about Circles. This took place in June 2001, and several Canadians explained the scheme.
As a result, the Home Office funded three pilots. One of these was set up in 2002 in the Thames Valley (Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire), as a partnership between police, probation, prisons and Quakers, and with a core staff of two people. Many individual Friends expressed their interest and support, and some have been Circle members. Another pilot was set up in Hampshire, and the two have merged to become Hampshire and Thames Valley (HTV Circles), now an independent charity. By 2008, 70 circles had been set up under HTV, and only one Core Member had reoffended (see report: 2002-8)
Current prisoners sometimes write to ask if a Circle could be provided for them when they come out of prison.
Volunteers’ comments include:
‘My gut feeling is that working in this Circle has substantially reduced the likelihood of our Core Member re-offending. I may be wrong, but I just can’t see him doing it again. To me, as a survivor, that is the greatest reward I can imagine – that other little girls are spared.
‘To my complete surprise, I have also come to really like our Core Member. It makes me happy to feel that he, too, will be able to live a better life now. It has helped me to see that whatever awful things someone might have done, they still have a human heart beating in their chest.