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Diane Wills explains how she went from being a Social Worker in the Probation Service, to working full time with sex offenders.
30th November 2017
Written by Diane Wills
Cultivating a career in working with sexual offenders is achievable and can be done in a variety of ways. My own route was via the Probation Service.
During my training, I was understandably not permitted to hold these cases directly. My Practice Development Assessor knew that was my area of interest and nurtured that, allowing me to read her cases and to occasionally accompany her to prison visits.
Once qualified, I decided to go straight into a Public Protection Team working with exclusively high-risk offenders. Some people might and indeed did disapprove of this, thinking it is too risky to put a newly qualified Social Worker into a high-risk environment, but I thrived on the challenge.
I couldn’t help but think no matter how many car thieves (TWOC’ers as they are affectionately known) that I worked with, it wouldn’t prepare me for high risk work.
I loved the unpredictability, the risk levels I was dealing with, the high-level strategy meetings, even the late Friday nights at the office trying to manage a crisis situation (it’s always on a Friday night).
I was also very keen to progress to the next step in my career, but I wasn’t experienced enough to move into the specialist sex offender groupwork team. As they were only located downstairs in my office, I got to know the Senior Probation Officer and the team well, and when a vacancy arose after I had my first year under my belt, I successfully obtained that post.
The role opened up a variety of other doors, working in partnership with local authority child protection teams, a national training role, and finally a secondment to the Home Office in the sex offender team of the public protection unit.
This was all done within four years.
Once I’m in a post, I consider where I want to go next and gradually move towards that.
Look beyond your immediate environment to where you want to be and how you might get there. Where do you want to be working in two years, and what are the skills you will need to demonstrate in order to realise that goal?
I’m still doing it.
There are alternative routes such as forensic psychology which provides a direct route once Chartered, into Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) national framework.
Although it hasn’t always been the case, psychologists currently tend to dominate the field of sexual offending in practice, especially within the statutory sector. When I now attend training, I am often the only non-psychologist in the room as most sex offender training is located in the forensic psychology discipline.
Observing this, I notice that there is a slightly different focus to this kind of work from probation. In my experience, it tends to lean towards hard science, eg, quantitative research rather than the softer qualitative aspects.
I like the ‘wooly’ stuff and the grey areas, but I appreciate the rigour and robustness it gives me in my work. It also tends to be slightly more medicalised and psychologists might also work within a medical forensic setting, ie, a mental health secure unit, as well as in the criminal justice system.
This is probably the route I would take if I was starting out today.
Another route is via a social work qualification which can be a fantastic gateway qualification to then specialise in certain areas. If you’re interested in this work, whilst training, it is a good idea to find a placement opportunity in a setting where this type of work is offered.
This might be a residential unit, or a charity that works with perpetrators, a mental health unit, for instance. If you get a practice educator who also works in the field, that can really provide helpful pointers in terms of what to focus on in your reading and practice.
Fast-track social work programmes are also now available, and apprenticeships may be available in your area soon.
Unsurprisingly, social workers tend towards a more sociological approach, rather than the criminologically focused probation officer or medicalised psychologist. You might also get more of a focus on areas like child development, which are incredibly useful when working with perpetrators.
There are many alternatives within private or other organisations which might not specifically be about social work, but require that kind of knowledge and skill set. This will bring the joys and frustrations of working in a multi-disciplinary team in which everyone will be approaching the same issue from different professional perspectives.
You could consider starting your own agency after gaining some experience. The increasing marketisation of services makes this entirely possible. This brings the disadvantages of not having a ‘steady’ income and the need to understand business.
Conversely, it also brings great freedom, and the chance to work in ways you may never have previously considered possible.
Take every opportunity offered, for you never know when it may come in handy.
Qualify As A Trainer
For me, it was learning how to become a trainer. I had a natural and entirely rational aversion to anything which located me in the position of expert; a chronic case of imposter syndrome.
Nonetheless, I took it on and really enjoyed it. It led to a national training position and subsequently, to teaching opportunities in Higher Education which I still do today.
In my Probation career, I ended up with an amazing secondment in the Home Office by the time I was twenty-nine. This was in no way because I was especially wonderful or talented, but I did work very hard. After my interview, the feedback I received was that the panel were impressed by the amount of opportunities I had tried, and experience I had gained in a relatively short space of time.
Once suitably qualified, there are a range of career options other than the more obvious statutory professional roles. There are non-statutory agencies and charities who work with sexual offenders, such as the NSPCC or Circles of Support and Accountability who work collaboratively with statutory agencies, but have some ability to be creative and develop alternative ways of working.
If you are particularly keen on research, a career in academia is a good way to progress as there are countless possibilities for evaluation and research in this field.
Once qualified, it can be useful to seek specific post-graduate qualifications which will help you specialise.
Different universities offer these in various ways, but it may be offered in psychology or social work, or as part of a criminology course.
Some of these are offered as distance learning so you have the benefits of being able to study in a way which suits you, but with the disadvantages of not being near campus. It would be wise to research and consider the course material, the credibility of authors of the programme, and where you want it to lead.
As risk assessment is a large part of the work, it is essential to ensure you obtain training in relevant risk assessment and management tools, or programmes of intervention.
These have evolved over many years, and some are agency specific, for example, the Offender Assessment System (OASys) which is used by the Probation Service, the specific sex offender treatment programmes run by HMPPS, or the Healthy Sexual Programme (HSP) used by the prison service.
Currently, tools such as the Structured Assessment of Risk and Need (SARN) or the Risk of Sexual Violence Protocol (RSVP) are used widely to risk manage sexual offenders.
You may be able to access training via your agency if they deem it necessary to carry out your role. Otherwise, it is entirely possible to arrange to attend training yourself as long as you are able to fund it. You may even want to offer something really specific like polygraph training which is becoming a growing area of practice.
It can be difficult to leap straight into the area of practice that you most crave as a newly qualified practitioner. It may seem there are limited options to begin your burgeoning career and that you are forced to consider entering into a specialism, team or location which is not your preference. This can feel disappointing, especially if you have a strong desire and maybe placement experience in a particular area.
My advice based on my own experience, is that it really does not matter where you begin.
I am a great believer that, professionally at least, most things are achievable if you really put your mind to them, but you do need to point yourself in roughly the right direction.
Every single thing you do at this stage is a genuine opportunity for learning; no experience is wasted.
If you are entering a specialism which does not intuitively pique your interest, choose to become interested. Develop curiosity; the very pillar of your profession.
Understand what it is that makes the place, the service users, and your colleagues tick. What are the dynamics?
You can tell a lot from the office fridge. Are people protectively and obsessively labelling their food? Are there signs about clearing up? Or is there a more relaxed and laissez-faire approach to lunch?
In my experience sex offender teams tend to be an open and sharing bunch with a sense of comradeship. If that isn’t the case, this can be problematic as tensions can be picked up and exploited by clients, and already sensitive work becomes even harder.
If you're frustrated this is a fabulous time to increase your knowledge about policy and governance. Understanding why your agency is doing the work it does, how it does it, the conflicts and tensions which exist, will serve to increase your knowledge about every organisation you eventually work in.
Who is it that is really in charge? Go and talk to the Senior Management Team or Trustees. You will gain knowledge and also, be remembered when you want to progress.
In sex offender work, for example, policy trends tend to be in a bit of a mismatch with the current research, so it’s useful to understand why this might be and the complexities of this kind of work at a strategic level.
If you are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, take time to breathe and reflect; why are things the way they are in your agency? What is the organisational attachment to working in this particular way? Is it an organisation which does not adequately provide resources, or is there a genuine demand issue? If so, are there ways where you can see things could be done differently?
If you have some practice in devising new ways of working, this will hold you in good stead for your future career in developing programmes of intervention. Can you offer some useful research knowledge on how things are done elsewhere?
You will surely have become accustomed to reading journals by now. This is a practice which should continue throughout your career and your knowledge can be utilised in your agency.
As sexual offending is an area which tends to cross all social and professional boundaries, whatever team or area you are in, you are likely to come across a case where this is a feature. You can ask to be the lead, or at least to co-work these cases, and in that way, build up a name in your agency for that specialism.
Reading is essential. There are organisations, such as the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (NOTA) or the international Association of the Treatment of Abusers (ATSA) who offer membership and access to research and training specific to the field. Research can be about aetiology, typologies, treatment and effectiveness, and can be quantitative and/or qualitative.
The ability to sift through information, appraising its validity and then interpreting the meaning in the context of the person in front of you is crucial.
Description is of some value, but is limited; it is always the ‘why’ which is of most significance. This usually means having a broad knowledge base across disciplines, eg, knowledge of attachment theory from social work, knowledge of schemas from psychology, and knowledge of criminogenic factors from criminology.
As with all professions, you need to become comfortable with making defensible decisions which have a potential impact on the safety of others and standing by those decisions, knowing that sometimes things go wrong and people behave in ways which cannot be predicted.
Writing credible reports is also particularly important for this role. Your work is likely to appear in a legal context and you may also have to be cross-examined about what you have written. So, it needs to be authoritative, accessible and evidence-based. Clear communication is key.
A less obvious skill is developing the art of phatic communication, otherwise known as ‘small talk’. Work can be given to you on the basis of tight legal deadlines, and so you might have just a short while in which to interview someone and gather all the necessary information. As the discussion is inevitably going to be about intimate details of a person’s life and history, you need to make the client feel as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible. Finding some common ground is a good way to do this.
Dealing With Uncomfortable Conversations
It is useful to get comfortable with talking about sex in all its gory detail. People will always know when you are uncomfortable, or whether you are not able to hear what they have to say. I always aim to be the person to whom they might disclose something, and so that presentation of being un-shockable and familiar with talking about issues such as sexual fantasy, masturbation, vaginas, and penises is really crucial.
You will read, hear details of and sometimes, see images of, extremely disturbing abusive situations. This has an impact.
I am reassured that I still have the capacity to be appalled at some of the things I read or hear, some of which will stay with me for a very long time. There is lots of literature around about resilience. Find your own way with this.
People tend to know quickly if this work isn’t for them and if it isn’t, that’s fine.
An overlooked but important aspect to this work is the ability to locate yourself in the dynamic, and be reflexive. How do you feel when you’re in the room with that person, and how much of that is about you and how much about them? What of yourself and your experiences are you bringing to the dynamic and your analysis? Are there offence paralleling behaviours occurring in the interview rooms? Do you like the client?
Aside from resilience, helpful personal qualities are the ability to be open to your own unknown and unresolved trauma, and issues around sex and sexuality.
Triggers can arise from out of nowhere, even if you think you know yourself pretty well. Clinical supervision, or at least some informal professional support is important. Similarly, to nurses, this kind of work tends to develop a ‘gallows humour’. This is an important protective mechanism.
Although a phrase often used, the ability to see the person beyond their offences is crucial. Even if the person before you has done something truly abhorrent, the ability to see them as a human being worthy of compassion and understanding in their own right is crucial to effective assessment.
There is the potential in this area of work to become a well-known name in the field and to use your knowledge creatively. As in most professions, becoming successful tends to be down to hard work, tenaciousness, confidence in your professional abilities and opinions, and above all, a real enjoyment for what you are doing.
Professional satisfaction can come from writing a report where you feel you’ve really nailed the issues with acuity and precision, or from making a breakthrough with a perpetrator, or from conducting your own research and making a name for yourself.
This is an area of work which perhaps brings particularly hard challenges, but it can also bring equal rewards.
If this is what you want, go for it.
I fully endorse having a vision of where you want to get to, just allow yourself some creativity and freedom in how you get there.
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