Quote:
There is a way to stop paedophiles abusing children in your community and it's not Sarah's law. Are you prepared to help?


I'm finding it all a little confusing. Is there, or is there not to be a British version of Megan's Law - probably to be known as "Sarah's Law", which will give parents the right to know how many sex offenders live in their neighbourhood, or on popular school routes? Having been working in the US for the past few days, I initially saw reports there - which had been announced to the News of the World by the Labour MP Dan Norris - that there were to be three such pilot schemes, but today this seems to have been scotched by the Home Office, with the rather patronising put-down that Mr Norris was "getting ahead of himself".

Mr Norris's feelings notwithstanding, if this represents a change of heart on the part of the Home Office I am really grateful, for it is quite clear to everybody who deals with paedophiles and other sex offenders on a regular basis that a Sarah's Law would have exactly the same effect as Megan's Law has had in the United States, where it has - depending on the specific state requirements (which vary from place to place), led to increased vigilante action and driven paedophiles underground. In doing so children have been placed at greater risk of sexual assault by a stranger and the Americans are thus no further forward in trying to better manage the risks posed by paedophiles within their communities.

Now here we should also acknowledge that most children are not abused by strangers but by someone in their extended families, and I also saw reports that the government was considering allowing single mothers to check with the police if their new boyfriend was in fact a known sex offender. If this is indeed an accurate report - rather than someone else "getting ahead of himself" logic seems to have flown out of the window. If such a scheme existed then all that would happen would be that sex offenders would change their names so as to avoid being identified by their new lover as a sex offender.

This prospective policy - if indeed it is one seems to be based on the presumption that how paedophiles behave is fixed once and forever, and that they do not respond to changing circumstances, including policing circumstances. Yet, just as in the same way that paedophiles reacted to Operation Ore - when they were largely caught because they gave their credit card details so as to be able to access child pornographic websites by instead using net-enabled mobile phones and peer-to-peer systems - so too, the determined paedophile would neatly circumvent any scheme that simply required police registration. Indeed this is what has happened since checks on teachers have become far more rigorous, and so paedophiles now more regularly gain access to children through sports coaching (and there are different regulations depending on the sport) than they do through gaining employment within a school.

All of this must seem a tad pessimistic - almost as if nothing can be done, but nothing can be further from the truth. However, the schemes that really do work at stopping paedophiles from abusing children in the community have nothing to do with naming and shaming, vigilante action, or with allowing single mums to check on the backgrounds of their new boyfriends, but are instead based on a Canadian initiative called Circles of Support and Accountability, which has, over the last four years, quietly taken a foothold here - especially in the Thames Valley.

These schemes demand much more community involvement than simply checking up on the whereabouts of sex offenders who might be living in the neighbourhood. Instead it asks six volunteers to form a circle around a released sex offender and hold him accountable for his actions, whilst also providing him with support and, dare I say it, over time, friendship within the community.

Strange as it may seem, sex offenders newly released from prison are often those very people who have little to lose by reoffending, or who simply do not know how to live within a community without offending. Offer them support, whilst keeping them accountable for how they behave, and their predicted rates of reoffending drop dramatically. Indeed research in Canada about the first 50 circles that were formed there suggests that the predicted rates of re-offending have reduced by over 60%.

Of course the figure 60% implies that some 40% did re-offend, but those who have done so in the Canadian cohort have not in the main reoffended against children, but instead have committed property offences, parole violations or had issues related to drugs and alcohol that brought them into contact with the police. So there are solutions to stopping sex offenders from abusing children in our communities, but these solutions demand us to take a much more positive role than simply checking with the police about who is living in our community, or putting up photocopied posters on lampposts about those we would prefer not to live there at all. The real question is would you be prepared to volunteer to take part in a circle to make your community safer for your kids, or would you prefer to leave it to the politicians and to all the pilot schemes that we know don't work?