Helping sex offenders stop offending

A pioneering German project works with people with a sexual interest in children to help them control their urges and prevent them offending.

The problem of what to do about self- acknowledged sex offenders outside of the criminal justice system is worldwide and, so far, solutions have been thin on the ground.

All eyes have been on Germany, where a pioneering project works with people with a sexual interest in children to help them control their urges and prevent them offending or, at least, reoffending.

The Dunkelfeld (Darkfield) Project began in 2005 in Berlin and is now run in 11 centres across the country, offering a mix of therapies and medical treatments, free and confidentially.

Its asks one very simple preliminary question of prospective clients: Do you like children in ways you shouldn’t? 

Those who answer yes include people with paedophile desires who have never acted on them, those who have not gone beyond viewing child pornography, and those who have directly abused.

The next question is: Do you want to stop? In its first few years, the project was getting a new client every week and the total currently runs to many hundreds so it seems there are many ready to answer in the affirmative.

They are undoubtedly encouraged to seek help by the empathetic tone of the project’s advertising and awareness campaigns which are based around the slogan: “No-one is to blame for their sexual preference but everyone is responsible for their own behaviour.”

The project’s policy of anonymity appeals too — clients don’t have to give their name but are assigned a personal identity number to link them to their files.

There is a critical difference between Germany and Ireland — and much of Europe, the US, and Australia too — however, in that Germany does not have mandatory reporting laws, so those who come forward do so in the comfort that they won’t be turned over to the police.

Still, other countries feel there is something to be gain from the ‘reach out with empathy’ approach.

In the UK, the Stop It Now charity has a confidential helpline for those at risk of offending, or reoffending, as well as online information and exercises to help them assess and control their behaviour.

At such arm’s length, it is limited in what it can do, and it warns that if any identifying information is imparted, it is obliged to pass it on to the police.

However, for someone who needs to talk about the fact that they have sexual thoughts towards children, there are few if any other outlets open to them.

Stop It Now is also in the US, where a dedicated confidential phoneline is also available with advice on how to get therapy and a lawyer to talk through the likely consequences of coming forward with an admission of abuse.

Europol have tried a similar tack, reaching out to users of online child pornography. Accessing pornography on certain peer-to-peer networks activated a police message, urging the user to seek help from whatever source available in their country. Users accessing from Ireland were directed to One in Four’s Phoenix Programme.

Detective Superintendent Declan Daly applauds the effort.

“If somebody has a sexual interest in children and feels they may engage in a crime, if that person can recognise that and get help then it saves an awful lot of pain and suffering because the scars of a sexual assault or rape are something that a victim will carry with them all the time,” he says.

However, the consensus among people working in the field is that we could be doing a lot more.

Mary Tallon is a senior social worker with the Northside Inter-Agency Partnership (NIAP) which works with teenagers who have sexually offended, and is also chairwoman of the Irish branch of NOTA, the UK-based National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers. 

She feels very strongly that there should be more preventative and therapeutic initiatives for offenders and would-be offenders.

“Our mission statement is prevention so whether or not they [clients] come before the courts, from a child protection point of view, there has to be a response,” says Ms Tallon. 

“I think people can get hung up on the legal side and feel that if there isn’t a court trial or there isn’t a custodial sentence, then justice isn’t served.

“But justice to me can mean something very different to what it means to you. Often the offence takes place within the family and when that happens, the victim’s main concern may be that they want the offender to be sorry and they want them not to do it again.”

A victim may also want the offender to remain part of the family — a reminder of the massive complexities that arise from abuse within the family and the difficulty of selling a complex solution to policy makers.

“Funding doesn’t tend to come very generously to this area of work because it’s not attractive and because most people would say the priority for funding should be the victims’ groups,” says Ms Tallon.

“In our programme, we’re on a shoestring because people think, why would you fund that when you need to fund victims’ services, which I totally get. But if I’m about prevention and if I don’t work with a young person to stop him doing it again, you’re going to be paying more in the long run.

“If I was to invite you in to see our waiting room here, you’d see our families come from every walk of life — from working class to business people to self-employed to unemployed — and from every single culture.

“It’s like a public health problem because of the harm it does to the victim psychologically and emotionally and to their physical health often as well, and also to the health of the perpetrator’s family because this is a devastating thing to happen in a family.”

Victims, offenders, and family members can contact One in Four on 01-6624070. NIAP is on 01-8782790.

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