Multi Agency Work With Sex Offenders In Northern Ireland


1. Introduction

Sex offenders have become the subject of considerable and growing public concern. There are a number of reasons for this, a greater openness in society which means that victims are more willing to report sexual offences, and a better understanding on the part of the public of the harmful effects of such offences. These factors together with a small number of very serious and well publicised cases have combined to make the public less tolerant of sex offending and to demand more action both from government and the organisations dealing with sex offenders.

The objectives of this publication are:

to share the known facts about sex offenders (sections 2&3);

to outline new multi agency procedures which seek to reduce the sex offender's opportunity and potential to re-offend and thus afford greater public protection (section 4);

to explain the current legal framework for dealing with sex offenders (section 5);

to describe the work that is being carried out to identify, monitor and treat sex offenders in order to reduce the probability of re-offending (appendices 1-3);

2. How Serious a Problem Is Sex Offending?

The number of sexual offences recorded in Northern Ireland has almost doubled in recent years, increasing from 779 in 1988 to 1444 in 1997. The greatest increases have been in reported offences of indecent assault on females, incest, buggery and unlawful camal knowledge. The reported rate of sexual offending in Northern Ireland is about twice that of England and Wales. This has been the case since the 1960s.

Despite these figures it is important to bear in mind that sexual offences continue to represent less than 4% of all recorded offences in Northern Ireland.

Breakdown of Sexual Offences recorded by the police 1997.

Sexual offences category (includes attempts)


Indecent Assault on a female

Indecent Assault on a male

Indecency to children


Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

Other Sex Crimes

Number recorded










Females are more likely than males to be the victims of rape, unlawful carnal knowledge, incest and indecent assault. Males are more likely than females to be the victims of buggery. Similar numbers of male and female children are the victims of gross indecency.

Sexual offences against children and young persons are most commonly committed by offenders known to the victim. Family and friends including neighbours and babysitters account for the largest number of known offences. The most common "close relationship" is father followed by brother, uncle, step-parent, and cousin. Significant numbers of offences are also committed by people with positions of responsibility for young people such as teachers, youth leaders and clergymen.

The main responsibility for protecting children must lie with individual parents. They must be alert to any possibility of their children being sexually abused and be prepared to take the necessary steps to protect them. Certainly if a child claims to have suffered some form of abuse, such as inappropriate touching, the child should be listened to. If parents or relatives have concerns, they should not be afraid to talk them over with the Social Services. Sexual abuse will not go away by being ignored, indeed it is likely to become more serious.

The overwhelming majority of sex offenders are male; female sex offenders are usually, but not invariably, involved in subsidiary co-abuser roles. However some researchers believe that many more women are involved in the sexual abuse of children than the figures suggest. Under-reporting may be due to unwillingness to accept that women can be sexually abusive.

Sex offending is not confined to an easily identified group of people. There is no such thing as a "typical sex offender." Moreover, as the figures demonstrate, despite public perceptions, convicted sex offenders account for only a small proportion of detected offences. There are many more offences which are not reported by victims.

Court disposals for offenders found guilty of sexual offences in 1997


Immediate Custody

Suspended Custody

Community Supervision




Indecent Assault(female)

Indecent Assault(male) Indecency to Children


Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

Other Sex Crimes














































Out of the sentenced prison population about 9% are sex offenders.

Sex offending represents a serious public health issue. It is central to the Government's approach both that sex offenders should be made accountable for their actions and that the potential for offending or re-offending be minimised. However, treating sex offenders as "monsters" does not help protect the public. It may prevent potential sex offenders coming forward at an early stage to seek help, before they commit an offence. It may also discourage child victims who are being abused by a parent, but who are concerned about what will happen to the parent. They do not wish their family to be broken up; they just want the abuse to stop.

The families and victims of convicted sex offenders have often been put under pressure by members of the public who seem to feel that they are in some way to blame for the abuse. At a time when families and victims are already having to cope with the consequences of the crime, this type of harassment, either verbal or physical, is both cruel and unacceptable. In particular it makes it much more difficult to help individuals and families to deal with abuse in ways that are most acceptable to them and which hold out the best chance of stopping re-offending in the future.

3. Current Knowledge About Sex Offenders

Work with sex offenders in prison and probation settings has increased substantially in recent years. There are a number of reasons for this. Not only has there been an increase in public concern about sex offenders, especially with regard to the sexual abuse of children, and greater public openness and discussion of the subject, but there has been the development of a number of programmes which seem able to reduce the risk that some sex offenders present to the public.

An example of this is recently published research by the West Midlands Probation Service regarding their community based sex offender programme. This showed a 3.2% sex offender re-conviction rate during the two years after attendance at the programme, compared with a 10.6% rate for a matched group of sex offenders who did not attend the programme.

Sexual offending is now viewed by workers in the field as a form of compulsive and obsessional behaviour. It involves:

1. High levels of planning including the selection and preparation of victims (grooming ). Offenders work out a strategy both to enable the abuse to take place and to avoid detection afterwards.

2. Distorted thinking patterns, by "blaming the victim". Sex offenders may seek to minimise their responsibility for their actions by persuading themselves that their victim either deserves or wants to be subjected to their sexual attentions.

3. Spending a lot of time fantasising about their planned and previous offences, going through the abuse in their mind and then starting to act out parts of it, building up towards carrying out the whole offence.

Sex offending is now viewed as a cyclical process with offenders targeting their victims, de-personalising them through fantasy and distorted thinking, sometimes even rehearsing part of the offence and building up to the offence itself. This "cycle of abus&' is not fully worked through by all offenders, in all cases, but the model provides a useful framework within which sex offending can be understood and interpreted. A programme of work can then be developed to try and reduce the probability of offending in the future.

We now have a greater knowledge of how to assess and manage the risk that sex offenders present. Many sexual offences are no longer viewed as "one off' impulsive offences. Instead research work with convicted sex offenders, particularly those who offend against children (paedophiles), suggests that that many of them may have been caught for only a small proportion of the offences they have carried out. Research also suggests that it is not possible to "cure" sex offenders and that they must always be viewed as presenting some risk. The aim of those working with sex offenders is to manage the risk that they present to the public. This includes putting sex offenders through treatment programmes to:- get them to understand the effects of their behaviour on their victims help them manage their own offending by understanding the hurt and damage caused to their victims understand that the victims have no responsibility whatsoever for the abusers' actions. teach them to recognise the "cycle of abuse" in their own actions and to use this knowledge to control their future behaviour.

This work is difficult. Many sex offenders have very entrenched attitudes. They do not easily accept responsibility for their actions, minimise the harm they have done and are well practised in deceit. If they do reach a stage whereby they acknowledge responsibility for their actions and the harm they have caused, they may find it difficult to live with this knowledge and may seek to harm themselves. On the other hand, some offenders will tell the police of other offences for which they have not been charged in order to get the punishment that they feel they deserve and so facilitate a fresh start.

Workers with sex offenders have noted that many offenders were sexually abused themselves as children. It is believed that this is an important factor in why they go on to abuse others. The reasons for this are not well understood: most children who have been abused do not go on to become abusers. However it is known that some types of sexual abuse, especially of children, will be passed on from generation to generation unless workers are able to break the chain through successful treatment.

There is now a range of treatment programmes for sex offenders throughout Northern Ireland. None of them can be regarded as a soft option for offenders and some of them incorporate the latest thinking on the best ways to work with these offenders. They are expensive and involve highly trained and experienced staff doing a difficult and, at times, unpleasant job. Between them, these programmes and workers hold out the best hope for reducing the incidence of sex offending in the future and protecting the public.

Some of these programmes are further described in appendices 1-3.

4. Proposed Multi-Agency Procedures for Risk Assessment and Risk Management

For many years inter agency co-operation between the social services, police, probation service, medical services, education services and other agencies has been the means of protecting children. Effective procedures require the involvement of all relevant agencies working in a co-operative manner with clearly ascribed roles and responsibilities .

The Sex Offender Act 1997 requires the key statutory organisations involved with sex offenders to co-operate more closely and to build on existing relationships. The key agencies are the police, prison service, probation service and social services. These agencies are now required to work together to identify, monitor and treat sex offenders on the basis of the risk that they present.

To meet these new demands a multi-agency working party was set up which included the key agencies together with representatives from the education sector, the health service, housing and the voluntary sector. The working party drew on expertise within Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and on the latest research findings. As a result, new organisational structures and procedures which are applicable throughout Northern Ireland and which are intended to offer as much protection as is possible to victims and potential victims, have been produced. These procedures also seek, for the first time, to extend protection to adult victims.

The procedures also address the issue of information sharing and contain guidelines on which bodies should be informed of a known sex offender in their area, when they should be informed, and by whom.

Effective work with sex offenders necessitates a multi-disciplinary approach. Interagency working is vital and requires both formal protocols governing the exchange of information and the development of effective information systems. The exchange of accurate and appropriate information about sex offenders by all the agencies involved will reduce the risk of harm to children and the public.

It is not always necessary to provide information to the public in every case, but the new guidelines do provide for information sharing where members of the community are considered to be at risk.

These new procedures which focus on the offender and the action which is required to reduce their risk of re-offending are summarised as follows:

The first point of contact will be the police who deal with alleged offenders at the investigation stage. Sex offenders identified by the police will be subject to a sifting device which has been developed by a psychologist who has considerable experience and expertise in dealing with sex offenders. The sifting device involves collecting information on a range of factors relating to the current offence and with any previous offences. Cases are then classified in one of three categories based on the risk that they currently present - "high risk", "medium risk" and "low risk".

Risk classification is defined as follows:

High Risk - "someone whose sexual offending has been assessed as currently likely to lead them to seriously harm other people"

Medium Risk - "someone whose behaviour gives cause for clear concern with regard to their capacity to carry out a contact sexual offence"

Low Risk - someone whose behaviour gives no current cause for concern with regard to their capacity to seriously harm other people or carry out a contact sexual offence"

Very few cases in Northern Ireland are considered to be in the high risk category, although these are the cases that the public is most likely to hear about. Those cases that are classified high risk will be subject to a multi-agency sex offender conference or, if there is no immediate risk (e.g. if the offender is in prison), a multi agency risk assessment/management meeting which will include the police, probation service, prisons, social services and any other relevant agencies. The conference will produce a plan to manage the risk that the offender presents and designate a risk manager to ensure that the plan is carried out or, if not carried out, that further action is taken. The plan will, include a range of measures to reduce the risk to an acceptable level including. regular monitoring and a programme of treatment. If it is considered necessary the case meeting can decide that the public should be informed about the potential risk presented by a particular offender. For this to happen, however, it has to be shown that there is no other better way to protect the public.

Medium risk category cases are more common in Northern Ireland. The category includes offenders who, "groom" children over a period of time in order to minimise the risk of being caught. Offenders in this category will also be referred to a multi-agency sex offender assessment/management meeting for a full assessment. As a result of this assessment they may be the subject of a risk management plan and a risk manager will be allocated to ensure the plan is carried out. Again the plan will include a range of measures including regular monitoring and a programme of' treatment. If the offender refuses to co-operate with the risk management plan, the multi agency risk assessment/management meeting will decide on what other measures are necessary to prevent re-offending.

All high and medium risk sex offenders will be monitored and reviewed for as long as they are considered to present a risk to the public. This will happen whether or not they are in prison. The strength of the new system is that the information will follow offenders, allowing greater opportunity to reduce the risk that offenders present, no matter where they are. The Prison Service, which deals with the majority of the most dangerous offenders, will be working closely with the police and probation services and will seek to apply their treatment resources to the highest risk offenders.

The lowest classification of cases which are assessed as presenting no current risk will still be subject to police attention as necessary unless there is reason to revise the existing risk assessment.

It is also accepted that these procedures will work best with the full co-operation of offenders. To that end procedures are based on treating offenders as individuals and envisages the fullest possible involvement of offenders including sharing as much information with offenders as is safe and appropriate at each stage of the process. Treating offenders as individuals also means taking steps to treat them fairly and to respect their rights. This is particularly relevant in circumstances where individuals have not been convicted.

The public can help in dealing with the problems presented by sex offenders by being sure that they know where their children are, and with whom; by being alert to the possibility of sexual abuse; and being prepared to approach the social services or the police if they suspect that such abuse is taking place., The public can be assured that their fears will be taken seriously and any concerns will be properly investigated. What the public should not do is victimise any individual they believe to be a sex offender. In many cases in the past innocent people have been wrongly assumed to be sex offenders. In other cases where a sex offender who is living in the community has been victimised, the effect of this action has been to disrupt a treatment programme which had taken a lot of time to set up and which was starting to show results.

5. The Legal Framework for Dealing with Sex Offenders

This section sets out the legal framework for dealing with sex offenders. Convicted sex offenders can receive a range of sentences.

A significant proportion are sent to prison by the Courts. In prison, a sex offender may be offered a place on a sex offender programme. The programme is lengthy and rigorous, and the offender needs to be well motivated to complete the programme. However, attendance cannot be compulsory and participation in the programme does not lead to earlier release.

Sex offenders may opt to undergo work on their offending after release from prison and, if they wish to have the possibility of return to their families, social services may insist on it. There is no statutory basis for this work, which is voluntary for the offender. Similarly, if a sex offender receives a suspended prison sentence, he or she is not required to undergo any treatment, although they may well do so voluntarily.

A minority of sex offenders are sentenced to supervision in the community. They are required to consent to this and the probation officer will expect them to agree to undertake work in order to prevent them from re-offending. A probation order can last for up to 3 years. If an offender gives his/her consent to a probation order, he/she may be required to participate in a programme of work to address their sex offending. If they fail- to do so they Can he returned to court and either be punished in such a way as to enable the probation order to continue, or be sentenced for the original offence. A probation order may include a condition that the offender keep away from schools and nurseries. A programme of treatment may also be offered as part of an ordinary probation order.

In addition to the sentence, the law places further obligations, both on sex offenders and the statutory sector.

The Criminal Justice ( Northern Ireland ) Order 1996 which came into force on 1 January 1999 introduced a new court power to enable sentencers to require the extended supervision of sex offenders on licence after the date of their release from prison. Offenders who fail to co-operate are liable to be returned to prison for up to six months.

The Sex Offenders Act 1997 which came into force in Northern Ireland on 1 September 1997, introduced a compulsory register of sex offenders. All convicted and cautioned sex offenders who have committed an offence covered by the Act must register their address with the police and also any change 6-f--n-m-ne or address. This legislation enables closer monitoring of known sex offenders living in the community.

Failure to comply with this requirement is punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

The same legislation introduced the custody probation order, whereby offenders (including sex offenders) can receive combined custodial and supervisory sentences.

The Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 can also be applied to sex offenders, particularly where a previous victim is being threatened by a sex offender.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 parts of which apply to Northern Ireland enables new provisions which allow the police to apply to the civil courts for a Sex Offender Order to be imposed on any previously convicted or cautioned sex offender, whose behaviour in the community gives the police cause for concern. These orders prohibit certain forms of behaviour, for example, the courts can ban sex offenders from particular schools and other areas which are perceived as high risk. A breach of the order, is a criminal offence.

There is a legal duty on the police and probation services to inform social services of the whereabouts of any Schedule 1 offenders against children. Schedule 1 includes sex offenders. ( Circular 3/96 )

Over the last few years the law in relation to sex offenders has been strengthened considerably as a response to public concerns. The key organisations in the criminal justice field who work to protect the public have been given greater powers to do their job. It is important that these organisations now work together to share information, assess and manage the risk that sex offenders present.


Work with convicted sex offenders in the community

The Alderwood centre was set up in 1992 as a partnership between the Probation Board, Social Services and the NSPCC. The project provides group work and individual programme's for offenders and support services for the partners of offenders. Over 200 offenders have been referred to the centre and of these 120 (60% ) have been provided with long term treatment programmes.

The programme is based on three stages, assessment, intervention and relapse prevention. It lasts for one year, with offenders attending once a week in the daytime or evening.

The key task of the Alderwood Centre is to protect victims. Potential participants have to go through a rigorous assessment procedure before being accepted on the programme and it may be that the programme uncovers factors which indicate higher levels of risk than was otherwise known and which will be acted upon.

An important element in the programme is "relapse prevention" which is not centre based although it may include recall days to the centre. Relapse prevention work is carried out with the offender in the community. It focuses on helping the offender to apply what they have learned about controlling their behaviour.

The Alderwood programme also runs support groups for the partners of any offender attending the programme. These meet once a fortnight and are run by the partners themselves as a self-help group.

The objectives and methods of the Alderwood programme

1. To establish an inter-agency model of management an practice in every case.

This objective recognises the importance of managing the risk that sex offenders present in a multi-agency context, with good communication between agencies, clearly defined areas of responsibility and joint decision making in areas of risk management.

2. To increase the effectiveness of the offender's network of internal controls.

Part of the "cycle of abuse" involves sex offenders overcoming their internal inhibitors (e.g. guilt and fear) to enable them to carry out the offence. The programme gets offenders to identify the ways of thinking which enable them to deny, minimise or divert blame away from themselves. These attitudes are challenged directly within the group as part of the process of getting offenders to accept responsibility for their behaviour, this challenging process gradually breaks down the "lie to yourself" mechanisms that some sexual offenders have built up over many years so that internal controls start to re-emerge.

3. To evidence the offender's ownership of the behaviour which resulted in his/her offences.

By participating openly and honestly in the programme and by being prepared to accept full responsibility for their offences offenders are able to demonstrate that they can face up to the reality of their abusive behaviour. It may be that some offenders will admit to offences that they have not been charged with previously because they have come to feel guilt for their actions. In these circumstances, the RUC would be informed and an investigation carried out with a view to prosecution.

4. To evidence opportunities for offenders to develop alternative lifestyles.

In order to support changes in offending behaviour and to sustain them in the longer term, offenders often need to make radical changes in their lifestyle. A lifestyle programme is provided to help offenders develop new skills, interests and understandings which will help them to support a non offending lifestyle.

This may include in, some cases specialised work on drug and/or alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse does not cause sex offending but can act as a disinhibitor to enable the offender to reduce his inhibitions and so facilitate the offence taking place.

5. To evidence the offender's ability to interrupt and control inappropriate sexual arousal.

Another part of the "cycle of abuse" is arousal and motivation to offend. There is a lot of evidence that sex offenders consciously work on developing inappropriate arousal and fantasy patterns over prolonged periods of time as a way of overcoming their inhibitions to carry out their sexual offences. Sexual arousal is learned behaviour and is controllable. More suitable outlets for sexual expression can be developed. A key element in effective work with sex offenders is for them to take responsibility for their own fantasies and arousal patterns, and to change them to fit in what is legally permitted. Evidence that they are doing so is sought through individual structured interviews.

6. To evidence substantial progress towards the achievement of victim empathy.

The development of an important internal inhibitor for sex offenders can be achieved by teaching them to personalise their victim(s), so they can have some insight into the harm and pain that they have caused in committing the offence(s). Work is done with the group and with the individual to get them to understand how it feels to be a victim and what the consequences are for their victim(s). The effects of sexual abuse can often last for the rest of the victims life. It is not easy to get anyone to accept full moral responsibility for hurting another person, because they have to live with themselves and the hurt they have caused afterwards and it is not something that they can put right. Unless the offender is able to develop genuine empathy and remorse for what they have done, they will continue to be a risk to the public.

7. To evidence the offender's ability to identify and challenge his/her own distorted belief systems.

The ability of a sex offender to apply what they have learned on the programme to their own actions ( transferability ) is crucial to the successful outcome of the programme and has to be demonstrated by the offender in both the individual work and the group work.

8. To evidence the offender's appropriate handling of his/her particular risk situations..

A key part of the "cycle of abuse" model involves overcoming external inhibitors anything that obstructs access to the victim ). Ways in which a paedophile may gain access to a potential victim may include cohabiting with the mother, finding employment that gives access to children, offering to child mind, and befriending, coaxing, bribing and threatening the victim. Sex offenders who have been through the programme are expected to accept that they have what is, in effect, an addiction and they have a responsibility not to place themselves in situations where they may have the opportunity or the temptation to carry out further offences. If they still have a partner they will be expected to disclose to them the offences in detail, their particular pattern of offending and discuss their risky situations, where risk may occur.

9. To evidence the offender's increased knowledge and belief in appropriate facts, attitudes and values about human sexuality.

Part of the programme involves the provision of sexual education to offenders getting them to reflect more widely on the purpose and use of their own sexuality.

10. To evidence the offender's increased ability to appropriately meet his/her social and sexual needs in adult relationships.

The overall objective of the programme is to enable sex offenders to have normal, legal and satisfying adult relationships including sexual relationships.


The prison based programme

The prison based programme is based on cognitive behavioural methods and is delivered in a group work format. The programme being used has been validated internationally as being likely to reduce offending. It was originally developed by prison psychologists in England and has been in use in Northern Ireland for about four years. The programme is delivered by specially selected and trained staff including prison officers, psychologists and probation officers and takes a year to complete.

Sex offenders are given prison sentences more often than they are given any other sentence, and prisons deal with the most serious and dangerous offenders. However not all sex offenders in prison can avail of programmes while they are in prison. In particular many will serve too short a time in prison after conviction (time spent in prison awaiting trial counts towards the sentence served). This underlines the importance of a multi agency approach which enables work to continue after release.

The stated aim of the sex offender programme is to "contribute to victim reduction of sexual offenders by reducing the risk of re-offending following participation on the programme."

The objectives and methods of the prison based sex offender programme.

1. To establish a multi-disciplinary model of management and practice in dealing with sex offenders.

2. To undermine the beliefs, perceptions and arguments (cognitive distortions which offenders use to give themselves permission to offend.

3. To increase offenders empathy with the suffering they cause their victims.

4. To increase offenders awareness of the recurrent patterns (decision chain/offence cycle of events,), feelings, thoughts, and behaviours which lead to a high risk of offending..

5. To plan and rehearse ways of avoiding these recurrent patterns or breaking out of them when they are recognised ( Relapse Prevention ).

6. To prepare offenders to recover from failures of self-control(Relapse Prevention)

The programme is delivered in 20 blocks which incorporate much learning and relearning of key elements which are applied to each participant's offending, covering very similar subject matter to the Alderwood programme. The concept of a decision chain involves breaking down a complex piece of behaviour such as a sexual offence into all the decisions that the offender made to enable them to carry out the offence. At each point in the chain the offender could have chosen another course of action which would have stopped the offence from taking place. The use of decision chains focus the offender's attention on their individual responsibility for their actions and also enables them to think of and practice alternative courses of action which will help them to control their behaviour in the future. Offenders are also encouraged to cope with making mistakes when they are seeking to control their own risk factors and to keep a regular risk diary as a way of reflecting on and seeking to control their behaviour.


Other programmes available for sex offenders

The Western Health and Social Services Board runs the Erne House project in Omagh which deals mainly with the Tyrone and Fermanagh area. The programme is based on cognitive behaviourism but also focuses on the experiences that perpetrators have often had of being abused themselves. Erne House is not specifically for convicted offenders and will take unconvicted abusers.

The NSPCC, Probation Board and the Southern Health and Social Services Board run a specialist service for juvenile sex offenders. This service was set up following a report to the Board in 1993. All the referrals are currently male. An allegation of sexual abuse is sufficient for a referral to be made, but for work to proceed further the alleged perpetrators must be prepared to admit their abusive behaviour. Much emphasis is put on developing a multi agency agreement for case management and the co-operation of the perpetrators' parents with the work is also required. During the period 1995-1997, the project had 56 referrals, out of which 6 refused to participate in the programme.

The juvenile sex offender programme.

The assessment phase will, take a minimum of 6 weeks and in many cases much longer. Following this an individualised treatment programme is worked out which could include attendance at a sex offender group. The group work takes up 24-25 weekly sessions after which the case is reassessed and further individual work may be undertaken. There is evaluation undertaken by a psychologist who administers a number of psychometric tests before and after the work has been carried out to assess whether any change in the young person's attitude, controls and behaviour has taken place. The sort of changes that can be measured are offender impulsivity, offender ability to control their behaviour, increases in knowledge and awareness and victim empathy.

Copies of this report and further information about it can be obtained from:

Criminal Policy Branch
Massey House
Stormont Estate