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Monday, July 19, 1999 Published at 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK


Housing paedophiles: Behind the headlines

Serious offenders released from prison need stable housing, say experts

Housing has become a political minefield in recent years.

The care in the community policy has led to neighbourhood campaigns against the mentally ill and others released after long stays in hospital.

Anti-social neighbours have also won acres of headlines.

But housing paedophiles and other serious offenders in the community after their release from prison is perhaps the most emotive subject.

[ image:  ]
The debate over a scheme to house ex-offenders deemed still a risk to the public in flats in Nottingham Prison has sparked mass protests.

But housing experts in England argue that the public is safer when such offenders are in highly supervised schemes.

A spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) said: "We have to recognise that housing is an integral part of rehabilitation.

"Research shows that ex-offenders who have not got a stable place to go to are more likely to be involved in crime again.

"It is not just about having a roof over your head. It is about having the stability so you can focus on rehabilitation."

Informing the public

One of the key issues is whether to inform the public about individuals who are housed in their midst.

A spokeswoman for the National Housing Federation, the umbrella group for housing associations, said "a fine line" had to be trodden between protecting the individual's right to confidentiality and ensuring public safety.

"It is about how you manage risk. Should people have a right to know specific offenders are living near them?

"We do not always know who we are living next to.

[ image: People are worried about paedophiles living in their midst]
People are worried about paedophiles living in their midst
"It is an ethical problem. If you have committed a crime, can you ever be expiated or are you damned for ever?

"Do we live in a society where we believe in rehabilitation? If we are inclusive we have to embrace people who may have offended, but we have to think of the victims too."

Home Office guidelines say disclosure should be "an exception to a general policy of confidentiality".

A recent report by the University of Salford says many agencies lack the confidence to work with sex offenders.

But with more education, they become convinced of how important supervised housing can contribute to public safety.

They argue that it is important that a large spread of agencies take on sex offenders to avoid the danger of them being concentrated in particular areas.

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has issued its own guidelines to housing agencies, advising them not to go for blanket bans on certain groups of people, like sex offenders, although housing legislation may allow this.

It says each case should be judged on its own merits.

Housing organisations say the issue of housing paedophiles can be so emotive that they need advice on how to handle public scares.

[ image:  ]
David Fotheringham, policy manager at the CIH, said: "It is one of the things authorities need to think about.

"It tends to take people by surprise and it would be useful if authorities started thinking about disaster planning, including moving the person to another property and liaising with the public."

He added that organisations dealing with paedophiles needed to do more to educate the public about the nature of sex offending.

"A lot of attention goes to a small number of high profile cases, but children are more at risk from people they know.

"We need to raise their awareness so they can keep themselves safe. Otherwise there is a danger we create a false sense of security."

Risk assessment

Nacro manages a number of housing projects for ex-offenders, including people convicted of murder, rape and paedophilia.

These range from hostels with very high levels of supervision to houses with three of our bedrooms which are only visited once a week by a support worker.

All residents undergo a risk assessment and the purpose is to help them adjust to life on the outside before they can move back into the community.

"Long-term prisoners have often forgotten how to live as an independent person in the community. They have become institutionalised," said a spokesman.

"The reoffending rate with life sentence prisoners is very, very low. The problem is not usually reoffending, but things like learning to balance a budget and other very basic things."

Nacro projects also offer education and training.

The association's policy is to be open about the overall purpose of its housing projects, which have to be submitted to local authority planning meetings for approval.

"We don't believe in hiding and pretending that what is going on is not going on," said a spokesman.

"Communication has an important role to play in reassuring people. But individual offenders are entitled to some privacy."

The spokesman added that the type of predatory paedophiles who will be housed in Nottingham Prison are "very, very rare".

Personality disorder

Nacro and other housing agencies are "cautiously supportive" of the Nottingham plans, but Nacro says it is important that treatment continues after release if offenders are still deemed a risk to the public.

[ image: Housing expert says murders by mentally ill people, like Christopher Clunis, are rare]
Housing expert says murders by mentally ill people, like Christopher Clunis, are rare
"They tend to have a lot of warped perceptions of their victims, like rapists. They often have a warped perception of child sexuality, like people who abuse women think they want or deserve it.

"Treatments that challenge that can be successful."

Nacro says psychiatrists are split on the effectiveness of treating people with personality disorders.

It says that is why other professionals, such as child and behavioural psychologists, should be brought on board.

"They are able to bring a different way of seeing things."

It is concerned government's plans, to be fleshed out later this month, to introduce indeterminate sentences for people with serious personality disorders could permanently write them off.

Nacro says the proportion of murders carried out by people with a mental disorder, such as community care patients or people with personality disorders, has been exaggerated by the media.

Of around 2,000 murders in England and Wales between 1991 and 1993, only 34 were by people with a diagnosed mental disorder.

"We have to keep it in perspective," said the spokesman, although he added that public concern was understandable.

He said that, for sex offenders, there was already stiff legislation to keep those deemed a risk to the public under control.

For example, those on the sex offenders register can have a restraining order put on them if they are seen loitering in public places.

Joint working

All the housing agencies agree that communication breakdowns between agencies responsible for supervising ex-offenders can undermine public confidence in the system.

David Fotheringham says the CIH is "very disappointed" that there are no comprehensive national guidelines on how agencies should work together to support and monitor ex-offenders.

"Some agencies are working well together, but it is very ad hoc at the moment," he said.

Another problem - as with community care - is lack of resources and heavy caseloads.

Nacro says providing proper support in the community would be cheaper than returning people to prison.

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