BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

How are female paedophiles rehabilitated?

The Magazine answers...

As Vanessa George, a nursery nurse who has admitted abusing children in her care, is jailed indeterminately, how are female sex offenders treated?

Vanessa George. Pic: Devon and Cornwall Police
Vanessa George: Abused children at nursery

Shocking as her case proved, Vanessa George is not the first woman to be convicted of sexually abusing children, and she won't be the last. The day before George was due in court for sentencing, another woman, Carole Clarke, was jailed indefinitely in Grimbsy for predatory attacks on children over three decades.

But their numbers are still relatively small. Just 59 of the 5,054 people sentenced for all types of sexual offences in 2007, were women. Overall, women have made up just 2% of all sex offenders over the past five years.

On the eve of Vanessa George's sentencing, The Ministry of Justice announced a national female sex offender (FSO) management strategy. It proposes individually tailored treatment programmes that recognise the reasons why a woman commits sexual abuse can be far more complex than for a man.

Very few convicted abusers are women
An international lack of reliable research on what drives women to offend
No consistent or simple reasons for their crimes, no co-ordinated treatement
New national treatment guidelines now promised

Yet until now, FSOs have often been lumped in with male sex offenders when it comes to rehabilitation practices.

When a man is convicted, experts in prison, or the community, use a range of well-established tactics to work out the chances of rehabilitating him. One of these is a deceptively simple questionnaire - the Risk Matrix 2000 (RM 2000). It establishes the danger a man might pose in the years to come based on the wealth of research into how and when men commit sexual abuse.

The questionnaire is also often used on women - a practice which is "just not appropriate" says Sherry Ashfield, head of the female sex offender programme at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity which works with male and female sex offenders.

"We know how to categorise men, whether they are a high, medium or low risk. For women, we don't know what that means. We simply don't know what a high-risk female sex offender looks like," says Ms Ashfield. "A tool like RM 2000, but it is being used because there is nothing else available. Women need to be assessed on an individual basis."

Why do women offend?

One recent study by the US Center for Sex Offender Management found while some women were driven by deviant sexual urges, others offended where they were alongside a man, either because he had egged them on or because they were coerced into taking part. Women appear to be more likely to offend in a situation where they are a carer, rather than hunt out children to abuse.

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Some offenders had been victims themselves, often in childhood. In some cases the woman had lost all concept of right and wrong after a long and abusive relationship with a man that has led to a complete mental breakdown. Many FSOs have been found to suffer from intense depression, low self-esteem or be drug abusers.

So while the predominant factor in many male paedophiles' offending is sexual deviancy - that needs to be clinically assessed and tackled - a woman's offending can be triggered by something far more complex in their history.

Many treatment and management programmes for men involve group work where the offenders talk about what they have done and the steps they are taking to rehabilitate themselves. These sessions can be very powerful in forcing men to think about their abuse and sexual urges. At best, say experts, they create tiny but vital steps on the road to a relatively normal life.

I'm fuming with myself really. I am. Because it's the epitome, isn't it? It's, like, absolutely disgusting
Vanessa George, interviewed by detectives

But in similar sessions for women, some feel they are not listened to, says Ms Ashfield. "Not in a literal sense but in the sense that they are not hearing what they are saying. It's their lack of experience of how to deal with this kind of behaviour.

"The woman is struggling to make sense of the things she has done, something that is very bad but also something that society finds difficult to deal with because a woman did it."

Monitoring in the community

This is where Circles of Support and Accountability come in.

These are groups of volunteers which help an offender when they return to the community. Each circle aims to support the offender's attempts to stay on the straight and narrow - but also to act as the early warning system for police and probation officers.

They are exceptionally intensive schemes that quietly draw on the time and energy of highly-trained volunteers across the country.

Rebekah Saunders, who heads the Circles for the Hampshire and Thames Valley area, and has 120 helpers, has dealt with three female sex offenders. While some FSOs are predatory, others act because of coercion, she says.

I found it hard to even say it was sexual abuse because of the way society views mothers, and quite rightly - 99% are loving but I was just unlucky to get one that wasn't

"In each case we have to find a different approach," says Ms Saunders.

But even when the root cause of the woman's offending has been identified, it is hard to get society to take the problem seriously, she says.

"I have seen two extremes. Either people minimise the risk she poses because of their own disbelief. People sometimes just want to dress up the offending as a relationship thing - such as some of the press reporting around female teachers who have abused pupils.

"The other extreme is demonisation of a women [which obstructs treatment]. Circles have seen situations where an agency has not been willing to work with a female offender in the way they would do if she had been a man."

Critically, says Ms Saunders, social alienation of an offender can be a trigger to reoffending.

"The biggest challenge is working on resettlement because of public opinion," she says. "People who come out of prison will isolate themselves because they think they are safer. But it's just feeding into their low mood state.

"We try to target that loneliness and low self-esteem because it can be a trigger to reoffending."

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Telegraph Paedophile Vanessa George may never be let out of prison - 58 mins ago Vanessa George jailed indefinitely - 10 hrs ago
The Independent Women jailed for child abuse at day nursery - 11 hrs ago
Times Online Vanessa George and the evil that women do - 12 hrs ago

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