Independent Social Worker Lyndon Herring outlines the importance of forensic risk assessors having specialist training and experience for this complex area of work
It is imperative that forensic risk assessments carried out for local authorities or the courts are conducted by trained, specialist professionals.
WillisPalmer Chief Executive Mark Willis says he has been approached many times by professionals claiming to be adept at forensic risk assessments, only to be found lacking in this specialist niche area of social work once questioned further on the issue.
Independent Social Worker Lyndon Herring, who has specialised in this area for the past 23 years, states: “The burden of responsibility is huge. We have potential outcomes such as ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives’. False negatives are where the assessor has under-estimated the level of risk and this can result in children being abused. False positives are where assessors have erred on the side of caution and say that someone is a high risk but no further victims are abused, yet that individual has perhaps missed out on the opportunity to have a family life.
“So far, this has never happened to me. But I wouldn’t do this line of work if I had any self-doubts,” he added.
Furthermore, WillisPalmer would not take on any forensic risk assessments should we not have access to specifically trained and experienced professionals for this complex work, added Mark Willis.
Big step change from the government
Lyndon spent 12 years working in the Prison Service as a senior prison officer, 8 of which at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire where, at the time, they based the prison on a therapeutic community where prisoners engaged in group therapy. It was this therapeutic setting that encouraged Lyndon to change careers. He trained for the Diploma in Social Work, or the Dip SW, with a view to joining the probation service, which he went on to do.
In 1999, Lyndon and his family relocated from Bedfordshire to Derbyshire to enable Lyndon to join the NSPCC’s Dove Project which carried out all of the sex offender work for the Derbyshire Probation Service. “The NSPCC was a good employer who provided thorough training while I gained practical experience with people who were on probation and participating in the group work that was carried out on that treatment programme.”
“The project was for Derbyshire Probation Service and as such my training was provided from the various government departments which had responsibility for probation work including the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, National Offender Management Service and HM Prison and Probation Services,” explained Lyndon.
In 2000-2001, the government made a step change and started taking the treatment of sex offenders much more seriously, whereas prior to that the approach had been very ad hoc, he added. The government developed an accredited training programme and Lyndon trained to be a therapist to deliver the training as well as becoming an accredited treatment manager.
23 years’ experience working with sex offenders
In 2005, Lyndon gained permission to deliver independent social work as well as doing his work for the Dove Project where he continued working until 2012. As such, Lyndon has 23 years’ experience carrying out forensic risk assessments and working with sex offenders and 15 years’ experience as an Independent Social Worker and expert witness specialising in forensic risk assessments.
In fact, Lyndon has received substantial training in the risk assessment of both sexual and violent offenders and he has also been trained to assess non-abusing partners’ abilities to protect children if family reunification or contact applications are being considered.
He has received comprehensive, relevant and up-to-date training from leading specialists in the field including Dr David Thornton, and this training has led to certification in the competent use of the following risk assessment tools:
- SVR 20
- HCR 20
- B SAFER
Lyndon is also registered with the British Psychological Society as qualified to undertake comprehensive assessments of ‘Personality’ using the NEO PI - 3 tool.
As such, Lyndon’s training is vast and specialist – a must-have when it comes to forensic risk assessments.
I can’t cut corners
Forensic risk assessments can be carried out on adult sex offenders to ascertain the level of risk they pose, both male and female, although the proportion of female sex offenders is much lower. The assessments can also be conducted on children and adolescents who display harmful sexual behaviour. Lyndon carries out 95 per cent of his work with adult males aged over 18 and that is where his area of expertise lies. Within that group of men, there are some who have been convicted of sexual offences and others where there have been allegations of sexual offences which remain unsubstantiated.
A typical case for Lyndon might be where an adult male has been convicted of a sexual offence 10 years ago and has served a term of imprisonment. The man then meets a new partner, she becomes pregnant and once seen by ante-natal services, and a health visitor might discover that the woman has a partner who had a conviction for a sexual offence in the past and who has a duty of care to make children’s services aware of the situation. The case could potentially go to court as to whether the man may be a significant risk to the unborn child or any other children the new partner may have.
The courts would sanction a detailed letter of instruction with around six main questions which would need answering, such as, does the man pose a sexual risk to the children in the house, is he more of a danger to boys or girls, pre-pubertal or adolescent children, and what could happen that could potentially trigger a sexual offence. The expert is also often asked to recommend treatment options and to comment upon how risk could potentially be managed in each case.
Firstly, Lyndon would be provided with the court ‘bundle’ which could be two lever-arch files containing up to 1000 pages that he would need to read. “The type of person I am, I can’t cut corners, it is not in my nature and so I guarantee I read every document I am provided with. We are allocated 5-6 hours ‘reading time’, according to the Legal Aid Agency guidance but it can sometimes take double that amount of time to read all the documents, understand the context, take notes and prepare thoroughly for interviewing.”
Some documents are more important than others, however, and Lyndon says the Police National Computer documents which outlines previous convictions is essential viewing. “This process can take a while. With the Data Protection Act, some people are worried about breaching confidentiality. But children could potentially be at risk of sexual harm and so we have to access these records. The Data Protection Act is not a barrier to the sharing of relevant information in these cases”.
Furthermore, victim and witness statements – even when allegations may not have resulted in a conviction – are vitally important.
Angry and aggressive
Once Lyndon has read through all the documents, he prepares an interview schedule for the questions that need to be asked of the individual. He usually schedules two interviews each comprising three hours. During the first interview, he does not mention any sexual offences, purposefully. “I have to get the individual’s whole background from their parents and family of origin, childhood, school education, family, employment and relationship histories etc – their full life story. This encourages the individual to talk about their experiences without talking about any offending behaviour. By the end of those three hours, the tension has gone and they don’t feel like I’m a threat – the ice has been broken. Then during the second interview we concentrate on the more challenging questions.”
“I have been trained in motivational interviewing which is based on building a rapport with someone in a non-judgemental way, where any professional bias is put to one side and you treat the interviewee with respect and empathy and without threatening behaviour. If the interviewee feels it is confrontational, they will back themselves into a corner and you won’t get any information from them.”
“Sometimes you have to allow more time to interview people, particularly if they are defensive or aggressive or if they have a learning disability or cognitive impairment, for example. You have to try and anticipate these things. The vast majority will deny any sexual crimes and, if they do admit to them, they will minimise their responsibility, saying it was a ‘one-off’, ‘an accident’ or ‘the victim is lying’. Some people can be quite open whereas others are angry and aggressive and you have to tread carefully,” he added.
However, Lyndon says that the preconception that sex offenders are especially manipulative, devious and aim to pull the wool over your eyes is unfair as they are no more manipulative than perpetrators of other crimes, although he acknowledges that “no one wants to be labelled as a sex offender”.
70-75 per cent accurate
As part of the risk assessment, the assessor must look at both the risk factors and the strengths or protective factors to ensure the views are balanced as “everyone has strengths”.
“There is no universally agreed template that assessors use, although most people do it in a similar way,” said Lyndon, who uses Risk Matrix 2000, an actuarial instrument devised by leading UK expert in the field, David Thornton. It is a statistically derived risk assessment instrument for use with convicted male sex offenders which provides an estimate of their long term likelihood of reconviction for a sexual or a non-sexual violent offence, assigning individuals to Low, Medium, High and Very High risk categories. Lyndon explains that you put the facts into the algorithm to determine the individual’s risk over a five, ten or fifteen year period.
However, as Lyndon concedes, such tools are at best 70-75 per cent accurate and nothing is fool proof. There is no 100 per cent certainty or accuracy in forensic risk prediction.
Lyndon then uses the Risk for Sexual Violence Protocol or RSVP whereby the assessor uses their professional judgement and experience to determine the level of risk posed by an individual based upon the evidence in relation to a checklist of 22 risk factors. The assessor will make a determination as to whether the risk factors are absent, partially present or definitely present. They will also ascertain whether risk factors were evidenced in the past or are currently still present to look at the whole picture.
To ensure the assessment is balanced, the assessor will also apply the SAPROF tool to address 17 set protective factors and ascertain whether they are present and the more protective factors that are present potentially lowers the risk.
“You have to weigh up the risk factors against the protective factors on the scales of justice, so to speak, to see which way the scales are tipping. I combine the results of the interviews, the Risk Matrix 2000, the RSVP and the results of the protective factors (SAPROF) along with my knowledge, experience and expertise before making a conclusion. I am also qualified to use psychometric questionnaires and personality assessments although not every case requires all of the methods to be utilised.”
Wisdom comes with experience
The Legal Aid Agency would allocate Lyndon 25-30 hours to carry out an assessment of one man or 40 hours if he was required to interview a partner to gauge the level at which she could protect her children. Suffice to say, given this overwhelming and complex amount of work, that Lyndon spends at least 40 hours on a case involving one man and at least 50 hours to assess a couple – and that is as an ISW with 23 years’ experience working with sex offenders.
“I take pride in having high standards and in producing high quality reports and so I am prepared to work for more hours than I am paid,” said Lyndon.
“General social work skills are not adequate in terms of assessing the risk of sexual harm. It is not a specialism in general social work and it is complicated as theories and methods change quite frequently and you have to keep abreast of what is happening in the field. The more work you do in this area, hopefully the better you become as wisdom comes with experience.”
“Even for someone like me with 20 plus years’ experience, there is no absolute certainty in these cases. All humans have an ability to deceive – to dissimulate - and the accuracy of the tools we use is 70-75 per cent and so if the forensic risk assessments are carried out by someone who is not trained specifically in this area, there is a risk that more children could potentially be sexually abused and fewer children could be safeguarded.”
“There is a massive responsibility which comes with this role and if you are not trained specifically and confident in your assessments you are going to come unstuck when you are cross-examined by up to four barristers in cases that reach the family courts”.
“It is imperative that these assessments are carried out by specialist, trained and experienced professionals. It is not for the faint hearted,” Lyndon concluded.