Working with adult perpetrators of sexual harm is not for the faint hearted, says Diane Wills who has recently been appointed to quality assure the forensic risk assessments written by WillisPalmer professionals.
Diane admits she’s always been interested in “the dark side of life” and says when a stranger asks what she does for a living, she usually provides a standard response of “working in criminology”.
“If someone persists and asks what that means, and I say that I work with sex offenders, they will usually be horrified or really interested,” she adds.
Originally trained as a Probation Officer, Diane is an Independent Social Worker, and a practitioner in social work and criminology. She is commissioned by the Prison Service as a therapist to run the Healthy Sexual Programme, is a practice educator at Plymouth University, the Deputy Chair of Circles South West and has broadcasting experience as ‘local expert’ on regional and national television and radio representing this organisation. Diane undertakes private work and, along with her academic husband, wrote a book: ‘The Practical Guide to working with Sex Offenders’ which was published last year. She is also now training as a psychotherapist at the Tavistock clinic and this has and continues to influence her analytical thinking.
Tendency for extremes
Diane has a plethora of experience in both social work and criminology. She graduated 20 years ago and prior to and during her studies, she worked part-time at the Emergency Duty Team in Essex. “Although it was an administration role, we took a lot of calls providing advice and information to clients and other agencies regarding emergency duty procedures and legislation and it was a really good grounding,” she says.
Encouraged by her manager, who suspected Diane would be a brilliant probation officer, she studied for the Diploma in Probation Studies, comprising BA (Hons) Community Justice, and NVQ Level 4 Community Justice (work with offending behaviour). “When I was training, I knew I wanted to work with serious offenders,” she said, adding that she “has a slight tendency for extremes”.
Diane worked her way up the ranks after graduating, firstly as a probation assistant and then a trainee probation officer. She soon became a probation officer within the Public Protection Team in Ilford where her main duties included managing ‘high risk’ offenders in the community, either on community orders or having been released on licence. This included sexual offenders, violent offenders, child protection cases and preparing complex reports. While still at Ilford, she became a group work facilitator/National Trainer for the Community Offender Group Work Programme.
From there, Diane was seconded to work in the Sex Offender Team at the National Probation Directorate based in the Home Office. Her role included writing and circulating national policy documents in relation to managing sexual offenders in the community, assisting Probation Areas to implement directives and interventions, writing new programmes of intervention in relation to sexual offenders, based on evidence-based practice principles, implementing training, negotiating Service Level Agreements and responding to Parliamentary Ministerial Questions.
Jumping through hoops
It was shortly after this that Diane had her first child and the family moved to Scotland. After taking time to spend with her new baby, Diane became a Report Writer in the Children and Families Social Work Team Main preparing various reports, undertaking Comprehensive Assessment and Sex Offender Assessments, north of the border.
After “jumping through several hoops,” Diane became a registered social worker in Scotland after submitting a portfolio of evidence and she had experience of her first social work role working with Quarriers undertaking assessments of potential foster carers to provide short breaks for disabled children.
Diane’s next role was as a Practice Development Officer at Dumfries and Galloway Council where she taught and mentored social work students and managed their placements. She had a short stint as an independent trainer delivering child protection training and as a researcher before the family moved back to England in rural Devon before moving across the border to Cornwall. It was at this point in 2014 that Diane became an independent social worker providing bespoke services to a range of clients, including local authorities, universities and HMPPS.
Filled with horror
Her Prison Service role requires her to carry out one-to-one therapy with men convicted of sexual offences. “I am not in the risk management team, instead I carry out the therapy with these men to ascertain where risk lies, what the triggers may be and then work on strategies to manage that risk more safely.”
It is absolutely possible to prevent sexual perpetrators from offending again, says Diane, adding that if not, she would not be able to do her job. Key to the process is understanding the person. “Because of the variety of roles I have held, I carry out my work with a multi-disciplinary approach including criminology, forensic psychology and social work. I have a wide knowledge base and therefore I work with men to try and understand them and what led to them offending, then applying my knowledge and thinking about strategies to prevent future re-offending.”
Diane initially receives a file about the offender and on reading the nature of the offence, she is usually filled with horror as anybody would be. “The men I am working with are serving pretty chunky sentences – anywhere from five years in prison to a life sentence. The offences often are against children, but that is a reflection of who goes to prison and the misogynistic nature of the system that most rapes are not reported and for those that are, the conviction rate is low. A stranger rape will usually end up with the offender going to prison or offences against children result in conviction.”
After reading the file, Diane will meet the offender and quite often the person is not as she would expect. She meets them twice a week for three months for “an intensive, intrusive process”. In previous probation roles in the community Diane would meet men denying their offences but in her current role, there has to be acknowledgement from the offender about their convictions and a desire to change. “It is an intensive short relationship and I have to get to know them as fast as I can and build a rapport so I can get to know them and hear the nature of their life, form hypothesis and look at work that might be helpful and strategies that might work and we practice applying them,” said Diane.
There will usually be a parole hearing shortly after Diane concludes her work with the offender and they might ask for release or to be moved to a Category D prison if they are serving a life sentence, so it is about making progress and there is a significant amount resting on their engagement.
Lack of emotional nurturing
“Curiosity is key in this role and you have to be open to understanding things from their point of view. You need to be open to challenge and you need to be able to build a rapport quickly. It is not for the faint hearted – these men are talking to me about their sexual fantasies and masturbation but thankfully I am not easily shocked. You need to be non-judgemental, accepting and show compassion.”
Sexual offending is always connected to do with something in their past, says Diane. Sometimes it might be something obvious like a horrific home experience as a child. In other cases, it is not always clear what triggered the offending.
“Neglect – not in terms of neglect which would warrant social services intervention – but emotional neglect and a lack of emotional nurturing can be a key factor.”
Diane has been working for WillisPalmer over the years since she went independent in 2014, particularly working on risk assessments, but in her new role she will be quality assuring the expert reports written by ISWs.
“It is vital that reports are well-written and the basics such as good grammar and syntax is key. Reports need to show an application of knowledge and the key component is analysis,” concludes Diane.