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The Probation Officer

Donald Finlater helps sex offenders survive back in the community.

The harsh artificial light does little to improve the clinical surroundings. Nor do the white office walls reflect the enormity of the work which takes place here. Few people walking past the cut-price furniture shop would even look up and know this place exists. Yet a steady and growing train of men walk out of prison, through its doors and back into society.

Society, in fact, would call them monsters.

Yet Donald Finlater and his small, dedicated team must take these men - who have convictions for sex crimes ranging from indecent exposure and indecent assaults, right through to rape and sexual murder - and help them walk freely and safely again.

?Effectively we run a weekly treatment programme, which looks to help men to develop and exercise self control in terms of their sexually abusive behaviours,? says the manager of the Sex Offender Resource Team for the Surrey Probation Service.

Trained as a Probation Officer himself, Finlater is an articulate, incisive man in his forties, smartly dressed and relatively innocuous-looking. Yet he is one of few people in this country with a keen understanding of the abuser?s mindset - and he knows, in many cases, how to break it.

?Sex offenders are very clever, very seductive, they?re arch manipulators. So success cannot be based on your working relationship with them or significantly how they tell you they?re getting on and if they appreciated the course. Effectively you can?t trust them - they?ve played upon secrecy and lying for so much of their life.?

?Sex offenders manage somehow to identify vulnerability in people? ? DONALD FINLATER

Experts like Finlater have realised there is a ?sex offending cycle? which they must shatter if the paedophile is not to re-offend. First in the cycle comes pro-offending thinking, such as inappropriate fantasies about children; then targeting of a certain group or individual; after that grooming; and following that the actual offence itself.

Paedophiles will begin by spotting and targeting vulnerability in an area they?re interested in e.g. pre-pubescent boys, so they will target the loners and the ones less cared for in that target group, who may respond better to affection and gifts.

?Sex offenders manage somehow to identify vulnerability in people. Sometimes it?s in an otherwise protective parent, often a mother, having being sexually victimised themselves.

Sex offenders can often see the vulnerability and expose it,? warns Finlater. ?All sex offenders are planning to get away with what they want to do,? he says.

?They want to do it; they don?t want to get caught for doing it; they know people have a problem with it; they know it?s disapproved of; they?re not stupid people.

So having targeted an individual, they target someone in a vulnerable situation.? That could be a particular child, or just any female who happens to walk down a particular alley.

Then comes the grooming process, which lets them get close to the individual, so that they can commit their sex crime. For example, this might mean getting a child used to them being around them, letting them being touched progressively.

?It could take an hour, it could take years. Some sex offenders are desperately patient people,? he explains.

The next step is the actual sexual contact/offence, but committed in such as way that ensures they won?t get caught and the victim cannot stop them doing it, nor tell either.

?If it?s a child, they?re often told it?s in the context of a relationship or they don?t really understand, or daren?t tell because other things might go wrong e.g. they?ll be put into care.

It?ll be inducements, it?ll be threats, it?ll be bribes, it will be concern about consequences - your mum wouldn?t cope, no-one will believe you.?

?The first couple of times they do it they may experience shame, but committing the offence leaves a memory for them which is self-reinforcing and which makes them want to do it again. ? he adds.

But Finlater says there?s no evidence that these people are more sexually active than the rest of us: ?The assumption is that many people say they want to chemically or physically castrate sex offenders; the assumption being you cut them off before they even think about it. That?s not the case. That assumes that sex crime is just about sex.

?There is a sexual component to it, but there?s a lot to do with exercising power and control and humiliating people, and so many other motivating factors that sex is just a component. Those who want to castrate are losing site of reality.?

And there is a template for treatment: it?s based on ?cognitive behavioural processes?. These are peoples? thinking processes and the behaviours that are consistent with those thinking processes.

?One has to unravel, over a period of time, thoughts about illegal sex and harmful sexual behaviours. You?re trying to help them change their thinking, because sex offenders will invariably operate with a myriad of cognitive distortions that will allow themselves to do the things they do, which society at large tends to decry.

?Those are thinking areas that the programme tries to undermine and change the way the offender then sees those things. Because unless you are able to persuade them that the whole foundation on which they have perpetrated their sexual crimes is flawed, and that they can accept that, you?re really not going to have much of a dialogue with them to change them.?

Finlater later shows me a list of excuses from Catholic priests in America, who were all convicted of abusing children. The list is remarkably similar to the excuses he described above: they say the children wanted to make love, they were at the age of reason, they suddenly jumped on them.

Being drunk, for example, doesn?t make you molest - the interest would be there already. In one, very obvious way, it?s sickening to read this material.

As Finlater points out, you have to show the offender that this is flawed thinking and that their actions hurt someone else, as they often deny this or any notion of self responsibility. Finally, you work out a ?relapse prevention plan? with them.

?It?s not an easy process and for the vast majority of them they?ll have been interested in the sex crimes they?ve gone on to commit for a long time. For many of them they?ll have already committed these crimes on a number of occasions and for some of them on lots and lots of occasions. So you?re dealing with a very entrenched piece of behaviour which for many of them is self-reinforcing. ?We?re all us sexual beings and in these people, with distorted processes, where there?s a sexual appetite to repeat and develop that behaviour, the boundary is imagination - and imagination can take you to very odd places.

?Your imagination can sustain that and then you want to carry out some of those acts in real life. Having crossed the threshold of sex crime, it?s easy to cross another one and another one.?

Somewhat unhelpfully, no-one can actually agree what paedophiles are. The vast majority are not mentally ill. Perhaps they have a personality disorder, but in Finlater?s view this is an unhelpful term.

?Personality disorder doesn?t tell me what to do with this person. I?ve seen no evidence that you can actually cure this person. The task is not of curing but helping often otherwise responsible adults - men and women - to learn self control and learn how to exercise self control. There is no cure, no drugs that change them.?

Of course, some will never change - the ?deniers?, who deny they ever committed a crime or assault in the first place, and these are the ones who are a danger to society.

However, according to Finlater and other experts, child molesters are generally not monsters, nor the abductors that the public reads about in the general media. ?The public appetite is to look for the monsters and the socially inadequates, but no, we?re looking at people across the whole spectrum of social competence and success, all social classes and all races - and even both genders.

I think people who go out spotting paedophiles are barking up the wrong tree. I think there are one or two people in the community who are very dangerous and very indiscriminate. But the majority of sex crime is committed by people who know the victims well, whether that?s in the family, their social network or through a professional relationship, such as music teacher, youth group or Sunday school. That?s where the vast majority of sex crime takes place.?

?I would say that sex crime is probably the most harmful crime there is and therefore deserves to be properly resourced? ? DONALD FINLATER

The Probation Service does its best, says Finlater, but budgets are stretched and vulnerable to local authority cuts. Working with sex offenders is a very lengthy and expensive process, taking anything up to three years for a maximum Probation Order (where a subject is convicted but not jailed). And that is just for one group therapy session a week, plus some personal tuition from a Probation Officer.

?Part of me would say we?ve hardly started,? sighs Finlater. ?There are resourcing problems and there is starting to be a reduction in many services offering specialist work with sex offenders - which means less work, or less effective work will be done; which must inherently mean abusers will get less intervention; which must mean they?re more risky; which must mean the public is therefore more at risk from them.?

?I would say that sex crime is probably the most harmful crime there is and therefore deserves to be properly resourced in order to reduce the likelihood of that very significant harm being done.?

And as Finlater knows, Probation offices are only dealing with three, four or maybe five percent of all sex offenders; the ones who have been convicted. Most have or never will be caught. It is depressing reading.

?So if we?re only convicting a small minority then arguably other offenders are out there without any effective forms of intervention and preying on vulnerable people all the time. I mean right now. The whole system is not effectively protecting society from sex crime.?

?We?re closing down for them an area of their life which has been absolutely compelling, exciting, and which has had profound meaning for them. And I?m aware by shutting that down we have to provide them with other opportunities.

?There?s no point in treating someone for them to only have a life which is bleak with nothing in it. They?ve got to see a future that?s going to be fulfilling and with different choices than those they?ve had before. Perhaps you open up their minds to the possibilities of other kinds of relationships, other kinds of interest that fills the place that the sexual crime has been to them.?

?If you take away all their opportunities, all their excitement, I just wonder why they should bother changing, because if they?ve got no stake, there?s nothing to lose either. If in society we?re pillorying these people and not giving them space to exist, and to have a future, I just think we?re leaving them in a no-man?s land where they?ve got nothing to lose and where desperate measures can be taken.?

He thinks we need to figure out a proper lifestyle and place in society for these people, with respect, even though there will always be a proportion of men and women who will need treatment and incarceration for public protection. The problem at moment is that all sex offenders are seen as a single group.

?So it will remain underground, with the vulnerable still vulnerable, victims untreated in large numbers, and offenders going untreated. We?ve got to give them hope. As long as the system conspires against anyone telling and as long as there is this public appetite for ritualised humiliation and punishment - none of which has demonstrated stops them doing it - we will take away the stakes they might have in life and make them more desperate.?

These articles were originally published in MSN NEWS

Other stories in this series:

Sex abuse: the survivor

The lasting nightmare of child abuse. Peter Saunders tells how the scars last for a lifetime.

Sex abuse: the probation officer

How to shatter the sex offending cycle. Donald Finlater helps sex offenders survive back in the community.

Sex abuse: the police

Inside Scotland Yard?s Paedophilia Unit. We?re dealing with very serious crimes warns DCI Reynolds.

Sex abuse: the mother

Whirlwind romance led to horror of child abuse. He was everything my first husband wasn?t.

Sex abuse: the legal expert

The law is failing the victims of child abuse. Barbara Joel-Essam is trying to change the culture around sex offence.

Sex abuse: the investigator

The man who catches child abusers. Abusing children is the main focus of some people?s lives.

Sex abuse: the expert

?You can buy a child for a packet of crisps?. Grim warning from Britain?s top sex crime consultant.

Sex abuse: the abuser

Abuser who claims six-year-old led him on. Convicted paedophile hasn?t yet taken full responsibility for his crimes.

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