Social Work with Sex Offenders: Making a difference



Malcolm Cowburn and Steve Myers, Social Work with Sex Offenders: Making a difference

Bristol: Policy Press, 2016, 208 pages, ISBN: 978-1447301196
Reviewed by: Josie Phillips, Durham University, UK
Book Review Published: 23 August 2017


Reviewed by: Josie Phillips, Durham University, UK
This is definitely a worthwhile book for qualified social workers and students interested in any practice related to sexual offending, whether it is engaging with families where sexual abuse/violence is an issue, or working in the field of assessment and intervention with people who sexually offend. It is informative, readable, current, and written from a social work perspective. Although the book is divided into seven distinct chapters, they are framed coherently by an underlying value base emanating from commitment to social justice and respect for individual worth.
There are so many things to like about this book that it is difficult to know where to start. The authors set out in Chapters 1 and 2 the political and social context of this field of work, emphasising multi-disciplinary working in a world of complex structures and relationships, and recognising the inherent emotional challenges for professionals. They note the constructive nature of language and critically examine understandings of sexual harm, offences, offenders and risks from different theoretical (including sociological, psychological, and theological) and cultural perspectives. Chapters 3 and 4 provide helpful information and analyses of penal responses to sex offending and working together policies and practice, respectively, focusing on England and Wales. These are chapters that can either be read or used as a reference guide. Chapter 5, on risk assessment of sex offenders, begins by pointing out that although assessment is a core social work task familiar to all practitioners, there are important differences in assessing risk in someone who has perpetrated sexual harm. The authors discuss prevalent theory and approaches in social work assessment, and then explain the “science” of risk assessment in the sex offender field, covering key features including actuarial prediction, dynamic and static risk factors, and structured assessment tools. They discuss the view that the use of actuarial risk assessment to ‘predict’ reoffending feeds into a view of the social work role as one of “social control”, with the potential to pose notable ethical dilemmas to practitioners. Chapter 6 follows with a brief but thorough overview of interventions, with explanations of their theoretical frameworks and evidence bases. Throughout, the authors urge social workers to be reflexive in approaches to intervention, and link the development of concepts involved in interventions to the constructive nature of society’s knowledge and understanding of sexual harm and offending.
Three things which I am particularly grateful to the authors for including are the interconnected issues of listening to victims’ or survivors’ voices, considering issues of race and ethnicity in the wider socio-political context, and understanding child sexual exploitation (CSE). The authors make the points that victim-survivor perspectives are important in understanding sexual offending and developing responses, and that many voices are never heard. Further, they remind readers that ‘sexual abuse’ is a construct; that this work occurs in a time and place, and like shifting sands the landscape is ever changing and developing. The authors use the term ‘BME’ whilst recognising its limitations to discuss matters of race and ethnicity. The issues in sex offending are linked to “racially constructed” profiles of offenders, and theories of institutional racism and over-representation in the criminal justice juxtaposed with under-representation in interventions. It is a disturbing and continuing picture for social work in light of commitment to anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice, and intersects with the third topic of CSE. CSE is explored in this book in the section entitled “When multi-agency working fails: child sexual exploitation”. This section notes the confounding of issues of race with issues of abuse, and offers significant learning for practitioners about making systems work. It also offers a reminder that the problem with CSE is in the chronic failure to accept there is a problem at all.
Reflexive practice
Worthy of separate mention is this book’s devotion of an entire chapter (7) to reflexive and reflective practice. This is particularly welcome because whilst focus on reflexion permeates social work literature, it is far less common in the literature on sex offending and offenders. As the authors rightly point out, the language of reflexivity alone risks taking them “into a semantic swamp”, but it is too important to leave out. Reflection runs as a theme throughout the book, represented in the reflective exercises, attention to language, underlying and explicit references to values and attitudes, and inclusiveness of approach. The chapter is a reminder about the value of reflection in learning and improving practice, in applying knowledge to practice and informing knowledge by practice, and in the importance of self-care and relationships in a difficult area of work. `
The authors acknowledge that this book is most relevant to those working with sex offenders in a UK context (England and Wales). However, as they suggest, the professional and ethical issues raised and the nature of collaborative working would apply in the international community, and thus the focus on UK should not deter professionals and students outside the UK from reading it. However readers choose to use this book, it will inform practitioners new to the field and remind those with more experience of the variety of theoretical influences, the challenges, the complexity, the dilemmas, and finally the importance of why and how social work is done with sex offenders.

Josie Phillips teaches on the Master of Social Work programme at Durham University, UK. She has over twenty years’ experience as a social worker, with research and practice interests in children/young people with harmful sexual behaviour, and families affected by CSA and CSE.