In 1994, the Reverend Harry Nigh and a small number of volunteers from his congregation in Hamilton (Ontario, Canada), offered support to a lifelong recidivist who committed serious crimes against children, when he was released from prison into the community. The efforts by these volunteers created a better way of ensuring the protection of children as they supported ‘Charlie’ and assisted him to live an offence free life in the community until his death. This approach became known as Circles of Support and Accountability (Circles).

The origins of Circles are rooted in the principles of restorative justice, in particular a belief in the importance of healthy relationships and an individual’s accountability for what they do and its effect upon others. Circles is particularly relevant to the conceptual thinking that underpins treatment for those who commit sexual harm and is seen as the practical application of the Good Lives Model (Ward et al.2007) and Desistance theory (McNeill, 2006).

Sexual abuse provokes powerful responses for people and within communities. The successful rehabilitation and reintegration of people with harmful sexual behaviour is key to reducing reoffending as social isolation and emotional loneliness are key factors in increasing the risk of reoffending. For many men and women who have sexually offended, trying to re-settle into the community, particularly following a period of imprisonment, is a daunting prospect. Circles have proved to be an extremely effective way of reducing this risk through a small group of trained volunteers giving their time freely to provide a structured community intervention for sexual harm causers.

How do Circles work?

How do Circles work?

Circles work by providing a support network that requires the Core Member (the person with convictions for and/or harmful sexual behaviour) to take responsibility for his/her ongoing risk and behaviour. A group of (normally four to six) trained Volunteers from the local community form a Circle with the Core Member, meeting regularly to talk, provide support and practical guidance and ‘hold them accountable’.

Circles are set up by a Circles Coordinator with the full consent of the potential Core Member (Circles
are voluntary and attendance cannot be mandated) who wants to stop offending and referrals are
usually made by Probation and/or Police.

A Circle works alongside others, such as family members, the Probation Service, Multi-Agency Public
Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), Police; and other professionals from statutory or partner
organisations. Representatives from these organisations who have ‘responsibility’ for the Core
Member will form the ‘outer Circle’, providing support, and taking responsibilities for any concerns or
issues in relation to risk and/or safeguarding.

Volunteers are supported and supervised by the Coordinator throughout the life of the Circle and the
Coordinator also works as the link between the Circle and the outer Circle ensuring effective
communication and sharing relevant information.

The Core Member is involved from the beginning, included in all decision making and, like all
members of the Circle, signs an agreement committing them to the Circle and its aims.

The Circle can provide support and practical guidance in such things as developing social skills,
finding suitable accommodation or finding appropriate hobbies, interests and work. Each Circle is
unique because it is designed around and focused on the goals of the Core Member.

Volunteers are appropriately informed of the Core Member’s past patterns of harmful behaviours and
this means they can often assist them to recognise patterns of thinking and behaviour that could lead
to their re-offending.

All of this can help the Core Member improve their self-esteem and confidence, supporting them to
develop healthy relationships and increasing the likelihood of them safely reintegrating into the community.

See here for more information about getting involved in a Circle and here for Local Providers.


General/Core Circles

These Circles are for men or women, over 18 years, who have convictions for and have acknowledged that they have committed harmful sexual behaviour, are assessed as presenting a high risk of harm and are committed to developing a positive, non-offending lifestyle.

General/Core Circles meet regularly and, in the early stages, frequently (usually weekly). The Volunteers might also have infrequent contact with the Core Member between meetings, normally by phone but occasionally face to face.

The Circle normally meets for around twelve months but this may be extended for longer if there is a perceived need to support the Core Member and manage risk. Active involvement in the Circle will diminish over time as the Core Member develops other appropriate and safe support networks.

Circles for Young People

Circles can be delivered to Young People who have demonstrated harmful sexual behaviour (they might or might not have criminal convictions). To reflect individual needs, these Circles are more activity based (which are age and developmentally appropriate), with meetings taking place in the community. Volunteers attend additional training focused specifically on working with Young People.

Circles for people with Intellectual Disabilities (ID) and/or Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)

Some Providers offer an adapted Circle for individuals with ID and/or ASCs and these Circles will be shaped and delivered to meet their individual needs. The assessment and preparation for attendance phases are usually longer and more intensive to ensure the Core Member’s learning and communication needs are fully understood, that they give meaningful and informed consent and that joining the Circle is a comfortable and accessible process. Coordinators of these Circles will have specialist knowledge and expertise in this area and will offer ongoing specialist guidance and support to Volunteers. The outer Circle is likely to include mental health and learning disability professionals.

Circles ReBoot

This is a shorter semi-structured Circle (twelve – fourteen meetings over six months), aimed at adult men and women convicted of accessing Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM) or online images of child sexual abuse. Circles UK developed this Circle specifically in response to the significant increase in this type of offending. Circles ReBoot is strength-based and the Core Member is expected to set and work towards goals consistent with an offence free lifestyle. The Circles ReBoot pilot (Oct 2021-October 2022) was delivered by Circles South West and Circles South East and evaluated by independent academics, Professor Derek Perkins and Dr Hannah Merdian (2023), from onlinePROTECT and Royal Holloway University. The evaluation findings clearly demonstrate the effectiveness and feasibility of the programme, which has led to a wider roll out of Circles ReBoot.