Development and innovation

Our goal is to establish sustainable, national Circles provision. To this end Circles UK supports and encourages the development of new Circle Providers to work in areas where the service is not yet available.

Circles UK also works to diversify the Circle brand and identify new and effective areas of service delivery. This includes adapting the Circle model to better reflect the needs and motivations of groups with specific characteristics (such as children and young people, people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism spectrum conditions, and women) or different types of offending (such as individuals convicted of accessing Child Sexual Exploitation Material).

Best practice and quality assurance

We support the quality and effectiveness of Circles delivery to ensure communities are safer and to support our vision of “No More Victims”. We ensure all Circles provision across England and Wales is delivered according to best practice principles and to the highest standard through delivering audits and review of Providers, high quality training, specialist support, resources and networking opportunities. Our critical role reflects that Circles are offered to people who often, have caused serious sexual harm and are assessed as representing a significant risk to others.

Circles UK is part funded by the Ministry of Justice to enable this work so that referring agencies, MAPPA partners, funders and the public can have confidence in the services provided. Areas of work scrutinised include governance, recruitment and training, multi-agency working, public protection and risk management. Our approach provides a comprehensive picture of Circles delivery, enabling issues to be addressed and good practice to be recognised and shared.

Training and consultancy

We offer a range of high-quality customised training and consultancy services to share our experience in working with people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour, relevant for a wide range of professionals, organisations and services.
Examples of training and consultancy include:

  • Working with people convicted of sexual offences. This training provides participants with the skills and knowledge to work safely and more effectively with people with harmful sexual behaviour, raising confidence and competence for professionals whose role entails sometimes working with people who have convictions for sexual offences. The training can be delivered face to face or online
    The training will equip you to understand:
    • Context of sexual offending
    • Attitudes and beliefs
    • Sanctions, restrictions and the role of other agencies
    • What is risk and managing risk
    • Theoretical models that support desistance

    And apply this in your work

  • Dual-lens consultancy and training. For organisations who come into contact with people who pose a risk of harm to others (staff, volunteers, other service users and the public) and may also be vulnerable or require safeguarding. It focuses on looking at safeguarding, risk assessment and risk management through a ‘dual lens’. It will clarify the difference between safeguarding and risk management and will give confidence to assess and manage risk within a dual lens safeguarding context.
    • Dual-lens audit – a service or organisational assessment to understand and improve work in this area.
    • Dual-lens training – skills development for staff to manage safeguarding and risk.

We can also design bespoke training for your organisation based on your specific needs. Please contact us to discuss this further.

All our training and consultancy is delivered by expert trainers and practitioners who bring their insight and experience in the assessment and risk management of those who engage in sexually harmful behaviour.

The Circles approach started in 1994 in Canada and was successfully adapted and introduced in England and Wales in the early 2000s. From there Circles expanded its scope into the rest of Europe.

The Circles model used in England and Wales, with support from Circles UK, was implemented in the Netherlands in 2009, with the necessary adaptations to reflect a different national context. This collaboration led to the EU-funded ‘Circles, Together for Safety’ project. Against this background, a European Circles model and implementation guide were created, and Circles were then also launched in Belgium.

This experience made it possible to start another EU-funded project called ‘Circles4EU’ through which Bulgaria, Latvia, France, Catalonia, Hungary and Ireland joined the network. When this project ended in 2015 (mainly due to a lack of funding), the former Circles4EU members looked for a way to both salvage and develop the work previously done. Hard work and time led to the registration of the CirclesEurope Association (CirclesEurope) in Utrecht, on 15 June 2018.

CirclesEurope oversees the quality, service development, promotion, research and evaluation of Circles in Europe.

Circles UK has continued to play a key role through Riana Taylor (Circles UK’s CEO), chairing the Board (2019 onwards). Other founding Board members were Ann Castrel (Secretary), Marijke Bijlsma (Treasurer) and Prof Kieran McCartan (research and evaluation lead). Stephen Hanvey assisted the interim Board to create the statutes and apply for registration and the Board continues to be assisted by two volunteers, Dr Mechtild Höing and Audrey Alards.

Further information on CirclesEurope can be obtained through the website

What are Circles?

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 sexually harmful 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.

Who are Circles for?
Each Circles Provider has their own eligibility criteria but generally, the service is for men or women who have acknowledged that they have committed sexually harmful behaviour and are assessed as at risk of engaging in further offending behaviour.
They must have some understanding of their harmful behaviour and be committed to developing a positive, non-offending lifestyle.

How do Circles work?
A Circle is a group of four to six volunteers from a local community that forms a Circle around an offender, referred to as the ‘Core Member’. Each Circle is unique because it is designed around the needs of the Core Member.

It aims to provide a supportive network that also requires the Core Member to take responsibility (be ‘accountable’) for his/her ongoing risk / behaviour. 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.

Volunteers are fully informed of the Core Member’s past pattern of offending, and also assist them to recognise patterns of thinking and behaviour that could lead to their re-offending. Through this, the Core Member can grow in self-esteem and develop more healthy adult relationships, maximising his or her chances of successfully and safely reintegrating into the community.

The Core Member is involved from the beginning, included in all decision making and, like all members of the Circle, signs a contract committing him or herself to the Circle and its aims.

Circles work in partnership with Police, Probation, local Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements and other professionals working in the field of child protection.

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

How often does a Circle meet?
The Circle meets regularly and, in the early stages, frequently (usually weekly). The volunteers might also have contact with the Core Member between meetings, normally by phone but occasionally face to face.

Its ‘life’ is initially for twelve months but may extend beyond this for as long as 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.

Evidence of Effectiveness

UK studies
A national evaluation of the Completing the Circle National Lottery funded project (Winder et al. 2020) identified four statistically significant findings:

  • Core Members demonstrated an 18% reduction in dynamic risk scores over the course of their Circle.
  • Reintegration (protective) factors showed significant improvements; 52% of Core Members increased in confidence, 45% in self-esteem, 32% felt more positive about life and 56% were less isolated.
  • 100% of the Core Members included were in stable and suitable accommodation and an increased number were in work after their Circle finished.
  • 67% of Core Members showed significant improvement in emotional wellbeing (a protective factor) during the course of their Circle.

The study also found that over time, the confidence levels of Volunteers increased and they acquired transferable skills.

Clarke et al. (2016) examined data from 275 Core Members in Circles between 2002 and 2013. Compared to at the start of the Circle, significantly fewer Core Members were unemployed, or claiming benefits and significantly more were living with a partner, family or alone in independent accommodation. Significantly more Core Members reported to be in a relationship than at the commencement of the Circle. These outcomes could not necessarily be attributed to participation in a Circle

International studies
An initial evaluation of Circles’ (Canada) impact on recidivism found that offenders who participated in Circles had (against a matched control group) (Wilson et al. 2007);

  • 70% (statistically significant) reduction in sexual recidivism
  • 57% reduction in all types of violent recidivism
  • An overall reduction of 35% in all types of recidivism, compared to the control group.

A further study by Wilson et al. (2009) (Canada), found that offenders who participated in Circles had (against a matched comparison group);

  • 83% reduction in sexual recidivism
  • 73% reduction in all types of violent recidivism
  • An overall reduction of 72% in all types of recidivism, compared to the control group

In the Netherlands, a study of 17 Core Members participating in Circles demonstrated improvements in psychological and social functioning such as emotion regulation, internal locus of control, problem solving and social skills. Hoing et al. (2015)

An update of a Random Control Trial study by Duwe (2012) with a larger sample size demonstrated an 88% reduction in the risk of re-arrest for a new sexual offence and significant reductions across measures for general recidivism. (Duwe 2018).

Cost Effectiveness
A cost-benefit analysis of the Minnesota CoSA programme identified an 82% return on investment as a result of avoiding the costs associated with recidivism (Duwe, 2012). The updated report demonstrated an even greater return of 273%: for each $1 spent on Circles, there was an estimated benefit of $3.73 (Duwe, 2018). The findings show the programme has generated an estimated $2 million in costs avoided to the state, resulting in a benefit of $40,923 per participant. The study also found that although difficult to implement, the CoSA model is a cost-effective intervention for sex offenders that could also be applied to other correctional populations with a high risk of violent recidivism.

Elliot & Beech (2012) reported an overall cost benefit of Circles in England and Wales: providing a cost saving of £23,494 per annum, per 100 offenders, and a benefit-cost ratio of 1.04. While this appears a modest return on investment, it is comparable to other criminal justice interventions. When the full extent of the costs of sexual abuse for victims, families and wider society are considered, the expected cost savings attributed to Circles may be in the region of £650,000-£1.4m.

Evidence of Effectiveness - References

A detailed critique of studies and report investigating the effectiveness of Circles on relevant outcomes is provided by Clarke et al (2015).

Clarke, M., Brown, S., & Völlm, B. (2015). Circles of Support and Accountability for sex offenders: a systematic review of outcomes. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. [Epub ahead of print]

Clarke et al (2016). Circles of Support and Accountability: The characteristics of Core Members in the England and Wales. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health

Duwe, G. (2012). Can Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) Work in the United States? Preliminary Results from a Randomized Experiment in Minnesota. Sex Abuse, 25, 143-165

Duwe, G. (2018). Can circles of support and accountability (CoSA) significantly reduce sexual recidivism? Results from a randomized controlled trial in Minnesota. Journal of Experimental Criminology [online]

Elliott, I.A., & Beech, A.R. (2012). A cost-benefit analysis for Circles of Support and Accountability. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. 25, 211-229

Hoing, M., Vogelvang, B. & Bogaerts, S. (2015) “I am a different man now”-Sex Offenders in Circles of Support and Accountability. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

Wilson, R.J., Picheca, J.E., & Prinzo, M. (2007). Evaluating the effectiveness of professionally facilitated volunteerism in the community-based management of high-risk sexual offenders: Part two—Recidivism rates. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 327-337

Wilson, R. J., Cortoni, F. & McWhinnie, A. J. (2009). Circles of Support & Accountability: A Canadian national replication of outcome findings. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 21, 412-430

Winder, B., Blagden, N., Lievesley, R., Elliot, H & Dwerryhouse, M. (2020) National Evaluation of 188 Big Lottery funded Circles of Support and Accountability: Interim Report. Unpublished manuscript