From Ken’s Desk November 2010

Whenever I meet people, and talk about the work that I do in designing intervention programmes and training people in programme delivery for those who offend, the question is, “What makes people stop?” The sub-text is, “Can they stop?”. The question is never straight forward, but there is a growing body of knowledge that if we take account of the four key areas: programme design (evidenced based), right person (proper assessment), trained staff (people who have cognitive flexibility and can make a programme come alive), and context (the environment that supports the programme outcomes), then we can get a result.

There is emerging evidence supported from research, that one of the keys to desistance to crime, are relational factors. These can be grouped in three distinct areas according to McNeil et al. 2005, as:

  • accurate empathy, respect, or warmth, and therapeutic genuineness (sometimes referred to as therapist factors and at other times described as relationship variables)
  • establishing a ‘therapeutic relationship’ or ‘working alliance’ (mutual understanding and agreement about the nature and purpose of treatment)
  • an approach that is person-centred, or collaborative and client-driven (taking the client’s perspective and using the client’s concepts)

Each of these areas draw from a depth of evidenced based research from fields such as motivational interviewing, person-centred methods, psychology of criminal conduct, cognitive behavioural approaches, and strength-based practice. They all involve the development of connection (whanaungatanga – relationships, and manaakitanga – to host).

  • Desistance to crime is therefore as much about the relationship as it is about the techniques. We have been busy exploring the pathways into offending for a number of years. What is interesting is the move to begin a stronger focus upon pathways out of offending. Again building up McNeil et al’s. work (2005) the following ideas are illustrative in this regard.
  • Desistance is not a single event but a process over time – Prochaska and DiClemente’s seminal work in this area is well worth a read. We are often ambivalent about change. Motivational work is clearly recognised as the key intervention in working with ambivalence. Desistance may be provoked by life events, depending on the meaning of those events for the person who has offended. We know that maturity is a key aspect of desistance as well as concerns in the longer term regarding personal safety and security.
  • Strength-based approaches have routinely identified turn-around people in the lives of those who offend as key change agents. As indicated above, the relationship that the worker forms with the person who has offended, can have a profound impact upon change. Having someone who ‘believes’ in us has consistently been noted in the resilience literature.
  • Our self-narratives lock us into patterns of thinking and identity expectations. Changing our narratives from totalising descriptions (e.g. offender) to those that leave room for expansion (e.g. a person who has offended) leaves room for building other descriptions.

The following three ideas are directly taken from the work of McNeil et al. (2005) and fill in the remaining parts of the pathway puzzle.

“Desistance is an active process in which agency (the ability to make choices and govern one’s own life) is first discovered and then exercised. Supervision processes should respect this agency by seeking to maximise involvement and participation. The ‘discovery of agency’ may also imply a prospective focus for practice, drawing on solution-focussed interventions that capitalise on strengths, resilience and protective factors.

Desistance requires social capital (opportunities) as well as human capital (capacities). This suggests an advocacy role for practitioners seeking to support change and underlines the need to target systems beyond the individual offender.

Desistance is about ‘redemption’ or restoration and often involves finding purpose through ‘generative activities’. This implies the need, at an appropriate point in the process, to support the development of a more positive identity by accessing opportunities to make a positive contribution to local communities.”

We are at a wonderful point in the development of interventions for those who offend to start to work with identifying the unique pathways out of offending in ways that are additive (building upon strengths that enhance wellbeing) rather than reductive (to stop something). The next five years of practice development can only build significant enhancements to the way we do our business.

Source: McNeill, F., Batchelor, S., Burnett, R., & Knox, J. (2005) 21st Century Social Work: Reducing Re-offending: Key Practice Skills, Social Work Inspection Agency: Edinburgh.

Published on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010, under Announcements, Practice tips and techniques, What Ken thinks

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