The Ethical Side of Working with Sex Offenders

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Drawing from relevant underpinning knowledge and literature, this section aims to identify and critically examine the value tensions inherent in criminal justice social work with sex offenders. However, first an overview of the differences between personal and professional values will be provided.    

Value is somewhat of a vague term in that it can have several meanings. Thompson (2005 p. 125) suggests that “a value is something we hold dear, something we see as important and worthy of safeguarding” whereas Lexico (2019) defines value as the “principles or standards of one’s behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.” Values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong; they “determine what a person thinks he ought to do whilst representing “the general standards and ideals by which we judge our own and others’ conduct” (CCETSW 1976 p. 14). They vary greatly between individuals and may change as a result of the ageing process. Professional values, however, are not personal to the individual. They are a formal guide, published by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which social workers must adhere and be committed to. Cormier, Nurius and Osborn (2009 p. 32) argue that “when personal values of helpers are consistent with professional standards of conduct, helpers are more likely to interact genuinely and credibly with clients and other professionals.” This means that ideally, our personal and professional values will complement each other in practice however, the reality is that they often conflict.

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Values, such as respecting the right to confidentiality, can be complex for criminal justice social workers given that there are circumstances where breaching confidentiality is considered acceptable (Roberts and Springer 2007). For example, “confidentiality may be breached with or without the client’s consent in order to report instances of neglect or abuse” (Saxon, Jacinto and Dziegielewski 2006). This is considered an ethical dilemma; “a situation in which professional duties and obligations, rooted in core values, clash” (Reamer 2006 p. 4). Most professionals would agree that breaching confidentiality is acceptable in these situations, yet, practitioners may find this difficult to follow through on given that the principles surrounding confidentiality are considered almost sacred.   

Working with sex offenders is a prime example of where personal and professional values will likely conflict. Over the years, there have been many conflicting debates about sex offenders; especially paedophiles. Until now, societies opinion has been that paedophiles are monsters with the media fuelling public and parental fears by releasing stories such as ‘Number of British paedophiles may be far higher than thought’ (Dodd 2019). The rise in sexual crime along with recent stories involving celebrities such as Gary Glitter and Jimmy Saville, have only heightened societies negative view of sex offenders (Scottish Government 2019). Social workers are tasked with empowering individuals i.e. helping them and others to identify their strengths and build on these (IFSW 2014). However, many would question what the point of this is.

Recent years have seen a slight change in how paedophiles are viewed. Sarah Goode argues that “adult sexual attraction to children is part of the continuum of human sexuality; it’s not something we can eliminate…if we talk about this rationally… we can maybe avoid the hysteria” (Henley 2013). Similarly, a television documentary titled The Paedophile Next Door (2014) sparked huge public debate. It aimed to “explore preventative treatment to curb paedophilia” however it failed to explain how such treatment would work and what it would entail (Lawrence 2014). Peter Saunders argues that “we have to tackle these sordid issues head-on and if someone is seeking help, better we do that before they offend rather than after” (Binns 2014). This reinforces the idea that things may be changing given there is evidence to suggest that support for sex offenders is increasing.

The Code of Ethics for Social Work (BASW 2014) clearly states that we must protect the rights and promote the interests of individuals. It could be argued that the BASW fails to provide social workers with enough guidance to carry out their day-to-day practice. It is evident that personal resilience is important and that such work “cannot be done without good professional support and an ethos of self-care” (McCarthy and Keenan 2013 p. 9). However, it is difficult to protect the rights and promote the interests of sex offenders when license conditions may prohibit, for example, use of the internet thus resulting in difficulties finding a job, applying for housing etc.   

In conclusion, it is understandable that there are some circumstances which practitioners find more challenging than others due to their personal values and experiences. However, it is important that practitioners understand their own values and opinions before practicing in any area of social work given that having to learn, respect and adhere to new values, especially when you may not agree with them, may otherwise be a challenge.

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