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Visiting lecturer Laura Riley has been studying for her PhD; here, she discusses her research and involvement in 'positive criminology', and the voices of non-professionals who support those with sexual offending histories. 

One of the first things that attracted me to Criminology was an interest in desistance. It’s vital to understand why people commit crimes, but to be able to help people stop doing so? To change the course of people’s lives and prevent there being future victims? That’s a reason to get up in the morning! Any opportunity to make a genuine contribution to the desistance process, in my opinion, validates what we do.

I suppose I was a Positive Criminologist before I knew that there was such a thing – I have always been drawn to ‘strengths-based’ approaches, building on what actively works, what can positively be added, as opposed to looking purely at risk-factors, what suggests that efforts may be in vain. My PhD, ‘Silent child protectors: The voices of non-professionals who support those with sexual offending histories’, does just that. Not only does it focus on desistance (i.e.: people ceasing offending behaviour), but it aims to give voice to those who promote it, such as supportive family and friends. In doing so, it focuses not upon what could potentially go wrong, as one might expect with such a topic, but rather those elements in an individual’s life which might provide the motivation, and the necessary support, to not re-offend.

Those who sexually offend against children are reviled by the public; this is an understandable reaction as they abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our society and many of them betray the trust of their victims in an unconscionable way. However, whilst this response is utterly relatable, it is also counterproductive. So strong is the taboo that condemnation often extends to those people who remain a part of an offender’s family or social life: this is problematic. It can also prevent people from seeking help for unwanted inappropriate attractions and lead to them feeling socially isolated – this issue was highlighted by the Channel 4 documentary ‘The Paedophile Next Door’ (Herzog, R. and Humphries, 2014). If there is one thing that current research suggests inhibits re-offending behaviour it is pro-social bonds: in short, offenders need loving, understanding, family and friends, sources of self-respect and acceptance from others to support and inspire them on their desistance journey (Abeling-Judge, 2016). These are the ‘Silent Child Protectors’; men or women, whose reality I wish to explore.

My project examines (through semi-structured interviews) just what informal networks of support, family, friends, and partners contribute to those who have convictions for sexually offending against children but who are engaged in the desistance process. I aim to not only give a voice to a population which has been historically neglected in research, but also to contribute to child safety: after all, if we can identify factors which help child abusers desist, we can promote them. Surely this has to be a positive contribution? We can also find out what makes it hard to support people in ceasing to offend and hopefully help move towards removing barriers to people building better lives, if only by inspiring future research. I predict that the stigma that those who offer support to people with sexual offending histories will make it far more difficult to do so. I also expect one of the factors which may inspire change is the chance for someone to transition from having the identity of ‘sex offender’ to that of ‘family man’ or ‘loved parent’. (I expect that most or perhaps all of the offenders in my sample will be men owing to the demographic of the population, but I am open to interviewing females with convictions). At this stage these are merely predictions – it will be interesting to see how accurate they are – I will keep you updated!

This PhD could not fit anywhere but within the Positive Criminology Community – nor could I as a researcher! The chance to explore the trials and tribulations, the reality for those who silently contribute to public safety and are vilified for it (if they are acknowledged at all) is one of the reasons I was first drawn to this discipline. It is an opportunity to contribute to public safety, and that makes this project more than a course, or even a ‘career’. It makes it my vocation.

By Laura Riley


Abeling-Judge, D. 2016, "Different Social Influences and Desistance From Crime", Criminal Justice and Behavior, vol. 43, no. 9, pp. 1225-1241.

Herzog, R. and Humphries, S. The Paedophile Next Door (2014) Documentary, UK, Channel 4

The content above is the opinion of the author(s), and does not represent the views or opinions of Birmingham City University.

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