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‘About a year in, I felt like there was a future’

by
10 January 2020

Sarah Woolley visits Glebe House to find out about its work among young sexual offenders

GLEBE HOUSE

Glebe House

Glebe House

KYLE was 15 years old when he moved into his new bedroom. In the heart of the Cambridgeshire countryside, he was far away from his family, but when he looked outside, he could see other boys surrounded by trees and flowers. It was the first window he had looked out of for more than a year that did not have bars on it.

For more than half a century, troubled teenage boys have found sanctuary in an independent children’s home, Glebe House, run by a Quaker charitable trust. It offers therapeutic interventions and education to a small group, typically aged between 15 and 19 years old. Like Kyle, all the boys at Glebe House have a history of sexually abusing other children.

“These guys, they believe in people who have made mistakes,” Kyle says. He is now 21, and can look back on a completed programme. “It’s a beautiful place.”

Since the 1990s, Glebe House has specialised in treating harmful sexual behaviour. This is defined as developmentally inappropriate sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people, and which may be harmful or abusive. It is a complex issue, but young people leaving the care of Glebe House are far less likely to reoffend than peers with similar backgrounds.

One man who has overseen many success stories at Glebe House is its director, Peter Clarke, who has worked there for 30 years. “Every single young person we work with is dealing with very major trauma,” he says.

This was the case for Kyle, who used to be Mr Clarke’s chess partner during dinner-time at Glebe House.

“I was convicted of rape and sexual assault and all that stuff in the family home when I was 14,” Kyle says. “It started when I was eight.”

Kyle tells me that he began abusing his cousins and his half-sister after growing up in a family without sexual boundaries. “There was a lot, a lot, of sexual activity between my mom and my dad that was in front of me and my brother,” he explains. “My brother is, like, severely disabled; so he won’t have maybe known what that was, but, growing up, I felt like a bit of a sponge.”

Stories of children soaking up trauma in their early years are commonplace at Glebe House. Most of the boys there have survived neglect and abuse, and about half of them also contend with a learning disability.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I 100-per-cent put my responsibility on my parents,” Kyle says. “But I definitely know that a kid does not grow up to just go out and do these sort of things. It’s led by behaviour you’re seeing. I were very powerless, and the abuse was my way of having a bit of power and a bit of control, because I never had that as a kid.”

Kyle’s family initially thought that separating him from his victims would resolve the issue, but he continued to abuse family members until the police became involved when he was 12 years old. A child can be held legally responsible for sexual (and other) offending at ten.

In Kyle’s case, he received a custodial sentence with a minimum of two years, just after his 14th birthday. He will be 26 before he can apply to have his name removed from the Sex Offenders Register.

NONE of the experts I speak with minimise the devastating consequences of child abuse; but there is a growing chorus of concern for any young offender walking into the youth-justice system. In 2019, the Children’s Commissioner warned that cuts and closures left children in “chaotic and dysfunctional” settings that were “not a child-friendly environment where you could really help a young person”.

It is a worry for Peter Clarke, too, who points to an increasing number of boys referred to Glebe House from young-offender institutions or secure units. “At least half the people we are working with at any point have convictions, and have been in a secure estate,” he says. It is an ordeal that can leave children even more traumatised and resistant to help.

GLEBE HOUSEGlebe House

Before coming to Glebe House, Kyle spent a year-and-a-half in “a little home with bars” (one of 60 secure units for children in Great Britain). “I were very paranoid in the children’s Secure Unit because I thought people might know why I’m there,” Kyle explains. “I came up for parole and my youth worker gave me this Glebe House booklet. It looked amazing. It was an opportunity to show people that I were a child.”

Writing off children who have exhibited harmful sexual behaviour as sex offenders troubles Carole Thomas. She is a trustee of Glebe House, and chairs the school governing body. “We’ve had lads come from a young-offenders institution where they’ve actually been in their cells 23 hours a day,” she says. “The way that children are treated within the criminal-justice system is a scandal. How children are managed within the criminal-justice system needs to be addressed to make that more human and reflect the fact that they are children.”

Like all Glebe House trustees, Ms Thomas is also a Quaker. I asked how working on harmful sexual behaviour connected with her faith.

“Well, I guess it’s about looking at God in everyone,” she says. “And giving a chance to people who haven’t really had a chance, and challenging the response of society to reject them and lock them up. It’s also about avoiding and reducing the number of victims in the future.”

Seeing God and the good in everyone is the belief that first inspired communities such as Glebe House. In 1935, a psychiatric social worker, David Wills, a Quaker, wrote a call to action in The Friend, the weekly Quaker periodical. His letter envisaged non-penal, non-custodial, and therapeutic alternatives for young men who “were profoundly dissatisfied with themselves, saw themselves as failures, and hated themselves”.

Wills argued for the therapeutic value of love and shared responsibility in a place where staff and residents lived and worked together. His vision played an important part in the development of what are now called therapeutic communities.

One Quaker who heeded this call was a probation officer in Suffolk, Geoffrey Brogden. When a Quaker feels compelled to act by what they call an “inward light”, they are deemed to be “acting under concern”. It is not to be confused with being concerned, but recognised as an undeniable impetus to take action. Brogden continued to raise his concern to help disturbed young people until it was adopted by the wider Quaker community as a common vision. By 1965, a working group had secured funding for a property, and Glebe House opened its doors.

TODAY, staff at Glebe House are not required to be Quakers, and there has never been an evangelistic element to their work; but everything has a little Quakerly harmony to it, even the landscape gardening. On arrival, one of the first things a new resident will see is a small bridge curving over a stream. “We like the image of crossing over and moving into the new,” Mr Clarke says.

That sense of a fresh start is present in the classroom, too, Ms Thomas explains. “The teachers of the school don’t have access to the full history of the boys; so it gives the boys a place to go and just be themselves rather than be their entire psychological and emotional history.

“A lot of them missed significant amounts of education. There was a lad who arrived with a reading age of about seven. His ability to actually engage in the mainstream classroom was very limited. Just being able to do artwork and creativity helps him to be able to feel more confident and comfortable. He would come into the classroom and draw, or paint, or work with clay and talk with the teacher about what was on his mind, and then be able to get down to something a bit more reading-and-writing based.”

GLEBE HOUSEArtwork on display at Glebe House

Every activity on Glebe House’s three-acre campus is designed to be therapeutic — informed not just by compassion but in the light of research that shows that reoffending rates drop when a young person is equipped with educational achievements, independence, and increased self-esteem.

“These guys are giving you life skills,” Kyle says. “They’re giving you everything you need to know when you’re out of here.”

Outside the classroom, residents can be found practising pottery in the art studio, learning to drive on a car track, growing vegetables on an allotment, or even preparing for an annual panto, performed inside a fully equipped theatre. Each new resident undergoes a five-week assessment to determine if such a fenceless environment is suitable for them, and if they are open to change.

“I felt so, so, so lucky to be there,” Kyle says, recalling his first day. “You’re going from a place where you’ve got bars around you to a place which is in the middle of nowhere. There were never anyone in there who asked ‘Oh, why you in here?’ because everyone’s there for a similar reason; so that paranoia just went out the window, and, in two years there, I just cracked on and did what I had to do.”

Most residents will spend two to three years on a programme that is structured around three daily community meetings and regular individual therapy sessions to explore feelings and relationships with others.

Daily life at Glebe House is built on the Four Cornerstones model devised by the social anthropologist Robert Rapoport. These are: communalism, democracy, tolerance, and reality confrontation. In practice, this means that challenging behaviour is tolerated if no one is placed in any danger. A clear code is in place (including the fact that residents are not allowed in each others’ bedrooms), but many rules are regularly discussed and negotiated.

“Community meetings are now actually chaired by one of the boys who can get trained up when they get more than halfway through the programme,” Ms Thomas says. The resident chairmen can also attend staff interviews and contribute to policy making.

WHILE life at Glebe House can be idyllic, every resident has to come to terms with their past. “Ultimately, that’s what people want,” Kyle says. “They want you to find out why you did it. That’s what’s going to help you prevent from doing it in the future. I could never answer that question to anyone when I first went there. I could never see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Before that breakthrough came, Kyle vividly remembers the day that his future felt possible again. “Some people need to see people who’ve actually come out the other end, and that’s what happened to me in Glebe House. There was a bloke [a former resident] who came there. He had a wife, he had a kid, and he just came and spoke to some of the staff. And that to me were like, ‘That’s what I want to be like.’ It makes people go ‘Wow, there is actually light.’ And that’s what a lot of kids don’t have.”

Seven clinical psychologists help the residents to take those first steps into healthy relationships through reflection on the past and setting goals for the future.

“We were doing therapy every single day,” Kyle says. “When you disclose your own information it is very hard. There are a lot of tears and angry emotions. But when you look at your behaviour and your pattern, it really puts into perspective how it starts and how it finishes. And that’s when you can sort of recognise what gave you the urge to start doing that sexual activity. You realise why you did it: you felt powerless, you felt not wanted. It all just came together. Now I never had that in the children’s unit I was in — digging into the core stuff.”

GLEBE HOUSEGlebe House

These emotional growing pains can be brutally liberating for the residents. “It really hit you in terms of what you’ve done,” Kyle says.

On the toughest days, Kyle found strength from the other boys when they told their stories in a circle and gave each other advice. “The lads there in my time helped give me a voice,” Kyle says.

“About a year in, I felt different. I felt like there was a future. It’s like someone’s put you to sleep and they’ve sort of healed you and you’ve woke up and thought, ‘Wow, I feel different now.’ But it’s all down to yourself, it’s not just the staff there. You’ve got to have the belief in yourself to go, ‘Right, I want to change.’”

“You don’t know how much you mean to people until the last day,” he says.

Kyle admits that Glebe House is “like a little bubble”, so special care is taken when it is time to move on. “They’re not just cast off in the world,” Ms Thomas says. “There is a transition team giving face-to-face and telephone support. If a former resident has a crisis, they know they can be heard and not get fobbed off.”

Part of that support is a partnership with Circles UK, another organisation with a Quaker history. Its volunteers offer support and accountability groups to help sex-offenders rejoin their communities without reoffending. Glebe House is the first provider to run this work with teenagers.

“If I need any support in the community, they’re there,” Kyle says. He felt ready to “crack on with life” after attending Circles for more than a year.

Today, Kyle is doing things that felt impossible when he was first sentenced. “I work full-time now, and I rent my own nice little place. So I do all right,” he says. “I’m engaged. That’s always been hard, explaining to your partner what you’ve done, but I’ve always felt I’ve had a bit of luck on my side. I made the wrong choice as a child, and my parents didn’t help, but I knew in my head that I wanted to come out the other end and be able to say to people ‘Listen, there is light at the end of the tunnel.’”

KYLE’S success story is not a fluke. A ten-year piece of research into Glebe House drew on interviews with 43 young men in its care, and found that only 16 per cent reoffended after leaving, compared with 44 per cent of a comparison group (comprising 43 young people who were referred to Glebe House but did not become residents). The young men also agreed that Glebe House helped to heal their own experiences of abuse and neglect.

But Glebe House can accommodate only 17 residents at any given time, which means that most children displaying harmful sexual behaviour will not experience a place.

In 2017, the children’s charity Barnardo’s learned that allegations that children had committed sexual offences against other children had risen 78 per cent in England and Wales across a four-year period. It’s a bleak headline, though experts remain optimistic.

Anna Glinski is deputy director of knowledge and practice development at the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, and a qualified social worker. She has praised the work of Glebe House, and sees a bright future ahead.

GLEBE HOUSEArtwork on display at Glebe House

“We need to have a sense of hope about it, because, actually, we can get on top of this,” Ms Glinski explains. “What we know is the majority of children and young people who sexually abuse as children and young people don’t go on to do that as adults if they’re given the right support. And so giving them the right support is really important.

“And it’s truly preventative. . . Unless we treat the kind of cause of the problems, really, we’re not going to get on top of it. So just locking children up isn’t going to solve the problem.”

More prevention may be on the horizon after recommendations from a landmark 2016 parliamentary inquiry into the support received by children displaying harmful sexual behaviour. A cross-party panel of MPs, supported by Barnardo’s, heard a unified call for system-wide transformation “based on the principle that the children in question are children first and offenders second”.

Several teenagers spoke at the inquiry to tell their stories of harmful sexual behaviour, and what changed when they came to Glebe House. One of those young people was Kyle. His testimony contributed to key recommendations in Barnardo’s report Now I Know It Was Wrong, that demands a national strategy for consistent approaches to preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour. This would include training for police, social workers, teachers, and lawyers.

Kyle is proud of this moment. “When we send people into a prison, that’s not help,” he says. “If there were more places like Glebe House, the rate of reoffending would just drop massively, because people need help. There’s not a lot out there for people going into care homes that are not very specialised.”

Alongside the bigger changes, Ms Glinski believes that we all have a part to play. “If we actually start naming things and talking about them, I think we have a really good chance,” she says. “So, if we name problems as they arise as soon as a child or young person does something that isn’t appropriate for their age and stage, then we say to them why it’s not appropriate, and respond in a way that’s helpful.

“What we tend to do is, we just don’t speak because we’re all frightened to talk about it. Therefore, sexual abuse thrives, it absolutely thrives in secrecy. I think our responsibility as adults and as a society is to start talking about it.”

For parents, Ms Glinski recommends the online resources at Parents Protect, which is run by the Lucy Faithfull foundation, the only UK-wide charity dedicated solely to preventing child sexual abuse.

I asked Ms Thomas how someone specifically interested in Glebe House’s mission could support their work, beyond making a donation. “If people can offer up some time to help us then that’s great,” she says. “Also, I’d like a prayer for support, just to say ‘I uphold your work.’”

The meaning of that work is something that Kyle pauses to reflect on. “I just say it’s a second chance of life. I felt so lucky.”

Sarah Woolley is a freelance writer.

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