Long before the recent—and continuing—revelations in the entertainment and political arenas, sexual offending was regarded as one of the most prominent social pathologies. Amid the recent flurry of disingenuous mea culpas by high profile perpetrators, few have offered practical suggestions about how to manage a problem that is obviously entrenched in contemporary society. And likely getting worse.
Indeed, some “treatment programs” are absurd. Does anyone really believe that a Kevin Spacey or a Harvey Weinstein is going to benefit by checking into a sex addiction clinic? Or that libertine Congressmen will mend their ways by attending taxpayer-funded sensitivity training? These approaches offer no benefit to a society that deserves at least a modicum of protection from truly dangerous sexual predators.
It is significant that Canada, with one tenth the population of the U.S., is at the forefront in offering programs that have been shown to significantly reduce recidivism for released sexual offenders.
Since 2004, a Catholic church ministry in the Vancouver/Fraser Valley has been reaching out to these most ostracized and demonized criminals in the system.
Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) is a community based volunteer program that assists sex offenders upon their release from prison. To date, the Vancouver/Fraser Valley chapter has helped 140 men re-integrate into their communities.
The COSA Mission Statement is:
“To substantially reduce the risk of sexual victimization of community members by assisting and supporting released individuals in their task of integrating with the community and leading responsible productive and accountable lives”.
The released offenders are called “Core Members”. A COSA Circle consists of 4-6 volunteers that meet weekly with the Core Member to assist in this reintegration.
Geographically, COSA volunteers cover the area from Vancouver east, through the Fraser Valley to Hope, B.C. A spread of approximately 100 miles. There are presently 13 COSA Circles operating in the area with approximately 60 Volunteers.
Structurally, COSA volunteers are citizens chosen from all walks of life who are willing to help the Core Member adjust to responsible community living. Volunteers share the belief that former offenders can live law-abiding lives when they are assisted and motivated. Volunteers are not paid professionals or employees of the Correctional Services of Canada. Although most volunteers are faith-based, their role is not to proselytize. There is no requirement or expectation that the Core Member be a faith-based person.
Volunteers undergo an extensive criminal background check prior to being approved for a COSA Circle. Once accepted, volunteers commit to meeting with the Core Member and their COSA Circle on a weekly basis for one year. Personal information about volunteers is strictly controlled. Everyone is on a first name basis, including the Core Member. No surnames are shared between Core Members and volunteers. At the end of one year, the Circle is broken and there is no further contact between Core Member and volunteers.
In my Circle, meetings are conducted in a downtown Vancouver church, which ensures privacy and a trusting environment. There are 4 volunteers, two men and two women. From my own experience as a volunteer, this is a good balance. Since most Core Members are male, a Circle consisting of all men or all women could produce different levels of interaction and trust. There are other considerations as well. Some women decline to participate in a COSA Circle due to concerns about being in the presence of a violent sex offender, despite the formal controls and protections afforded Circle members. Another advised that her husband and family would object to her joining a COSA Circle. Honest response, but I have found that the women in our group provide personal levels of insight into the Core Member’s challenges. After all, it was crimes against women that got the offender into trouble in the first place.
There is a significant 80% reduction in re-offending rates among sexual offenders participating in COSA, compared with those who did not. Impressive statistics. It’s not that difficult to understand why.
Picture yourself as a convicted, institutionalized sexual offender. Unlike other members of your prison community (like counterfeiters and gang members) you are uniformly despised by the general prison population. You are always checking your back, and for good reason. If you are deemed at serious risk to re-offend, you will likely be incarcerated until your entire sentence is completed instead of the normal probation after 2/3 time served. No conditional release and no parole. One of the unfortunate side effects of detaining offenders until the last day of their sentence is that these are often the very offenders most in need of gradual, supervised re-entry into the community. They are also the least likely to receive any form of assistance after release.
Things don’t get much better after you are out.
Family and community support, if they ever existed at all, may have vanished. Your living options are few, your funds and ability to make a living are limited and you continue to carry the stigma of being listed on a Sexual Offender Registry. You will continue to report to a parole officer, but that person is not obligated to provide support or advocacy. Parole offices are there to keep an eye on you, and the slightest deviation from your conditions could well land you back in prison. You are prohibited from using the Internet, except for specific work related tasks,due in part to the instant availability of pornography and online escort sites.
You are prohibited from even being present in certain areas of your community, due to the expanding number of areas where prostitution is on open display. Alcohol consumption is prohibited, so you can’t visit a bar and have a beer. In some cases, your have to wear an ankle bracelet, so shorts and bathing suits are out during those hot summer months. You are likely living in sub-standard housing, or a halfway house with it’s own set of problems.
Yet you are expected to “reintegrate” into society. How many could pull that off successfully without some degree of support?
Members of a COSA Circle offer a Core Member practical and emotional support under an umbrella of friendship and trust. Nearly 25% of Core Member concerns deal with feelings of depression, anger and hopelessness, followed by socialization and practical life skills, employment, education and spirituality. Truth be told, how many reading this article don’t have these personal challenges from time to time? And would not welcome the opportunity to sit down with four dispassionate persons and discuss them in a private, non-judgmental atmosphere?
This Core Member testimonial is not untypical of those shared with me over the past year.
“The COSA Circle creates an arena for me to be myself, and to not fear being judged or rejected. Before the Circle, I didn’t know what love is, or how to love. My Mother killed herself when I was 18 and I shut down after that. Being in the Circle, I am learning to function like everyone else in a healthy way, not having to fear going back to prison again, not having to live the way I use to live, not having to think the way I used to think; I was trapped in that whole thinking because, if you can’t let it out and expose the secrets, they entrap you and enslave you completely. COSA represents freedom. It is nice to be accepted for who I really am despite what I have done”.
Today, there are COSA Circles operating across Canada, with concentrations in Toronto (70) and Vancouver (13).
There is some COSA activity in the United States, with projects in Oregon, California, North Carolina, Vermont, Minnesota and Colorado.
One would think that Washington, with a body politic engorged with social justice warriors, would be fertile ground for a COSA program. To date, this has not happened.
But if it does, the successful Vancouver model would be a good one to consider.