Managing High Risk Sexual Offenders—A Canadian Approach

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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.

About John Lesow

Closed Account • Member since Mar 21, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Nov 20, 2017


Thanks for this rational piece on a topic that too often gets distorted by the fact that the offense has to do with sex.  COSA seems to be an new opportunity to look at the way we approach the problem of sexual offenders, however, I am always a wee bit reticent about solutions that flow from faith-based entities.  That is not, however, a show stopper.

We certainly do need a new way of approaching the conviction, sentencing and ultimate reintegration of these individuals but in the current atmosphere that surrounds the sexual predators in film and politics (and just about everywhere else), is that possible? 

A dialogue on this would be welcome but it seems that our readers are avoiding this topc, eh?



John Lesow

Nov 20, 2017


So it appears…thanks for responding.

 I have received comments thru my private e mail over the past two days. This is apparently a  discussion many would prefer to have in private. 

The first was from a Washington resident citing an instance of misuse of the Sexual Offender Registry—a young couple fell in love, the parents of the significant other didn’t want them together so they filed a sexual assault charge and got the young man put on the Registry.  I don’t know the details, but the writer makes a good point.  There are vindictive people out there who misuse the criminal justice system for their own nefarious purposes.   

The second e mail was from a friend in California that generally agreed with the COSA objectives, but elaborated on her own experience of having several sexual offenders being placed  near her retirement community outside San Diego.  These offenders are apparently provided with housing,  groceries, transportation, etc.  at state expense.  

Neither of these examples pertain to the function of COSA or, in my experience, the way sexual offenders are handled in the Vancouver/Fraser Valley region.  Their living circumstances are difficult, as I have described. 

I do know that the COSA program  is a very cost effective way of dealing with reintegration of sexual offenders.  Face it, they are all going to be released back into the community at some time.  There is no Provincial expense for the time and counseling services provided by COSA volunteers.  Thanks to the generosity of the Catholic  church and other community organizations, the facilities are also provided free of charge. 




Joy Gilfilen

Nov 24, 2017

This is a huge, huge topic for labelling people as a “sex offender” often triggers total fear and confusion in the conversations.  This is why doing the COSA Circles is a good thing; much like Restorative Circles is useful; and much like conflict resolution work, de-escalation training, relationship training workshops , family dynamics, and addiction recovery programs are all extremely useful. 

This is especially so in a society that is constantly being challenged to examine itself,   being fed violence and sexual games in the media, we have cross cultural challenges and beliefs around what is acceptable or expected behaviors, etc.  It is a challenging world we are living in.  

I don’t have alot of time right now, but keep in mind that there are  several different kinds of people we are dealing with who are all considered “sex offenders”

1)  Truly dysfunctional, sick-minded, dangerous people out there that need restraint, rules, specific kinds of treatment.   And the public needs education about how to recognize the danger, deal with it safety and how to defend oneself as this situation unfolds.  Some of these folks need to live in restricted housing situations, with case managers, etc.  The public needs to learn how to deal with them as well, and learn how to stay in safe territory, and learn de-escalation training, self-defense, public protection tools.

2) Then there are others who have in truth caused harm and violated ethics, cultural norms, age barriers, messed up due to impairment of various kinds - and they need relationship and social retraining.  They have just come from a jail or prison environment, have economic and cultural consequences and they need help with re-education, and they need the compassion and experience of learning how to deal with  people in a safe manner.  COSA is a brilliant solution.   Thank you John for your volunteer work here. 

3)  Then there are people who have been convicted and found guilty of an alleged crime, but perhaps there is no victim, or perhaps they are victims of reverse violence that resulted in their blame or shaming, or maybe they were set up or not guilty at all.  Perhaps some of them are in truth targets of abusive ex-partners, or victims of the police or law and justice system, or made mistakes based on external circumstances that the public does not know.  Perhaps they need help re-acculturating, and dealing with the ostracisim and impacts of something that did happen, but perhaps they are being excessively judged and penalized.  How do you explain that you were found guilty, but are not…without sounding like you are in denial and not taking accountability?  How do you explain to others that they truly are safe around you? 

Did you know that in some circumstances if you get caught peeing in a park (because you can’t find a toilet), or swimming naked in the wrong river, or flashing someone…can get you labelled as a sex offender?  Many young people I knew in the 70’s did all of these things, but did not get caught by a zealot who could arrest them.  

I met one fellow who came to one of our meetings, and I will never forget when he told me, “Please, I am afraid to come into the meeting, but just remember, “Educate before Incarcerate.”  Many folks who end up in prison had no idea that what they were doing was wrong..  Give people a chance to know what they did, before they are condemned forever.”     

Later I spoke with him at length, and I learned that he was homeless as a castaway from society labelled as a sex offender, yet had never consummated sex with a partner.  He went to prison based on a family situation where doing certain things inside the family was acceptable as part of childhood play.  When he got into high school, he ended up in a compromised foreplay situation with someone whose family accused him of rape, and he was put away.  Then the skewed training in prison was further dysfunction, so he had no idea how to normalize  and was terrified of making another mistake.  

Bottomline, I have learned that labels do not equal a person.  And victims can be on all sides of the legal process, sometimes even caught inside the system as a staff person.  Mass incarceration has created many destructive side effects that deserve to be unravelled.  It takes a restorative community circles of many different kinds to help us move through our social, economic and civic dysfunctions.  

Trauma.  Unresolved trauma (usually from childhood) is often at the root of so many problems, and they often can be resolved with understanding, comprehension and re-training.  Incarceration often simply exaccerbates the trauma. 

We have a long way to go in our community to learn how to recalibrate our systems…and COSA is a good idea. 



Dick Conoboy

Nov 24, 2017


What a wonderful, common sense summary of the many aspects to the issue about which we tend to go off the rails of justice. A few days ago, William Kaufman wrote about one piece of this entitled “The Great American Sex Panic of 2017” playing out daily and to which you alluded in your point (2) above. I am as uncomfortable about this “Panic” as Kaufman who has managed to articulate it much better than I ever could and to place it on the continuum of issues about which we should really be concerned but tend to give a pass for reasons of an embedded hypocrisy.

Excerpt: “So this is not just a moral panic—but a bizarre inversion of values in which Bill Clinton can murder 500,000 Iraqi children, throw millions of poor women and their children off welfare, and instigate the global rule of transnational corporations with NAFTA, but he is not impeached or stigmatized for any of those atrocities but rather for a workplace blowjob; in which Hillary Clinton can lead the charge for the destruction of Libya, reducing that country to primeval rubble, and is not only not fired or ostracized but is rewarded with the Democrats’ presidential nomination and lauded by corporate feminists as a champion of “inclusiveness”; in which Barack Obama pushed fraudulent health-care reform that leaves a barbaric 27 million people with zero coverage and millions more with crippling premiums and deductibles that render their “coverage” all but unusable, thus sentencing tens of thousands of people to death every year because they cannot afford timely medical care, and dropped 26,171 pounds of bombs in 2016 alone, and yet he is not only not reviled and abominated as a con artist but is worshipped as an icon of enlightened governance; in which the entire ruling elite and its associates in the corporate media are chronically underplaying—indeed, scarcely mentioning—the gravity of the climate change crisis, which would merely spell the end of the human species within a hundred years, yet no copycat 24/7 umbrage or five-alarm indignation on the part of anyone in those elite circles or their acolytes over this unprecedented planetary emergency.”