Protecting Ourselves from Sex Offenders
One program models how churches can effectively minister to a despised population.

Sex offenders are feared and despised in today's world. They are seen as monsters who, at any moment, might pounce upon their unsuspecting prey, especially children. The general perception is that sex offenders are more dangerous than other criminals. As such, they have become pariahs against whom the public seeks to protect itself. They are the lepers of today who live at the fringes of society.

Sex offenders in the criminal justice system

In response to widespread fear of sex offenders, society is using the criminal justice system in a particularly aggressive manner. Many states have passed laws that are intended to inflict punishment and prevent future sex crimes. Some states have increased prison terms for sex offenders. Others have enacted indeterminate sentencing laws with harsh punishment for repeat offenders. When sex offenders are released from prison, they are placed under parole supervision. The intent of parole is to monitor the parolee as well as to provide services to help with his or her reentry into the community.

In recent years, the focus on rehabilitation has diminished, and the main goals of parole have become surveillance and control. Little attention is given to an offender's needs or rehabilitation during the eventual transition from prison to the community. The result is that risk is increased for both the ex-offender and the community. Reoffense is much more likely without assistance in rehabilitation and in facing the challenges of reentry.

The criminal justice system also neglects to care for the victim of a sex offense. His or her needs are peripheral and are often not addressed throughout the criminal justice process.

Restorative justice as an alternative

If the needs of sex offenders, their victims, and the community are going to be genuinely addressed, a different approach to justice is needed. When sexual offenses are committed, people are harmed. Fear is generated. Relationships are broken. Healing is needed. Restorative justice, with its focus on people, relationships, needs, and responsibilities, has much to offer to everyone touched by a sex offense.

In the restorative justice framework, offenders have an opportunity to take responsibility to make things as right as possible and, in the process, to find healing for themselves. Avenues of healing are opened for victims. Relationships can be restored. The community, by its active participation in a restorative process, becomes safer and less fearful.

Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) is a community-based restorative justice initiative that assists high-risk sex offenders (those considered to have the greatest risk of reoffending) who are released from prison with their reentry into the community. It takes seriously the idea that the community is responsible for its own safety and believes that healing and wholeness for victims and offenders is possible.

COSA began in 1994 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, when a repeat child molester named Charlie was released from prison at the end of his term. Because he had served his entire sentence, he had no parole supervision. Charlie was considered to be at high risk of reoffense because of his history and his lack of support. A prison psychologist contacted a pastor who had had some previous contact with Charlie and asked if he could provide support for him when he was released from prison. The pastor agreed and gathered a small group of people who agreed to assist Charlie in whatever way they could.

The group, which became known as "Charlie's Angels," befriended Charlie and helped him with his transition into the community, including practical things like finding a place to live. As friends, they were there for him as he worked through issues from his past and his present, confronting him if they thought he was at risk of reoffending. At first, the community was in an uproar when Charlie was released. Threats were made against Charlie and his "angels." Over time, the fear subsided when he did not reoffend. Charlie died on Christmas Day in 2005 of natural causes, never having reoffended after his release from prison.

A second high-profile pedophile was released from prison in Ontario a few months after Charlie. A support group was gathered for him as well, in the face of community fear and outrage at his release. This offender lived without reoffending until he died of natural causes in September 2007.

Seeing the positive results of the two circles that formed in 1994, the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario was awarded a grant to fund the project from the Correctional Service of Canada. There are now COSA projects in every province in Canada. Several other countries, and a few states, are exploring COSA, with projects already established in some areas.

"No more victims"; "no one is disposable"

The mission of COSA is "to substantially reduce the risk of future sexual victimization of community members by assisting and supporting released sex offenders in their task of integrating with the community and leading responsible, productive, and accountable lives." This mission can be simplified to two guiding principles: (1) "No more victims" and (2) "No one is disposable." It is with this dual focus on community safety and offender rehabilitation that COSA takes on the challenge of working with released sex offenders.

A COSA is made up of four to six community volunteers who gather around an ex-offender, who is called the "core member." These volunteers are in turn supported by volunteer professionals who provide advice and guidance as necessary. Robin Wilson, a psychologist who has been involved with COSA from its inception in Canada, illustrates COSA with two concentric circles. The inner circle is made up of the core member and community volunteers; the outer circle is comprised of professionals who lend their support.

Participation in COSA is voluntary for offenders. The COSA team selects participants based on risk, need, and the offender's desire to participate in the program.

A COSA always keeps its focus on two aspects: support and accountability. Both are provided in the context of friendship. Support is provided as the core member works to transition from prison to the community. This support generally begins with practical concerns, such as helping a core member find housing and transportation, obtain a driver's license or ID, register with police, acquire clothing, or meet other immediate needs. Volunteers walk with the core member as friends through the good and bad times. They provide emotional, physical, and spiritual support.

Along with support comes accountability. Circle members confront the core member about attitudes or behaviors as necessary. They watch to see if the core member is doing what is required. The circle becomes familiar with the core member's offense history and pattern of offending so that they are able to recognize signs warning of reoffending.

Effectiveness and results

There are many stories of success coming out of the first several years of COSA in Ontario. Many others like Charlie, the first COSA core member, have continued to live offense-free lives in the community. Two studies have been conducted to measure the effectiveness of the COSA program, one in 2005 to evaluate the pilot project, the other in 2007 to measure the effectiveness of COSA across Canada.

Both studies found much lower rates of recidivism among offenders who participated in the COSA program compared to those who did not participate. COSA was found to have a significant positive effect on the core members, volunteers, and professionals involved, and on the community as a whole.

Through COSA, core members experience new possibilities in life. They gain new social skills and new confidence. They form new friendships. They experience pride in not reoffending. They contribute to the community. All of this is possible because of relationships. The relationships formed between circle volunteers and the core member are the bridge to successful reentry into the community and to safe living with no more victims.

COSA also offer victims hope for healing. They will facilitate a meeting between victims and offenders, if such a meeting is desired by both parties.

COSA provides an opportunity for the community to participate in making a safe place for everyone. By taking an active role in the management of high-risk sex offenders, COSA holds out possibilities that go far beyond keeping offenders at a distance with registration and residency requirements. More than just seeking to prevent future victimization, COSA provides opportunities for growth, healing, and hope for all who are touched in some way by the horror of a sex offense. All this is possible when the community takes responsibility and reclaims its capacity to restore peace.

Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower is Associate and Program Director of the Circles of Support and Accountabiity Project of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University. She is an ordained Mennonite minister.

This article is an adaptation of Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower's chapter, "Working with Sex Offenders," in The Promise of Restorative Justice: New Approaches for Criminal Justice and Beyond, edited by John P. J. Dussich and Jill Schellenberg. Copyright © 2010 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher.

Editor's Note: To learn more about handling sex offenders, register for the free webinar, "Integrating Sex Offenders into Faith Communities," presented by Richard Hammar and Marian Liautaud on Wednesday, August 22, 2012, at 10 a.m. PT/11 a.m. CT/12 noon ET. Also, see the eBook Integrating Sex Offenders in Faith Communities, and the downloadable training resources, Sex Offenders in the Church and Juvenile Offenders in the Church.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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