What are Circles?

By Dr. Robin Wilson and Andrew McWhinnie

Sexual offenders are unwelcome in virtually every community. The mere thought that such a person might possibly move to one’s community inflames negative public sentiment beyond seemingly every other contemporary social issue. Until recently, some released sexual offenders in Florida were living under bridges. Now, they have been evicted from even those locations. In other jurisdictions, there is virtually no place within city limits that is not within 1000 feet of a park, school, daycare, or community centre. As a society, we are slowly but surely banning known sexual offenders from our midst. We are forcing sexual offenders into lives of secrecy. However, given that secrecy is a hallmark of sexual offending, are we, in our haste to rid ourselves of these people, potentially making the situation worse?

The Good Lives Model (Ward & Stewart, 2003) suggests that we must see offenders as whole persons if we hope to achieve maximal reductions in recidivism. Balanced, self-determined lifestyles (Curtiss & Warren, 1973) are, by definition, free of criminal behavior. This is a necessary goal for offenders who seek to change their future and gain some balance and perspective in their lives. For the community at large, we need to remember that offenders were once members of the community and that, with appropriate rehabilitation and monitoring, many of them can likely reclaim some aspect of their former lives. Instead of pigeonholing offenders as Bob – the sexual offender, we need to consider that a more realistic appraisal of the individual requires acknowledgment of Bob-the-son, Bob-the mechanic, and Bob-the-father, among others. It has become increasingly clear that the community’s failure to appreciate the wholeness of offenders has perpetuated the sort of marginal, disaffected anomie that likely contributed to Bob’s offending in the first place.

While many legislators, law enforcement personnel, and members of the community have worked to increase monitoring and decrease access for sexual offenders, others have attempted to build bridges to this population in the hope that engagement will assist in increasing safety. Many in this latter group come from faith communities or other groups steeped in restorative justice traditions.

CoSA is based in and relies upon volunteerism and community connections. In fact, there are two circles that support a Core Member; the inner circle of trained volunteers, and the outer circle of professionals who support, train and guide the inner circle. If you are interested in getting involved in the inner or outer circle, we want to hear from you. Please contact the CoSA Coordinator of your region (you can find the coordinates in the List of CoSA sites in Canada).

Circle Volunteers:

  • Mediate on behalf of the core member with the community (e.g. neighbours, church, media, police, social services, victims’ groups)
  • Advocate for the rights of the core member with various systems (e.g. police, treatment professionals, courts)
  • Confront the core member about behaviour or attitudes that cause concern
  • Walk with Core Member through emergencies
  • Celebrate anniversaries, milestones and small victories
  • Provide friendship and support to the core member
  • Assist with living skill development
  • Help provide a healthy social environment
  • Respect confidentiality within the ’circle’
  • Respect the no secrets rule
  • Support the other volunteers

The Outer ‘Circle’ of professionals and community partners support the inner circle in many ways. They can provide training throughout the year in related areas (communication, small group dynamics, addictions, mental health); serve on the advisory committee, providing guidance in difficult situations and support in challenging emotional circumstances; offer administrative support, or be involved in community outreach. The possibilities are endless – if you would like to help CoSA in any way, please contact your local site coordinator.

The Circle is guided by an agreement, called a Covenant, that is signed by all Circle members, that outlines the responsibilities and expectations of the volunteers and Core Member, including a Statement of Confidentiality that addresses the limits to confidentiality should s/he breach his legal conditions or re-offends.

CoSA works in close partnership with criminal justice agencies such as police, parole/probation as well as mental health practitioners. Professionals in related fields assist in a number of ways including: providing advice on matters pertaining to our Core Members’ risk management, assisting with volunteer training, and sitting on local sites’ Board of Directors or Advisory Committees.