The beginning of Circles of Support and Accountability
In the summer of 1994, a man named Charlie was about to be released from an Ontario prison. Convicted of multiple sexual offences against children, this was not good news for the residents of Hamilton, Ontario, where Charlie was planning to reside. Dr. Bill Palmer, a clinical psychologist with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) was Charlie’s therapist in prison. No one knew the risks Charlie posed better than he. Dr. Palmer contacted Dr. Robin Wilson, his counterpart working in community corrections in Toronto, Ontario. He wanted to know what could be done. Without appropriate supports and supervision, the probability that Charlie would harm another child was high. Since Charlie was no longer under supervision (this was prior to the introduction of long term supervision orders in 1997), the criminal justice system had more or less run out of options in Charlie’s case. His release was imminent, there were no services for him and apart from police surveillance, there was little the community could offer Charlie. To Palmer and Wilson, something—anything—that would help ensure the community’s, and Charlie’s safety as he reintegrated. But what? To whom could they turn?
The answer came from a circle of volunteers that had come around Charlie during the last time he had been out, and from the Rev. Harry Nigh and his congregants at the Mennonite church. Harry Nigh knew Charlie from the time when he headed a person-to-person outreach to prisoners. Further, some of the people who had known Charlie the last time he had been released had been exploring ways of supporting Charlie this time and had also been in contact with Reverend Nigh. Bill Palmer contacted Harry Nigh and this group of people and facilitated a meeting at the penitentiary to plan for Charlie’s release. It was there that the idea of the “circle of ongoing support” was brought up—“a Charlie’s Angels group” as Harry referred to it in his minutes.
The idea was drawn from other work these volunteers had been experimenting with in supporting other ex-prisoners to live offence-free, and from an even earlier initiative which had proved successful in supporting people with disabilities to live independently in the community. In hindsight, Reverend Nigh recalled a sense of foreboding.He knew he could also have simply said there was nothing he or his church community could do, and that Charlie, in fact, posed too great a risk for their small community to take on. Instead, Harry gathered several people from his Hamilton congregation, and together they fashioned a response of “circling” people like Charlie to provide support for them as they worked at re-establishing themselves in community. Members of this community responded by welcoming Charlie in their midst. Charlie presented many challenges to this first circle, and soon they realized that the circle needed to have a clear balance of support and accountability. With that realization, the first of what has now become, “Circles of Support and Accountability” (CoSA) came into being. A second circle followed quickly on the heels of this first innovative response on behalf of community members to a serious threat to their collective safety.
It soon became apparent to those involved and to many others that they were witnessing a breakthrough in the reintegration of individuals who had offended sexually. These observations were made known to the then Commissioner of Corrections, John Edwards, who agreed to fund a pilot project in the cities of Hamilton and Toronto. As part of that pilot, organizers were required to collect the necessary empirical evidence to show that “CoSA” was effective in advancing public safety.
CoSA sites across Canada were federally funded under a five-year project between 2009 and 2014, and are now again funded by a federal project through 2022 that is administered by CoSA Canada. Both projects have recognized that individuals who take part in CoSA programs after incarceration have a reduced rate of recidivism, reflecting the success of the program in advancing community safety.