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 offenses involving young boys, this was not good news for the residents of Hamilton, Ontario, where Charlie was planning to reside. Moreover, some of Charlie’s friends and congregants of a local Mennonite community church, had no idea that they were about to change the way people considered “high risk” were received in Canadian communities and internationally. 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. And Dr. Palmer also knew that once Charlie was released, both he and the CSC would be powerless to do anything about the risks Charlie posed. Dr. Palmer contacted Dr. Robin Wilson, his counterpart working in community corrections in Toronto, Ontario. He wanted to know, was there anything that could be done? Without appropriate supports and supervision, the probability that Charlie would harm another child was high. Dr. Wilson’s response was less than heartening. In essence, 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 Charlie stay safe in the community was needed. But what? To whom could they turn?
The answer came from a circle of friends 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, called “M2 W2 (Man to Man, Woman to Woman).” 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 these friends 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 friends 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 recalls a sense of foreboding, and 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. But that did not happen. 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 reestablishing themselves in community. Members of this faith 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 an accountability component to go along with its supportive work. With that realization, the first of what has now become, “Circles of Support and Accountability” (CoSA) came into being. The roots of CoSA run deep within the community of the faithful, and among the community of restorative justice in south-central Ontario. 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 who were observing that they were witnessing a breakthrough in the reintegration of sex offenders [or, 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” actually functioned in the interest of public safety
The current project recognizes the growth of CoSA in Canada and abroad. It also recognizes the quality of the research that has been done with respect to the South-Central Ontario pilot project, and the apparent success of that project in working with high risk sex offenders (individuals who are at high risk to offend sexually). Further, this project also recognizes that an effort to generalize the earlier research finding was made by looking at other sites in Canada, and that similar outcomes were also observed
A “Circle” involves a group of three to five screened, trained volunteers who commit themselves to support and hold accountable the ‘Core Member’ who is typically assessed as being a high risk to re-offend. Because he has been held to the end of his sentence, he is returning to the community with little or no support available to him and often with much media attention.
The Circle meets together regularly and is guided by a written and signed agreement called a Covenant which outlines the responsibilities and expectations of the Core Member and his Volunteers and includes the ‘promise’ of confidentiality as well as the limits of confidentiality. The Volunteers provide assistance with re-entry challenges (housing, employment, medical needs, etc). The Core Member commits to open communication with the group regarding his identified risk factors and triggers, problematic behavior, attitudes, etc., all in an effort to end his pattern of sexual offending and to increase public safety.
Volunteer members come from all walks of life, ranging in age from 21 and up. They are professionally supported by CoSA staff, Board of Directors and advisors and work in conjunction with community agencies and treatment providers like psychologists, parole or probation officers, the police, and courts.