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|Written by Susan Love|
|Thursday, 24 April 2008 19:00|
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. And the problem is compounded when these offenders are held to the end of their prison sentence (warrant expiry date, WED), made possible under Bill C-67, due to their high risk to reoffend. Although this legislation accomplishes the short-term objective of ensuring public safety during the offender’s incarceration, he will eventually complete his sentence and be released into the community with no accountability to Correctional Services Canada or to the police. CoSA, the Circle of Support and Accountability, was developed to fill this void.
CoSA began its work in 1994 in Hamilton, Ontario, where it had success with a repeat sex offender who was released at WED, when a Mennonite pastor, Rev. Harry Nigh, identified the desperate situation and, with a small group of his parishioners, befriended the offender and set up a support group to help find him a place to live and to minimize his risk to children. When the group first began, the local community was outraged and picketing and death threats to the pastor and his volunteers were regular occurrences. However, as time went on and the man continued to live in the community without incident, concern about his presence subsided. Also in 1994, a second program began in Toronto under a similar set of circumstances for a pedophile with 36 convictions. Both men lived in the community without reoffending for over 10 years – they both died of natural causes.
Due to the success of these two pilot projects, Correctional Services Canada and the Mennonite Central Committee agreed to provide funding to continue support for these men and to expand the initiative across Canada.
CoSA now operates in 22 Canadian cities, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and has become an international model in addressing the global dilemma of sexual victimization. Based on the success of the Ontario projects, CoSA has expanded outside of Canada with programs (or interest) in some states in the United States, as well as in England, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Japan, Israel and Rwanda.
The Ottawa chapter of CoSA in 2002 and, since that time, approximately 20 men have gone through its program, none of which have re-offended sexually. Each offender, along with his volunteers, signs a covenant (contract) to commit to the terms of the program and to agree to be involved for a minimum period of one year. The men who participate voluntarily in the program join to gain support in their efforts to reintegrate into society – quite a daunting task after years of incarceration – but they also commit to never again harming another person.
CoSA is guided by two key principles: “no more victims” and “no one is disposable”. CoSA condemns the offense but, based on restorative justice principles, accepts the person as a human being worthy of the chance to turn his life around and to find a place in society in a crime-free, responsible manner. Studies show that CoSA reduces recidivism by 70%.
The great thing about CoSA is that it is cost-effective as it is fuelled by volunteers. However, it is essential to adequately fund the coordinator’s position so that s/he can invest the requisite time needed to ensure the safe management of the groups, to conduct the training program and recruit and screen new volunteers, and to assess the suitability of applicants for the program. Although this initiative may sound like an essential service that strives to ensure the safety of our citizens – primarily of our children – CoSA-Ottawa surprisingly is funded for a mere 24 hours a month.
To offset this financial shortcoming, Circle of Support and Accountability is holding a benefit concert to raise much-needed funds. The Cambridge Male Chorus, who has been performing for over 45 years, has offered its talents to CoSA. Dave Andrews, an emerging local musician/composer, will kick off the evening and a reception will follow the performances – all are welcome to enjoy refreshments and to mingle with CoSA folks to learn more about the program.
© 2008 Susan Love, Image by CoSA; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.