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Let's Talk

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Let's Talk

VOL. 31, NO. 3

Circles of Support and Accountability

What Works

BY Bill Rankin, Communications Officer, Communications and Citizen Engagement Sector

Photos: Bill Rankin

Wil Tonowski, Vince Bevan, Lawrence Greenspon, Roxanne Lief
Left to right: Edmonton Police Detective Wil Tonowski, former Ottawa Police Chief Vince Bevan, human rights lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, Roxanne Lief, Director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy at the What Works conference

Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), the 12-year old volunteer-run initiative that has proven to be an effective method for dealing with high-risk, high-needs sex offenders released at warrant expiry into communities across Canada, was highlighted at a recent national conference in Ottawa.

Public Safety Canada Minister Stockwell Day, in his opening remarks at the What Works conference, invited participants to bring forward ideas for reducing the rate of repeat offences. In response, respected human rights lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, Edmonton and Toronto police detectives Wil Tonowski and Wendy Leaver, former Ottawa Police Chief Vince Bevan, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) staff, and others praised the CoSA program for its long track record of effectiveness. 

How It Started

Just how does CoSA work and where did it start? CoSA-Ottawa program director Susan Love explains:

“CoSA originated in Hamilton in 1994 with Mennonite Pastor Harry Nigh, who befriended a mentally delayed, repeat sex offender — a man who had been in and out of institutions his entire life. Nigh and some of his parishioners formed a support group and obtained funding from the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario and CSC to keep the group going. It was effective; the man did not re-offend.”

A few months later, a similar situation arose in Toronto that would play a large part in CoSA’s inception. Another sex offender had been released amid a public outcry and a circle was formed to support him. And again, it worked. From these two acts, which mirrored the “radical hospitality” espoused by the Christian Gospels, sprang what has since become a world-renowned project embraced by faith and non-faith groups alike.

Creating National Unity

Today, the organization has chapters in Canadian cities from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia, each with the same mission statement but separate in every other way. This lack of unity is a situation that CoSA leaders want to change. They hope to meet soon to discuss a more strategic approach and ways to develop a stronger national voice.

“Nobody can deny the effectiveness of CoSA,” says Love. “We walk with these guys, form a surrogate family around them, offer them practical support and a friendly ear. Each offender signs a covenant to commit to the terms of the program, including being involved for a minimum period of one year. They must have a two-fold motivation for joining: not to return to prison and, most importantly, never to harm another person again.

“Another great thing about CoSA is its cost-effectiveness. It’s run by volunteers and they make it work. There’s no question about it. To my knowledge, none of our guys in Ottawa, current or past, have re-offended sexually. And studies have shown that it reduces recidivism rates by about 60 percent.”

Motivation to Help

Susan Love
Susan Love, Ottawa Program Director, Circles of Support and Accountability

When one CoSA volunteer was asked what prompted him to work with sex offenders, he replied, “I used to be like everyone else. I hated these guys. Then I met one. I realized pretty quickly that he’s just like me. He’s a human being just like I am. Once I understood that, I could not turn my back on him. I hate what he’s done but if he’s willing to do his part, I’m willing to be there to help him. I don’t want there to be any more victims.”

No more victims is the bottom line and with the help of CSC and other supporters, CoSA will continue to make Canadian communities safer places to live.

For more information, see the evaluation report of the CoSA pilot project. The following is an excerpt: “Overall, CoSA participants have been responsible for considerably less sexual, violent, and general offending in comparison to their matched compatriots, ultimately contributing to savings both financially and, more importantly, in regard to human suffering.” Robin J. Wilson, Janice E. Picheca and Michelle Prinzo, Correctional Service of Canada. ♦