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Calling a sex offender 'friend' Circles of Support & Accountability helps reintegrate and reduce risks

10-19-2013 Canada:

Friends, family, a job, a place to live, they're the trappings of a life most people take for granted - unless you're a released high-risk sex offender.

They are the pariahs of the Canadian criminal justice system, both inside and outside prison walls.

The recent panic and school lockdowns surrounding high risk Alberta sex offender Michael Sean Stanley, who went on the lam after cutting off his monitoring ankle bracelet, is a tangible example of the anxiety they instil.

But few will be locked away forever. The correctional system is built on the notion of rehabilitation - go to prison, get some help and you ideally come out a reformed criminal, ready to re-join a society you have been away from for years, sometimes decades.

But society is waiting with closed doors not open arms because you're a sex offender, seemingly reformed or not.

If you're alienated and unable to weave your way back into the fabric of society, the risk of falling back into old habits, under the old pressures, of ultimately reoffending goes up. But few people want to risk opening the door - to a job, to an apartment, even to a shopping mall at times - because you might reoffend.

Tom is living that catch-22.

He looks so altogether ordinary - a kindly middle-aged face, groomed, simply dressed. He speaks well, likes a good game of bridge and has a gentle wit.

The picture contrasts sharply with an image of the younger version of this man, captured in reports and old news clippings - angry, addicted, out of control, and seemingly without conscience as his terrifying, violent crimes left a string of damaged victims.

Never finishing one sentence before adding a new one, he has now served more than three decades - most of his adult life - behind bars. His victims - none of whom were children - would likely say it still isn't enough; the law has deemed otherwise.

He's now trying to create a life in Regina, "outside the wall," as he calls it.

When first released, his reputation preceded him after he became the subject of a public disclosure warning in Regina. Another smaller community was up in arms when word got out that he was considering a move there.

He doesn't begrudge the police for putting out a warning, which also urges the public against vigilantism.

"They're letting the public know there's a person like myself in their community," says Tom, who agreed to speak to the Leader-Post on the condition he not be identified. He is real; the name "Tom" isn't.

"I'm not out here to hurt anybody. What I done was very horrible," he readily admits.

With plans announced recently by the Stephen Harper government to create a publicly accessible national sex offender registry, even more people like Tom will be under a microscope.

"There are steps I've taken now to ensure things like that will never happen again," he says.

His key to finding his way - and hopefully success - is a group of community volunteers who aren't afraid to call a sex offender "friend."

"I've been out twice before. I always reoffended and went back in. This is the longest period of time I've been out. And that's because of COSA."

Circles of Support and Accountability or COSA began informally in Regina in the 1990s to assist people like Tom. It's essentially a circle of friends with volunteers from all walks of life who meet regularly with an offender, try to show him a "positive path," challenge him when he veers from it, and hopefully reduce his risk. In COSA, Tom is known as a "core member" not an offender.

"The one thing I don't think people understand is it takes a community to help a person reintegrate," says Amanda Richter Goddard, co-ordinator for COSA's South Saskatchewan branch, based in Regina. "Our mandate here is we don't want anymore victims ... And providing that accountability and supportive relationship to these guys has shown to be the way to help them reintegrate safely."

What began informally with one offender who remains involved in COSA to this day - "he's never reoffended," Richter Goddard quickly adds - became an official organization in 2002.

In that time, COSA in the province's south has worked with 25 core members. In more recent years, COSA groups have also formed in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

"Right now we have a 95-per-cent success rate," Richter Goddard says of the 25 circles in Regina and area. That means 24 have never reoffended sexually or otherwise, excluding breaches of court-ordered conditions, such as breaking curfew or drinking.

One federal study found "most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually over time." After 20 years, 73 per cent of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence, the report notes.

"It's really hard to sit down and statistically show community members that people who have offended sexually have the lowest recidivism rates," says Richter Goddard. "It doesn't matter to people."

Otto Driedger has been with COSA since the beginning, was a consultant when it began nationally, and is currently a volunteer in Tom's circle, one of 15 active circles in southern Saskatchewan. A retired University of Regina human justice professor, Driedger recalls all too clearly the high price of helping a paroled sex offender.

"He was stoned," interjects Driedger's wife Florence, who is also in Tom's circle. She means that quite literally.

When a core member, whose offences involved children, was forced by residents to move from a neighbourhood, Driedger returned the next day to collect the man's belongings. A resident hurled stones at the professor.

"That was the most intensive kind of a thing we've had. And that was in the beginning. There's been a lot of public education since then," says Driedger. Still, they speak of one core member who isn't allowed in a Regina shopping mall - not because of anything he's done but because of the trouble his presence might stir up.

The Driedgers and Richter Goddard talk of the "barriers" offenders face in trying to move from long-term prisoner to lawabiding citizen.

Many of the fellows - all the core members are men - have trouble finding work. Florence recalls one who was on the job for three days with a major Regina company - until his record check came back and head office directed the employer to cut him loose.

"When you have those kinds of situations, it really deflates a person. You don't have the self esteem," she says.

Tom has been fortunate to find work. His employer knows he was in prison and for how long - but not necessarily for what crimes. "She just says, 'At least you're here everyday.' " It's a minimum wage position, and he'll need to do better if he's to afford his own apartment some day. He has put out a lot of applications. "It's very hard to find jobs - especially if you're a sex offender," says Tom.

Driedger has, on occasion, met the criticism head on, meeting with community members to explain COSA's approach.

"If you have a person in your community who has offended sexually - if you are hostile toward, alienate him even more, then there's a much higher risk of him reoffending than if you relate to the person in a positive kind of way. And take precautions," he says.

"Now, nobody can assure that it's not going to happen, but you can minimize the possibility by not having alienation," he adds.

Florence recalls a core member who once confessed, "I don't know what's normal." So institutionalized, the man thought the woman who served his morning java at a local coffee shop must be coming on to him with her smiles and pleasantries. The circle enlightened him on common courtesy.

COSA tries to have both men and women in a circle. "Persons who have offended sexually - some of them have a feeling that women are sex objects," says Driedger, adding the circle helps them relate to women as people.

And for offenders who have suffered sexual abuse in their past at the hands of a man, being able to build a positive relationship with a male is also crucial.

When he arrived at a Regina halfway house a few years ago, Tom joined COSA on the recommendation of his parole officer and a fellow parolee.

"I came to Regina and I only knew three people, so getting involved with COSA was really helpful for me. It introduced me to a whole new range of other people."

Like an arranged marriage, the initial meeting was nerve-racking. "But I figured that, after listening for a while, that it was in my best interests to be open and honest right away," he adds.

From the tentative first steps grew a friendship that saw Tom and another core member host a barbecue at the Driedgers' Regina home. "Where else would you have people from COSA, parole and police all mingle in the same setting," says Tom, adding that he and the other member wanted to say thanks.

The program has won the support of Regina police.

"In talking with our own people - people who understand and appreciate the role of COSA members and volunteers - they give people a lot of credit for their patience and their generosity and their willingness to work with people that most of society would shun," says police spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich.

In addition to being a positive role model, volunteers can help with routine things many take for granted - getting a bus card, shopping for groceries, going to a bank, making a doctor's appointment, or - as Tom quips at one point - sort out why a so-called "zero-dollar" cellphone still costs money. "If someone has been removed from society and incarcerated, all these little things can become stressors," Popowich says. "And it might become an opportunity for failure."

Popowich likens COSA's role to watching a pot of liquid on the stove.

"Nobody can predict when the liquid inside will reach its boiling point. And if we wait until we see the bubbles rising, it might be too late. But COSA - it's like they're in there and they're testing the water and identifying hot spots and trying to take measures to even things out again. And the testing comes through all of those interactions, the time spent with the core members."

Asked about his successful reintegration this time, Tom says another key difference was his decision not to return home. It helped him avoid falling back into old patterns of drug and alcohol use. He also meets weekly with a psychologist to tackle his own abuse issues from his past.

And for friendship and support, Tom meets regularly with his circle. Sometimes, they do little more than play bridge and swap stories. But it's a normalcy Tom never expected to find on the outside.

"It's not so much people I can turn to. It's people I can trust, because the trust issue is a big thing," says Tom. "They're one basic concern is my welfare - to make sure that I don't reoffend, to make sure I'm still on the right track."

Offenders join COSA voluntarily; it's not mandated by any parole or court order. In fact, Driedger says he would refuse a circle to an offender who was using it strictly to manipulate the system.

But even some who come willingly don't stay.

"Some (circles) have voluntarily closed due to the fact that they don't want to be involved. Maybe they aren't ready for it. Maybe they're not ready to be accountable,"

says Richter Goddard.

Upon joining a circle, the core member and volunteers sign a "covenant." Typically, the offender agrees to be honest, and abide by parole or court conditions, such as staying away from alcohol or drugs; the circle volunteers agree to respect the person and be available to him. "It's kind of a written agreement on how a friendship is," says Richter Goddard.

Before a core member signs on, he has to sit with the circle and give a brief history of his offences and his life. "It keeps you honest and helps be honest with others," says Tom.

If a core member heads in a direction that could lead to trouble, the circle volunteers will call him on it.

"In jail we say, you cannot con a con," says Tom.

"Well it's the same thing here when you start working with your core members. After a while, you get to know them, and they get to know you so well that they can tell when there's something that's not right."

Richter Goddard says if the behaviour was troublesome enough, the circle may consult with parole officials or police.

"They agreed that they could have friends that would call them out on their bad behaviours," she says.

Driedger is quick to add that volunteers walk "a fine line."

The circle is based on friendship, not surveillance.

But, he adds, "We all have circles of support and accountability. I always say, if I'm going to do something stupid, my wife is the first one that will tell me."

Richter Goddard recalls one core member who was challenged by his circle when they feared he might hurt himself or others. "They've had to get the police involved to make sure he hasn't hurt himself. And he still comes back because he knows that somebody cares for him - and I think that's something that he's never had."

Asked if the community is safer because of COSA, Driedger replies, "We cannot give assurances." Adds Florence, "We can't assure that of our next door neighbour."

But they point to a study that suggests high risk sex offenders who were involved with COSA were 83 per cent less likely to reoffend than those without a circle.

Tom says he's only one offender but is proof COSA is working for him. "This is the longest I've been out."

For the first time, he's actually finished a sentence on the outside. He recently moved out of a halfway house and into a private residence he shares with friends.

"It's how badly you want to stay out. I like it a lot better out here than I do inside. The people out here are a lot friendlier than the ones inside the wall." ..Source.. by Barb Pacholik

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