Program restores sex offenders

Reintegration is possible for people who are often regarded with fear and anger

Jun 19, 2017 by and

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The Canadian government will provide nearly $7.5 million over five years to a Mennonite-supported program that helps convicted sex offenders reintegrate into the community.

Circles of Support and Accountability is a national restorative justice organization for women and men who have committed serious sexual offenses.

A sex offender who was part of an MCC-supported Circle of Support and Accountability wishes to remain anonymous so that he can reintegrate into society without the stigma of his crime. — Shane Yuhas/MCC

A sex offender who was part of an MCC-supported Circle of Support and Accountability wishes to remain anonymous so that he can reintegrate into society without the stigma of his crime. — Shane Yuhas/MCC

CoSA allows the community to play a direct role in the restoration, reintegration and risk management of people who are often regarded with fear and anger.

CoSA emerged from a 1994 experiment in which a group of Mennonites in Ontario, with the backing of Mennonite Central Committee, brought together a circle of volunteers to work with a sex offender upon his release.

The experiment caught the attention of others, and there were soon similar circles across the country. MCC played a pivotal role in their development.

CoSA supports newly released and often repeat offenders who find themselves ostracized because of the nature of their crime.

There are two circles of support for these core members of CoSA. The inner circle involves several trained volunteers who work with the core member to address practical needs while also serving as an emotional support system. The outer circle is made up of professionals who can offer training and advice to volunteers.

According to a 2014 report by the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, only 2 percent of CoSA-involved offenders sexually reoffended within three years of leaving jail, compared to almost 28 percent of offenders who did not have CoSA — a reduction of more than 92 percent. That rate dropped to about 75 percent over five years and 67 percent over a decade.

Over the years the Canadian government provided some financial assistance to CoSA programs, but initial funding ended a number of years ago.

‘Not a piece of trash’

Daniel, whose last name isn’t being used for security reasons, has been a core member of a CoSA circle in Alberta for seven years. He credits the program with keeping him out of prison and helping him build healthy relationships.

After experiencing years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family members, Daniel began abusing girls himself. He was sentenced to more than six years in a federal penitentiary in 2005.

Moira Brownlee, the CoSA program coordinator for MCC Alberta, visited Daniel in prison for several months prior to his release. For seven years she has been a part of Daniel’s circle.

“Moira talked to me like I was a person, not a piece of trash from jail,” Daniel said.

“I have my struggles. I suffer from depression and anxiety issues and borderline multiple personality disorder. It’s a constant struggle for me, day by day. But I always know I can pick up the phone, send a text message, and I’ll always have someone on the other end who will talk to me.”

Randy Klassen, MCC’s national restorative justice coordinator, said CoSA creates a vision for “shalom with those who seem furthest from it and seem the least deserving.”

For people like Daniel, it makes all the difference.

“I’d still be in prison without CoSA,” he said. “I’d be lost.”

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