COSA mixes support and accountability to help sex offenders rejoin the community

What do we do when outcasts come back?

People convicted of sex crimes are reviled on both sides of prison walls. Inside they must be protected from other prisoners, outside lists and locations of convicted sex offenders are only a Google away.

But most sex offenders do not serve life sentences, which mean they rejoin the rest of us. Then what?

Some shrug and say there is no rehabilitation for offenders, only vigilance for the community. Others try and reach beyond the rap sheet with a mix of accountability and support.

The Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies received a $290,000 grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). Created in Ontario, Canada, by a pastor, COSA seeks to reduce the risk of re-offense and ease offenders back into society.

"Experience and research has shown that providing support for sex offenders while holding them accountable is very effective in creating safe communities and in assisting ex-offenders to lead productive lives," says program director Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower.

Each circle comprises four-six people from the community and an ex-offender, known as the "core member." Circles meet regularly, generally at a church, and members provide practical, physical, emotional and spiritual support for the core member, as well as holding him accountable for his actions.

The first Fresno circle was formed in July 2007 and as of March 2009 10 are operating and more are being formed. Each circle works with one offender and begins with weekly meetings and a one-year commitment. Some circles go on for years. "From what I’ve seen the groups really become a strong mini-community that bonds very closely," Ruth-Heffelbower said.

Core members are all volunteers. "We're looking for people who really want to rehabilitate and the kind of people with needs we think we can respond to," Ruth-Heffelbower said.

That doesn't mean COSA takes only easy cases. The program wants offenders with high physical, emotional, spiritual or other needs who do not have support from family, friends or other sources. In short, high-risk sex offenders. "The ones people are scared of," Ruth-Heffelbower said.

Community circle members must be stable, mature, emotionally healthy and available to put in the time. Members come from a range of backgrounds. "It doesn't take a particular expertise," Ruth-Heffelbower said. One circle includes a housewife, student and retired person.

Since the first COSA began in 1994 there have been successes. One offender, for example, went 11 years without re-offending before dying of natural causes. While Ruth-Heffelbower does not expect a perfect record, she does anticipate COSA making a positive difference.

A 2007 study in Canada comparing a group of offenders that was part of COSA and a group that was not showed 83 percent less sexual reoffending within the COSA group. In Fresno, several core members have returned to prison for parole violations, but none have reoffended.

Ruth-Heffelbower has given presentations on COSA and working with sex offenders at the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers 27th Annual Research and Treatment Conference, the American Society of Victimology Symposium and the California Coalition on Sexual Offending Annual Training Conference.

She is a member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and the California Coalition on Sexual Offending.

Like the Canadian original, the Fresno COSA is faith-based and built around volunteers, which Ruth-Heffelbower calls the genius of the program. A pastor herself, Ruth-Heffelbower has led four churches and served as northern California area minister for Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. She has a D. Min. from San Francisco Theological Seminary and an M.Div. from MB Biblical Seminary.

"When the community takes responsibility for its own safety and for assisting offenders to live productive lives, healing for all involved can occur in powerful ways," she said.

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