Circles of Support and Accountability: reducing the threat from sex offenders in the community

In Canada, a novel approach taken by faith communities is being replicated elsewhere, including in the UK. Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) pair high-risk sexual offenders with professionally-supported volunteers to promote “no more victims” by assisting ex-offenders to not reoffend. Research shows that COSA participation can reduce sexual reoffending rates by 70 per cent or more.

The release of a sexual offender strikes fear in the heart of citizens. Whatever differences are found between members of a community, all are united in their abhorrence of those who target children for their sexual needs.

In response, legislators have sought to place tight controls on sexual offenders in the community – sometimes, to the extent that offenders are forced to move on. But one must ultimately ask: for every offender forced out of your community and into someone else’s, how many offenders are forced out of that community and into yours?

Research shows that a hallmark of sexual offending is secrecy. By forcing offenders underground, are we not inadvertently increasing secrecy and decreasing safety? There has to be a better way.

In 1994, Charlie Taylor was released from a medium security penitentiary in South-Central Ontario, Canada. Taylor began sexually abusing children in his teens and, on release in June 1994, he had amassed 20 or more young victims.

When he arrived in Hamilton, a medium-sized city some 50km south west of Toronto, the community went wild. Television and radio presented hourly updates on his presence, replete with admonishments from police and other ­community leaders. Indeed, every pupil in the school district was given a photograph of him and a description of the risk he presented.

Standing alone, amid the chaos, was Rev Harry Nigh, the pastor of a small, urban Mennonite congregation in Hamilton. While in prison, Taylor had revealed to a psychologist that he had once belonged to Nigh’s congregation.

On contacting Nigh, the psychologist pleaded for assistance, as none would be forthcoming from the Correctional Service of Canada. Taylor was one of those few offenders judged by the National Parole Board to be at such high risk that he could not be released before the end of his sentence. This meant that, when he stepped through the penitentiary gates, he was a free man with no strings attached. A practice intended to manage risk had become a means of increasing risk.

With trepidation, Nigh agreed to gather several of his congregants and meet Taylor. This support group was named “Charlie’s Angels”. With no set protocol or plan, the Angels set about finding suitable housing and social assistance while setting basic guidelines intended to keep Taylor safe and out of the fray.

Unfortunately, news of the Mennonites’ acceptance of Taylor spread through the community, and picketing and threats of violence were directed at him, Nigh, the Angels, and the church itself. In a bold move, Nigh invited one particularly vocal protester to come inside the church to speak to Taylor and his supporters. After a short while, the picketer agreed to give the Angels some latitude.

Media attention decreased over the next few months, police ceased 24-hour surveillance, and the community returned to its business. Taylor and his Angels weathered the storm and had beaten the odds that he would reoffend within days of release.

Based on these results, a chaplain in the Toronto area decided to try the same approach with another high-risk release. Wray Budreo’s offence history was every bit as troubling as Taylor’s, if not more. After being chased from one community, he arrived in Toronto on the day of the Santa Claus parade, when downtown was teeming with families.

With the assistance of Detective Wendy Leaver of the sexual assault squad and a local Anglican minister and several parishioners, the Reverend Hugh Kirkegaard put together a similar support group for Budreo.

Both Taylor and Budreo were released with risk ratings of 100 per cent chance of sexual reoffending in seven years. But with the intervention and support of community volunteers, both men began a process of becoming functional citizens.

Based on the encouraging results of these two admittedly ad hoc solutions, the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario agreed to steward a pilot project and funds were solicited from the Canadian government. Interestingly, because both these men and those who would be subsequently targeted by the pilot project were no longer serving sentences, the government had no legal responsibility.

However, the solicitor general recognised the government’s moral responsibility to safeguard Canadians and funds were provided to support the fledgling initiative, now known as Circles of Support and Accountability (or COSA).

With additional funding provided by private donors, COSA has grown from its humble beginnings to become a viable community partner in assisting high-risk sexual offenders in their integration to society. The original pilot project, centred in Toronto, has sponsored more than 100 circles, each comprised of a core member (the ex-offender) and four to six community volunteers – average citizens who have pledged personal time to assist the core member in the community.

The COSA model has proliferated across Canada and into the UK and US, with other countries investigating the model. In the UK, a well-established COSA variant has been jointly managed by the Thames Valley Probation Service and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

All Canadian COSA projects enjoy the counsel of an advisory committee comprised of professionals from law enforcement, corrections, clinical services, and business. Volunteers are trained to ensure that they understand the roles and responsibilities associated with assisting high-risk sexual offenders in the community.

Of particular importance to the success of the model is a pool of volunteer professionals available to provide advice and guidance should the volunteers encounter an issue beyond the scope of their role or expertise. Volunteers act as concerned friends or surrogate family members for the core members but with support and accountability set prominently in their minds.

Empirical validation is an important and ever-present need in offering any risk management service. Based on results obtained from the original pilot project – and replicated in COSAs across Canada – involvement in a circle decreases risk of sexual reoffending by 70 per cent or more, in comparison with either matched control subjects or actuarial projections.(1), (2) Results of the UK project are equally encouraging.(3)

Simply put, community engagement of sexual offender risk contributes to community safety. In Toronto, the chief of police has recognised this valuable partnership by issuing a letter of support.

The premise is simple: we enjoy life by the help and society of others. The Good Lives Model favoured in sexual offender treatment dictates that reoffending will decrease as functionality and self-esteem grow.(4) People who care about themselves tend to care more about others. Caring and harm are mutually exclusive. The primary goal of COSAs is “no more victims”. By supporting ex-offenders and holding them accountable for their choices in the community, harm is reduced.

Robin J Wilson is a researcher, educator, and psychologist who has worked with sexual and other offenders for more than 20 years. He is the director of research for the School of Social and Community Services at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto, Canada.

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(1) R J Wilson et al, “Circles of Support and Accountability: an evaluation of the pilot project in South-Central Ontario“, Research Report R-168, Correctional Service of Canada, 2005.
(2) RJ Wilson et al, “Circles of Support and Accountability: engaging community volunteers in the management of high-risk sexual offenders“, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 1-15, 2007
(3) Quaker Peace and Social Justice, Circles of Support and Accountability in the Thames Valley: The First Three Years April 2002 to March 2005, 2005
(4) T Ward, “Good lives and the rehabilitation of offenders: promises and problems”, Aggression and Violent Behavior (sic), 7, 513-528, Elsevier, 2002

This article appeared in the 19 April issue under the headline “Out in the open”


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