Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) welcomes the Canadian government’s announcement that it will provide nearly $7.5 million over five years to Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), which helps convicted sex offenders reintegrate into their communities.
CoSA is a national restorative justice organization for women and men who have committed serious sexual offences. It allows the community to play a direct role in the restoration, reintegration and risk management of people who are often seen with only fear and anger.
CoSA emerged from a 1994 experiment in which a group of Mennonites in southern Ontario, with the backing of MCC Ontario, brought together a circle of volunteers to work with one particular person upon his release. The experiment caught the attention of others, and there were soon similar circles across the country, with MCC playing a pivotal role in their development.
The model supports newly released and often repeat offenders who find themselves ostracized because of the nature of their crimes. 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 the volunteers.
According to a 2014 report by the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, only 2 percent of CoSA-involved offenders sexually reoffended again 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.
Over the years, the federal government provided some financial assistance to CoSA programs, but initial exploratory funding ended a number of years ago. Some circles managed to forge on with a bare-bones budget through donations, some money from MCC, grants or pro-vincial funding, but it wasn’t sustainable.
In Montreal, for example, 45 circles dwindled down to eight in the years following the end of the federal funding. Many staff people had to be laid off, and some CoSA sites are run entirely by volunteers.
The new grant, announced on May 6, 2017, will strengthen and grow the work of CoSA in 12 or more communities across the country during the first year of funding. MCC currently is significantly invested in nine CoSA sites across the country.
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 to 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 the last seven years she has been a part of Daniel’s circle.
“CoSA is very important to me," Daniel says. "It was a security blanket for me on the outside. Moira talked to me like I was a person, not a piece of trash from jail.”
“I have my struggles,” he adds. “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 who sits on CoSA Canada’s board and also volunteers in a circle, says CoSA’s emphasis on supporting and holding people accountable who have histories of sexual offenses is a response to the Christian call to radical hospitality. “It’s part of the larger vision of MCC to serve where there is need and to create the vision for shalom with those who seem furthest from it and seem the least deserving,” he says.
For people like Daniel who are benefitting from these circles, it makes all the difference. “I’d still be in prison without CoSA,” he says. “I’d be lost.”
For background on government funding of CoSA, see:
Funding cut for MCC’s Circles of Support and Accountability
CoSA Winnipeg faces funding cuts from all sides
‘A less safe environment for everybody’