A Brief History of the CoSA Model
Summer 1994. Ontario, Canada. Temperatures were running hot and the anger and frustration of a community were running even hotter. A man named Charlie was just about to be released from prison after finishing his sentence – – he wouldn’t have any parole supervision, he wouldn’t have any treatment and he had a long history of multiple sexual offenses involving young boys.
This wasn’t the first time Charlie had been released from prison – – the concern was that release almost certainly meant that he would commit another crime against yet another vulnerable child. The community of Hamilton, where Charlie was scheduled to be released, was horrified by the imminent arrival of this “monster” and the trail of hurt and pain that would no doubt accompany him. Community meetings were held, flyers with Charlie’s picture were produced and handed out, and community outrage mounted.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s prison therapist, Dr. Bill Palmer, wasn’t just going to let re-offense and failure of community reentry happen. He connected with a community corrections expert in Toronto, Dr. Robin Wilson, and they put their heads together in order to figure out what could be done. No parole – – no services – – nothing but police surveillance was currently available as an option. So, they were going to have to create something new.
It turned out that a circle of support had been growing around Charlie since his last release to the community. A small core group of friends had been discussing ways to help Charlie succeed on the outside when he was released again, and they were put in contact with a local Mennonite church led by the Reverend Harry Nigh. Rev. Nigh had been running a prison ministry for years and was interested in helping people who had been in long-term institutionalization as they transitioned back into the public to live crime-free lives. In the face of much anger from the people and law enforcement entities in Hamilton, Rev. Nigh and his congregation joined forces with Charlie’s former friends to become a “circle of ongoing support” around him. The group became known as “Charlie’s Angels,” of course.
Charlie was at extremely high risk to re-offend, and he posed other challenges for the circle of dedicated volunteers. They quickly realized that support alone wasn’t going to be enough for Charlie or for the safety of the community, so they added an accountability element – – becoming the first Circle of Support & Accountability (CoSA). The Mennonite congregants welcomed Charlie into their number and did whatever was necessary to ensure that Charlie stayed law-abiding (NO MORE VICTIMS) and that he was able to live a good and productive life (NO ONE IS DISPOSABLE).
At the point of his release from prison, Charlie had been assessed as being 100% guaranteed to re-offend. Eleven or so years later, Charlie died from complications of diabetes. He had lived outside prison walls for eleven years without harming another person, and he had forged true friendships with a group of people who never thought they’d find themselves in a relationship with a sex offender. The volunteers themselves were irrevocably changed by the experience of getting to know a “pedophile” as a person first and a person with many parts to him – – Charlie the sex offender was also Charlie the son and Charlie the friend and Charlie the employee and Charlie the member of the Mennonite church.
Very soon after this first Circle formed around Charlie and was demonstrating success, a second man was released from prison in Canada, was chased out of the community to which he was released, fled to Toronto and entered a Circle to support his crime-free integration into another community that initially wanted nothing to do with him. The success of Charlie’s Circle was replicated and a breakthrough was acknowledged – – Canada had created a cost-effective way to dramatically drive down re-offense rates of people released after conviction of sexual offenses while assisting them in becoming integrated, contributing community members.
AN EVEN BRIEFER HISTORY OF COSA IN COLORADO
Colorado’s CoSA project officially got rolling in May 2011, when the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) collaborated with the Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB), Colorado Criminal Defense Bar (CCDB), and the Ethical Education Task Force of the United Methodist Church, Rocky Mountain Conference, to organize a Sex Offender Symposium. Their intent was to drive down re-offense & re-incarceration rates while simultaneously figuring out how to realistically and safely parole people with indeterminate sentences arising from sex offense convictions. Conference speakers from successful CoSA programs included pioneers like Dr. Robin Wilson and Andrew McWhinnie, M.A., from Canada and Dr. Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower Program Director of CoSA at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies of Fresno Pacific University in California.
Inspired by the information provided at the conference, a multi-disciplinary working group of governmental agencies and nonprofit faith-based and community organizations continued to meet for more than a year to determine the most effective way to ensure community safety as newly paroled sex offenders integrate back into our towns and cities. The CoSA model, with its reliance on pro-social and accountable relationship building and its track record of tremendous success in driving down re-offense rates, greatly appealed to the working group. This collective recommended that a Colorado CoSA nonprofit be formed that was independent of the governmental agencies but able to receive their invaluable input through the continued involvement of the advisory board.
Colorado Circles of Support & Accountability (COCoSA) was registered as a nonprofit on March 12, 2012, to act as the umbrella organization providing assistance to local Circles of Support and Accountability across Colorado through funding, resources for program design and implementation, and training workshops that encourage fidelity to the CoSA model. COCoSA’s board of directors includes expertise in sex offender treatment, legal representation, victim rights, law enforcement, employment, and faith-based resources. The Colorado organization will always hold the line on fidelity and on the dual visions of NO MORE VICTIMS and NO ONE IS DISPOSABLE.