WEEKEND LONG READ: Ottawa’s CoSA Works With High-Risk Sexual Offenders to Build Safer Communities

WEEKEND LONG READ: Ottawa’s CoSA Works With High-Risk Sexual Offenders to Build Safer Communities

This article was originally published in the April 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine

Circles of Support and Accountability has a proven track record for assisting high-risk sexual offenders
with integrating into society and ensuring that they do not reoffend.
But its current funding crisis is raising alarm bells for those who study offence rates.
Brielle Morgan looks at the state of prison treatment programs, meets the people who volunteer
with CoSA, and talks to two men who are struggling to make past wrongs right

Illustration by Anothony Tremmaglia
Illustration by Anothony Tremmaglia

Heinous. Monstrous. Disgusting.

I stack these adjectives in my mind as I consider the stout man sitting next to me on the bench inside the Elgin Street church where we had agreed to meet. A convicted child molester, he has likely heard them before.

Sam (not his real name) unloads a stash of colourful candy from his coat pocket, piling it between us while announcing the name of each plastic-wrapped sweet: gumball, Skittles, Fizz, candy necklace, Fireball. Once a month, he splurges at local confectionery Sugar Mountain.

“Guy told me about that store,” Sam says. As if on cue, the door opens and Guy Dagenais comes in from the cold.

“Hey, Sam!” says the silver-haired man, his smile glaringly white against a deep tan.

Minutes later, the door swings open again when Kyler Ouellette, a criminology student and aspiring policeman, joins us. Erin Knight, a bespectacled outreach worker, follows shortly after, carrying a Happy Meal.

This unlikely foursome has two goals, one an extension of the other. The first: help Sam, a released convicted sex offender deemed high risk to reoffend, live a meaningful, lawful life. The second: build a safer community with fewer victims.

They do this work voluntarily under the auspices of a program called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). In 1994, a Mennonite pastor started the first circle in Hamilton, Ontario, for a much-despised pedophilic offender named Charlie Taylor. The group approach caught on, and similar programs have sprung up in Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. As of January, there were 18 CoSA chapters in Canada overseeing about 120 circles like this one.

I follow Sam — the “core member” of his circle, to use CoSA parlance — and his volunteer entourage into a little room at the back of the church. They settle around a table and get down to brass tacks.

“So how’s work going, Sam? Any challenges this week? Successes?” Knight asks.

Sam says he’s feeling torn between school and work. He solved a nagging communication problem with a co-worker. But his headphones still aren’t working. Knight offers to have a look around her place for an extra pair. They talk pop culture: The Walking Dead, cartoons, and comedian Russell Peters — all good things, according to Sam. Then conversation gets heavy.

“The first time I ever did try to masturbate, my grandmother put me in a bathtub full of ice for four hours. She took the door off of my bedroom. Every day: ‘You’re a pervert. You’re not going to go anywhere,’ ” Sam recalls.

In CoSA, there’s no support without accountability — and vice versa. Sam, who was convicted of molesting his six-year-old stepsister and his 14-year-old cousin, as well as possessing child pornography, will admit that what he did was “wrong on all levels.”

“My attraction’s always stayed with younger people,” he says frankly. He sounds genuinely morose. “It’ll rear its ugly head every once in a while, but it’s all about maintenance.”

Sam doesn’t believe sexual orientation is something you can change. Indeed, medical research supports this theory. And so Sam voluntarily does everything he can think of to neutralize his attraction to children.
When I first met Sam, he was attending two separate weekly group-therapy programs at The Royal Mental Care and Research Centre: one for depression and the other for deviant sexual behaviour. As well, every few months he was getting an anti-arousal shot, also known as a chemical castration injection. Sam says it “pretty much kills your sex drive.” Plus, he was meeting almost every day with at least one volunteer from his CoSA circle.

I wondered why anyone would willingly spend several hours a week hanging out with someone who had done such deplorable things. Were there no dogs to walk at the SPCA? No seniors to play cards with?

Ouellette, the aspiring cop, talked to me about why he joined CoSA: “I was looking to get more experience … I wanted to deal with individuals who have committed a crime who want to take responsibility for what they’ve done.”

“It’s really exciting to see the progress,” says Dagenais, a support worker with the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa and the former CEO of Youth Justice Agency of Eastern Ontario.

Knight told me she empathizes with Sam’s struggle to build relationships. After all, he is not allowed to socialize with anyone at the halfway house where he lives. Same goes for anyone he meets in group sessions at The Royal. His parole officer wants him to report any new friends he makes.

Sam talks about an acquantaince who offered to teach him electric guitar lessons. But his parole officer wants the instructor’s first, last, and middle names before allowing this interaction. “How the hell are you supposed to make a friend?”

“Society will never forget,” Sam told me one evening in the beige reception area of his halfway house. “I’m not going to put anybody in any situation to let them hurt me again. Never. And I’m not going to put myself in a place where I can hurt somebody else. It’s going to be a long friggin’ road.”

So what, right? Let him rot in social exile. That might work on an ideological level, but research suggests that letting someone decay in isolation may be bad for our collective health.

Canadian psychologist and Humber College professor Robin Wilson has worked with persons with sexual behaviour problems for more than 25 years. Wilson has done several studies on high-risk sex offenders. Comparing offence rates, those who had participated in CoSA circles reoffended far less often than those who had not: 70 percent less in one study and 83 percent less in another.

There is also an economic imperative for the program, according to Jill Anne Chouinard, a professor at the University of North Carolina who was hired by the National Crime Prevention Centre (NCPC) to lead a two-year evaluation of CoSA. Her report was made public in January.

“Every dollar invested in CoSA to prevent a recidivistic event is worth $4.60 in savings to society in terms of justice system costs, medical costs, loss of productivity, and pain and suffering,” she reported.

The bulk of CoSA’s work is done by volunteers (over 750, at last count), but that doesn’t mean it’s free — to operate a single circle for five years costs over $50,000. And getting funding isn’t easy: programs for sex offenders are a tough sell. When Chouinard heard that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) would be cutting its annual contribution to CoSA, she was incensed. The decision came down in February 2014, six months before her CSC-funded evaluation was complete.

“As a woman and as a mother of an 11-year-old daughter, when they made that decision … my very first thought was, as a result, women and children in this society are less safe,” Chouinard said.

Following public backlash, CSC extended funding for another year, until March 2015. At press time, CSC hadn’t promised any further funding. But that isn’t the only government funding that is drying up. The majority of CoSA Ottawa’s operating budget — 82 percent — came from a five-year funding initiative spearheaded by the NCPC. That money expired in the fall of 2014.

“We’re in crisis mode right now,” says Susan Love, long-time program director of CoSA Ottawa. “I spend the majority of my time working on budgets and funding application proposals when I should be investing it in my circles and my core members.”




I had arranged to meet with David (not his real name) at a Bridgehead on Bank Street. I arrived first, and as the place filled up with young professional men in colourful ties, toting laptops and ordering lattes, I realized we had forgotten to tell each other what we look like. All I knew was his first name and that he had been in prison for a sex crime. I found myself nervously wondering if I’d be able to spot the sex offender.

Grabbing a seat in the corner that provided a good view, I settled in and offered up some eye contact. No one met my gaze, so I turned toward the front door. A man walked in who looked about my age, late 20s. He was clean-cut, preppy, dressed in a polo shirt, jeans, shiny shoes, and a scarf.

Can’t be him, I thought naively. He must be here for a first date or a job interview. But it was David. He came over, politely introduced himself, sat down across from me, and launched articulately — with little probing — into his life story.

“I never really got in trouble when I was a kid,” he began, crossing one leg loosely over the other. He described a solid upbringing: saxophone lessons, tennis games, good grades, supportive parents, a series of girlfriends. He didn’t mess around with drugs or booze until heading east for university, but even then he stuck mostly to pot.

“I had a really fortunate, healthy childhood,” he said.

But then one summer this accomplished young man strategically targeted and molested young girls in a park.

Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” played on the coffee shop’s speakers as David talked about making an 11-year-old girl perform oral sex on him. The music seemed fitting in a horrible, ironic way. The celesta — that giant music box of an instrument that tinkles sweetly throughout the song — evokes summer, youth, and young love.

“I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I couldn’t do anything right. This was something really petty and pathetic and intrusive, but it was something that I could accomplish,” he said, throwing air quotes around his last word for emphasis.

“You seem very comfortable talking about your life,” I said.

“I like doing research, so I always jump at opportunities to participate in research like this. This is stuff that I have talked about a lot in the last … almost five years now,” he said.

I found it hard to imagine this articulate young man wearing a prison jumpsuit. But David spent almost four years bouncing around federal prisons in Ontario.

While at the Kingston Regional Treatment Centre, he took part in the High Intensity National Sex Offender Program. Access to this kind of programming is critical for high-risk offenders.

In 2011, public safety researcher Karl Hanson told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights that without treatment, about 19 percent of sex offenders reoffend within five to six years of their release. With treatment, the rate drops to about 11 percent.

However, not everyone is getting the prison programming they need. David said he was supposed to get 10 hours of treatment a week at Kingston, but “it never worked out that way. I would say the average would be five or six hours a week.”

David faced a similar situation at Millhaven, a maximum-security prison west of Kingston, where, he said, his program was supposed to run twice a week. “We’d go two, three weeks without having a session because anytime there was some interruption or somebody called in sick, they always pulled [staff] from the programs.”

In his annual report for 2011–12, correctional investigator Howard Sapers acknowledged this problem. “Significant waitlists, limited access, and actual delivery and participation in programs, particularly at higher security levels, remain significant challenges for the service,” Sapers wrote.

Things were looking a little better the following year. In his 2013–14 report, Sapers wrote, “Program enrolment and completion rates are trending in positive directions,” but high-risk, high-need offenders “ironically, have the most limited access to programs.”

Interview requests to CSC on the issue of access to programs were denied, but spokesperson Lori Pothier offered the following by email: “The Cor-rectional Service of Canada (CSC) provides access to effective rehabilitation programs to all federal offenders who require them throughout the duration of their sentences.”

Of all the programs, David gets most excited when speaking about a meditation program at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. He still visits his instructor; David says she helped him learn to control the fits of rage that plagued him in the past. “You can’t purge anger. It’s still a process. I feel it start in my stomach and it shoots down my arms and I feel it in my fingertips. Everything just looks like a projectile. I just acknowledge that okay, I’m angry, let’s get on with my day.”

Later that night I thought about what he had said. The feelings — the rage, hopelessness, powerlessness, desperation, and emasculation — were alien to me. He says it was those feelings that drove him to target young girls. I thought about where he would be without treatment. If he had been cast out instead of supported, would there be more headlines, more victims?

The impact on the victims of pedophiliac acts is an important part of many prison systems; CoSA’s own slogan is “No More Victims. No One is Disposable.”

While in prison, Sam did a victim-focused exercise in a program called the Self-Regulated Good Life. He said of all the programs he took — Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, yoga, Toastmasters, smudging in healing circles — this was probably the hardest. “We wrote a letter to our victim, and then we had to pretend we were that victim and write a letter back,” he said.

Sam can’t send the letter — no contact with victims is one of his release conditions, along with staying away from kids, parks, pools, the internet. I ask him what he would say to them if he could.

“That’s a tough one. There’s so many things I want to say that it would take forever. And most of the victims don’t want to hear it.”

“And you understand that?” I asked.



 When these guys get out of prison, their status as social lepers often means limited access to meaningful support outside of parole officers and therapists. The aim of CoSA is to fill this gap for the mutual benefit of the offender and society.

David was part of a circle for 1½ years before he “graduated,” or moved on, with CoSA’s blessing. “The CoSA members really were my four friends, my only points of social contact. It served a really great need.”

David is not a typical CoSA candidate. He did not need help organizing his finances or obtaining a driver’s licence, for example, but he did need help dealing with lifestyle restrictions imposed by a new parole officer. Volunteers also helped him through the difficult process of disclosing his criminal past to new friends.

“It’s one thing to talk about sexual offences with a parole officer or a psychologist in an institution. It’s a completely different thing to talk about it with regular people in the regular world,” he said.

I asked him what he would say to someone who feels that he doesn’t deserve happiness or a chance to rebuild his life.

“I empathize to the extent that I can with those feelings,” David said. “At the end of the day, I am still alive. I do have to put food on the table. I do have to put a roof over my head. I don’t see how it makes anybody’s life any better — not mine, not anyone else’s in society, not my victims’ — to be vindictive or retributive. We can live in a safe and healthy society, or we can live in a vindictive one, but we can’t really have both.”