A controversial program that offers paedophiles friendship and support in an effort to reduce offending is being trialled in Australia for the first time.
I appreciate not everybody will want to spend their Saturday morning having a coffee with an offender, but I think we need to get over that.QUT criminologist, Dr Kelly Richards
The Circles of Support and Accountability or COSA model involves a group of three to five trained volunteers who provide emotional support as well as assisting with medical services, housing and employment.
QUT criminologist Dr Kelly Richards has travelled the world to study the program which already operates in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
“COSA volunteers will go with the offender to do a whole range of practical activities like doing the shopping and doing the banking and that type of thing,” Dr Richards said.
“I appreciate not everybody will want to spend their Saturday morning having a coffee with an offender, but I think we need to get over that.”
The South Australian Department of Corrections has granted $40,000 to crime prevention agency Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Services (OARS) to trial the program.
OARS chief executive Leigh Garrett says after five failed applications, he is glad to see COSA has finally been funded in Australia.
If it works, then the community is at less risk of becoming a victim of a sexual offence.
Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Services (OARS) chief executive officer, Leigh Garrett
“I think the nature of people who offend sexually is something about which the community can be quite frightened,” he said.
“So I think sometimes politicians can be a little bit timid in making commitments to introduce programs to support people who offend sexually.”
Despite the novel nature of the program, Mr Garrett says he is confident locals will be supportive.
“I would hope that the public of Adelaide will see that this is a program that has evidence over many years from all around the world that shows that it works,” he said.
“If it works, then the community is at less risk of becoming a victim of a sexual offence.”
The restorative justice program has been shown to stop paedophiles reoffending by helping them re-integrate into society after being released from jail.
Dr Richards says a 2009 Canadian study showed sex offenders in COSA had an 83 per cent reduction in offending compared to a control group.
“This is a method that has been shown to work in international jurisdictions; there’s no reason it won’t work here,” he said.
Sex offender support groups driven underground
While the South Australian trial will be a first, a small number of religious organisations offer similar support groups throughout the country in secret.
Many organisers the ABC spoke to did not want their locations to be revealed or names to be published because of fear of reprisal from the communities in which they operate.
Sex offender Ian (not his real name) has been attending one such underground program based in inner-city Melbourne.
It’s the highlight of my week because it gives me something to look forward to with people I feel safe around and know that they’ll hold my confidence.Sex offender, Ian
He was 62 when he was convicted of sexually abusing his 14-year-old granddaughter.
“What led to my offending in latter years took root in my life when I was a teenager; there wasn’t the available help at the time,” he said.
“I struggled for over 50 years with impure thoughts and finally came an outworking in my life.
“When it was getting serious I decided to tell my wife at the time who reacted by going and telling my daughter-in-law who went to the police.”
The Victorian man was charged with lineal incest and spent three months in jail before being released on a two-year good behaviour bond.
After being disowned by his church and family he found the offender support group, which he credits with preventing him from reoffending.
“People put themselves out there to support people like us,” he said.
“It’s the highlight of my week because it gives me something to look forward to with people I feel safe around and know that they’ll hold my confidence. It’s very important.
“Having identified my problem I’ve now learnt tools I can use and the ongoing support of my mentor and other close friends. I’ve hurt my family enough.“
Former politician Rob Hulls backs program
Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT and former politician Rob Hulls says Australia is behind the times when it comes to adopting new treatments for sex offenders.
“There are political issues with politicians wanting to support COSAs [but] the fact is that what we all want as communities is no more victims,” Mr Hulls said.
“It certainly works in other jurisdictions for sex offenders and I have no doubt it would work for other offenders as well, not just sex offenders.
“They reduce rates of recidivism, they help reintegrate sex offenders back into the community after their term of incarceration and that ultimately, hopefully, leads to fewer victims.”
Dr Richards said overseas COSA groups had no problems recruiting volunteers to spend their spare time with sex offenders.
“All sorts of people volunteer to become friends with sex offenders — anyone from social work, psychology, criminology, and justice students right through to retirees,” she said.
In some COSA programs overseas, volunteers also include child sex abuse victims.
Mr Garrett says he is confident locals will want to get involved.
“I don’t expect this program will be without its little dramas along the way, but I’m very confident we can make this program work and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“The damage from these crimes is incredibly serious and sometimes quite horrifying, but we will be focusing on people who are really keen to change their life.”
Hetty Johnston from the child protection advocacy group Bravehearts said she was cautiously supportive but wanted to ensure sex offenders were being honest about their behaviour.
“We support anything at all that will help offenders stop offending,” she said.
“I think it’s absolutely imperative that we have polygraph tests or that we have some sort of involuntary way to know what the offenders are doing.”
The recruitment and training process will start in the coming weeks.