Circles of support

Let’s put down the torches and pitchforks for a moment.

Peter Dutton reckons an Australian-first national child sex offender register will deter predators, placate parents, and keep kids safe. Except the research says it won’t.

However, there is an intervention which has been shown to significantly reduce sexual recidivism – by as much as 88 per cent, according to one recent study.

It’s being used to good effect in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and other places around the world. It’s being discussed at international sex offender treatment conferences. And it has more than two decades of research evidence behind it.

But, in Australia, we’re just not willing to roll it out.

Based on restorative justice principles, this intervention emerged in Ontario, Canada, in 1994, in response to the impending release of cognitively impaired serial child sex offender Charlie Taylor.

Taylor had served his full sentence, meaning he would not be required to report to a parole officer, and would not be subject to any further monitoring.

Alarmed at the media attention the case was gathering, and concerned about Taylor’s ability to cope with those wielding nooses outside his home, a prison psychologist contacted the pastor of a small Mennonite community in Ontario, Canada.

The pastor gathered an informal group of community members around Taylor. They shared meals with him, met for coffee, went for walks.

Formal risk assessment tools suggested that Taylor was almost certain to reoffend in the first year of his release.

But with the practical and emotional support provided by his “circle”, Taylor remained offence-free for the next eleven years. He died due to health issues in 2005.

The concept spread, breaking free of its faith-based origins, and has since become known as Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA).

A small-scale trial commenced in Adelaide four years ago when the South Australian Department of Corrections, after five prior failed applications, finally granted $40,000 to crime prevention agency Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Services (OARS).

CoSA involves up to six community volunteers supporting a recently-released child sex offender to get a job, find somewhere to live, and engage in prosocial activities.

As such, it swims furiously against a rising tide of initiatives designed to exclude sex offenders from the community.

These include residency restrictions, electronic monitoring programs, extended supervision orders, preventive detention orders and Dutton’s beloved public register.

CoSA copped plenty of criticism when it kicked off locally. For example, the mother of one victim slammed the move for “enabling the paedophiles while disabling and in some cases potentially crippling the victims”.

I get that, for most people, compassion is in short supply, particularly for this population. And that’s why Australia is dragging its feet when it comes to introducing CoSA more widely.

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key”, and “A bullet between the eyes will fix them”, are among the more visceral responses I’ve received when I casually mention that I work with incarcerated sex offenders, both in prison and in private practice.

It’s a shame that politicians like Dutton exploit this human tendency in an attempt to gain political mileage, by being seen to be tough on crime.

Because if you really want to create the sort of conditions that are most conducive to further offending, then isolation, shame, secrecy, media pressure, and vigilantism is the perfect way to achieve it.

Public sex offender registers don’t work to keep children safe. Let’s make room for things that do.

This article appeared in The Courier-Mail on 14.01.2019. For a longer read, see last year’s story in the Law Society Journal.