Origins of Circles
In 1994, a newly passed detention legislation created a dilemma. In two separate incidents resulting from it, the faith community responded to the needs of the community, CSC (Correctional Service of Canada), and those deemed to be the highest risk to re-offend. That response evolved into the program now called "Circles of Support and Accountability".
The dilemma consisted in the fact that an offender was detained to the last day of their sentence (warrant expiry or WED) and did not have access to any supports or monitoring mechanisms to assist with his/her safe adjustment to the community. In both of the original instances, the detained offenders had previous involvement with faith community volunteers and programs. The CoSA response grew out of their significant history of involvement in prison with a faith community.
Early in 1994, a pastor/director (Rev. Harry Nigh) of an inner city ministry in Hamilton, Ontario was called by a prison psychologist regarding an offender who had identified this pastor as one of his few friends in the community. The friendship had evolved from contacts more than a decade earlier when both were involved in a prison visitation program. The pastor realized that this soon-to-be released offender needed more support than he would be able to deliver on his own. Consequently, he rallied some others who knew the offender and requested their help to offer support. Here is a video of Rev. Nigh speaking at our 2020 CoSA banquet.
Anger from the community greeted the offender upon his release. The media and community response was so hostile that the offender's needs were exacerbated. The pastor asked a few more volunteers to become a part of the support group and invited a concerned community member from Neighbourhood Watch to join as well. Her role was to ensure that any support would be responsible and lead to greater community safety.
During those first six months, a Correctional Service of Canada's Community Chaplain based in Toronto, Rev. Hugh Kirkegaard, followed the developments in Hamilton closely. Later that year, a similar opportunity presented itself in Toronto. In this case, a high profile offender was released to a community outside of Toronto where a church and some Alcoholics Anonymous partners were prepared to receive and support him as he re-entered society. However, within days the mounting pressure in this smaller community combined with the individual's medical needs forced a move to Toronto. The church volunteer involved with this individual called the chaplain in Toronto for help.
Again, the personal needs of the person in question and the demands placed on him by the community and the Court were such that several volunteers were required to offer support. The chaplain, informed by the Hamilton experience, pulled together a group of committed individuals from various church contacts to walk with this person through the crisis.
During the following months, the chaplain and the Hamilton pastor compared notes and mused on their common experiences. They realized that these interventions calmed the anxiety in the community and that the former offenders adjusted positively to the community. They recognized that the two men were not falling into dangerous patterns of behaviour and instead had successfully re-entered the community.
Their discussions grew to include several people involved in the support groups and a few others who worked with sex offenders and survivors of sexual abuse. From these early experiences and after thoughtful reflection, the program emerged that we now call CoSA.