This question has been floating around social media lately, as well filling much of my time as Director of Magen, an agency that comprehensively tackles the problem of child sexual abuse in Israel.
When a perpetrator admits to his crimes and expresses a desire to stop offending, Magen believes in providing him with support along with monitoring. Enter the familiar chill in the room… the uncomfortable silence. How can I, as a victim advocate, promote support for “those monsters”? In short, Magen’s goal is to keep children safe from sexual abuse. If a sex offender wants to “stay clean” and stay out of trouble, his success is our success. The ultimate act on behalf of victims is to prevent known abusers from abusing.
How is this done? Magen advocates an approximation of the COSA Model, or Circle of Support and Accountability. A COSA consists of a “core member” or sex offender attempting to reintegrate into a community (usually after prison time), and 4-6 volunteers who form a Circle around the Core Member, as well as a professional who guides and supports the volunteers. (Note: a COSA is in no way a substitute for legal action or following reporting requirements. Magen urges people to report any suspicion of child abuse to the Police and/or other legal authorities). The volunteers in the Circle have a few jobs.
The first job is setting boundaries as to what the Core Member cannot do, based on his risk assessment. This includes his avoiding triggers and access to potential victims. Warning community members may be necessary as a safety measure.
(I’ve heard this described as, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” In truth, monitoring requires a lot of contact with the perpetrator, and not letting him sink beneath the radar, and this requires a rapport. This is the opposite of the time honored approach of “run him out of town.” Running someone out of town may be gratifying in the short term, but translates to driving him to some other community where he will hurt someone else’s children. Even public shaming/warning demands a next step — okay, everyone knows — what should people do with that information? How can we best lower the risk this individual poses? How does the community interact with his wife and children? In short: now what?)
The second job is providing social support and positive relationships. Social isolation and emotional loneliness are key factors in increasing the risk of reoffending. Full stop. Read that line again, and let it sink in: social isolation and emotional loneliness are key factors in the risk of reoffending. COSA provides a social network.
The third job could be defined as technical support in being part of the community. COSA is about what the Core Member can’t do, but also about what he CAN do. If he sticks to the guidelines developed based on his risk assessment, he can have a meaningful role in a community. This gives him something to lose if he breaks his guidelines. COSA keeps offenders who want to stop abusing connected and busy, which in turn keeps kids safer.
Research finds that the factors that reduce the risk of recidivism include: the formation of positive relationships with peers, stable employment, avoidance of alcohol and drugs, and prevention of depression. COSA members can help with all of the above, and amazingly has been shown to have a success rate of 70 percent in reducing reoffending.
70% is far from perfect, but it’s significantly better than anything else out there.
Many may have a strong emotional response to doing anything that “helps” perpetrators, which makes sense. But who are we really helping when we give support (with accountability) to these perpetrators? Can we push past our knee jerk reactions to develop a model that’s holistic and helps perpetrators to stop abusing children?
COSA has two mottos. The first is: No more victims. This is a goal we can all get behind, especially victim advocates. But we have to be willing to forgo tarring and feathering the perpetrator and work together with him toward the common goal of preventing future victims.
COSA’s second motto is: No one is disposable. This one is more complex and undeniably more emotionally loaded. For me, as a victim advocate, “no one is disposable” began as merely a side effect to the REAL goal of “no more victims.” The truth is, it’s still secondary. But the more I’m involved in this work, the more it emerges as an independent theme. They have made horrific choices. They have hurt people, sometimes irreversibly. But they are human, and struggling with demons that are unspeakably dark. Keeping children safe is enough of a reason for me to promote the COSA model, but if I can give a broken person a chance to rebuild himself in some small way, I’m okay with that too.
More information and research about the COSA model can be found here: https://cosa-ottawa.ca/research/