WN: I have had the good fortune of working with CoSA one way or another since its inception in 1994. You may read about the beginnings here.
I served since inception as well on the Board of CoSA Canada for two 3-year terms, taking a mandated break this year.
Needless to say, I believe in Restorative Justice and CoSA!
The local program was begun around 2000 under the BC Restorative Justice Program I directed for 16 years–until retirement–in partnership with Correctional Services Canada Chaplaincy (Pacific Region), headed by good friend Gerry Ayotte; and I was variously volunteer Board member, staff member, and volunteer from 1974 to 2014. A few years in (2004), Maureen Donegan of Catholic Charities and we did the contract together. Today CoSA Vancouver Fraser Valley has its own separate charitable status and Board (Catholic Justice Services Society). In short: Maureen dynamically developed CoSA-VFV ever since. It is one of the finest in Canada.
Two pages on this site besides many Blog posts are: Restorative Justice and a book series I am publishing, Justice That Transforms–Book Series–First 3 Volumes Fall 2018.
There is also an excellent article–somewhat dated–on our local CoSA here. Frank no longer is involved with the program.
In retirement, I continue–some with Esther, my wife–volunteering with several RJ programs, some national, others international. All very meaningful.
And I continue volunteering with CoSA-Vancouver/Fraser Valley (CoSA-VFV). I serve on four Circles currently. This too is very meaningful. It feels simply, as in all the above, a privilege.
We just held our first “annual” Banquet in two years, March 10, 2022. It was very special. I’ll add my full article about it, once I have some exact details nailed down. It begins thus:
In 1994, Harry Nigh, pastor of a small inner city church in Hamilton, Ontario led fellow parishioners to provide constant companionship and support to Charlie, a high-risk sex offender deemed by the prison 100% certain to reoffend upon “warrant expiry”—time of mandated release. But thanks to that continued intervention, Charlie never did.
Little did Harry and participants know then that subsequently, the model established by this initial experiment (called eventually Circles of Support and Accountability—CoSA), would be replicated across Canada, and eventually worldwide. Its twin mantra: No one is disposable. No more victims. One could add: Woe betide any of us if defined by our worst acts. There but for the grace of God . . .
In 1999, two people accompanied a notorious sex offender to another BC community. He had just been run out of a town in the interior, and had been forced to leave two previous localities. He was scared.
But this final time upon release, there was a first-ever CoSA in BC ready to receive him. He’s been crime-free ever since.
In 2020 at the last CoSA Vancouver Fraser Valley Banquet, guest speaker Harry Nigh recounted some early experiences in this work. He quoted noted Catholic liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, this way:
How do you work against poverty if you don’t know the name of one poor[/marginalized] person? Justice needs to have a personal, relational dimension, otherwise we’re talking theory.
That speaks directly to CoSA.
In 2004, current Co-ordinator of the Vancouver Fraser Valley CoSA, Maureen Donegan, then head of Catholic Charities, worked together with a prison visitation program in Abbotsford, to launch the above. Today, Catholic Justice Services Society, a registered Charity, operates the Program. You may visit their excellent website here: CoSA | Vancouver Fraser Valley | VFVCoSA.
In 2016, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Maureen was awarded the highest papal honour for her tireless work.
On March 10, 2022 there took place, at Westview Golf and Country Club in Surrey, the first Banquet in two years, and the thirteenth overall . . .
I had planned to have added the rest of my review here. Meanwhile, I sent a copy to my friend, Flyn Ritchie (who has also been a friend for as long as Harry) who produces Church for Vancouver, an online news blog that covers a very wide array of church activities in Vancouver and environs. Flyn added to the story additional videos, including Harry Nigh’s talk of two years ago. To read it, please click on: Circles of Support & Accountability: ‘No one is disposable. No more victims’.
Please also click on the above highlighted text to learn much about our local Program, and to meet our highly capable and experienced Director, Maureen Donegan, including in the following video:
Then please read the following article connecting CoSA and loneliness, by a colleague.
Another recently released video with three CoSA volunteers, also doubles as a fundraiser. Well worth the watching.
LONELINESS AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
by Otto Driedger, Professor Emeritus University of Regina
I came across an article in Maclean’s, March 2021 which reminded me of the experience we (my wife Florence and I) have with persons coming back into society from incarceration and becoming core members in Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). It also reminded me of the many other ways in which we have been and continue to be involved in restorative justice issues and services.
The article makes reference to the book The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart by Noreena Hertz. Reference is also made to the book A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion by British historian Fay Bound Alberti and numerous other references. In addition she discusses many other experiences and references to research that address causes of loneliness, its implications and responses that have emerged.
In terms of causes, it is observed that increased loneliness began with “industrialization, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology, all of which helped propel the rise of individualism.” Alberti further states “COVID … has exposed every crack in our society from income inequality to our trust in one another, and exacerbated them all. But it caused none of them. As the researchers of the ‘loneliness epidemic’ demonstrated years ago, we were already there.”
Hertz quotes research on the effects of loneliness. “Nor is there any dispute over how deadly loneliness and social isolation can be. They have been tightly connected with a range of health problems, from heart attacks and strokes increasing by about 30%, to alcohol and drug abuse, to anxiety, depression and a staggering 64% higher chance of clinical dementia. In the now famous summation of a 2015 meta-analysis of studies that totalled 3.4 million people tracked over seven years, loneliness is far worse than obesity, worse than 15 cigarettes a day.” She also identifies the increase in intimate partner and elder abuse and mental health issues.
Three major societal phenomena are identified as a result of loneliness.
- First, in industrially advanced capitalist societies several unique services have emerged. Examples cited include the development of a for-profit agency that provides cuddles for hire at hourly rates of $40 to $80.00. In another example, some aged Japanese too poor to purchase robots as companions, commit minor crimes. One 78 year-old prisoner who lives alone described jail as “an oasis” where there are many people to talk to.
- Second, the rise of commercial co-working spaces has seen the rise of companies providing such space. The importance of eating together at work places has a profound effect on productivity. The importance of doing things or being together as compared to being alone together.
- The third point is the role of loneliness and alienation in the rise of political populism, especially “the contemporary world’s dominant right-wing variety.” Hertz cites a major study of 600 individuals in 17 European countries and found that “people who were members of civic associations—volunteer groups and neighbourhood associations—were significantly less likely to vote for right-wing populist parties than people who were not.”
The article resonates with the work we do in restorative justice and CoSAs, the latter a program based on restorative justice principles. We find a large percentage of persons who offend and spend time in the criminal justice system experience profound loneliness, alienation and isolation. Upon returning to society from incarceration frequently means positive relationships have not existed or have been severed by incarceration. Frequently, if a person has offended sexually, he (usually it is a “he”) is abandoned by his family, no communities want him in their neighbourhood, and it is very difficult to get a job. As a result the major relationships are with other offenders which may lead to further offending.
Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) began in Canada in 1994, where an artificial friendship Circle of from 3 to 6 people would meet regularly with the “Core Member” (the person returning from incarceration—“returning citizen”), usually once a week for a substantial amount of time. Such meetings usually continued at least a year or more. The Circle facilitates positive integration (or reintegration) into society by friendship, acceptance, facilitation of establishing positive relationships, finding housing, jobs and coping with everyday living without resorting to antisocial behaviour.
One core member who had a history of offending sexually against young women shared an experience he had. He said he had gone to a Tim Horton’s to get a coffee, and said he was sure the female server was coming on to him. The Circle volunteers asked him to describe what had happened. It was clear rather that she was doing her duty of being friendly and positive in her job, nothing more. Assisting him to recognize what is “normal” is important.
Research indicates that there is an over-80% pattern of less re-offending by those in a Circle compared to nonmembers. The initial research was done by Dr. Robin Wilson and Andrew McWhinnie (2009). Subsequent research supports the findings. For more information on the research and much else about CoSAs, please visit the CoSA Canada web site.
And of course, if in British Columbia, please also visit the local website highlighted above.
Further: Otto and Florence Driedger, octogenarians, are a dynamic team who have worked together tirelessly for decades in service to CoSA–and a host of other helping ministries. They received a delightful letter from Psychologist Fred A. Reekie, PhD CSAT of Moving Forward: Individual & Couple Counselling in Saskatoon. In part, Dr. Reekie wrote1:
Recovery for sex addicts is most effective when there is a three-pronged approach: therapy, 12-Step Recovery Programs, and a Social Support Network. When roadblocks are placed in the way of these men accessing services at this critical moment, they experience that denial as a rejection of themselves as people. They interpret the message, “We cannot provide services until you are sentenced,” as “You are so deeply defective and hopeless as a human being that you are unworthy of our help.” This is toxic shame; it is no longer about what they did; it is about who they are. They give up. When these men make their first contact with me, they often phrase the request for therapy in the language of “Do you work with people like me?” The phrase “people like me” reflects the horrible truth that they see themselves as less than human and they anticipate rejection and abandonment.
The opposite of addiction is connection. CoSA provides a unique and vital role in the restoration of these men to wholeness. The acceptance provided by professionals like myself is often dismissed because we are paid to see them. Involvement in a 12-Step Recovery Group is often dismissed as, “Sure, they accept me because they are like me, but normal people would never want me.” CoSA counters that narrative in the most powerful way. When, at their lowest and most vulnerable moment, a Circle of “normal people” welcomes these men in, that experience disputes the message of toxic shame in a way that a therapist and a 12-Step Group cannot. Your welcoming them into a Circle says, “We see you, we have compassion for you, we believe in you, you have value, and we will walk with you as your spiritual companions through this valley. You are not alone.”
He could not have expressed it more beautifully! Then a challenge:
Please, consider expanding your mandate to include those who have just been charged and not yet sentenced, and even better, those who have not been charged but are sitting alone in their pain with nowhere to turn. Thank you again for your incredible work with some of society’s most hurting and vulnerable people. If I can support your work in any way, it would be my privilege.
Probably “toxic shame” is redundant. All shame is arguably toxic. Makes us believe we are undeserving, without dignity, a mistake. Then along come CoSA volunteers who start with acknowledgement: of the great harm(s) done by the Core Member. No sugar-coating. And we fully hold the CM ever after accountable to create no more victims. We also say, But no one is disposable, and in the words of Columnist Barbara Kay (see below), we intentionally embrace “ministering to the lepers most of us cannot bear to look at.”
Also, Maclean’s published, as Otto mentioned, (March 3, 2021): Friend rentals and robots: How businesses are creating solutions for the loneliness epidemic. It of course picks up on some of the same sources as Otto’s article. Here are some excerpts:
Alberti pushes the origin of the loneliness crisis back two centuries, to around 1800, when the word “lonely,” previously far more akin to the neutral “solitary” than it is now, first became a negative emotive word. When the poet William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud,” he was not expressing pain. The standard word at the time for the state of being alone was “oneliness,” likewise an unemotional statement of fact. Within a few decades, however, loneliness was freighted with the baggage of emptiness and absence it carries today. What happened to it, writes Alberti, was “industrialization, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology,” all of which helped propel the rise of individualism.
Bader, a political progressive as well as a psychologist, agrees with that conclusion, adding that his country’s “mythic sense of the triumph of the individual” is central to a “dog-eat-dog” America submersed in the ethos of the capitalist marketplace. The rise of personal autonomy to society’s highest value has meant “a toxic brew of social isolation and loneliness created by the flip side of the meritocratic myth—the self-doubt and depressive self-criticism caused by the notion that one’s station in life reflects one’s intrinsic value.” Even Rokach, who believes we are seeing more loneliness rather than experiencing more, acknowledges that its expression is culturally determined, and that the lonely in more individualistic countries tend to see themselves as personal failures or, in Trumpian terms, “losers.” And they tend not to want to admit it: “In 40 years of clinical experience,” says Rokach, “only one patient has ever opened treatment by saying his problem was loneliness.”
When, at their lowest and most vulnerable moment, a Circle of “normal people” welcomes these men in, that experience disputes the message of toxic shame in a way that a therapist and a 12-Step Group cannot. Your welcoming them into a Circle says, “We see you, we have compassion for you, we believe in you, you have value, and we will walk with you as your spiritual companions through this valley. You are not alone.”
Cuddle buyers and voluntary jailbirds are outliers, of course, and most of the loneliness economy is almost too mundane for most of us to notice. Back when office towers were still packed with workers, one in five in the U.S. reported not having a single friend at work. That’s one in five regular staff, not gig workers on temporary hire, whose office friendship rates would be closer to zero. That’s because, Hertz argues, the modern workplace has long lacked what it takes to build community. The open-plan office, born out of cost-cutting, “was sold to employees as a place where they were more likely to co-operate and collaborate, but in practice, became a kind of dystopian panopticon where people put on their noise-cancelling headphones and communicate by text and email with their colleagues.” Other workplace rituals have also been lost in recent years, “like eating together and having breaks at the same time, rather than eating alone at your desk.”
The meal issue may sound small, Hertz agrees, but it can make a major difference. Behavioural scientists at Cornell University spent nearly a year and a half observing 13 fire stations in a major American city, left unnamed to protect the firefighters’ privacy. The researchers found that the companies who planned their meals together, cooked together and ate together performed twice as well on the job as those who did not, because their collaboration and co-operation were better and more seamless in what is often a life-or-death situation. The firefighters themselves believe eating together is the social glue that creates friendship, mutual trust and teamwork—the daily meal was so important members would sometimes eat twice, once at home and again at the station, because skipping the common meal was a sign of disrespect and estrangement.
Right-wing populists also provide clear-cut, in-group/out-group divisions—who is worthy of inclusion and who is not. There is immense appeal for the lonely in that, Hertz and Bader agree, because they are relieved to be allowed into any group and because their loneliness has already had their brains’ “threat assessment” on high alert. A solitary mouse, isolated for four weeks or longer by curious scientists, will turn brutally and immediately on a newcomer introduced to his cage. Lonely mice and lonely men both turn on one another.
What to do about our frayed communities and lonely selves, nasal spray notwithstanding, has no easy answers. Hertz and other researchers know there are powerful economic currents dragging us where we are, and many good reasons—from abusive families to censorious neighbours—why so many people choose to live alone, whatever the long-term effects may be. Hertz is remarkably even-handed in her discussion of why we live the way we do and the changes—such as taxing internet giants like Amazon to pay for government support for local firms—needed to build the communities we want. Lasting solutions, however, will require awareness and deliberate action from governments, businesses and citizens. And cuddle-yearning Carl, disturbing as his story is, may be pointing us in the right direction. Massage therapy, Alberti says, is one of the few physical treatments proven to alleviate loneliness. Touch, the first and most powerful of human senses, so absent during the pandemic, will be part of the road home.
Finally, a brief (long if you read all the footnotes!) theological reflection about CoSA, in light of all the above.
God in our Christian understanding is a Trinity of loving, deferential interpersonal relationships. In I John, the writer baldly states: God is love. Here is the passage (4:16 & 17):
16And we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. 17In this way, love has been perfected among us, so that we may have confidence on the day of judgment; for in this world we are just like Him.
God therefore abides in love in a never-ending yet dynamic dance of mutual-love-in-liberty-and-community. (Some theologians even suggest we thereby collectively (ideally) as Church become by extension–and paradoxically–the fourth memeber of the Trinity.) And we all have been invited to join that dance! Yet our human condition means, in verse 17, that we must insert ideally before “perfected,” and exchange ought to be for “are” in the last phrase. But the oughtness is in reality glorious invitation: a summons to enter into The Wildest Dance of Freedom available on the planet! In fact, in light of an early Christian hymn quoted in verses 6 to 8 of Philippians 2:1 – 11,2 Christian faith offers the grand privilege of sidestepping one’s grasping Ego in favour of a True Self. 3
Another corollary from this passage is: we are found most to be made in God’s image when we practise community–an intentional thriving community of mutual love. This insight is found too in the African concept of ubuntu: A person is a person through others.
A further commentary on this understanding is beautifully expressed in an interview with Orthodox priest and scholar, Father Thomas Hopko, in Living in Communion: AN INTERVIEW WITH FATHER THOMAS HOPKO. A brief excerpt (but please click on and read the whole interview):
Thomas Hopko: Yes. I would prefer the word communion to relationship, but yes. The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so seventy—times—seven’’ times a day we must reestablish the communion—and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.
Just over 10 years into the work of CoSA, National Post columnist Barbara Kay reflected on CoSA thus4:
How do volunteers come to “care” about such human wreckage? It helps to be a Christian, as 75% of the volunteers are. One says of her role that it “is not of my own choosing or making, but from God … This is God saying, ‘You have to do something about this.'” Remarkably, the volunteers make no attempt to convert their charges. Their involvement is purely dutiful, pragmatic and unselfish.
With expansion, recruitment of volunteers becomes harder. I suspect Christians will continue to be the majority among them. The Christian faith, uniquely among the world’s religions, has inspired an awesome tradition of ministering to the lepers most of us cannot bear to look at.
One must acknowledge that in the two plus millennia since Christ, sadly, that is not all it inspired!5
CoSA has significantly expanded to many places worldwide, and has also undergone numerous academic evaluations that demonstrate it is by far the most effective intervention worldwide for sex offenders returning to society. For in the end, The Beloved Community6 is the only successful and sustained “tool” in interventions for good that we humans have.7