Rutland Volunteers Help Sex Offender Re-Enter Community

A restorative justice program is showing remarkable success in helping high-risk offenders re-enter the community after prison. The idea is to create a circle of support and accountability, or CoSA, to help former inmates avoid re-offending.

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(Photo) A team of volunteers in Rutland meets twice a month with a convicted sex offender (wearing hoodie) as part of a successful restorative
justic program that has been shown to reduce recidivism among high risk sex offenders by 70 percent.

The program originated in Canada in the 1990s and Vermont is one of a handful of states now using the program.  Three Canadian studies have shown it to reduce recidivism among sex offenders by as much as 70 percent.

A team of CoSA volunteers in Rutland and the offender they’ve been helping spoke with VPR about the program.  

Tall and 40-something, the man asked that we distort his voice and not include his name in the story. “I sexually offended minors. It started many, many years ago,” he said. “I was inside for eight years.”

The man doesn’t make excuses for what he did and he understands his crime makes people angry and fearful. Ironically, he said prison is where he finally got treatment, first with the state’s program for sexual abusers and later with CoSA. He was released from prison more than two years ago.

“I got out in October, 2012,” and it was overwhelming,” he said. “I have to admit I was actually quite scared at that time. I remember thinking what am I doing? I had learned to be comfortable where I was and I definitely felt safe where I was.”

When asked if he was worried he’d re-offend, he nods. “Yes, I was worried that I’d re-offend. I always knew that I was capable of re-offending if I didn’t manage my situations correctly. But,” he said, “I knew that if I used the tools that I had learned I could manage it and luckily the people that were around me, CoSA for sure, helped me to make sure I did utilize that and did not reoffend.”

The man’s CoSA team is made up of a probation officer from the Department of Corrections, a program facilitator and four volunteers. The group began meeting once a week in 2012, while the man was still in prison. Now after nearly two-and-a-half years, they meet every other Thursday for about an hour.

“It is labor intensive,” admits Leslie Briere. She’s a corrections program supervisor and CoSA team member who works with parolees in Rutland and Middlebury. “I don’t think anyone benefits from someone being incarcerated long-term,” said Briere. “But the fact is at some point most offenders are going to come back to the community. So anything we can do to build their skills and to give them some opportunities and resources to make them successful everyone is better for that,” adds Briere.

On this Thursday, volunteers take a few minutes to catch up with one another before program facilitator Shawn McMore brings the meeting to order. “So let’s check in with everyone since the last CoSA,” he says, “find out what’s been going on. Joan, how have things been going for you?”

The meetings provide offenders and team members with a chance to visit and talk over any problems or issues they’re having.

When offenders first get out of prison, many of their problems have to do with finding work and a place to live. But over time, the issues become more nuanced. 

For instance, at this meeting, the released offender talks about how frustrated and angry he got the week before when a department of corrections official told him he couldn’t put a security camera on his home. 

The group knows that he’s received threats from his neighbors, which is why he wanted the camera. Volunteer Sherri Durgin-Campbell acknowledges his fear but gently pushes for more. “So I have a question - did you reach out to anyone in CoSA?"

Like an alcoholic who seeks help from a mentor, offenders taking part in CoSA are encouraged to call members of their team when they get upset to ensure problems get talked through and dangerous or unhealthy habits get broken.

Sitting in a gray hoodie, the man admits he didn’t pick up the phone right away, but instead tried to work through his emotions on his own. “I tried to think it through, you know, what set me off, what made me angry?" he says. "And I was able to fall back on some of the things I learned in the program inside."

Shawn McMore, the program coordinator, likes what he hears. “I was impressed because of the fact that you’ve learned so much since you’ve come out. You didn’t blow up,” says McMore. “You knew what was happening you identified it and said look I can’t go any further, and you just cut it off there.”

Volunteer Sherri Durgin-Campbell reminds the man that while his reaction is normal, his situation is not. “You have conditions,” she points out. "That is a reality I think that we need to look at that because the longer you’re out the more normal you’re feeling. But you have something in your past that’s an aspect of you and you’re going to have to deal with it just like anybody with any other addiction has to deal with,” she says while the man nods.

Durgin-Campbell, says she’s proud of how far the man has come in the nearly three years she’s known him. But she says she didn’t join the program for him. “I didn’t join CoSA to be nice. My main reason for getting involved was I wanted to protect the community,” she says matter-of-factly.

Durgin-Campbell says one of her own children was incarcerated and she says that experience was an eye opener. “When someone comes out of a period of incarceration there are enormous challenges that I don’t think the public understands,” she says. “Because people don’t want to rent to you, they don’t want to give you a job and there are conditions placed on you that make it very difficult to make friends. So it’s a little bit for some of these folks like being released from the bars, but having invisible bars placed on them that puts them in solitary. And that,” she says, “is very dangerous to the community because that’s going to allow them to go back to the kinds of behaviors that they engaged in before.”

While the CoSA team provides direction, support and advice, team member Joan Eckley says they also help with more mundane issues like figuring out a budget and grocery shopping. “We drove him to and from his worksite, because initially when he first got the job he was stuck in a place that had no public transportation and he needed to get to the next town. So between his family and the CoSA volunteers we drove everywhere he needed to go,” says Eckley. “So it was very basic needs and fortunately he knew how to cook. A lot of people don’t know how to cook.”

The group also gets together socially says Leslie Briere, going out to dinner or to a movie. “It helps because a lot of offenders become isolated - particularly people who have sex offense.” 

Sheri Durgin-Campbell nods. “Sometimes what somebody needs more than anything else is a friend.”

But while CoSA teams provide plenty of support they also stress accountability. 

Offenders can be manipulative so volunteer Elizabeth Bellany says teams work together to avoid being conned or lied to.In a CoSA there are no secrets,” she says. “So if the core member reaches out to one of the volunteers outside the CoSA meeting we must discuss this with everyone in the team. This is one way we can stop an offender from manipulating us or prevent them from becoming closer to one of the group and splitting the group.”

Not every offender leaving prison qualifies for CoSA. Rutland’s Program Coordinator Shawn McMore says men and women who want to take part have to want to change and not every offender does. This year, of the eight offenders referred for the Rutland program, McMore says only three were accepted. 

And he says finding people in the community willing to take part is a challenge. “It’s not just anybody that comes through our door that’s going to be a volunteer.”

CoSA volunteers go through about six hours of specialized training, he says, in addition to getting ongoing support.

Yearly administration costs run about $12,500 per team. Shawn McMore says that’s a bargain compared to the roughly $50,000 the state spends to incarcerate someone for a year.

McMore says CoSA programs are being run in 12 locations across Vermont with 25 to 30 going on at any one time.

According to a 2013 study that assessed 21 completed CoSAs in Vermont, only one of the 21 participating offenders was charged with a new crime. Among Vermont offenders not taking part in the program, Shawn McMore says nearly half will violate conditions of their release or break the law again. “Other states are taking the CoSA model from what Vermont has done because they see it is worthwhile. But like I said, you have to vet the core member, that they want it.  Then you have to have the right volunteers and make sure it’s a team,” he adds.

McMore believes the program not only protects communities, but helps keep offenders who want to change from ending up back in prison.  The man at the center of this CoSA agrees.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like had I got out originally and not had it,” the man says. “I definitely know that it’s surely helped me from re-offending and I think it would anybody else.”

The man has recently bought a house and admits his neighbors who know about his past, are not happy about it. “I understand the fear that comes with a person who’s committed a sex offense,” he says quietly.  “I just want to be able to live my life.”

That will never be easy, he admits.  The stigma of his crime will always follow him. But he says thanks to a group of strangers who he now calls friends, there are people he trusts who have his back. That’s a new experience to him, he says, and one he doesn’t want to lose.

Mar 9, 2015