As a parent, when I heard the words “sex offenders need friends too,” my first thought was “huh?”
Where was this conversation headed?
But that is the message shared during the most recent community luncheon roundtable hosted by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.
Held every fourth Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. at Shepherds House United Methodist Church at 107 N. Driver St, the lunches are a chance for citizens and community agencies to discuss social issues important to Durham.
The lunches are free and open to the public.
This particular afternoon’s speaker was Drew Doll, coordinator of Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). It’s an organization consisting of groups of volunteers and professionals providing support and accountability to sex offenders after their release from prison.
In reducing recidivism, or the return to prison, with sex offenders, their purpose is simple – “no more victims.”
Ignoring the problem, says CoSA, puts the community at risk.
Founded in Canada in 1994, the concept spread to the United Kingdom in 2002 and found its way to Durham County last year.
Depending on the study being viewed, one in three girls and one in five boys experience some form of unwanted sexual conduct in life.
The North Carolina Department of Justice’s website states there are 263 registered sex offenders in the county. Regardless of sentences, over 90 percent of sex offenders come home and, according to Doll, the police “can’t do it all.”
Speaking to the audience of about 50 people, Doll said treating offenders like “lepers at the gates” feeds into the isolation and secrecy that eventually leads them to repeat offenses.
“GPS, probation and parole don’t tell all the answers,” he said. “Monitoring doesn’t tell you what their thinking or the people they’re associating with, but a relationship with this person will.”
In CoSA, offenders and supporters write down an agreement that everyone is held accountable to. It may be as simple as the offender agreeing not to hurt anyone or refraining from crime or drugs. In turn, supporters agree to walk with and help offenders along the way in achieving their goal.
“No More Victims”
Offenders receive daily contact from CoSA members. The idea is that having an inner circle of friends along with an outer circle of professional help, such as substance abuse counselors or help finding housing will help offenders succeed.
CoSA follows other circular community models for re-entry like the local Genesis Home for those returning from homelessness. Doll cited research showing high-risk offenders in these support circles are 70 percent less likely to re-offend and offenders that do not have friends or family need this support.
The organization asks volunteers to be willing to give a year to build trust and transparency with offenders but stresses they must be willing to be in relationships with people that did “bad things.” Volunteers receive about 25 hours of training including victim’s rights and forming relationships.
CoSA doesn’t pretend to be able to “fix everything” but said the concept works because of the relationship.
“The power of relationships to change lives is incalculable, especially when people expect you to succeed,” Doll said.
The luncheon was attended by representatives of several churches and agencies including Durham Crisis Response Center, an agency offering services to victims of domestic or sexual violence, and Durham Congregations in Action.
Rev. Spencer Bradford is executive director of DCIA and a member of CoSA’s Steering Committee.
Circles, he said, have been beneficial to Canada and the UK and Durham should also be able to accomplish the same.
“It takes commitment and training to work with pedophiles in the community,” said Bradford. “We want to do our part to prevent further victimization with these circles of safety.”
While attendees munched over plates of steaming food, I spoke with community member Jharmick Meeks. He has attended several roundtables including discussions on community gun laws and charging youth with adult crimes.
“You have to reach out to improve this community,” he said. “We can sit here and talk all day, but the problem is still out there.”
With April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is a sentiment echoed by Doll.
He recently had a talk with a group about CoSA. A man came up to him and said he initially did not want to attend because he had had a family member that was raped and murdered by an offender.
Doll said, “He told me after the talk he wondered how it would have been if that offender had had a circle.”
CoSA is hosting a community town hall lecture titled Sexual Abuse Prevention and You: A Community Response April 25th from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Criminal Justice Resource Center at 326 E. Main St. If interested in learning more, email Drew Doll at email@example.com or call 919.228.0997.
And if you haven’t had a seat at the community luncheon roundtable, it’s worth a try — you might learn something while eating with neighbors.