Posts Tagged support circles
Published by EducationNews.org — The challenge is to keep offenders from just cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.
Back in the 1990s a Mennonite minister, Harry Nigh, developed a protocol for radically reducing recidivism among sex offenders. The common assumption to this day — probably even yours — is that nothing can be done about this particularly creepy form of criminal activity. Not true.
The Circle of Support and Accountability, or CoSA, works amazingly, as I first learned from expert Robin Wilson. Furthermore, CoSA works so well, it’s being used to divert or re-integrate those who’ve committed all sorts of crimes. In fact, in a recent workshop designed to scale up Restorative Justice in Vermont, the practitioner attendees talked as if it were the go-to model for virtually all social service problems. We’ll get an example in a moment.
Know first that the CoSA research data rocks:
* 83% reduction in recidivism for sexual offenses
* 73% reduction in recidivism for all types of violent offenses
* 71% overall reduction of in all types of recidivism in comparison to matched groups of offenders who did not have a CoSA.
The model is fairly simple. Picture an inner and an outer circle, with the “core member,” or offender, at the center. The inner or informal circle is made up of family, friends, neighbors, fishing pals, whoever is willing to have regular, frequent contact with the person getting help. CoSA for the sex offenders mostly uses trained volunteers, but volunteers could be added to any team if the person is very isolated.
The outer circle consists of professionals who work on the more complex barriers to success — addiction, housing, psychiatry, social services. Here’s a graphic of the model. Wrapping a person in structured support seems like an intuitive way of solving social problems. Think of extended families working together to raise a particularly difficult kid.
Nathan suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
A young man we’ll call Nathan came before Judge Pamela Williams’ mental health court in Nova Scotia. (Last week’s column has more about her and mental health courts.) Babies born of women who drink alcohol heavily during any part of the pregnancy can be born with conditions like hyperactivity, developmental delays, speech and language delays, and low intelligence.
Nathan could not, as Judge Williams said, “connect the dots.” Cause and effect meant nothing to him. Consequences were meaningless. He’d been jailed by the traditional courts for a variety of criminal charges. His drug involvement only increased his disruptiveness and irrationality. His parents were at wits’ end. Lastly, it had come to light that he was being sexually exploited by an older man. The traditional court judges sent him over to Judge Williams, whose claim to fame was her remarkably low recidivism rate.
Judge Williams had become increasingly adept at using CoSA.
As she put it, in the Vermont workshop, the challenge was to build Nathan an “external brain.” Parents are their children’s external brain until the kids are mature enough to make good decisions on their own. Nathan would never make great decisions autonomously.
Over her years as a judge, Williams had collected expert collaborators into teams, one for health, one for job skills, homelessness, and so forth. Depending on the case, the appropriate team would help her form that professional circle of experts who understood how to keep problematic people out of the courts, prisons and hospitals. When the experts had done their assessments, Williams brought the immediate parties into her court for a restorative-justice conference — the pros, Nathan and his parents. Together they designed a plan that could work for everyone, especially Nathan.
Nathan was far more high-maintenance than Jane, the bipolar gambling addict of last week’s story. Unlike Jane, Nathan’s informal inner circle will always need ongoing professional support. So the first order of business was to get him into a structured living environment capable of monitoring Nathan’s constant needs. That allowed his previously-oppressed parents to become his fun companions on outings and visits.
Nathan’s access to the internet was supervised. But importantly, Williams’ mental health team alerted the police to online sexual exploitation, and that led to a conversation about working with the cops on the problem. Restorative justice uses the crime at hand to look into the future for ways to eliminate or mitigate issues the crime has revealed. The professionals helped Nathan fill his free time with more productive activities. Through assessments, they found that Nathan could work successfully as a flagger on road projects — work that makes him so proud that he’s highly motivated to cooperate.
Oh, you betcha. CoSA is labor-intensive. But it works. Williams considers it her judicial charge and challenge to keep offenders from cycling through traditional systems that don’t work.
Ah, but at what cost? Next week, the last column in this series will consider costs.
Published by EducationNews.org — People who have social support do well. People who don’t, don’t. Period.
For most of his career, Dr. Robin Wilson, Ph.D. lied about his profession when asked socially. He’d say he was an accountant, a pilot, a businessman. It was easier that way. Then he decided to man up. Actually, he’s a psychologist who specializes in sex offenders. To a person, he marvels, people reacted to his profession with exactly the same response. Little old ladies making conversation on a plane say: “Oh, there’s nothing you can do about them.” (Wilson is a fun, funny speaker.)
Honestly, prior to his speech, I also supposed they were uniquely incurable. Creepy, dark, victimizing sexual urges just couldn’t be rooted out of a person’s psychology.
Of course, such thinking exemplifies the American kick-out mentality at its most complete. It’s my core business to work toward embracing “bad” people, especially bad kids, as integral members of their communities. But I’d never looked twice at my assumption that sex offenders couldn’t be in the mainstream.
Wilson says, “It’s our kneejerk reaction to lock ‘em up. These guys — 95% are men — come from the community. We remove them. Then when they go back, there is no community. They were never integrated in the first place.” So we put them in prison, which is itself sexually horrible. The Courts assure us, with proof, that people in prison really are bad, so prison rape ignites surprisingly little outrage. In any case, no one learns community-appropriate skills in a prison. Indeed, I think prison is itself a mental illness.
So instead of helping to integrate these men into a healthy community, we further isolate and stigmatize them. Laws, policies, and regulations make life nearly impossible for convicted sex offenders — finding housing, work, dignity.
And then they reoffend. They want connection, but got seriously off track trying to get it. Early treatment options — like electro-shocking their penises when they see pictures of children — didn’t work. Those barbaric efforts, back in the 1970s, were the beginning of the “nothing works” movement.
Then Wilson and others began to develop a protocol called “Circles of Support.” Consider Charlie Taylor’s story. Taylor had been in foster and institutional care since he was 4. Already as a young kid, he was a repeat offender. His offenses got worse with age, which only made it harder for him to build a healthy social group for himself. Social services didn’t want him. And in the service of “protecting” the larger community, the media publicized his name and offenses. A modern leper, Taylor’s risk of re-offending was 100%.
But a Mennonite pastor, Reverend Harry Nigh, took him in. Nigh was “Charlie’s angel.” For the record, the Mennonites, particularly Howard Zehr, studied, developed and practiced restorative justice decades ago, when it was a loony fringe idea. Like most religious groups at their best, the Mennonites are all about the community, specifically its power to heal. So Nigh set about understanding what sorts of social relationships and supports, called “circles” in Restorative language, could successfully integrate Taylor and others like him.
Wilson explains that in a Circle of Support, a professional case manager helps the offender forge strong relationships with both informal, or “natural” supports, and professionals. To achieve adequate “dosage,” the natural supports must include at least 4 to 6 people who see the offender often, do stuff with him, and get him involved in work, volunteering, hobbies, keeping house. Case managers knock themselves out to re-establish broken relationships with ex-wives, estranged siblings, parents, fishing buddies, whomever. These informal supports need to be reasonably healthy people. Social contacts, likely weak or non-existent before the offense, are key to bringing the offender out of the isolation that got him into trouble.
Then, professionals — social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists — help the whole mini-community around the offender keep their collective relationships strong. After all, Wilson says, “People who have social support do well. People who don’t, don’t. Period. Without my own social circle, I might have problems with alcohol, difficulty adjusting and making relationships. I might become likely to offend.”
A Circle of Support does not guarantee zero recidivism. But the data are dramatically positive. There is something you can do.
And the lesson in all this, a point Wilson made in emphatic theme and variation, is that safety is a community responsibility. Social isolation triggers all manner of mental illness, including sex disorders. For everyone at all ages, strong, natural social ties both prevent disorders and aid healing when psycho-social problems happen. “We can not exclude the community from the risk-management process. Safety is the standards kept by the people, not the police.”