This author Q & A is a bit different as we have two separate authors (Clarke & Hoing) discussing two separate papers on CoSA in forthcoming editions on SAJRT.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
Mechtild Höing: “Volunteers in Circles of Support and Accountability Job Demands, Job Resources, and Outcome"
When the Dutch CoSA project started in 2009, one of the first concerns of the project developers was: “Is it safe to employ volunteers in this work with sex offenders?” The Dutch CoSA project was driven by the Dutch Probation organization, and although originally this organization was founded in the end of 19th century as a charity, completely driven by volunteer laymen and –women, the organization had become a completely professional institution, during the 20th century. Employing volunteers had become an exception, and the expertise regarding volunteer recruitment, retention, support and supervision had to be built again at the start of the CoSA project. At the same time, in the Netherlands – as elsewhere- sex offenders were in the center of public attention – and vigilance, for that matter. While the CoSA pioneers from the Dutch Probation organization were very enthusiastic and almost passionate about this new, practice based approach, my co-authors and I (who had been involved in the Dutch CoSA project from the very beginning) realized that CoSA needed a broader basis of scientific evaluation, in order to support the project development and to inform project policy decisions, as well as to be able to answer to legitimate questions of professionals in the field. I was given the opportunity to do a PhD study on CoSA, and it was clear from the beginning that one of my research projects would focus on the impact of this work on volunteers. An extensive review of the literature on the impact of volunteering in general and of working with sex offenders, had given us a good idea of the main concepts that needed to be studied.
Martin Clarke: "Circles of Support and Accountability for Sex Offenders: A Systematic Review of Outcomes”
It was partly out of neccessity in preparation for a funding application. We wanted to produce an up to date review of the evidence for Circles. We focused on quantitative studies because we wanted to try to quantify the findings. That said, there is also a growing body of qualitative research in support of Circles – perhaps another paper is needed!
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
Mechtild: Originally, this study was set up as a prospective study, with three measurements (pre-circle, after six months and after twelve months), and a comparison group of volunteers, doing other high impact work (a telephone help-line for suicidal people). However, recruitment of a sample that would be substantial enough for meaningful statistical analysis soon proved to be impossible, mainly because of the small scale of the CoSA project at the time. Also, recruiting volunteers from other volunteer projects was very time-consuming. Therefore we had to look for a more pragmatic solution. We decided to postpone the study for another year, expecting numbers of active volunteers would have risen by then. To make up for the time lost, we decided on a cross-sectional design, only targeting CoSA volunteers. After one year, the population of Dutch CoSA volunteers had almost doubled, but was still small (little more than 100 active volunteers), and although the CoSA project organization very much supported this study by facilitating the recruitment of volunteers, response rates were low. The volunteers proved to be highly motivated to work with sex offenders, which not necessarily meant they were motivated to fill in a lengthy questionnaire about their work. Although a 37% response rate in a web-based questionnaire is not unusual, we had hoped for more.
Martin: One of the main things was to put in context the research and the methodological limitations of the studies. Circles were a spontaneous response to improve reintegration back to community and research wasn’t at the forefront. There’s also flexibility in providing Circles and so there are differences between (and within) Circles Projects even within the same country. Some of the outcomes were not reported in a way that made them comparable to other studies but authors willingly provided additional information which helped.
The reviewers’ comments were also helpful in shaping the paper. Initially we had intended to include a meta-analysis of recidivism data but there was only one RCT and three case control studies. We would have needed to include several caveats when reporting the meta-analysis. Even then, there was a risk of going beyond the data so we didn’t include one.
What kinds of things did you learn about co-authorship as a result of producing this article?
Martin: The process worked well. I’ve usually written with more co-authors. In a way, I think it’s a little easier with fewer co-authors in that you’re not waiting for more people to respond. Birgit and Sue (my co-authors) are very knowledgable about Circles and Circles research.
What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learnt about Cosa and its application in sex offender integration?
Mechtild: CoSA seems to be a rather robust model. One of the main results of our study was, that not only sex offenders profit from CoSA, but volunteers seem to do so as well. The strength of the model is its focus on building relationships of trust, openness and accountability, not only between the sex offender and the volunteers, but also among the volunteers themselves and between volunteers and the professional staff. The social support both from co-volunteers and from the circle-coordinator increase feelings of connectedness and competence, thereby adding to the well-being of volunteers. The current policies in Dutch CoSA projects regarding selection, training and supervision of volunteers seem to work. One must keep in mind though, that the role and quality of the circle –coordinator is a critical element in the model, one that needs further evaluation.
Martin: The evidence is supportive of Circles and there has also been nothing to suggest that Circles have an adverse effect on outcomes. We know social exclusion and isolation are risk factors to reoffending and so intuitively it makes sense to provide support to such offenders. That said, there is clearly more that can be done to strengthen the evidence base. We still need larger samples with control groups and longer term follow-ups given what we know about the low and slow rates of reconviction for sexual offences. We also need agreement on which short term outcomes would be useful.
We need more evidence on the accountability aspect of Circles. Clearly Circles offer an extra layer of surveillance which could lead to detecting recidivism which might otherwise not have been detected. So I think the role a Circle had in outcomes needs to be better documented, whether this is a positive outcome such as finding employment or a less successful outcome such as recidivism. Even then, outcomes such as being recalled to prison are not necessarily negative if that prevented further victims.