By Kelly Richards, PhD, Jodi Death, PhD, & Kieran McCartan, PhD
The community integration of people convicted of a sexual offence is a challenge, as they are often not welcomed back into the community, not supported, find themselves socially and emotionally isolated as well as often being perceived as a constant threat of re-offending. This is problematic as these approaches often increase the individual’s risk of re-offending, rather than reduce it. Research shows that social inclusion and pro-social modelling helps desistence from future offending, including offending sexually.
We recently undertook research (Major report: Research to Policy and Practice report: Fact sheet on CoSA)on two community-based approaches to the integration of people convicted of a sexual offence back into the community. The research focused on Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) in Adelaide, South Australia, and the Cultural Mentoring Program (CMP) in Townsville, Queensland. The research was funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and was conducted in partnership with the Offenders’ Aid and Rehabilitation Service of South Australia, Queensland Corrective Services and the Bravehearts Foundation.
CoSA are groups of trained volunteers who support people convicted of sexual offending (known as “core members”) as they leave prison and re-join the community, with the aim of preventing sexual re-offending. The research involved semi-structured interviews with current or previous core members (n=3), staff who have played a role in developing, delivering or managing the CoSA program (n=5), a range of government, non-government and private stakeholders who work in tandem with either the CoSA program (n=3) and volunteers involved in the CoSA program (n=7). CoSA were shown to help participants build new identities as non-offenders, while holding participants accountable through the development of life goals, participating in treatment, accessing community and support groups, reconnecting in healthy ways with family members and taking up volunteering opportunities that supported the development of pro-social identities. Additionally, CoSA helped reduce risks of re-offending by holding core members to account for their behaviour by: (1) challenging core members’ attitudes supportive of violence against women and children; (2) reporting core members to the relevant authority in circumstances in which the core member has breached their conditions of release and/or is engaging in problematic behaviours; and (3) supporting core members to adhere to the conditions of their release both practically and emotionally. However, the research indicates that there are challenges for CoSA, including gaps in volunteer skills (i.e., understanding technology, being able to clearly identify re-offending behaviour and understanding core members’ release conditions), and the use of criminal justice professionals as volunteers, which lead to a tension emerged around the need to clarify the roles of paid staff and volunteers. The findings on the first CoSA program in Australia reflect previous research from CoSA programs internationally (i.e. Canada, UK, USA, Netherlands, Catalonia, Belgium and New Zealand), therefore reinforcing and validating the model.
The CMP works with released Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander men convicted of sexual offending and seeks to connect them with traditional cultural practice and knowledge. The research involved semi-structured interviews with current or previous participants in the CMP (n=14 interviews with 11 individuals; i.e. three individuals opted to be interviewed twice), staff who have played a role in developing, delivering or managing CMP (n=6) and a range of government, non-government and private stakeholders who work in tandem with CMP (n=12). The research found that the program helped the men to build strong and positive non-offending cultural identities with a focus on connections with family, culture and Country. The CMP manages risk through minimising risk focused on mitigating and managing the emotional distress and life stressors that participants commonly experience (such as anger and frustration relating to the imposed conditions of release), in order to minimise the risk that participants may pose to the community. The CMP also encourages and helps participants to meet the conditions of their orders as well as fostering honest and trustworthy behaviour in a broader sense. CMP participants experienced additional barriers to successful reintegration. Most participants were from remote communities and had little experience outside of their home communities. In the CMP, some participants saw developing respect for women as a strength of the program; however, others expressed views that gave women responsibility for the violence committed against them. This study confirmed findings from previous research that highlighted the importance of addressing gender equality as a fundamental tenet of perpetrator intervention programs.
The research team also conducted a study into victim/survivors’ views about the reintegration of people who have sexually offended, this part of the study comprised of semi-structured interviews with 33 victims/survivors.While victim/survivors’ views were diverse, in the main they supported programs such as CoSA, particularly on the grounds that such an approach could prevent future offending.
The ANROWS research highlights the importance of pro-social community engagement in the integration of people convicted of a sexual offence back into the community. Sexual abuse is an individual and community issue and therefore needs individual and community responses. The striking outcome of the research is not that CoSA or CMP work in their contexts, but rather that victim/survivors of sexual abuse were largely sympathetic towards these programs and that they view social inclusion as an effective way of preventing future sexual offending.