A ground-breaking scheme where members of the community volunteer to work with sex offenders has been given a major funding boost after achieving a 100 per cent success rate.
The aim of the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) programme is to keep the community safe and since it started in North Wales in 2007 none of the offenders taking part has gone on to re-offend.
The project operates across all six counties in the region and each offender is teamed with trained volunteers of diverse backgrounds, ages and professions.
There are 100 volunteers in North Wales and the offenders go through a rigorous risk assessment and selection process before they can sign up.
The offender is considered as the core of the circle and will meet weekly with the team which offers a solid network of counselling, support and guidance on reintegrating into community life.
Now North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Winston Roddick CB QC has agreed a contribution of £30,000 for the pioneering programme..
He said: “COSA’s 100 per cent record of success in North Wales speaks for itself. Its contribution to society is invaluable.
Anything we can do to ensure fewer victims of sex crimes is worth doing and this project has proved itself one of the most successful approaches to date in the UK and overseas. “This is a highly stigmatised area and an extremely difficult problem to deal with, but one which we have to tackle with open minds for the safety of society as a whole.”
News of the £30,000 additional funding has been welcomed by Mr Clive Wolfendale, chief executive of the charity CAIS, which delivers the COSA scheme in association with the probation service in North Wales and community volunteers.
A charity and provider of personal support services in Wales CAIS took over the COSA programme after merging last year with Wrexham based Community Justice Interventions Wales which worked to cut crime and anti-social behaviour by offering advice, education and social interaction for the disadvantaged.
Mr Wolfendale, the former deputy chief constable of North Wales Police, said: “COSA fulfils a very difficult need and tackles an intractable problem.
“Upon release sex offenders are likely to be isolated and re-located from family and past friends. It maybe impossible for them to survive successfully in the area where they previously lived.
“With no social connections or bedrock to make a go of life the prospect of them re-offending becomes more likely and presents a very real danger to society.
“COSA addresses that in a practical, direct way, putting the individual together with a team of volunteers to support them through rehabilitation techniques.
“The aim is to steer them towards a more meaningful, crime-free contribution to society and eventually productive employment.”
Mr Wolfendale explained COSA takes a pioneering approach towards one of the ever present risks with convicted sex offenders – that upon release they may manage to change identity and disappear from monitoring processes altogether.
He added: “COSA confronts this head on by encouraging the offender from the outset to take a different approach to the future, encouraging them to sign up to receive the support they need to turn their life around.
“We know where they are and what they are doing. Any warning signals that the person is not coping can be flagged up immediately by the COSA team but at the same time the subject is able to talk through any inappropriate behaviour patterns and take measures to reassess.
“This is a preventative approach. Because of its nature it has to be carefully and discreetly operated but its main objective is to safeguard our society and I do believe it is an extremely worthwhile investment which is helping North Wales be a safer place with fewer victims.”
The COSA approach was launched with remarkable success in Canada and 15 years ago it was trialled in the UK by Thames Valley Probation Area which achieved a 75 per cent reduction in re-offending.
One of the volunteers, who has asked not to be named, firmly believes that given the right level of support there is real potential for sex offenders to turn their lives around.
She said: “I am under no illusions, these are extremely serious crimes we are talking about, but we cannot simply isolate offenders when they are released from prison and think that the problem will go away. We have to keep society safe and the best way to do that is to take a frontline approach.
“The figures show that most of those who have been through this system in the UK and abroad have not re-offended and that’s the main reason why I became a COSA volunteer because I know it delivers real benefits to society, as well as to the core member of each circle.
“There is no doubt my work with COSA can be very challenging; volunteering for the first time and meeting the ‘core’ member of your circle can be nerve wracking, as you are never quite sure what issues you will be asked to face.
“But that’s why we work in teams, for the safety and reassurance of everyone involved, including the core member, and so there are diverse skills and opinions. I know the rest of my team can offer areas of advice and expertise which I might not be so confident about and vice versa.
“There are genuine rewards to be gained on a personal level when you begin to see a person who felt perhaps that they were in many ways a lost cause, gradually start to move forward, making progress. It is good to be able to have been part of a team which has helped them make those strides.”
She was pleased to hear of the announcement for the extra funding: “It is good to see the scheme receiving such strong support. North Wales is moving ahead of the game in this area and I’m proud to be playing a part in that.”
Chris Wilson, the national development manager of Circles UK, said: “‘Circles UK is pleased that CAIS has secured funding from the PCC to continue the important and valuable work of COSA in North Wales.
“COSA’s contribution and success to the risk management of known high risk sex offenders released from prison back into the community is well documented.
“The role of the volunteers is a challenging and at times demanding one but their value is immeasurable in supporting the statutory agencies to make our communities safer and bring to reality the COSA mantra of no more victims.”