Local group helps convicted sex offenders re-integrate back into society
There’s a faceless man standing in line at the mall. Maybe he’s been out of jail for a few weeks or so. He sees “the one.”
The boy, barely 10 years old, is eyeing up the candy bars.
The man is excited, and not in a good way.
His fantasies begin with a mere thought. When these thoughts go unchecked, fantasies become real-life nightmares.
No matter how twisted his thoughts may be, he knows it, but he can’t help himself. His thoughts need to end before he creates more victims. He picks up the phone, and calls Tracy Robertson.
Tracy talks him down, and takes his mind off the little boy.
While some people volunteer at their local soup kitchen, Tracy volunteers by dealing with what some might consider the “lowest of the low.”
Tracy volunteers for Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). The Calgary organization operates under the guiding principles of restorative justice and rehabilitation. While many restorative justice programs attempt to right wrongs by bringing victims and offenders face-to-face, CoSA and its clients do not interact with the victims.
“People are surprised at my comfort level,” says Tracy, a 42-year-old mother of two, who also works as a pastor at the Calgary Young Offender Center.
She works directly with convicted sex offenders in friendship circles, and makes herself available for phone calls from offenders who need help.
When considering a place to complete her practicum for school, she asked herself, “Who would be considered lowest of the low?”
The requirements of her program dictated that her practicum had to be somewhere that pushed the limits of her comfort level – “Somewhere where you haven’t been, and somewhere scary,” says Robertson.
It’s a few days of absolute hell for them because they can’t get past the image they are creating,” says Tracy.
When one volunteers for CoSA, one must commit to three years, she says. Volunteers first meet the offender in their last year of incarceration to form bonds of “friendship” — a term CoSA uses to promote the type of relationship it wants its volunteers to form with clients.
Upon release from custody, offenders with help from CoSA try to re-integrate into society. In the beginning, volunteers help find them shelter, find jobs. The volunteers also help their clients run errands and go for coffee.
However, the relationship is structured to a degree — for example, Tracy says she never lets clients meet her own children, aged 16 and 13.
Aside from helping offenders with their basic needs, CoSA volunteers provide their clients counselling through what they call “circles.” Volunteers go over a client’s parole conditions, address their client’s concerns, and keep them accountable by making sure they meet the goals they set, Tracy explains.
CoSA’s number one concern, according to Tracy, is preventing clients from reoffending. CoSA claims a 98 per cent success rate regarding that aspect.
It is under this theme of rehabilitation that CoSA hopes to lower the chances of offenders creating more victims, Tracy points out.
Sometimes this is about controlling triggers, says Robertson. Seeing a little boy in the mall, for example, might set off a series of thoughts, which might lead the offender to relapse into committing another sexual offence.
Photo by: Gordon Williamson
When faced with this trigger, the client may call up the volunteer, who will stay on the phone and give guidance, and plan an emergency circle meeting to address the problem.
CoSA defines these moments as a “crisis,” often resulting in emergency circle meetings, where the volunteer and client discuss face-to-face what happened. To the volunteers, it’s about stopping the thought process. To their clients, these are moments of panic, a hurdle they must jump to prevent themselves from reoffending again.
Psychologically, it can be brutal, says Robertson.
“It’s a few days of absolute hell for them because they can’t get past the image they are creating,” she says.
According to her, the key is preventing sexual urges from becoming reality.
Tracy recalls one client she worked with.
“One guy took three or four years before he had a family, with a kid he was tutoring and had them trusting enough where he had him alone. But this is what has them going is the whole fantasy. The whole thought process would actually play out. So if they see somebody in the mall for example, what do you do? How do you stop that?” she asks.
This is partly done by helping clients develop strategies to control their sexual urges. Exactly how they do this is not clear. According to Tracy, it’s about stopping their thoughts, and dealing with them before their mere thoughts become reality.
“For the average person, if we’re somehow sexually frustrated, we can masturbate, and that would be the end of that, and that would be fine, that would be the normal thing to do,” explains Tracy.
“Because I’ve never been a victim. So I’m not going to pretend that I know what that’s all about.”
“I could never understand what a victim has gone through, never,” admits Tracy,
“But for these guys, it’s just one step closer that’s not a high enough high, that won’t satisfy the urge.
“Then he has to go on to watching kids, and that won’t satisfy the urge. Then he has to go on to actually getting into contact with kids. Then they will bide their time.”
As Tracy points out, it starts with a fantasy, and then slowly unfolds into reality.
“None of them can be cured, they’re sexual addicts, that’s the way they get off, explains Tracy.
“You can’t change that. It’s them; it’s part of who they are. What they learn is more strategies, like learning how to deal with triggers. They know if they react on the first impulse their life will go spiralling down. So sometimes it’s about keeping their mind occupied.”
When asked about her thoughts about victims of sexual abuse, Tracy admits she’s unable to understand their experience. With this in mind, she still stands behind her work with CoSA and her clients, saying the organization is still effective in their efforts.
“They’ve hurt a lot of people and burned a lot of bridges but I think the positive things I’ve seen in the guys has what’s been keeping me going back and keep staying on.”
“I could never understand what a victim has gone through, never,” admits Tracy, “Because I’ve never been a victim. So I’m not going to pretend that I know what that’s all about.”
“But even if I hear the stories, I could be horrified, but still, you don’t have any kind of sense, unless you’ve been there, so I’m not going to sugar coat anything. I just know that this particular program seems to work,” says Tracy.