A search has been launched for volunteers to work with former sex offenders as part of a pioneering programme in North Wales that has a 100% 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.
The volunteers go through a rigorous risk assessment and selection process before they can sign up via HM Prison and Probation Service who run the scheme.
The ex-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.
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones today hailed the project’s achievements and appealed for more volunteers from North Wales to come forward to support its life-changing work.
“Circles continues to prove that people can and will change their behaviour with the appropriate support, intervention and guidance from their community,” he said.
“Supporting the safe integration of sex offenders is vital to preventing further victims of abuse and keeping our communities safe in the long term.
“This programme is of enormous value to North Wales and I’m very proud of its success over the years. We simply cannot under estimate its impact on community safety.
“I would appeal to anyone who believes they have the skills to contribute to this dedicated team to get in touch and expand its extraordinary work.”
Volunteers help support the reintegration process from prison, preparing offenders’ for education, employment or volunteering while also reducing alienation.
Each “circle” consists of four to six volunteers and involves regular once-a-week meetings to tackle isolation and help core members build confidence and self-esteem to develop appropriate interests and hobbies.
Volunteers are fully informed of the core member’s past offending and help them recognise patterns of thought and behaviour that could lead to their re-offending.
Student Heidi, 20, became a volunteer over a year ago after seeking out opportunities to expand her experience in support her criminology degree.
“I was looking for something relevant and personal. My lecturer explained the different choices and pathways and I chose to apply to Circles,” she said.
“I’ve been volunteering for a year now. I had initial basic training which was a day long course and this helped us to understand what to expect and how to approach the members of the scheme and respond to them. It was really about preparing us.
“Since volunteering I’ve supported two people, one has since moved abroad. The core member I’m helping now recently applied for a job and volunteering work after we encouraged him to gain his construction license.
“Six months ago, he would never have done this. It’s very rewarding and it’s nice to be able to help.
“It’s definitely a lifeline. There are a lack of social networks and support for him. I’ve helped build his CV up so he can apply for jobs. It’s really providing informal, social support.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing. I’ve already applied to carry on. It’s great experience for probation. I need three years’ experience working with challenging people and this will count towards that experience.”
Heather Evans, COSA’s project coordinator for North Wales, said: “COSA is a community-based scheme which provides complementary support to statutory risk management and supervision arrangements in the monitoring and reintegration of sexual offenders. The priority is to reduce further sexual offending and prevent future victims.
“Volunteers support core members to reduce their isolation by providing emotional and practical help and enabling them to develop positive social activities and networks while also holding them accountable for their actions.
“Circle volunteers are highly valued by the service. Potential applicants are recruited, screened and trained to provide a structured support network and are supervised and supported by appropriate professionals throughout the period of contact with offenders. The system has proved extremely effective in North Wales and volunteers have been successfully supporting the reintegration process of sexual offenders for the past 12 years.”
All ‘circle’ meetings are held in public and can take place in coffee shops or libraries. It is a completely voluntary programme and ex-offenders consent to being involved.
“For anyone considering volunteering, I would say don’t be put off by what people say,” said Heidi.
“People can be quite hesitant and quick to judge, even now. It’s important to be aware of what people think but don’t let it affect your own judgement.”
In 2010, Circles UK, the umbrella group for all ‘Circles’ projects across the country, received the coveted Longford Award in recognition of its courage tackling sexual offending through community volunteers.
Volunteers are needed from across North Wales but particularly in the Conwy, Denbighshire, Gwynedd and Môn area. Welsh speaking volunteers would also be helpful.
For more information visit: Circles-uk.org.uk or email Heather.firstname.lastname@example.org