Social worker defends reintegration program for Abbotsford sex offender

They've thrown rocks, picketed in front of his house -- and even flooded his attic. Convicted sex offender James Conway has quickly become a target in Abbotsford, B.C. after he moved into the tight-knit community.
Residents protest outside of a halfway house in Abbotsford in hopes to have convicted sex offender James Conway moved. (CBC)

Residents in Abbotsford, B.C. have a resounding message for a new person living in their community: You are not welcome. The resident is James Conway. He is a sex offender with convictions that include sexual assault and sexual interference of a person under sixteen. Abbotsford Police alerted residents of Conway's move to the community in August. And since then, his home has been the target of repeated protests and attacks. There has been picketing, rocks thrown at his home, and concrete poured down his pipes.

Frank Sawatsky is a volunteer coordinator with Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). The group helps sex offenders reintegrate into the community after their release from prison. Sawatsky has been in regular contact with Conway since his move to Abbotsford.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his efforts to reintegrate Conway into the neighbourhood.
Residents in an Abbotsford, B.C. neighbourhood are upset James Conway, a 40-year-old sex offender, has moved into their community. (Abbotsford Police)

Carol Off: Your client, according to B.C. Corrections, he has maintained a versatile pattern of sexual offending against female children in a predatory and opportunistic way. He's been convicted three times for sexual offences against children. Do you understand why residents are upset that he is living there?

Frank Sawatsky: Absolutely, I understand that there is a fear that 'could this happen again?' We feel, and I spoke to his long time probation officer even this morning, who feels that the police and the probation office and COSA has really, really created a wall that has helped James from reoffending. There have been breaches which we take as being serious and this is why he now wears an ankle bracelet so that the police can do even more adequate surveillance of him and ensure that the community is safe.

CO: What gives you this faith in him that he can not reoffend?

FS: In James's case, he's been someone who has worked with the Circle and has worked with his probation officer and knows that he needs this kind of surveillance at this point. And yet willingly has asked for continued community support in regards to accountability. That we would come in and question him, even ensure that he doesn't follow into the pattern of reoffending through his risk variables -- that's how COSA works.

CO: But if you say that he himself wants this surveillance, needs these restrictions because he doesn't know himself whether he can keep from reoffending. If he doesn't feel confident in himself why should the people in the neighbourhood feel confident?

FS: Well that's a very good question. But what we do know in regards to sexual offending is that most people who do it, it's a secret part of their life. It's something that becomes addictive...activities that are kept in secrecy. And so the nature of having three or four volunteers who are respectful and yet he's open to about those particular risk factors that have led him there allows for him to know that he's not alone and that he can reach out. He can phone when he needs help and what we also do at the same time is ensure that he has a good and honest and open relationship with his probation officer.

I've been doing this work for over six years with the highest risk sex offenders in this area. Many of them have come into our Circles, including James. They have not reoffended, there have been breaches but as the probation officer said to me this morning and the police -- they believe in what we do. We help to make the community safer.

CO: What can you say, right now, to people in that community to make them trust you? To believe that you and your group can keep them safe from your client.

FS: Well, the location where he lives may not be the right spot. He did not choose that spot. He was not given any option about where he lived. I'm not at all arguing that they shouldn't try to have him moved...with the Mayor, the police, etc. The signs really do bother me. Destroying property, coming onto his house, this really bothers me.

I grew up in Abbotsford. Abbotsford is a great place and it's a great community. And this is not how we do things. I actually had one woman from Abbotsford who phoned me and said, 'I will offer him a job.' But right now there's no way we can get James into a job ... until this behaviour stops. When people [like James] walk alone, this is when it's dangerous and also when they have no chance to rehabilitate. I counselled victims of sexual offending for years in my own practice. I'm in this restorative justice program because I want it to stop.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview please see the audio link above.

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