With a masters in counseling and experience as an in-home family therapist I don’t mind taking on acquaintance situations of harm. I have always believed in systems, and that a larger context of relationships influences all of us.
I am going to highlight 3 major angles to consider when pre-conferencing victims in stranger or acquaintance situations of restorative justice. The focus of this blog post is specific to victims since restorative justice is victim initiated. The three considerations are outcomes, relationship context and flexibility.
Outcomes – it is so important to understand what victims want out of the process. In incidents of strangers I see people shift. For example the victim that thought the juvenile was just an unsupervised tart. When the victim meets the family and learns more about the child, the victim actually has offender empathy! So clarify and clarify again why the victim is seeking restorative justice.
In acquaintance incidents you need to be very clear with victims. Family matters can run very deep. Situations between acquaintances can be parent child, where a teen stole something from parents or community. Sometimes generational incidents come into play as well. A victim shared with me that in a restorative session over her stolen car, the grandmother of the offenders said she wasn’t responsible and wasn’t paying. (This was not an SCVRJP case.)
It is really important to help people with what outcomes they want, and steer them to be outcomes that the person themselves has control over. I make sure people don’t have unrealistic expectations, and stay focused on self-needs. It is a fine line to do this with grace, but by asking questions you can help guide people in their own journey.
Relationship Context – School settings are places where people who know each other are harmed. Sometimes the harm happens between students that don’t know each other very well. When focusing on restorative justice it is good to explore the nature of future relationship. I screened out a case once because the offender said she would do it again. She also told me that the victim deserved it and other people felt she was justified and supported her behavior. I always say Restorative Justice is about repairing the harm, not causing further harm. Sometimes people with a long history of conflict want just another place to have that conflict. This is where being VERY, VERY cautious in situations of domestic violence or partner issues is needed.
I have also seen and heard of cases when the stranger gives a place for the offender to make things right. For examples the juveniles do community service at the victims place of work or volunteer agency. RJ facilitator should use caution in setting up these kinds of agreements with people who are acquainted. These agreements are hard to be understood as part of specific incidents. Relationships change as our conversations in them change.
Flexibility - each case is different. Victims experience crime differently. So often harm from the past is triggered when dealing with incidents. Allow people to express that these older hurts & wounds are opened again, but ask how to focus on healing now, with this person at this time. Keep true to the primary focus of RJ (harms, needs, obligations & engagements). Be aware that victims and offenders may have had history and that the criminal justice process it to look at only the crime. Consider how that process impacts te relationship, be flexible in addressing the harm caused by a trial or “not-guilty” plea as much as addressing the incident itself.
When it comes down to pre-conference or preparing people for restorative justice sessions, never go at it unprepared. Make sure people are given all explanation about outcomes, and that the dialogue is to help. Make sure you have explored how they intend or expect to feel after. Prepare them to speak to the harm, as well as listen to another perspective (the offenders). It never hurts and I recommend making sure you yourself understand the dynamics at play for the individuals you are bringing together.