Posts Tagged Family Group Conferencing

Juvenile Justice and Restorative Conferencing

On The Law Matters with Municipal Judge David Bazar and Deb Morais, Julia discusses YRP’s Restorative Conferencing program in Rhode Island schools, and how this approach could bring new resources to the State’s juvenile justice system. We all agree that the focus of the justice system should be on “rehabilitation”, especially for young offenders. But that means digging into the family and community context of anti-social behavior – something our current system isn’t equipped to do.

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Chronically Misbehaving Kids Suffer Mental and Social Disease

Published by EducationNews.org — Sometimes these students get a chance to  shake off the ‘bad kid’ self-image.  Too often not.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Naturally, Faina Davis, a lawyer and head of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), would have a happy-ish story about what happens when troubled kids connect with adults who practice Restorative Justice.  Far more often, kids misbehave, get punished, misbehave, get punished, in an endlessly destructive cycle.  But Restoration works to interrupt this cycle by solving whatever was driving the misbehavior in the first place.

An 11th grader, whom Davis calls Cameron, transferred into a Restorative Oakland high school.  He’d already become, as she put it, one of those “scary-dude kids” with saggy pants, a black hoodie and a horrible attitude.  Such charmers come to her through the Oakland’s schools, which have become demonstration sites for restorative justice.

On his first day at the new school, Cameron met with the school’s Director.  Cameron probably expected, per usual, to get yelled at, berated, and threatened with dire consequences for any more misdeeds.  Instead, this Restorative Director put aside the thick folder of records of Cameron’s academic failures, suspensions and arrests.  Start fresh.  Cameron couldn’t suddenly become an angel.  But together he and the Director would deal with the obstacles in the way of building a brighter, healthier path for this angry adolescent.

Happy ending: a kid who never cut a break finally got one.  Someone intervened in Cameron’s history of failure to pull him off the school-to-prison assembly line.  Cue sunset.

But Cameron was already a hot mess. 

It would be so simple, so straightforward if we knew that “scary-dude” kids were just born that way and not cultivated by circumstances to become a defensive, aggressive pre-prisoner.  Davis only gives us a taste of Cameron’s circumstances.

He was first suspended at the ripe old age of four.  To retrieve his own confiscated candy, he’d snuck out of the pre-school building and crawled back in through a window.  You might think a four-day suspension was serious overkill given his age and crime.  But more importantly, the suspension wasn’t going to get to any root of a problem.  Nor did it.

By 11th grade Cameron had racked up 150 school suspensions and lots of arrests.  His first arrest was for causing a middle-school milk fight in the cafeteria.  Yes, a milk fight in a large public school can escalate to such mayhem as to be dangerous.  Still.  Chronic misbehavior is the equivalent of a kid waving his arms and screaming:  “Help me!  I’m in trouble.  My family’s in trouble.” But no, he’s just punished.  Research would argue that Cameron’s suspension record strongly predicted his arrest record.  He was on a hamster wheel of recidivism.  Not until that Oakland Director did it slow down.

But what took so long?  Clearly his family had little capacity to support him.  Does he have PTSD from surviving as a kid in harsh, poverty-steeped background?  What’s been the price so far?  Can his “bad kid” self-image be repaired?  Whatever the answers, the kid has already paid a steep price.

Public systems allow kids’ troubles to fester way, way too long.

Since pre-school Cameron was a neon sign of trouble.  But schools, justice, and social services only wake up when such a kid has crossed a legal line, stolen a car, robbed a Quickie Mart or dealt drugs.  Schools only take notice when the kid is so disruptive as to be sent to “an alternative program,” segregated with the other bad kids “whose needs are better served elsewhere.”  Having crossed the line, the bad kid’s fate is sealed — end of story.  We blame the kid.

Increasingly other countries are using Family Group Conferencing to help kids like Cameron.  A facilitator brings all relevant parties to the table to figure out how to solve any and all issues that will reduce or eliminate recidivism.  Over time, countries like Australia, New Zealand, among many others, get once-siloed agencies — housing, mental health, police — to act as a team.  Currently a kid and her family will touch many agencies without any of them knowing what the other is doing — very ineffective and wasteful.  Also, Americans are more squirrely than most about breaching the family’s privacy.  The presenting issue is the kid, but she’s not growing up in isolation.  We can’t solve poverty, but we can help all families become healthier and more resilient in the face of poverty or other adversity.  Allowing family dysfunction to fester is a crime itself.  Breaching the sanctity of the home for less than criminal reasons may be an American sacrilege, but not doing so is no favor to the kids.

Suspensions and juvenile arrests are symptoms.  Chronic recidivism is a full-blown social disease.  Recidivism of any negative behavior is a huge, waving red flag.  Davis and RJOY work on the Oakland schools so they aren’t making things worse.  It’s not schools’ fault that things have already gotten as bad as they are.  But right now there isn’t a social-service system the public can hold responsible for letting kids languish.  There should be.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Online Interactions Are Cultivating Anti-Social Boys

Published by EducationNews.org — How do we help a kid whose social life is mainly with his screens?

The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon.  He seems incapable of simple human interaction.  Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen.  No, she’s told, he needs to be accountable for himself.  This is his problem.  We’ll call him Alex.

Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he’s being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island’s newish Restorative Justice initiative.  The adults close to him know his act was mindless.  Alex insists “it was just a joke.”  The police have no sense of humor about such things.  But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.

Alex absolutely must make amends.  He needs to rebuild the trust he’s destroyed.  He seems almost desperate to do so.  Okay, but how?  Shrug.  Silence.

The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking.  With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help.  He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs.  Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he’d like to be doing at this moment?  Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and “relax.”  Right.

Learning social skills in cyberspace

The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds.  Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids’ addiction to electronic distractions.  Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don’t get so hooked.

The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough.  The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else.  But at some point it became compulsive.  Even dinner could not compete.

These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics.  They lack “sandbox” skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating.  Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.

Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be “horrible.”  His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him.  This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is “horrible you can just block them.”  The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back.  “Well sure, when they deserve it.”  The facilitator asks if he’s ever horrible to real people, face-to-face?  “I have to be because they are so horrible to me.”

Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior.  She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child’s diagnosis.  They are all diagnosed.  They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum.  They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school.  They shouldn’t be expected to control their behavior because of their condition.  It’s up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.

In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid

Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses.  But I’ve started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern.  It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids.  Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents’ own social skills and supervisory authority.  When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.

Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he’d like to be with.  With Mom’s help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex’s life who could spend time with him.  Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind.  The uncle is playful and fun.  Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another.  The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.

Will this pull him into the real world?  It’s a start.  He has to be able to see and understand his behavior’s effect on other people in order to have a successful conference.  Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work.  But juvenile detention would merely crush him.

Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won’t develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives.  I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer – at least in certain kids.

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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When Parents Separate, Family Courts Make Bad Situations Worse

Published by EducationNews.org — The legal system is about winning and losing, not about helping a broken family heal.

seperated_family

A Chicago firefighter and the mother of their 10-year old daughter Alyssa agreed to live close to each other so Dad could see his child every day.  The extended family, especially two doting grandpas, wrapped themselves around the girl and her parents — the picture of a modern, amicably-separated family.

Then Mom got an appealing work opportunity in Hawaii.  Bill Heenan, Dad, wasn’t thrilled, but figured that since the job was temporary, Mom and Alyssa should have a tropical adventure.  After the move, though, communication slowed to a crawl.  Then Mom found a permanent position out there.  Whoa!  That was totally not okay.  Now angry, Heenan ordered Mom to bring the girl back, or else.  She chose “or else.”  They both got lawyers.  And so war began.

Every year couples head to Family Court armed with lawyers who fight for the best deal for their client.  With or without legal marriage, the Law treats couples mainly as an economic institution.  Courts adjudicate the division of property and arrangements for the children.  The legal system is about winning and losing, and certainly not about helping the broken family heal.

So, kids become pawns and bargaining chips.  As if the family break-up is none of their business, kids have no role, except on paper, somewhat like property.  Even the parents themselves have limited roles in Court, since the lawyers speak for their clients.

Dad won custody.

But while his lawyer was happy-dancing about the victory, Heenan was miserable.  Moving Alyssa to Chicago, away from her mom, would rip the extended family apart irreparably.  The girl would resent him.  He was in a lose-lose situation.

In a unique twist of fate, though, their wise judge, Martha Mills, also foresaw misery on this family’s horizon.  She was interested in restorative justice (RJ), whose focus is healing.  As such, she knew that two members of Chicago’s RJ community, Peter Newman and Elizabeth Vastine, had begun to facilitate restorative “conferences,” which offered families the opportunity to sort out their issues themselves in a structured, supported conversation.  Both family-law lawyers themselves, Newman and Vastine had seen so much social carnage in the wake of Court decisions that they felt compelled to offer families an alternative to winning and losing.  Mills sent the Heenan family to them.

When Heenan opted to go to conference, his lawyer freaked.  They’d won, for God’s sake!  What’s not to like?  The lawyer stormed out.  Who needs clients who can’t enjoy vengeance?  Mills and Heenan were hoping the conference facilitators could help them craft an agreement that worked better for everyone involved.

Mom and Alyssa had come from Hawaii for the Chicago Court dates.  To get them back to work and school ASAP, Newman and Vastine had to speed through the preparatory conference work.  They did add that in their experience, well-prepared conferences were the most successful.  At the conference meeting, the two grandpas were able to join Mom, Dad and Alyssa.

During the long meeting, Alyssa talked a lot.  She talked about liking her friends in Hawaii, liking her school, and hating feeling torn between one parent and the other.  Couldn’t they figure out how to stay in touch?  Work out visits?  Dad utterly lost it, crying audibly, until Alyssa held up the “talking piece” to remind him that it was her turn.  Poor upset Dad pulled himself together.

At one point the grandpas took Alyssa out for food to allow her parents to get into gritty money issues.  Dad had been paying child support, but was vehemently unwilling to touch the college fund he’d started years earlier.  He’d had little education and wasn’t going to let that happen to Alyssa.  But by allowing some of the college fund to pay for flights between Hawaii and Chicago, the adults managed to negotiate regular visits.  The grandpas were very happy.  Alyssa had a great visit with her big Chicago family.  And the conference ensured that her future graduations and other family gatherings could be happy occasions.

But the last, fabulous twist in this story drives home the incalculable value of healing family ties.  Mom got cancer.  A bad one.  For the first round of treatments, Heenan’s dad stayed with Alyssa in Hawaii while Mom was in the hospital.  But the aggressive cancer returned.  Heenan’s new wife, now Step-mom, researched extensively and found cutting-edge Chicago doctors using promising new techniques.  Mom stayed with Heenan’s dad while undergoing treatment there.  In the end, they couldn’t save her, but her illness galvanized the family.  Grandpa even moved to Hawaii to allow Alyssa to finish high school there.

None of that good stuff would have happened if Heenan had just taken his custody settlement and asserted his legal rights.  The legal system has its time and place, but efforts towards social healing should always be tried first.  Cynics can scoff, but actually, happy ending are possible.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Ask Kids Good Questions, Then Let Them Answer

Published by EducationNews.org — In conference, we understand why many parents want to speak for their kids.  But it’s very enabling.

conferencing_01

Today we’re in a conference with school staff, Mom, and her middle-school son who we’ll call Ryan.  Kids and their families come to conference when the youth’s behavior negatively affects the school community.  Conferences are structured meetings designed to get to the root of the problem.

Ryan’s already missed 15 days of school.  Mom notes that her kids always skip the first week or so because “nothing happens anyway.”  (School staff cringe.)  Then every day he did come, he was tardy.  Rhode Island law deems that four tardies add up to an absence.  So he’s already way over the 18 days, or 10% of a 180-day school year, that defines “chronic absenteeism” and eligibility for Truancy or Family Court.

Tardiness is not a petty issue.  Once teachers have settled their classes down to work, each tardy kid disrupts the class; each needs settling themselves.

Employers and colleges get furious with K-12 education because K-12 seems to teach lax attendance by tolerating it.  Reliably showing up on time is a basic life skill.

Conferences put the focus and onus on the kid.

If Ryan can’t figure out how to change his own behavior, the adults will have to keep working on it for him.  So after a few preliminaries, the meeting begins by asking him questions to understand what’s making him late.  He wriggles, paying no attention to the proceedings, waiting for it to be over.  Mom answers all the questions.  When asked to let him speak, she says, “He doesn’t like to talk, so I do it.”

While she’s refreshingly blunt about it, conference facilitators see many parents who think nothing of speaking for their kids.  Very enabling.  No one likes the uncomfortable silence that falls while it dawns on the kid that the adults seriously expect an answer.  It’s sorely tempting to let him or her off the hook.

In fact, even some school staff find the silence too painful.  Yes, some are just impatient.  But many suffer the pervasive and misguided belief that a kid shouldn’t feel bad, ever.  So like the parents, they too rush in to spare the kid the work of formulating an answer.

We all hate that prick of shame we all get when we’ve done something we’re not proud of.  But, as John Braithwaite points out, shame builds conscience.  Sometimes children or youth need to squirm on the other end of a good question to start taking ownership of their crummy choices.

What’s important is not to let them get stuck in shame.  Once they’re chagrinned by the poor choices they’ve made, adults can help them find specific strategies to avoid the mess again.  But first the grownups need to swallow hard and not enable.

Recently, Ryan’s mom has been driving Ryan and his siblings to school to make sure they’re on time.  So she’s clueless as to why he’s always late.  With kind questioning, Ryan finally starts explaining that he gets caught up in school social life and ignores the bell.  Oh, and his first-period teacher doesn’t like him.  School staff suggest that tensions with that teacher could be a result of disrupting the class every single day, which might go away when that stops.  Yeah, he can kinda see that.

Mom jumps in again, swearing she’ll make him obey.  Actually, Mom, you can’t.  His behavior is up to him.  In only a few years, after high school, he’ll legally be a man.  It’s easier to learn the habits of successful men while still young.  Later on Mom can’t help him if he’s in trouble.  He’d feel funny about bringing his mom to take care of problems if his boss or college professor is mad about his being late.

Ryan bursts out laughing.  In a little impromptu role-play he tells his imaginary boss that he’s going to tell his mom, ’cause she’s going to fix things.  He cracks himself up.  This is the moment conferences aim for.  He gets what a doofus he’s been.  Whether he changes his behavior is yet to be seen.  But he made it over the first hump and saw himself through the eyes of others in the context of his community.

Then he gets hugely creative with offering specifics for his Restoration Plan.  Many kids just shrug when facilitators probe for their solutions.  But Ryan knows there’s an alarm clock he can use.  He’ll lay out his clothes and shower the night before.  And more.  He’s on it.

Ryan signs the Restoration Plan.

Suddenly super serious, he’s like a national leader signing an act of war.  Mom’s a little taken aback, but she signs too.  They make a date for a follow-up meeting.  Ryan’s strangely gleeful.  Empowered, hopefully.  He gets a late pass and all but skips out of there.

Mom looks like she has a lot of questions she can’t quite formulate.  Her idea of good parenting had been to force her kids’ compliance and when that fails, to protect them from accountability.  It hadn’t been working.  She’s speechless.  Without smiling, she offers her hand and says a sincere thanks to the adults.

Kids are often lectured, yelled at or otherwise punished.  But few seem to have actually been held accountable and asked to explain, own and account for their actions.  Conferencing does them the favor of asking hard questions and expecting answers.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Maintaining Good Relationships is Inconvenient

Published by EducationNews.org — When all parties feel heard, agreements tend to stick.

relationship

In a convenience culture, busy people have little patience for the tedious, sometimes maddening work of sustaining good relationships.  Checking out perceived slights, apologizing, talking things through are hard.  Yucky feelings come up and it takes time to sort things out, sometimes a lot of time.  It’s far easier to fight in some way, to decide the winner as a way of making it done.  But that spreads the feelings like a contagion – until the larger community insists that it stop.

Consider the four families living next to each other in row houses, in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood, who’d been fighting for over a year.  The police had been out no less than 75 times for all manner of disturbances including two knife incidents, one with a gun, and many arrests.  All four families had kids witnessing fight after fight, including fights the police themselves got into when wrestling offenders into police cars or otherwise enforcing the law.  Beefing, beefing, beefing.

The situation had gotten flat-out expensive, much like the homeless drunk’s repeat trips to the ER.  So the police turned to the Community Conferencing Center for help.  This story comes from Lauren Abramson, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Center.

Conferencing is a restorative practice that works to resolve matters among angry or hurt parties — divorcing families, misbehaving students, victims and offenders.  Facilitators help the parties talk it through, aiming for a resolution they all can live with.  When all parties feel heard, agreements tend to stick.  Then police are free to attend to other matters.

Four families is a big conference. Before bringing them together for the culminating conference meeting, facilitators talk to the parties individually.  They need to make sure that everyone will be safe and that there are rules, like taking turns speaking, dialing back the aggression, and hearing each other out.  No matter how well the facilitator does the prep work, conference meetings are thick with tension.

The day of the row-house families’ conference meeting…

The four families badly wanted the fights to stop.  So they gathered with the facilitators to figure out what had gotten their relationships so messed up.  They aired feelings and grievances while the facilitators tried to get at the root of the problem.  The enraged neighbors were doing pretty well keeping it together.

But who should put up a fuss, but the police themselves.  They complained the work was taking too much time.  Huh?  These families’ issues have been roiling for at least a year, but they wanted a conference to fix it faster?  You can’t fix an organic, interpersonal conflict like it was a car or a toaster.

Using their restorative velvet voice to de-escalate the new tension, the facilitators reminded the police that they too had agreed to rules ahead of time.  We said we’d hear everyone out.  Often just getting the parties talking requires massive patience.  Silences fall.  People need to think.

But this conference got lucky.  One of the moms burst into tears.  Recently her cousin had been killed over something just as stupid as what they were fighting over.  Abramson quotes the mom as saying “If we don’t knock it off, someone’s going to get killed.”  Such moments can turn a Titanic of relationship conflict.  Information started to flow.

What was the “stupid” origin of the fight?  After sifting through the many blow-ups, they were fairly sure it started when the families’ daughters criticized each other’s clothes.  Oy.  Still, having found the triggering event, the humbled families seemed ready to let go and move on.

But rage bubbled over again.  This time one of the dads got into it with one of the cops.  Dad had called them for help, but the cop came to the house and arrested him, the dad.  Now seeing the benefits of talking things through, the policeman calmly reminded Dad that he’d punched his neighbor in the face right there in front of him.  That’s assault.  Dad thought for a long, tense moment and said, “Oh, yeah.”  Finally, the group could discuss the resolutions and restitution agreement.

There’s no quick fix. 

Maintaining or repairing human relationships has its own slow pace.  And it’s work.  Mentioning directly to your wife, mother, pal, or co-worker that you felt hurt, furious, humiliated when he or she said or did something is work.  It’s work most of us would like to avoid.  But then the issue festers.

We’re in relation to other people all the time.  Putting the energy and honesty into the front end saves time, hurt, and fights later on.

But in a convenience culture…

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Fabulous Question Rescues a Teen’s Life

Published by EducationNews.org — Restoration needs a caring community to help offenders see the hurt and wretchedness they’ve inflicted on others.

restorative_circle

At the ripe old age of 13, the girl had already spent a couple of years being prostituted by her mother and taking all manner of drugs, thanks to Mom and the johns.  Nice, huh?  Among very young girls, the sex trade is less about the stereotypical pimp on the corner, and mostly about family members who see easy bucks and don’t think there’s anything all that wrong about it.  That’s not what today’s story is about; I’m just saying, ’cause most people don’t know.  Let’s call our 13-year-old “Charity.”

Minnesota child-protective services removed her from her home.  Apparently Mom came from an amazing family, because, as you’ll see, they went to great lengths to keep Charity out of foster care.  Not surprisingly, given what she’d been through, she was a hot mess.  Her rules were those of the mean streets, aggressive.  So living with kindly Grandma and Grandpa was not destined to be a great experience for any of them.  When the family gathered in a last ditch effort to save her, at the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center, Grandma was still beside herself with rage about how horribly the girl had treated them.

After the grandparents had had it, Charity’s heroic uncle had taken her in.  But she was a beast there too.  One day she swiped the urn containing the ashes of the uncle’s partner’s parents off the mantle, smashing it and scattering its contents all over the living room.  That was it.  The partner was done.  The uncle could choose between them.

Try a restorative justice circle or become another bad social statistic.

Social services begged the family to talk it over one more time, in a circle process that Kris Miner, Director of SCVRJC, has honed into a near-science.  These days, courts, schools, social services and the local colleges routinely send her cases.  So Charity, her social worker, extended family and therapist met at SCVRJC.

Accountability circles are inevitably edgey, anxious, tearful.  Something bad has happened; people are upset; repair is urgent.  Skilled circle keepers (facilitators) reassure the parties that while such conversations are tough, everyone will have their say, and usually people walk away feeling better.  Keepers foster empathy so the group feels open to real repair, not vengeance, as they work toward a restoration plan.

In my experience, Miner’s circles are unique.  She spends the first full hour establishing a set of core values among the participants.  “I try to keep this part light-hearted.  We ask them to recall a fond memory of someone they’re close to, or who believed in them, and then ask what quality of that relationship makes it work.  They write it down on a paper plate.  The idea is to flood their brains with pleasantness so we can get to the compassion.  We’re helping people to get through the experience, to ease them into it so it’s safe and okay to be there.”

The great qualities of those close relationships are predictable:  trust, respect, forgiveness.  When ready, each person puts their picnic-paper plate on the floor in front of them, creating a circle of values — basically a cooler version of group norms.  Then Miner asks, “Can you commit to try your best to honor these values while we’re together?”  Only then does she dig in to the specifics of what happened, who was affected, and what on earth they can do to make things right.

Per reputation, Charity was horrible. 

Restoration only works if a caring community helps offenders see the hurt and wretchedness they’ve inflicted on others.  Some miscreants are already so out of reach, they’re beyond caring that other people care about them.  Charity’s circle was going sour; she wasn’t getting it.  While radically improving the odds of a good outcome, restoration is no guarantee.

Miner says, “The success of circles is all about asking useful questions, and the questions depend on who’s in front of you.”  That day Miner asked, “What was each person in the group doing when they were 13?”  This got Charity’s attention.  Every adult was once 13.  Charity was particularly struck that her therapist’s parents were in the Peace Corps at the time, in a place that sounded insane to Charity.  Well yeah, it was, said the therapist, but there was no alternative.  Charity finally connected with the participants when she could imagine them at her age.  They were proof that life went on, things changed, and here they are all those years later.  “Empathy really grew,” Miner says.

Charity wasn’t exactly repentant.  But she did arrive at the all-important point when the offender can see herself in the context of concerned people knocking themselves out to hang onto her but not the anti-social behavior.  Suddenly foster care looked really unappealing, especially as compared with making a good-faith effort to cooperate with her family.  Together the group hashed out a solution which had family members sharing the burden, providing generous respite care for the primary caretaker.  One kid saved.

Miner’s question brought a girl back.  No small feat.  Inspired restorative questions are this side of magic.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Create More Disciplinary Options Than just Suspensions and Cops

Published by EducationNews.org — “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s plate — and postpones any real solution.

If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you’ll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses.  You’ll find high rates clustered in vague categories like “disorderly conduct” and “subordination/disrespect.”  Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone.  And what do suspensions for “assault” mean?  Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others.  Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.

But what should a school do with such offenses?  Many would insist the police be called.  Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops.  But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.

Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid’s future.  Colleges ask about convictions, for example.  Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public.  Court proceedings are hard to hide.  Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate.  The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.

Two bad options.  Neither of which holds the kid accountable.

So, schools can:  1.  Kick the kid to the cops.  Really harsh.  Potentially devastating.  Or 2.  Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.

There’s a ridiculous gap between the two.  But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient.  “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s immediate plate and onto someone else’s.  It also postpones getting a real solution.  As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break.  So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive.  Look no further than America’s prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.

Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.

Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice “conferencing” as another option.  If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won’t call the cops, for now.  Victims, when there are such, also must agree.  If the parties want police involvement instead, that’s their choice.  But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.

Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation.  How did we get here?  What’s going on at home, in the community, among the offender’s friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid’s laptop?  Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won’t happen again.

Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans.  When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid!  You’ve got a clean slate.

Currently, schools don’t have the capacity to do this.

The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid.  A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan.  Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options.  If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made.  Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn’t appreciate cleaning up after their messes.

Most schools are already stretched to the max.  In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America’s police are generally so punitive we wouldn’t want them doing the work.  The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline.  It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets.  But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.

This is changing.  Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running.  They’ll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts.  I am intimately involved in this initiative.   We’re trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track.  We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  It wrecks kids.

Please, wish us the best of luck.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Children and Youth Voices are a Wealth of Information

Published by EducationNews.org — Part 5 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City.  (Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4)

Last November, the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Leeds, England invited 10 sixth-graders, 10 and 11-year-olds, to tea at their home.  Annually, for the last 10 years, the Leeds City Council has invited all the city’s “year 6” students to compete to be elected, after a fashion, to become the Leeds Child Mayor.  At that tea the adult Mayor, who is himself a City Councilman elected by his Council peers, was honoring the finalists for the position and announcing the winner of this year’s election: Charlotte Williams, pictured above.

In the past, the Child Mayor election was a learning exercise in civic engagemen leading to a largely ceremonial position.  But in 2011, as part of its work to become a Child-Friendly City (CFC), Leeds surveyed their youth and children asking what it was they wanted from their city government.  CFCs highly value children and youth “voice.”  The survey results were boiled down to “12 Wishes” that include such desires as (#9) having more good jobs and training opportunities for youth and (#8) schools that address obstacles preventing all kids from “engaging in and enjoying learning.”  In 2012 the Wishes changed the eligibility for Mayor.  Sixth-graders now write a manifesto up to 400 words on how he or she, as Mayor, would accomplish some aspect of one Wish.

Charlotte addressed Wish #1:  “Children and young people can make safe journeys and easily travel around the city.”  Her winning essay, Life Cycle of Leeds, promises to promote cycling by developing more bike paths and a city bike-share program.

But here’s the beautiful part:  relevant members of the City Council and their staff are assigned to work with the Child Mayor to realize the goals.  They heard the kids and are committing City resources to improving their world.

Children’s voice is real.

Giving children a say in what affects them is a value held dear by both Child-Friendly Cities and Restorative Practices, the back-stage techniques that help get the loftier CFC goals accomplished.  This column series has looked at both initiatives quite closely, but hasn’t yet highlighted that youth voice is where the two initiatives intersect.  Children’s voice is the vortex of Leeds’ work.

Certainly the Children’s Wishes are a very public effort to hear kids.  But Family Group Conferencing (FGC), a Restorative technique used in child-welfare cases, also invites the perceptions and opinions of the kids in the families involved.  FGC’s success lies specifically in having the members of the family speak for themselves.  Normally professionals decide where to place children whose parents can no longer engage in proper parenting (drugs, mentally illness, abuse).  In FGC the extended family expresses their solutions, as do the highly-trained professionals.  But the statistical odds of children thriving in a new placement go up significantly if the kids are also consulted.  What do they want?  What do they think would work best?  Often they know tons about the situation that no professional could.

Under any circumstance where the children themselves will be affected, they should have the right to be heard, taken seriously, and when necessary, held accountable for their actions or statements.  When age-appropriate, children and youth should be at the table in their own Individual Education Plan meetings (for special education).  If the professionals state their goals — improved behavior, certain academic goals — how does the kid think such goals might be met?  Kids won’t always have great ideas, but sometimes their solutions will be brilliant.

Children are not final decision-makers.  Hear them anyway.  Schools, parks-and-recreation departments, and transportation offices would be more successful in their own efforts if they ask the opinions of their young clients and when possible, work jointly on problems and solutions with them.

Kids are a fund of useful information which we ignore to our peril.

It will take time for Leeds’ kids to trust that they’re actually being heard.  Their Wish #11 is:  “Children and young people express their views, feel heard and are actively involved in decisions that affect their lives — this is what we mean by ‘participation’.”

But Leeds is working on including children’s opinions in every aspect of the city’s inner workings that has to do with them — schools, transportation, workforce development.  Young voices can be creative and highly useful on boards and committees, especially as they get used to adults expecting to hear their thoughts.  What Charlotte Williams wants for her city and herself is a fine goal.  Hopefully she and the City Council will noticeably improve bike transportation.  Children and adults alike will benefit.

Yes, for a year Charlotte also gets to be part of the pomp the British do so well.  But more importantly, the City’s children will see their and her ideas being taken seriously by municipal bureaucrats.  It should be so everywhere.  Kudos to the City of Leeds.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Is International Restorative Justice Week?

Published by EducationNews.org — The U.S. is lagging the developed world on this issue.

Internationally, the Restorative Justice community set aside November 17-24 to celebrate the power of Restoration.  Of the many sites offering resources on this topic, I recommend Canada’s, for a start.

But what is Restorative Justice?

Well, crudely, it’s an alternative to the justice system we’ve got — the one that now has about 2.2 million Americans behind bars at about $30,000 per inmate, per year.  (Do the math.)  Our punitive justice tends to ruin lives — of the offender and their community — and largely ignores the needs of the victims and their communities.

By contrast, restorative justice works to salvage the lives of all parties, victims, offenders, their families and their larger community, to the extent possible.  Restoration first caught fire in the late 1970s in New Zealand, and has since gone viral, permeating the judicial, social and educational systems of countries like Australia, Sweden, Norway and others.  It’s huge.  We’re lagging the developed world on this one.

To illustrate the distinction, I’ll relate the stories of two youthful offenders, Aaron and Powhare. The stems of their stories are almost identical, until they slam into their respective countries’ justice systems.

Aaron was from a small town in Vermont.  When his parents divorced, he lived with his father.  While he saw his mother occasionally, she did not have custody.  When he was 15, she was killed in a motorcycle accident.  The neighbors were fully aware that Aaron’s father was emotionally abusing the boy, but did nothing.  Who knows what the schools did or didn’t know, but Child Protective Services were never engaged on his behalf.  At 16, Aaron killed his father with a shotgun.

Powhare was from a small town in New Zealand.  I’m guessing from his name that he’s a Maori, an Aboriginal tribe that is a NZ minority group.  Powhare’s parents also divorced; he lived with Dad; mom was only nominally in the picture.  The neighbors knew the father was abusing the boy emotionally and physically, but did nothing.  Protective Services were never involved.  Powhare killed his father with a shotgun at 14.

Their fates diverge with two radically-different justice systems.

Aaron faced America’s retributive system, which asks:

*  What rules or laws were broken?

*  Who is to blame?

*  How should they be punished?

Oddly, Vermont, alone among the states, has a hugely successful restorative juvenile-justice system, which cuts recidivism to single digits and incarcerates the smallest percentage of youth in America. (Massachusetts is 8th lowest; vengeful Rhode Island is 31 from the top.)  However, Vermont law remands violent juvenile offenders into the adult system, where they get the punitive treatment.

Aaron pled guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a first-degree murder conviction.  The Court sentenced him to 22 years.  He now has a swastika tattoo and a mohawk, common efforts to signal toughness to ward off the assaults accepted as part of prison life.  This is our idea of “justice.”

The birth of Restorative Justice

In the late 1970s, the Maori elders demanded that the government stop incarcerating their kids at a disproportionally higher rate than White kids.  Post-prison, young offenders returned home worse — hardened, not accepting responsibility at all.  Instead, the elders wanted the offender, victim and their families to participate in their traditional tribal circle.  This evolved into “Family Group Conferencing,” a model of restorative justice.  All young offenders, of all races, are now offered FGC, although they can opt for conventional Court.  The severity of Powhare’s crime required his extended family to convince the Court of their commitment to supporting the boy’s restitution.

Restorative justice is “victim-driven,” focusing on repairing their harm, as much as possible, so the community can live together peacefully and safely.  Using a formal conferencing process, the victim, offender, and their families work with social workers and police to devise a restitution plan on which they all must agree.  To be eligible for FGC, the offender has to admit his guilt and take responsibility for his actions.  Restorative systems ask:

 *  Who has been hurt?

*  What are their needs?

*  Who is obligated to address those needs, to make restitution, and to restore relationships and the community as a whole, as best as possible?

The face-to-face conference is generally quite emotional and painful.

As a result of his conference, Powhare submitted to intensive Court supervision for 2 years, during which he agreed to live with the extended family.  He underwent a psyche assessment and counseling.  The restitution plan forbade drugs, alcohol or access to firearms.

In the end, Powhare got an education and now works for the NZ forest service.  Instead of incurring taxpayer costs for something he did at 14, he’s a productive, contributing member of family, tribe, and larger community.

To my mind, both boys were themselves victims, but only one encountered a justice system able to tease out his circumstances.  Restoration gave Powhare’s life back to him.  Retribution sent Aaron to prison, a place that turns inmates into primitive beasts, with infinitely reduced chances of making a decent life for themselves when they get out.  Aaron was an abused kid.  Could he have been saved?  Our justice system doesn’t bother to find out.

And people wonder why I’m such a nut for Restoration.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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