Posts Tagged restorative justice circles

How Dominic Barter Developed Restorative Justice in Brazil

Published by EducationNews.org — “How do you sit with people in their pain, without producing solutions, without brainstorming?”

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Decades ago, Dominic Barter fell for a beautiful Brazilian.  He’s English; they met in Europe.  Alas, in time she had to return home.

They could only afford one phone call a month.  But after about 6 months, they realized that the cost of those calls was about the same as an airplane ticket.  So in 1992, Barter went to Rio de Janeiro, believing he’d be going to “that place that you see in all the photographs, with all those beautiful beaches and mountains and forests.”  And it was that — “the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, with the most beautiful people.”

But he was shocked to find that Brazil was embroiled in a violent civil war and had been for centuries.  He might have expected such civil division in Johannesburg.  But who knew that Brazil has 2.8% of the world’s population and 13.9% of the world’s murders?  “It’s more dangerous to be young in Rio than in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Uganda together.”  (He was speaking at a restorative justice conference last June, so Syria’s stats might have changed since then.)

Just beyond Rio’s stunning tourist destinations are the favelas, or slums, on the city’s outskirts.  Barter wandered from his girlfriend’s apartment to a nearby shantytown, one of the most densely populated square miles in South America.  There, gang members use military grade weapons.  The Red Cross trains doctors in Brazilian favelas to give them experience with the kinds of wounds inflicted by military weapons.

Barter badly wanted to respond to Brazil’s situation.  

So he asked people what he could do to help.  To a person they said — carefully, kindly — that he could do nothing.  He was a gringo who could not understand the context of the strife.  Besides, he didn’t speak the language, and had no relevant skills.  Eventually, he couldn’t “bear it any longer” and went back to Europe.

While home, he remembered an incident he’d seen in Amsterdam years before.  He was bicycling on a narrow path along a canal and had to stop for a couple ahead of him who were having a fight.  He watched and noticed that the less they understood one another, they more they raised their voices.  “It was as if their bodies were confused, thinking that the distance in understanding is a geographical distance. If one was on the other side of the canal, it would make sense for the other to raise their voice to be heard.”  But they were next to each other.  When they finished their argument, he was on his way and forgot about it.

But in mulling over this memory he realized he had a useful tool in hand: listening.  He could go back and listen to the people in the shantytowns and elsewhere.  He no longer felt helpless.  Perhaps all the killing, the fences, the paramilitary activities, the atrocities — perhaps all that was “the volume being raised on something which people have been saying for years and still hasn’t been heard.”

So Barter went back to Brazil.

He learned the language and went back to the shantytown.  During the mornings, he and the kids had the streets to themselves.  The women were off at work, many cleaning houses.  The men were sleeping since they’d spent all night fighting.  Police only came around to buy back the guns they’d lost the night before.  The kids were suspicious of him since the only reason a gringo would be there was to buy drugs, but they softened since he came with no answers, only dialogue.  He learned to be patient about getting responses.  “Don’t work in this field [restorative justice] if you don’t like silence.”

His command of the language and his connections to the kids grew a little bit stronger all the time.  But “it was challenging when they said something painful.  How do you sit with people in their pain, without producing solutions, without brainstorming?”  He listened.

“I had been trained that conflict is dangerous.  When conflict is painful, you move away as far as you can.  Conflict needs to be resolved.  It’s threatening.”  Both the people having conflict and the conflict itself need to be suppressed, silenced in a way that gives emotional storm and fury no outlet.  So conflict grows into cyclical retribution — I hurt you; you hurt me; I hurt your mother.

“Now my challenge was to walk towards conflict.”

Over time, he, the kids and those adults who drew near to their conversation began meeting in circles in which each person is seen and heard.  Together, led by Barter, they figured out what simple techniques and mutual agreements worked best to allow the speaking and hearing of painful, heartfelt information.  Barter says, “we didn’t realize we were doing Restorative Justice.”  Ultimately, though, the protocols were collected and disseminated by Restorative Circles.

Now, decades later, Dominic Barter is a sought-after speaker and a rock star in the small but growing universe of restorative justice.  First drawn by love, Brazil had nearly defeated him with its atrocious brutality.  But he managed to be an effective reformer — with nothing fancier than listening.

 

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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‘Circles of Support,’ Socialization Reduce Sex Offender Recidivism

Published by EducationNews.org — People who have social support do well.  People who don’t, don’t.  Period.

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For most of his career, Dr. Robin Wilson, Ph.D. lied about his profession when asked socially.  He’d say he was an accountant, a pilot, a businessman.  It was easier that way.  Then he decided to man up.  Actually, he’s a psychologist who specializes in sex offenders.  To a person, he marvels, people reacted to his profession with exactly the same response.  Little old ladies making conversation on a plane say:  “Oh, there’s nothing you can do about them.”  (Wilson is a fun, funny speaker.)

Honestly, prior to his speech, I also supposed they were uniquely incurable.  Creepy, dark, victimizing sexual urges just couldn’t be rooted out of a person’s psychology.

Of course, such thinking exemplifies the American kick-out mentality at its most complete.  It’s my core business to work toward embracing “bad” people, especially bad kids, as integral members of their communities.  But I’d never looked twice at my assumption that sex offenders couldn’t be in the mainstream.

Wilson says, “It’s our kneejerk reaction to lock ‘em up.  These guys — 95% are men — come from the community.  We remove them.  Then when they go back, there is no community.  They were never integrated in the first place.”  So we put them in prison, which is itself sexually horrible.  The Courts assure us, with proof, that people in prison really are bad, so prison rape ignites surprisingly little outrage.  In any case, no one learns community-appropriate skills in a prison.  Indeed, I think prison is itself a mental illness.

So instead of helping to integrate these men into a healthy community, we further isolate and stigmatize them.  Laws, policies, and regulations make life nearly impossible for convicted sex offenders — finding housing, work, dignity.

And then they reoffend.  They want connection, but got seriously off track trying to get it.  Early treatment options — like electro-shocking their penises when they see pictures of children — didn’t work.  Those barbaric efforts, back in the 1970s, were the beginning of the “nothing works” movement.

Then Wilson and others began to develop a protocol called “Circles of Support.”  Consider Charlie Taylor’s story.  Taylor had been in foster and institutional care since he was 4.  Already as a young kid, he was a repeat offender.  His offenses got worse with age, which only made it harder for him to build a healthy social group for himself.  Social services didn’t want him.  And in the service of “protecting” the larger community, the media publicized his name and offenses.  A modern leper, Taylor’s risk of re-offending was 100%.

But a Mennonite pastor, Reverend Harry Nigh, took him in.  Nigh was “Charlie’s angel.”  For the record, the Mennonites, particularly Howard Zehr, studied, developed and practiced restorative justice decades ago, when it was a loony fringe idea.  Like most religious groups at their best, the Mennonites are all about the community, specifically its power to heal.  So Nigh set about understanding what sorts of social relationships and supports, called “circles” in Restorative language, could successfully integrate Taylor and others like him.

Wilson explains that in a Circle of Support, a professional case manager helps the offender forge strong relationships with both informal, or “natural” supports, and professionals.  To achieve adequate “dosage,” the natural supports must include at least 4 to 6 people who see the offender often, do stuff with him, and get him involved in work, volunteering, hobbies, keeping house.  Case managers knock themselves out to re-establish broken relationships with ex-wives, estranged siblings, parents, fishing buddies, whomever.  These informal supports need to be reasonably healthy people.  Social contacts, likely weak or non-existent before the offense, are key to bringing the offender out of the isolation that got him into trouble.

Then, professionals — social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists — help the whole mini-community around the offender keep their collective relationships strong.  After all, Wilson says, “People who have social support do well.  People who don’t, don’t.  Period.  Without my own social circle, I might have problems with alcohol, difficulty adjusting and making relationships.  I might become likely to offend.”

A Circle of Support does not guarantee zero recidivism.  But the data are dramatically positive.  There is something you can do.

And the lesson in all this, a point Wilson made in emphatic theme and variation, is that safety is a community responsibility.  Social isolation triggers all manner of mental illness, including sex disorders.  For everyone at all ages, strong, natural social ties both prevent disorders and aid healing when psycho-social problems happen.  “We can not exclude the community from the risk-management process.  Safety is the standards kept by the people, not the police.”

 

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.

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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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