Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a Restorative Justice Conference that attests to the benefits and opportunities for turning acts of thoughtless youthful misdeeds into a positive learning experience for all involved. In some ways it was the most difficult case I’ve ever worked on, but it was without question, the most rewarding.
The case was complicated because of the number of people involved. In all there were two facilitators, three very young offenders, between the ages of ten and twelve, the arresting officer, victim and three sets of parents. While successful RJ conferences depend upon the willingness of victims and offenders to participate with honestly and a sense of cooperation, the parents and victim were instrumental in a uniquely creative and positive outcome. The victim, because of his outstanding attitude and support of our program, offers inspiration to members of the RJ community. Why? Because of his willingness to take a risk in offering to look beyond one incident to the promise of Restorative Justice principles and his ability to institute preventive measures in his community. During the course of the conference, this home builder decided that he could help the youngsters involved put together a program for neighborhood youths allowing them to lead their peers in team projects to keep their communities clean and, hopefully, vandalism free. The premise is simple: Involve the kids in organized activities that encourage and recognize their efforts and sense of belonging in their home communities. He was so impressed by our program, and what it offered as an alternative to an unpredictable judicial system pertaining to minors, that he immediately began to formulate plans to expand on what he saw as an opportunity to help promote a proactive approach in a manner that turns potential problem children into productive leaders and proud members of their neighborhoods.
While I would like to take credit for the successful outcome of this particular conference it was the offenders, their parents and victim who were ultimately responsible for the outcome. It should be noted that the young offenders are to be commended for their willingness to try to make financial and emotional amends for their actions. Make no mistake; it is difficult for anyone, let alone children as young as these, to be on the “hot seat” of a Restorative Justice conference. All eyes are on the offenders, and it is easy to feel the poke of fingers being pointed in blame. That said it is necessary to remember that these were indeed three very young boys, and they couldn’t resist the temptation to shift the blame for their vandalism to each other while minimizing their own participation. However, the parents were awesome in refusing to let them get away with that tactic. As one father said, “It doesn’t matter how little or how much damage you did, the fact is you all participated. You are all responsible.” All of the parents agreed. And though he suffered over $1,000 in damages, the victim made a powerful statement when he looked at the boys and told them that “trucks, windows, toys or things can be replaced.” He went on to tell the boys that the harm they had caused their parents was more difficult to repair. He surprised us all when he suggested that he would like them to help him put together a program in their subdivision to bring all of the kids together by working out a youth run neighborhood program to prevent this kind of senseless vandalism in the future. Preliminary plans were quickly made to bring all the neighborhood kids together as members of clean-up crews to help take care of neighborhood common areas and parks. This was not offered in the sense that it was punishment for their actions, but rather as a proactive way to really include and invo lve them as productive members of their home area. He talked about joining together with other building contractors to fund and sponsor young community action teams.
Our crowded little meeting room was filled with excitement as a negative experience was turned into a positive one full of possibilities. Though these boys would first have to work off the cost of their damages, they would be the leaders of a new neighborhood group dedicated to keeping other kids out of trouble. Victim and parents were all adamant that the boys themselves would have to work off the damages. Now I ask you, who could ask for more out of a very emotional conference? I think the hardest part of the conference was watching the boys as they realized how much they had hurt their families by their senseless actions. No matter how often I facilitate conferences or how long I do it, I am always touched by the tears of parents and their concern that somehow they had failed in their duties as mothers and fathers. Likewise, I am always relieved and rewarded when the kids see and understand the impact of these emotions for themselves. There is no way to describe the feeling that comes over a facilitator when a child realizes just how deeply their behavior affects others. There is no way to describe the feeling of satisfaction our kids try to express when they have successfully fulfilled a Restorative Justice contract.
Coincidentally, a case that cries out for Restorative Justice made the national news at the same time I was planning our conference. I was appalled at the attitude of the mother of one of the offenders who made a statement to the effect that although several of the victims of a serious hazing incident in Illinois were injured and had to be hospitalized, her daughter’s punishment of expulsion and exclusion from graduation exercises was too harsh. The mother claimed that although her daughter had participated in the hazing, she had only thrown water on the girls who were covered with paint, animal waste and other filth. Some of the victims were beaten to the point that bones were broken and stitches were required.
The mother went on to say that though her daughter had taken part in a minimal way, she had just been an observer most of the time. Evidently she did not see a problem with “just being an observer” to such physical and emotional torment. It is difficult to understand a mentality that allows for gratification in the “entertainment” of seeing someone else suffer. I couldn’t help make comparisons. No doubt this woman loved her child as much as the parents of the children I worked with loved theirs. And while it is true that I have no personal knowledge of the hazing, participants or outcome, I was nonetheless appalled by this woman’s refusal to accept her daughter’s part in an incident that caused serious physical harm to others as worthy of punishment. Clearly, she was letting her daughter off the hook, and in so doing was telling her daughter she did not have to accept responsibility for her actions. Minimizing participation and responsibility for one’s actions was going on in a big way here. The theory that her daughter didn’t really do anything wrong was disingenuous to say the least. It was difficult to feel sympathy for a girl whose only real punishment was a few days expulsion from school. Yes, it is sad that she may have missed participation in her graduation ceremony; she had earned that privilege. But then again, it really doesn’t seem like much of a consequence when you consider the seriousness of her participation in an incident that ended in injury and degradation to other human beings. Somehow the absence of students whose actions, in addition to the harm they caused, embarrassed their school and classmates doesn’t seem inappropriate or overly harsh. Obviously there is much more to this story than related here, but one cannot help wondering about the differences between the parents, and eventual learning experiences of the children involved. Cle arly, the boys involved in our program are learning that their actions have consequences, while a young woman in Illinois is being taught that she can try to wiggle her way out of trouble by minimizing her participation in a hurtful act, shifting the blame to her victims and letting her mother buy her way out of trouble instead of facing the music when she decided to march to the beat of a different drum.
The purpose of any Restorative Justice program is to find a meaningful alternative to retributive judgments handed down by the courts. As Restorative Justice Facilitators we strive to remain impartial and to avoid making judgments about offenders and their actions. It isn’t always easy, especially when we come across parents or participants who want to downplay involvement in harmful actions. At the very least a young person is confused by the mixed messages he or she is receiving. Let’s face it; kids are masters at turning confusion to their advantage. It is not easy being a parent. We all want to protect our children from harm, but ultimately we aren’t doing them any favor when we allow them to reject responsibility for their actions. This is especially true when their actions cause harm to others. Likewise, Restorative Justice Facilitators are also human; it is not always possible to maintain a sense of impartiality. When these instances occur it is vital that we excuse ourselves from a case or incident that pushes our buttons. We expect the offenders we work with to admit their faults. If we are to maintain a high level of integrity in our RJ programs, then we, too, have to accept and recognize our own failings. Restorative Justice is in part based on the premise that we are all capable of making mistakes. It is what we learn and how we respond to mistakes that allow us to truly restore.
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