Monday, July 17, 2017

Restorative Justice & Sexual Harm: Restoration, Reconciliation, Retribution?


By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LISCW

One of the authors was at a public engagement event recently and met a person who had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. This person said that one of the ways that she had coped with and moved forward from her experience was to write fiction related to it. She described how in her writing she had developed a rapist from 4 or 5 pieces of information that she knew about him from the case [the case never got to court as he admitted his offence]. When asked if she would be interested in meeting the man who raped her she said no. She believed that in reconstructing this man through her writing she had gotten all the answers that she needed and that meeting him would produce no tangible gain for her. This was creative response to a devastating experience led us to consider the utility, rational and effectiveness of Restorative Justice in cases of sexual harm.

The concept of restorative justice is not a new one or even a controversial one (Restorative Justice Council). Restorative Justice considers offending as a violation of both the individual and society. It follows that there are obligations for the offender, community, and the victim to achieve solutions that promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance (Zehr, 1990). Therefore, restorative justice revolves around repairing the harm that a crime has caused (Bazemore & Walgrave, 1999). Although this definition recognizes that what constitutes crime is defined by communities that can have differing interpretations from various perspectives (i.e., victims, offenders, professionals, etc.).

Restorative Justice traditionally revolves around a meeting, or a series of meetings, between the victim and the offender for both of them to voice the impact of the offending on them and for them to reach a shared understanding of the causes, consequences, and way forward. Consequently, restorative measures are often seen as an alternative to punishment that places the offender and the victim at the centre of the system in active problem solving roles. The idea that a meeting between victims and perpetrators could be useful in both of their journeys is widely accepted for many types of crimes; however, when it comes to sexual harm the restorative justice debate becomes challenging, complex and [in part] controversial.


Currently in the field of sexual harm the closest to a mainstream version of restorative justice that we have is a controlled version of “reintegrative shaming” (as opposed to the introduction of toxic shame) (Braithwaite, 1989) through Circles of Support and Accountability (McKenzie & McCartan, 2012 in Maile & Griffiths Public engagement and social science). Historically, those who have perpetrated and been victimized by sexual harm have not had access to traditional one-on-one restorative justice, as there are concerns about its effectiveness, utility, its impact upon the victim and concerns that the perpetrator may justify or rationalize his or her actions (McAlinden, 2008). Some of the main concerns linked to restorative justice and sexual harm is the risk of re-victimization and re-traumatization and that the person who abused may become stimulated by reliving the sexual abuse through the meeting. Therefore, the unintended consequences of restorative justice often outweigh the perceived benefits. In recent years there has been a growing interest in the use of traditional restorative justice in cases of sexual harm from the restorative justice council, victims, perpetrators and professionals; but the field is still divided with many still opposing. Restorative Justice has a potentially important role to play in the area of sexual harm, because;

-          Most of those who abuse and are abused know each other and therefore may have to remain in full or partial contact with each other throughout their lives;

-          Generally, people who experience sexual harm want to know why they were victimised as opposed to another person;


-          The process can aid perpetrators in their understanding of their offending behaviour, assist in treatment/rehabilitation, desistence and potentially preventing future offending; &


-          The process can aid victims in their understanding of their victimisation and how to move on.


In the case of sexual harm, it is central to recognise that restorative justice can be daunting and controversial for those who have been victimized as well as their supporters when we think about the impact that sexual harm has. However, given the widespread nature, multitude of definitions and interpersonal relationships intertwined with sexual harm restorative justice needs to be a personal, one-on-one decision.


In the end, we come back to central questions: Do we want this person to desist from causing harm in the future? Do we want to provide meaningful assistance to those who have been harmed and those around them? Do we want to increase public safety? Assuming that the answer to these questions is yes, it follows that we should ask what we can do, especially since studies have shown repeatedly that our punishment-only responses to sexual violence do not work.

For further reading on restorative justice please see;


             Braithwaite, J.  (1989). Crime, Shame and Reintegration.  Cambridge.  Cambridge University Press.

              Braithwaite, J.  (1999). ‘Restorative justice: assessing optimistic and pessimistic Accounts.  In: M.Tonry.  (Ed). Crime and Justice, A Review of Research.  Vol 25.  Pp 1- 127.


              Marshall, T.  (1998). Restorative Justice An Overview: Restorative Justice Consortium.  London:  Social Concern.


              Umbreit, M.  (1994). Victim Meets Offender, The Impact of Restorative Justice and Mediation.  Monsey, NY. Criminal Justice Press.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Having the Talk

By Becky Palmer, MS, ATSA Prevention Committee.

Here we are, all educated folks who talk about sex, sexuality and relationships every day at work. Words like intercourse, masturbation, consent, safety, penis, and vagina are regular parts of our work vocabulary. Yes, we work with adults and juveniles who have committed sexual offenses and our children and families wonder silently or aloud, “why do you work with these people?” Did you ever think in your wildest dreams you would be talking about sex every day at work?

Now comes another matter, which began amongst some of my friends and colleagues on Facebook. Here’s how the conversation began, “Hello friends and colleagues. I have a question for you. Half-professional, half-parenting. My daughter is nearly 5 and my wife and I are wondering what to do in terms of "Abuse proofing" her. Maxims like "don't talk to strangers" are dated and misguided.”

We want to give our children the best possible information and we want to provide the most appropriate safe guards, however, even though we can easily talk about sex, having this conversation with our children really is different. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago as I was preparing to speak to a group of parents, providing guidance about how to “have the talk”. I asked my friend if he remembered the first time his parents talked to him about sex. Here is his recollection of the talk, “I really don’t remember a thing my Dad said, but there was a lot of sweat coming off of his forehead.” Well, we certainly don’t want our children to have a similar memory as my friend. The resulting conversation over Facebook provided many helpful tools. We all agreed it would be useful to share this information with the rest of our ATSA colleagues. The ATSA prevention committee has also weighed in with some helpful direction and tools. This blog may not be able to contain all the information but following are some highlights for parents to use when talking with your children about sex, sexuality, consent, and safety.

-       One of the most preventive steps you can take is to be an attentive and engaged parent, as you’re doing.

-       Jan Hindman's   A Very Touching Book may be useful.

-       I talk a lot about respect, both from a receiving and a giving point of view. As she gets older, I have found Harris and Emberley to be very helpful in the regular conversations.

-    For us, it includes a lot more than talking about sex or safety - it also includes things about relationships with friends and others, feeling comfortable being in control of body, thoughts, & behaviors, and knowing how to set limits with friends.

-     We emphasized we wouldn't blame or punish him if he told us about something going on or something he was worried about, even if that included him doing something "wrong". What mattered was that he would talk with us and we would try to help.

-       It was always important that both of our boys know they could talk to us when they were worried, scared, happy, concerned. Our younger son also added that there were lots of "teachable" moments along the way. As our sons got older we ordered free material from Planned Parenthood.

-     "If someone asks you to do something that makes you feel scared, worried, or uncomfortable, or if it's something you feel like you can't tell us or someone else, then it's probably something not okay." That covers a lot of ground, obviously, but it's actually helped them contextualize it, and we've had them tell us a lot as a result.

-       We made and had many opportunities to talk about respect, consent, relationships which to me were the foundation for all the sex talks that we had throughout their lives.

-      Take a look at our (www.stopitnow.org) tip sheets on Safety Planning, including our  Family Safety Plan. You may also find the following resources helpful when developing your safety plan: Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, Talking to Children and Teens, Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality



So, while some of the learned experts have provided you with books and printed and online resources, there seemed to be a common thread throughout our conversation. The sex talk is the easier conversation to have. Building and nurturing an open dialogue is the foundation for answering and teaching your children that you want them to come to you with their questions, concerns, worries and hurts.