- Written by IIRP
The IIRP's fifth international conference, "Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment, Part 2," in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was a tremendous success, thanks to the many dedicated participants who journeyed from far and wide to contribute their wisdom and experience to the event.
Attendees came from such countries as Australia, Belgium, China, England, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand; seven provinces and two territories of Canada; and 26 states and the District of Columbia in the United States. There were representatives of such First Nations and Native American nations as the Akwesasne, Aleut, Champagne and Aishihik, Couchiching, Flying Dust, Heiltsuk, Inuvik, Kahnawake, Liard, Mi'kmaw, Ojibway, Peguis and Wet'suwet'en.
- Written by Robert van Pagée
Rob van Pagée, of Eigen Kracht Centrale and Op Kleine Schaal, in the Netherlands, organizations that provide family group decision making (FGDM) and Real Justice conferencing throughout Europe, argues for widespread use of both conferencing models as a means to empower citizens and reinvigorate democracy. The paper was presented at the second in a series of three IIRP conferences with the theme, "Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment," in Vancouver, Canada, August 5-7, 2004.
- Written by Mark Seidler, Thom Allena
This paper, by Thom Allena, managing partner, Innovations in Justice, Taos, New Mexico, and Mark Seidler, organizational change consultant, Hampton Bays, New York, explains the rationale behind their special interactive plenary session. Participants met in small groups to obtain a sense of the connections between the many programs and research activities in the field of restorative practices. The paper was presented at the second in a series of three IIRP conferences with the theme, "Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment," in Vancouver, Canada, August 5-7, 2004.
- Written by Jenni Lynnea, Rick Hugh
Rick Hugh, vice principal, Clayton Heights Secondary School, and Jenni Lynnea, counselor, Princess Margaret Secondary School, discuss how restorative practices have been effectively utilized in their large, multicultural district in the Greater Vancouver area. The paper was presented at the second in a series of three IIRP conferences with the theme, "Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment," in Vancouver, Canada, August 5-7, 2004.
- Written by Ted Wachtel, Paul McCold
Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, explains how restorative justice principles have extended beyond criminal justice into the emerging field of restorative practices, which offers a common thread to tie together research and practice in seemingly disparate fields. The paper was presented at the second in a series of three IIRP conferences with the theme, "Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment," in Vancouver, Canada, August 5-7, 2004.
- Written by Laura Mirsky
“A Survey of Assessment Research on Mediation and Restorative Justice,” by International Institute for Restorative Practices director of research Paul McCold, has been published as a chapter in the book Repositioning Restorative Justice: Restorative Justice, Criminal Justice and Social Context. The paper provides an overview of 30 years of evaluation research of restorative justice programs from 1971 to 2001. The survey is limited to program assessments available in English and is representative of mediation and conferencing programs that have conducted and published the results of those assessments.
Said McCold, “This is one of a series of very informative articles published as a result of the Fifth Conference of the International Network for Research on Restorative Justice [held September 2001] and available from Willan Publishing [in Devon, England].” The book can be ordered through the website for Willan Publishing: http://www.willanpublishing.co.uk/reposrj.html.
- Written by Laura Mirsky
Part two of this series includes interviews with Louise Thompson, of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, and Leanne Douglas, Christine Douglas and Stephanie Sandy of the Mnjikaning First Nation.
- Written by Laura Mirsky
Part one of this series includes interviews with three justice practitioners of the southwestern United States: the Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court; Judge Joseph Flies-Away of the Hualapai Nation; and James Zion, former solicitor to the Navajo Nation Court and current domestic abuse commissioner at Crownpoint, New Mexico, Family Court.
- Written by Laura Mirsky
The Stockholm City Mission
Head, Social Department
The Stockholm City Mission
The homeless people of Stockholm, Sweden, are benefiting from restorative practices, thanks to the Stockholm City Mission, a 150-year-old nonprofit institution. At the City Mission, “everyone is welcome, no matter the state a person might find himself or herself in. In the near term, we work to relieve acute need. In the long term, we give people themselves the strength necessary to take control of their own lives” (from the City Mission website).
Mija Bergman and Annelie Edren, and their supervisor, Eva Fahlstrom, have worked with the City Mission for many years. Edren is head of the City Mission social department; Bergman is manager of Bostallet (the Homestead), a halfway house for homeless men and women; and Fahlstrom is an outside consultant. The women were trained by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). They have successfully implemented restorative practices at Bostallet and Klaragården, a day center for homeless women.
City Mission programs are funded by a mix of private and public monies, with by far the larger share coming from private donations.
Bergman described how the City Mission came to implement restorative practices. “Sweden is a very social democratic country. We thought we had social security, that the state would always take care of its citizens.” Then, she explained, a massive financial crisis in the late 1980s changed the economic structure of Swedish society.
“Even though we had the highest taxes in the world, we didn’t have the resources to fund hospitals and schools or take care of the elderly, and the homeless population started to turn up on the streets.” At the same time, the state closed down the mental hospitals. The plan was to integrate the mentally ill back into society, with the cities taking responsibility, but suddenly no money was available. Consequently, many of the mentally ill became homeless and sick, and many died.
Bergman said that she and Edren had been in search of new methods in their work with the homeless for a long time. “There were many problems caused by the old ways of trying to solve things,” she said, including a phenomenon occurring with the staff known as “parallel processing.” Working with homeless people for many hours a day created a great deal of emotional stress for the staff. Said Bergman, “A lot of the staff started to act like they were homeless people themselves. When our ‘guests’ [as the staff refer to them] come to us, they have been violated and abused. They have a black hole that you can’t fill up. They want more and more and more all the time.” But the staff also began feeling violated and abused. “Over the years we have seen a lot of the staff become quite ill and bitter,” said Bergman. The staff needs began getting in the way of fulfilling the guests’ needs.
“We have a big empathy issue in Sweden,” said Bergman. “We are so understanding. It’s in our self-image and our culture and in our history as a social welfare state. The problem is that we feel so sorry for these poor homeless people, so we figure out very good plans of how they should deal with their problems, and then we inform them, ‘you should do this and you should do that,’ and they get furious! And we say, ‘but we are just trying to help you!’ We want to do everything for them. And it will eat you alive.” Eventually, Bergman realized that they needed “something with much more structure.”
Bergman and Edren’s supervisor, Eva Fahlstrom, had been looking for a method to help them. She heard about people in Australia who were practicing something called restorative justice. Through them, Fahlstrom contacted Real Justice (now a program of the IIRP) in the United States. She attended the first Real Justice restorative practices facilitator training in Europe, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in February 2000.
“When I came back from the training, I was so enthusiastic that Mija and Annelie were contaminated by my enthusiasm!” said Fahlstrom. She invited the IIRP’s Beth Rodman and Paul McCold to train people in Sweden, including Bergman and Edren, who then traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to pursue further training.
The Stockholm City Mission
“Mija and Annelie became our greatest ambassadors,” said Fahlstrom. “They immediately started to use restorative practices at the City Mission. Like hurricanes, Mija and Annelie trained 120 staff members. Altogether in Sweden we have 140 trained Real Justice facilitators.” City Mission managing director Staffan Hellgren took the Real Justice training and decided to associate the Mission with Svenska Real Justice, the Real Justice-licensed organization initiated and directed by Fahlstrom.
Bergman said that at first she was “very suspicious” about restorative practices, because of her “Swedish culture baggage.” An obstacle to Swedish acceptance of restorative practices, she said, is also one of the big differences between America and Sweden. “You have a much stricter way of bringing up children. In Sweden it’s actually illegal to hit your child. You can’t slap them on the bottom; it’s a felony.”
Bergman talked about seeing a film during restorative practices training about a restorative conference held for two girls who had been caught shoplifting. “I was really upset, because I could see in the film that the mother and father of one of the girls had issues, and I thought that they should be on trial instead, because the girls were just children,” she said. “This is very Swedish: How can one hold children responsible for their behavior? But then it started to dawn on me—OK, they have this background, and they have parents who have their own issues, but when are these children going to meet grown-ups who will hold them accountable for their behavior?”
In 2000, it was decided that restorative practices would be tried at Klaragården, the day center for homeless women. Bergman and Edren began working with small impromptu conferences and more structured, formal conferences.
The structure at Klaragården was clearly established. Said Bergman: “As soon as you do something that violates the cardinal rules—if you are threatening, use violence, if you’ve taken any drugs—you have to leave. But you can book an appointment to come back.” The process is about reintegrating people into a community, instead of excluding them.
“No matter how mentally ill they are, we always hold clients accountable for their behavior and their actions,” said Bergman, “but we always separate between the deed and the doer. This is very new to the way we do things in Sweden. But in the staff groups that I have worked with, it soon becomes integrated. This is very hot stuff in Sweden.”
When Bergman and Edren began restorative practices training, they told Klaragården’s guests about it. (They inform guests about all trainings and conferences.) Guests would no longer be cut off from Klaragården permanently or long term if they had used drugs or alcohol, as had previously been the case. (The old policy had been “a disaster,” said Bergman.)
Klaragården’s guests were thrilled. They thought, said Bergman, “‘So that means, anything goes! We can do anything, as long as we say we’re sorry!’ And I was like, hmm, you just wait and see!”
Before long, two women stole about $50 to $60 in cash from Klaragården and bought drugs with it. Said Bergman, “They showed up drunk and said, ‘We would like to make an appointment, please!’”
A restorative meeting was held. The women told their story: “We were going to buy flowers, but we wanted drugs. So we thought we would buy some drugs, and then we could sell some drugs, and we could make a lot of money, and then we could buy some flowers. And then we got drunk. And we’re so sorry! We won’t do it again!”
“I thought, hmm, OK,” said Bergman. Then she told them how offended she was that they had violated Klaragården’s trust: “We are a community working together, trying to have a sanctuary just for homeless women, a place for you and all of your sisters to come to, and you have pissed on our building! You have violated everything.”
Then Bergman asked the women how they were going to repair the harm they had caused. The women were shocked, because they hadn’t expected to have to do anything. But Bergman was very firm.
Finally, the women offered to clean Klaragården’s radiators, and Bergman agreed. “I think it took them the whole summer,” she said. “I knew how many radiators there were, and they didn’t!
“When they had done it, I told them, ‘You have repaired it. This is beautiful. You have restored my faith in you.’ And this was really something, because these women are regarded as very borderline characters. They have been living in this subculture for so many years. I still meet them sometimes. Sometimes they are doing OK and sometimes they are not doing OK. But every time, they will say, ‘Do you remember the radiators? I cleaned them the whole summer!’ And I will say, ‘Yes, you did very good reparative work.’
“I think it was the first time that they had actually been able to repair something, and it made them feel good. It’s about pride, I think. They restored my faith in them and my trust in them. But they also restored their own pride in taking responsibility for what they had done.”
When the staff began implementing restorative practices at Klaragården, they decided, “when you do it, you do it with everyone,” said Bergman. She told a story about a long-term client, a schizophrenic woman who was very hard to make contact with. “She walked up to one of my staff and slapped her in the face. The staff member was totally shocked. She was crying and felt abused and violated. It was a very severe situation.”
Bergman told the schizophrenic woman that she had physically abused a staff member. “And this is important,” she said, “We make no difference between staff and clients. We would have done the same if [the person who got slapped] was a client.”
Bergman told the woman, “You have to leave now, but you can make an appointment to come back, and we can have a restorative meeting. Do you want to do that?” The woman agreed to return for the meeting at 2 p.m. the next Tuesday.
“When she left us, it was the middle of the winter and she was barefoot and hallucinating, talking with her voices. I said, ‘Oh God, what have we done? She doesn’t know what planet she’s on, and I told her to come back on Tuesday at 2!’”
When Tuesday arrived, Bergman was very anxious about the schizophrenic woman. Then, she said, “at one minute to 2, she knocked on my door.” During the meeting, Bergman, the woman and the staff member who’d been slapped talked about the incident.
The schizophrenic woman explained that, in her world, all the staff members had evil twins, invisible to anyone but her. They called her bad names, pinched, slapped, kicked and abused her. On the afternoon of the incident, one of the twins had been giving her a really hard time, so she got fed up and slapped her. To her surprise, she slapped a real person! But that hadn’t been her intention. “That was the first time that she told us anything about how she experienced reality,” said Bergman.
Then the staff member told the schizophrenic woman how she had been affected and how upset she was. “You don’t try to smooth things over because you are talking to someone who is mentally ill,” said Bergman. “You are actually respecting them by telling them, ‘When you hit me, I was in shock. It was very painful and I had your finger marks on my cheek. And I went home and my husband said, “Do you get beat up at work? What kind of work is that?” And he didn’t want me to come back here.’” They also discussed how other people had been affected. Guests had left the center because it was uncomfortable to be there; staff members had been anxious about the schizophrenic woman’s welfare.
They then discussed how the woman could fix what had happened. First, she apologized. Then Bergman told the woman that she could repair the harm she’d done by telling them how they could help her, so that she would not repeat her bad behavior.
Said Bergman, “She told us, ‘In my world, the Russian tanks are coming down the streets. I’m in a war situation all the time. And all the people have scaffolding around them, like buildings. And my scaffolding is coming down. And when this happens, I get so afraid.’
“She was actually describing her mental defenses and how she emotionally fell to bits and how she lost her sense of self. And she said, ‘When I get really scared, I want to be able to grab you on the arm and say, “I’m scared.” And I want you to tell me, “It’s OK, there will be no war today. There are no tanks on the streets.”’ And then she said, ‘I want you to put your arms around me to hold my scaffolding.’”
The restorative meeting gave Klaragården’s staff new knowledge about the world in which the schizophrenic woman lives, as well as tools to help her avoid violent incidents, so she could remain at the center. “Now she has a much better relationship with the staff at Klaragården,” said Bergman. “As soon as she started to talk about war and how scared she is, all the people who work there could help her.”
After Klaragården, the City Mission opened Bostallet, the first halfway house for homeless people in Scandinavia. The house is in the center of Stockholm, “next to the square where all the drugs are sold,” said Bergman. “It’s a huge challenge,” she added.
The notion of community was central to Bostallet’s success from its inception. But, said Bergman, “We have no word for community in Sweden. ‘Society,’ that is our translation.” Nonetheless, she said, a crucial part of the process at Bostallet is “the concept of being in a community, about reintegrating people instead of shutting them out.”
As Scandinavia’s first homeless halfway house, Bostallet got a lot of media attention. Said Bergman, “There was a lot of debate in Sweden about it not being possible to have homeless people living in the center of Stockholm. The house is situated in the poshest, most attractive part of town. We were expecting a lot of very negative reaction: ‘Not in my backyard.’”
Bergman took advantage of the publicity. “When we were on television and in the papers, we said, ‘We have such fantastic neighbors! They have been so supportive!’ And we hadn’t even met them!”
The optimism paid off. “I think it’s because we introduced the concept of community to them,” said Bergman. “Even before we opened, people rang the doorbell—that’s very un-Swedish—and said, ‘I have made you a cake! I have brought you some towels!’ So we’re getting huge support from the community where we live.”
Bostallet has also put a lot of emphasis on being good neighbors themselves. Said Bergman, “We have the best-looking house on the street. In the summer we have flowers everywhere. You would never think that it’s a halfway house.”
“We are trying to integrate the halfway house into the community in every aspect we can,” said Bergman. Two major art exhibitions were held at Bostallet recently. “We sold some very famous painters’ paintings, along with pieces created by our tenants, as we call them. So they can show that they are not just homeless, drug addicts, freaks, dangerous people, but that there is something exciting going on here. The art studio is at street level, so everyone who walks by can see it.”
Restorative practices are in constant use at Bostallet. “We work first on the individual level,” said Bergman. “We have seven counselors who work on a daily basis with the clients. You have to support clients to clean messes up all the time themselves, and support them to communicate with their neighbors in the house. We have community meetings on the different floors every week.”
“It’s a deadly sin to let anything pass,” said Bergman. “You must confront the person at once, within 24 hours, when it’s still fresh, because otherwise it will not make sense. Everyone knows that as soon as you violate one rule, you will have a talk, at once.”
Bostallet has eight floors, which provide four progressive levels of improvement for tenants, from basic shelter to semi-independent “training apartments.”
Men can come right off the street into the first level, the shelter. “We give them a contract when they come in, to become a member of our club,” said Bergman. “We want them to realize that they are members of this community. They have to sign their name, their social security number. It’s like they are assuring us that they will behave in a good manner when they are with us.”
The men are welcome in any state, as long as they do not violate the house cardinal rules, like taking or selling drugs. If they break the rules, said Bergman, “We will tear the contract, and they are no longer members, they will have to leave at once.”
But the men can make an appointment for a restorative meeting to come back and talk about what happened, who was affected, what they can do to make sure such an incident doesn’t happen again and what they need from the staff in order to make sure it doesn’t recur. “This is quite successful,” said Bergman.
|Her Majesty Queen Silvia and His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (left), visit the art studio at Bostallet, hosted by Stockholm City Mission managing director Staffan Hellgren and art therapist Helena Fredriksson (right).
The needs of the men in the shelter are addressed according to the Maslow model. (Abraham Maslow, 1908-1970, was an American psychologist who developed a personality theory based on a hierarchy of needs.) The first step in the hierarchy is individual needs, said Bergman: “personal security, not to be cold, to have someplace to stay, to have food to eat, to take care of your hygiene.” The next step is relationships with other people. The highest step is self-actualization: fulfillment of one’s visions, goals and dreams.
In the shelter, the focus is on basic needs. “When they have eaten and slept and they feel secure, then we can start to relate,” said Bergman. “We talk to them, ask them: What do you want, what can we do to help you now? Also, do they need rehabilitation, do they need therapy, do they need medication? A lot of the people come to us severely physically ill. They have multi-resistant bacteria, cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, you name it.”
When the men start to want to change, to work on their problems and on quitting drugs, they can move up to the short-term living floor. “We accept a lot of stuff that goes on there,” said Bergman. “You have to want to change, but we accept that change will not happen at once. Everyone who lives in our house messes things up eventually, and they should, because if they do it when they are staying with us, we can help them. We can say, ‘Oh, so you decided to relapse now,’ and that’s interesting, because you can ask what had happened before—try to make things out together with them, and bring the professional network in and talk about it and try to support the individual in finding alternative strategies and new ways of solving things.”
Bostallet has introduced “network packages,” involving psychologists, therapists, rehab centers and hospitals, to bring resources together for their tenants. Many of Bostallet’s tenants attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
One of the biggest issues for Bostallet’s tenants is their children and families. Bostallet collaborates with the Meeting Place, a City Mission unit inspired by the New Zealand family group conference (FGC) method. FGC facilitators “support our tenants and find different ways to communicate and repair the history of the family,” said Bergman, adding, “We work in a very similar way, and we can communicate very easily because we share the same approach.” (For more information about family group conferencing-—also called family group decision making—available in the IIRP online library, go to:
When tenants want to quit drugs completely, they move up to the drug-free level: long-term living. “It’s at this level that the tenants do their own big work,” said Bergman. “They get tested, they have to try things out, they have to relapse, they have to mess things up and sort things out.”
When a tenant relapses, a meeting is held, bringing a group together to talk about what happened. The person who has relapsed will tell his or her story, everyone else will say how they have been affected—staff and tenants alike—and they will discuss what repair work needs to be done.
“It’s always the same,” said Bergman, “At first, people will be angry at this individual, because he has brought in drugs and shown up under the influence of drugs on their floor. And also because they do not want to sit in a meeting! But then they hear what has happened: ‘My 15-year-old son called me yesterday and said that I had destroyed his life and that I’m a bad mother and he doesn’t want to talk to me again. So I needed to go out and get drunk.’ Or ‘I got the diagnosis from the HIV clinic and I’m positive. So I went out and took heroin.’
“It always makes sense, and it’s always something that the others can identify with and feel very sympathetic with. They will give support and say, ‘Our main concern is that you are slipping away from us and that you need to get support from us. We have noticed that you have been avoiding us. I will feel that you have repaired what happened if you come with me to a meeting, if you go out for coffee with me twice a week, if you join me in the art studio and we do some work for the exhibition.’”
Bostallet’s fourth level has 38 training apartments, each with a kitchen and bathroom. Here, tenants are expected to take care of themselves but still belong to the community. They go to work or school during the week but participate in community activities on weekends.
Fourth-level tenants also begin to try to find another living situation because Bostallet is not a permanent solution. To that end, they begin to repair their economic history. Because of their debts, they would be unable to have an apartment outside Bostallet, said Bergman.
“When you have debts, the tax authorities bar you from everything. You can’t get a job. You can’t get an apartment, a loan or anything. So together with them, we start to track down what kind of debts they have.” She compared the process to detective work: “Usually they have a big plastic bag full of unopened bills. You have to map it out, contact all their creditors and ask them to write off their old debts or make some kind of deal. We support them in trying to pay back whatever they can.”
The staff also helps tenants find occupations, said Bergman, “but the tenants have to be involved in the process. We don’t do it for them.” The City Mission has a school for adults, and when tenants are clear of drugs and have their situation under control, they can apply there. The Mission also runs a chain of secondhand stores where tenants can receive job training. “It’s the same there as it is at the halfway house. If you show up at the secondhand store under the influence of drugs, you will be asked to leave,” said Bergman.
Bostallet has fewer places for women than men. (The seventh floor has short-term living for women only, and the eighth has some training apartments for women.) Many more men apply to live in Bostallet than women.
“We have succeeded much better with men than with women,” said Bergman, adding, “Women have a lot more to deal with when starting the process of change. Women’s issues tend to be about relationships: being a good mother, girlfriend or daughter. Many women have great difficulty with guilt and shame. Men’s issues are more about how to be seen as a man of power and position.”
Women find it painful to be in an institution, said Bergman, “because they have been on drugs for the last 10, 20, 30 years. Their faces are scarred, they have no teeth, their children are in their late teens and they haven’t seen them for many years, and there is a lot of anxiety, acting out and being self-destructive.”
Bergman said she thinks that many women need something that’s more focused on them as individuals. (There is a shelter, on the island of Kungsholmen, in central Stockholm, exclusively for women.) “When they move into the house,” she said, “they mother people and take care of them because they don’t want to feel what they are feeling themselves.” It’s sad, she said. “We are constantly telling them not to worry about the other people because we are here for them.
“This may seem like we simplify or that we see women as more complex than men, which is not true,” said Bergman. “We just recognize that we need different strategies working with women than with men. At the end of the day, all the men and women we meet are persons who have been abused in their lives and need a lot of support—and boundaries—to be able to dare to change.”
Mija Bergman and Annelie Edren will be plenary speakers at the upcoming IIRP conference, “Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment, Part 2,” to be held August 5-7, 2004, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
To access the Stockholm City Mission website, go to:
http://www.stadsmissionen.se (in Swedish).
For information in English, go to:
- Written by Laura Mirsky
Community Conferencing Center
The Community Conferencing Center (CCC) is bringing restorative practices to Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Lauren Abramson, executive director of the CCC and assistant professor of child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, believes the work that the CCC is doing is making a difference in Baltimore. Said Abramson, “I think one of the important things about what we’re doing is that this is being done in some of the most disinvested and distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore, the second most violent city in the United States.”
The CCC has facilitated over 500 conferences: as court diversion for juvenile nonviolent offenders and juvenile first-time felony offenders, as an alternative to school suspension, to heal ongoing neighborhood conflicts and as an aid in re-entry into family and community after incarceration. The process used by the CCC, said Abramson, is “basically the three-part restorative conference structure: hearing what happened, letting everybody say how they’ve been affected by the situation and then having the group come up with ways to repair the harm and prevent it from happening again.”
Community conferences are always voluntary. In a diversion case, the offender must admit to wrongdoing and all parties must agree to go through the conferencing process instead of sending the case to court. If the case is resolved by community conferencing, the offender won’t have a court record. CCC does do conferences with adults, but not yet with adult court-diversion cases, said Abramson.
The CCC has conducted about a hundred conferences in schools, involving students in all grades, from kindergarten through high school and college, along with parents, teachers and administrators. Said Abramson, “The conferences not only result in suspended students being returned to school and staying in school, but we have reports from teachers that it has boosted morale.”
Abramson thinks that one issue in school that has been ignored is gossiping. There has been a lot of emphasis on bullying in schools, she said, and although a lot of schools still don’t know what to do about bullying, gossiping also creates major problems, “not only in really deteriorating the quality of life for a lot of students in that school, but resulting in a lot of violent incidents that come out of gossiping.”
Abramson termed prison re-entry into neighborhoods and families “a huge issue.” Many re-entry programs, she said, emphasize obtaining housing, education, employment, and substance abuse and mental health treatment for people coming out of prison. This is all really important, she said, “but it’s hard to do all that unless a person has support in their lives. So we use conferencing as a way for people coming out of prison to have a conversation with the people in their lives who have been affected by their incarceration. What we find is that it’s a safe place and a structured way for people to have that conversation, which normally they would not do.”
Abramson said that she is also interested in using conferencing for serious crimes “to provide a sense of healing and learning.” She is preparing a case with a man serving a life term in prison for murder. “This is the first one I’ve done,” said Abramson. “It came through one of our partners in the re-entry program who’s working with a lot of ‘lifers.’ Since I’ve been doing this, I have wanted to do this kind of thing, but I felt that it had to come from them, not from me.”
Referrals to the CCC come from a wide variety of sources. Said Abramson, “We get referrals from schools directly, from the Baltimore City School Police, which is its own separate police force, from the Baltimore City Police, from the Department of Juvenile Services and from neighborhoods. At this point, any resident can call us if there’s a situation.” This was the case with a conference that Abramson regards as a great success.
In one neighborhood, Southeast Baltimore, young people had been a source of hundreds of calls to the police over a two-year period. The adults in the neighborhood were irate and frightened due to the youth playing on the streets, making noise and damaging property; the youth were frustrated because they had nowhere else to play. Matters came to a head in the fall of 2001 and the local neighborhood association asked the CCC to hold a conference, which was attended by 44 people, including 13 kids. At first, the adults just yelled at the children, but then the kids began to express themselves, protesting that they had no safe place to play.
One neighborhood resident, Don Ferges, a former high school football star, offered to supervise the children’s play at a nearby park. More and more kids showed up to play football in the park every day. Ultimately the children, Ferges and other adult volunteers formed their own full-blown neighborhood football league, which continues to grow and thrive every year. The quality of life in the neighborhood has improved immensely due to the league. Children are playing football instead of taking or selling drugs. As one neighborhood resident put it, the league has saved kids from a life—or death—on the streets. Another resident said he’s seen a major change in the neighborhood kids’ behavior overall: more cooperation and respect and less bullying. Said Abramson, “For two years now, 150 young people have been engaged four days a week after school in this league, based on all-volunteer time, and that came about from a conference.”
Baltimore residents participate in a community conference.
Abramson first brought the idea of community conferencing to Baltimore in 1995, after working in communities with young people and families for about 20 years. “I’ve always been interested in ways that people can deal with each other on an emotional level in more healthy ways,” she said, adding, “My degree is in biopsychology, so I studied neuroscience and animal behavior. I’ve taken what people think of as being a circuitous route, but it’s all very much connected to me, because I studied the neurobiology of emotion and how emotions affect health and illness and emotional development through the life span.”
Abramson said she was introduced to the concept of restorative conferencing in 1994 by David Moore, John McDonald, Terry O’Connell and Margaret Thorsborne of the former Transformative Justice Australia. Said Abramson, “I saw this process as an excellent way for people to have a safe place to express affect with each other, keeping the experts out of it and honoring the capacity that we have to work things out, if we’re given a place to do that on an emotional level.”
Abramson believes that the process lets people express their negative and often toxic affect, such as anger, to each other and in so doing, provides a way for that affect to be transformed into distress and other less toxic negative emotions. “Then, at that moment, which can be called collective vulnerability, or shame,” she said, the dynamic changes so that everybody feels responsible. “That’s really a critical emotional turning point for the group,” said Abramson. “Then they can begin to get interested in: How can we move forward in a better way?” Abramson sees the emotional component as the basis of the power of the process. “It’s just been fantastic for me to marry my interest in healthy emotional development and working in distressed communities and to be able to offer this in Baltimore,” she said.
“I really got a lot of flak when I started this,” said Abramson: “It’s not going to work in a big city; it’s not going to work in inner-city neighborhoods. The implication of that was offensive to me. Not only that, it just goes against what I understand the process to be about. We have seen hundreds of times now, that whatever people’s image and thought is about this city and what the statistics are, there are still human beings who live here who are capable of resolving their own conflicts and their own criminal cases in really effective ways, just with each other. I think it’s a really important message to get out.”
Funding for the CCC comes from a variety of private and public sources. Monies from the state of Maryland helped the program get going initially in 1998. The state provided funds for four separate neighborhoods to do their own programs, with Abramson supplying technical assistance. “What we learned is that it was the wrong way to do it,” said Abramson, adding, “For a variety of reasons, neighborhoods don’t always have the capacity to really promote a new way of doing justice. It’s not a part-time thing, and you need people who are very clear about the principles and articulate about promoting those principles in institutions.” When separate neighborhoods ran their own programs, said Abramson, they weren’t able to get referrals, and there was no way to institute quality assurance.
In response to these concerns, the Community Conferencing Center was born in 2000. Said Abramson, “We realized that we had not separated the program implementation from the process, and that the process always needed to be community-based and in the neighborhoods where these conflicts and incidents occurred, but the program piece, which included getting referrals, setting up quality assurance, promoting the program and doing education about the program was better served from a centralized location where that capacity was very well-developed.” Abramson stressed that the CCC is a community-based organization with “strong relationships with the police, juvenile justice, the state’s attorney’s office, schools and literally hundreds of community organizations, agencies and faith-based organizations.”
The CCC has a small core staff of three people who facilitate most of the program’s conferences. They also train numerous volunteers from the community, many of whom come forward after participating in a conference. Abramson told a story about how one conference engendered a volunteer facilitator: the father of a girl who had been sexually harassed in school.
A 12-year-old boy put his friend’s hand on a girl’s breast in the cafeteria line. Her father wanted to press charges but he agreed to participate in a community conference instead. At the conference, the man learned that the boy hadn’t planned the act against his daughter; “it was just a spur of the moment act of idiocy,” said Abramson. “In the middle of the conference the young man was sobbing. And the girl’s father leaned toward this kid and said, ‘Son, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing and what effect it’s going to have on your life. There are too many young black men in prison, and you need to start thinking about what you’re doing. I love you and care about you. And I want you to make the best of your life.’”
The father asked that the boys be returned to school. (They had gotten a 25-day suspension.) He suggested that their role should be to protect the girls in the school. A woman from suspension services who was attending the conference got the boys back in school the next day. The father volunteered to work for the CCC, and now he’s a facilitator. Said Abramson, CCC volunteers are “people who have been through it, social workers, lawyers, police officers, residents—anybody who wants to be part of what we’re doing.”
Abramson related another story about a criminal case, which, she said, “has both great success and great tragedy in it.” A boy stole a car and picked up two of his friends. The CCC organized a conference, attended by the woman whose car had been stolen and her supporters, as well as a lawyer from the insurance company. (The insurance company was also considered a victim of the auto theft.) One of the three boys had already been rearrested and was in jail, so he couldn’t attend the conference. The other boys, who were 15 and 16 years old, related how the theft had happened. The woman whose car had been stolen said that she was upset about some irreplaceable things that had disappeared along with her car. What she was really concerned about, however, was the boys and what they were doing with their lives. (At the conference, one boy revealed that he was raising himself. He had a job and was paying for his own apartment.)
The boys apologized to the woman and she didn’t want anything else from them. But the lawyer said that each boy had to pay $500. The mother of the boy who stole the car immediately offered to pay that amount, but the lawyer wouldn’t accept her money; he thought her son ought to pay. The boy said he didn’t have a job and didn’t know how he would come up with the money. At this point, said Abramson, the woman whose car had been stolen reached into her purse, handed the boy her card and said, “I know where you can get a job. You need to contact me.” The lawyer gave the boys a month to begin saving money, then worked out a payment schedule to begin the following month.
“So everything was really worked out in an amazing way,” said Abramson, “but the next thing we heard was that the court had decided that the case had been inappropriately marked for diversion to us. So it went to court, and it was dismissed.” Everything that had been worked out at the conference fell apart. “It really shows how the current system fails kids,” said Abramson, adding, “There are so many instances where they’re not held accountable for what they’ve done. We see kids with 15 priors, and then they become adults and they get slammed. And of course, there’s also kids in detention who really don’t need to be there and shouldn’t be there. It works both ways.”
Research has confirmed the success of community conferencing. Said Abramson, “Out of over 500 conferences, 99 percent have resulted in agreements, with over 90 percent in compliance with those agreements.” Abramson said that the CCC is also working on qualitative analyses of the “collateral impact” of conferences. “So much of the research is about recidivism and participant satisfaction,” she said. Collateral impact refers to the effect conferences have on communities. Said Abramson, “We can list a hundred different kinds of impacts that we have seen come out of community conferences.” She continued, “I think it’s really all about relationships and building social capital. That’s where the incredible benefit comes from this process. What we’re faced with in this world is that the final frontier is probably human relationships—how we figure out to get along with each other. This process is amazingly powerful at giving people a way to realize that if they work together they can do amazing things. Very specific things come out of conferences that people do work on collectively. Social scientists talk about the importance of collective efficacy and social capital and that’s what this is really about: it’s using conflict to build communities.”
Asked what she hoped for the future of the program, Abramson said that the CCC has a contract pending with the State of Maryland Department of Juvenile Services that will allow them to handle a significant number of juvenile diversion cases in Baltimore. This “represents that the system is recognizing and providing this community-based response as part of what they do (as opposed to trying out a pilot of the program),” she said. The contract also will allow the CCC to establish other community conferencing programs in Maryland and functions as a hub for evaluation, training and technical assistance.
Abramson’s expectation is that the public institutions that benefit from the CCC will soon provide stable funding. “Our private-foundation funders have been very generous in helping us get going and also very clear that public institutions need to kick in, which means changing the way public institutions do what they do, and fund what they do, so that’s a long fight,” she said, adding, “It’s been a struggle, but it’s been very worth it. People come out of a conference and they are just thrilled with the outcome. Most of the people that attend conferences have been to court before and they’re pretty amazed at what they’ve been able to do. My big thing is that it’s about the people—the participants making it happen—and it wouldn’t happen unless there’s a structure and a process for that to happen. Community conferencing is, I think, one very effective way to provide that structure.”
For more information about the Community Conferencing Center, visit their website, at http://www.communityconferencing.org.