Thriving Survivors is a charitable organisation that was established in 2016 in Glasgow (UK) to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence through a four-stage recovery pathway. Over time, our unique model of delivery has enabled us to support people who have experienced various and multiple types of traumas. This includes those who have been affected by sibling sexual abuse, and those affected by ill health and bereavement. We pride ourselves on the fact that we do not turn people away and we will work with anyone who has experienced trauma and needs support.
We have our own unique way of doing things and this is because we live and breathe a people led culture with lived experience, both past and present are at the heart of everything we do. From our board and senior management to our operational staff and volunteers, there is a first-hand knowledge of trauma and the impact this can have on an individual's day to day life, at every level of the organisation. This infrastructure allows us to ensure that the people we support are also embedded throughout our organisation, influencing our strategy, policy, service development and service delivery.
We currently offer a range of services that support survivors through our four-stage recovery pathway:
- Stage 1: At Thriving Survivors this stage includes a Mentoring Service. All our mentors are trauma survivors themselves, who have gone through our services, and have gone onto completing our Stage 4 training programme to allow them to provide support to others. They offer their own understanding, experience, and insights, offering a safe space to engage with support.
- Stage 2: At this stage we provide free high-quality psychotherapy and counselling for individuals over 16 years old, who are experiencing poor mental health. Our main objective is to make counselling and psychotherapy as accessible to as many people as possible. We provide a caring and safe environment where people can feel supported to explore their lives and develop a sense of wellbeing.
- Stage 3: In this stage we provide access to our post traumatic growth programme. The ‘Discovering Me’ programme offers survivors the opportunity to look inward and discover who they are after experiencing trauma. The sessions will support emotional growth and changes in mindset whilst offering an opportunity to find meaning in trauma.
- Stage 4: This stage is where we offer individuals who have progressed through the previous three stages, the opportunity to engage with our training and volunteering programmes. This stage offers people the chance to live their life with purpose after finding meaning in their trauma by offering to support survivors who are just starting their recovery journey.
This unique pathway allows survivors to continue a journey of growth and empowerment, that leads to employment within our organisation. It has also seen our organisation flourish with a thriving culture that is underpinned by authenticity with survivors supporting other survivors at the heart of it.
In November 2020, we entered the world of restorative justice. I was chairing a meeting that was made up of survivor organisation representatives. During this meeting, restorative justice for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse was raised as an agenda item. This was the first time I had ever heard someone say that survivors shouldn’t have a choice, they should not have access to such a service and that there should be a blanket ban. As someone who has lived experience of domestic and sexual violence, I felt as though even my choice was being taken away.
Probing further, I wanted to understand what survivors themselves thought about the subject and I decided to submit a proposal to the Scottish Government to carry out a national consultation with survivors, to gain their views, thoughts and ideas on restorative justice.
We were successful with our bid and carried out a national consultation between February and April 2021. We had three key aims.
- What is the level of awareness of restorative justice amongst survivors of sexual and domestic abuse?
- Is there a demand for restorative justice amongst survivors of sexual and domestic abuse?
- What do survivors of sexual and domestic abuse need from a restorative justice service?
We used several methods and activities throughout the course of the consultation that allowed survivors to engage as much or as little as they felt they comfortable with.
- We facilitated focus groups for survivors who felt comfortable to discuss all aspects of the consultation in a closed and supportive environment. The focus groups were attended by 38 survivors, over the course of the consultation period and an unintended outcome from this was the development of the ‘Survivors Voices’ group. This group have continued to be involved with our restorative developments and now function as our lived experience action group.
- We hosted five online weekly panel sessions with academics, professionals, and survivors, that were broadcasted live onto social media and allowed an open forum for views, comments and conversations about restorative justice to take place.
- At the core of the consultation was an anonymous survey that consisted of 21 open questions. This allowed survivors to give full and descriptive answers and views in an open and honest way. We had a total of 47 responses to the survey and the majority of respondents stating that accessing a restorative service should be a right of choice for the survivor, with 27 people stating that they would be disappointed if that choice was taken away.
For survivors who only wanted to inform the consultation on the one specific view of whether they would like to access restorative justice we formed a simple one question poll. We had 90 responses to this question with 75 people (83%) stating ‘yes’ and 15 (16.67%) stating ‘no.’
Some of the key findings
- Survivors voices must be heard and they must have the choice to decide what is right for them.
- The impact of trauma must be considered. Survivors of domestic and sexual abuse want access to restorative justice in Scotland.
There was a total of 14 recommendations and a full list can be found by accessing the Survivors' Voices Consultation. However, I have selected several of those recommendations that we as an organisation felt compelled to act upon:
- Restorative justice should be made available as a right for all survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Scotland, to be accessed based on an individual choice by any survivor who wishes for restorative justice.
- Restorative justice for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence should be trauma informed and jointly survivor and expert led.
- Restorative justice should be facilitated where and when it’s safe to do so, if not safe to proceed alternative models of support should be made available.
- Alternative methods should be developed and made available to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence who would like to take part in restorative justice, but who may not want or be able to engage in a direct face-to-face meeting with the person responsible.
Survivor ‘A’ provided an emotive narrative on the personal impact on their recovery if choice to access a service was removed from them, resulting in Survivor ‘A’ feeling re-victimised and disempowered.
To be told that even this process would not be for me is devastating and reinforces the responsibility I feel for what happened to me, it draws me into feeling further victimised and not seen as a powerful woman who has the capacity to speak out about such things. Let’s not try to pretend, part of me died when I was raped as a child … then more of me was left to the silence of dissociation, part of me died again when as an adult I was raped … still I persevere. I want the choice to engage in a process (Survivor A).
This consultation offered a significant contribution to knowledge and is the very foundation of our sexual harm service developments.
After spending a significant amount of time listening to what survivors wanted to see happen with restorative justice in Scotland. I decided to establish a Lived Experience Action Group (L.E.A.G) and they were, and still are, an integral part of the machine, actively engaged in the design and development of services. The group consists of 15 members who have a range of different experiences, from sexual violence and domestic abuse to sibling sexual abuse and those who have been affected by secondary victimisation from institutions. They meet on a monthly basis and each member is able to choose which strands of work they would like to be involved in. For example, members have been involved with the development of risk assessments and screening tools, assisted with research and evaluation, and have got involved in our recruitment processes. This demonstrates the power and influence of the survivor and expert led approach that we have embedded within Thriving Survivors.
In April 2022, after months of preparation and planning, we were funded by the Scottish Government to design, develop and deliver a national hub for restorative justice service for cases of sexual harm, with initial work taking place in Edinburgh, Lothians and the Borders. Together with Dr. Estelle Zinsstag of Edinburgh Napier University, we put our plan into motion and began developing the specialist service. This included:
- The design of four bespoke services
- An accompanying wraparound support team, including mentors, counsellors and lived experience support.
- The establishment of three working groups made up of professionals, academics, practitioners and survivors, that would look at risk, monitoring and evaluation and service development.
- The recruitment and training of staff and a facilitation team
We launched our restorative justice services on the 31st of May 2022. The previous Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Keith Brown visited us to meet with five survivors who wished to access restorative justice. This was a huge success and ensured that the voices of survivors were heard and listened to.
Restorative justice is not an alternative or substitute to the criminal justice system. However, as part of the Scottish Government’s vision for justice, it is vital that victims and survivors are given a voice, and that their needs and values are respected and supported (Keith Brown).
When asked if cases of sexual harm are not ‘too sensitive’ for restorative justice approaches to work, one survivor responded:
For me it is about choice. The victims have had the choice removed at one point so it’s giving them power back to make that decision and it’s not something that they have to commit to but it’s all about, as I say, the choice and not someone else removing that cos they feel it’s too sensitive. It’s up to you what you disclose or divulge or how much you engage with it, so I think it’s about giving someone that autonomy to make the decisions for themselves. But by removing it completely, you’re again re-traumatising someone by removing their rights essentially (Survivor B).
Following the launch, work began on building our national to local partnership model. This model would see Thriving Survivors working closely with local organisations, to ensure that services are delivered in a way that meets the needs of the community they are there to serve. We created partnerships with several organisations including Community Justice Scotland, Midlothian Council and the Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice. As part of these partnerships, we have trained their staff and provided a suite of tools and a delivery framework, that will support the implantation of restorative justice within their organisation. Thriving Survivors will provide a led facilitator to the organisation, and they will co-ordinate and co-facilitate every case that comes in. This allows for a level of consistency both at a local and national level and enables us to have case and location specific facilitators available as and when we need them.
As a result of successful collaboration, meaningful engagement and hard work, we are now in the position of having developed four restorative services.
- Restorative conversations and processes: this service will address and tackle sexual and complex harm by bring together all affected parties involved with the purpose of coming to a common understanding and agreement on how the harm can be repaired and justice achieved.
- Secondary Harm Service: this service will address and tackle secondary harm — additional trauma experienced by the victims/survivors of sexual harm caused not as a direct result of an offence, but via the responses to it (e.g. court, police, social works, NHS, third sector etc.).
- Restorative Café: for those who have not engaged with the criminal justice process, are not yet prepared for the process or to whom traditional restorative justice is not suitable, this service offers an opportunity for survivors to start a process of self-development and self-restoration. This is done by creating a group of survivors who have a shared experience, facilitating a safe space for peers to have restorative conversation with each other. By doing this we can ensure that no survivor is turned away and that there is always a mechanism for restoration.
- Healing spaces: this service is a family-led process of healing harm and offers a courageous space for communication and restorative conversations to discuss events and experiences between family members and other professionals such as the police and social workers.
With the creation of these new services, our restorative justice project has been at the forefront of innovation, with services specifically designed and developed for survivors of sexual harm and violence. Now, it’s not that this is brand new practice, in fact there are many restorative services that support survivors of this community and cases have been facilitated across the globe for many years.
What makes our service different is that it has been authentically co-produced with those who will use them, we asked what they needed, expected, and wanted from a service and their voices have shaped our services and our organisation over the last 18 months.
Our lived experience action group have worked closely with our team of professionals and our collective partners, and they have displayed the gold standard for co-production by ensuring lived experience was at the heart of service development and policy. To do this, we follow a six-stage process of engagement.
- Consult — We ask survivors, what they want, need, and expect from a service. What barriers there may be and what would make them feel safe.
- Design — We take the results of the consultation process with survivors and begin a design process based on the findings from step one. Once we have a working draft of the tools, service outlines and documentation, policies and/or training, we will then return to the group with our proposals.
- Review — The lived experience action group, at this step is asked to review the proposals submitted by the team and/or working groups and provide any additional comments they may have, before the team take it away and make any final adjustments.
- Test — We will then seek to establish a small group of those survivors to test the final development, tool or policy, to ensure that it meets their needs and we have not missed anything.
- Evaluate — Upon completion of the test phase, we will ask the group to anonymously evaluate the item/service for us, providing vital, open and honest feedback.
- Refine — Using the evaluation from step five, we will make any necessary adjustments and ask the group if the item/service should be added as an addition to our organisation.
We have created a safe space for meaningful engagement and survivors have been willing to share their experiences, views and thoughts with us to create and define a new way to experience justice in Scotland. This method of engagement has led to many opportunities being created for both the organisation and the survivors who have been involved within the developments.
As an organisation our staff team has increased 500% in a year, and we are in high demand, with people wanting to know more and buying into our innovative and progressive approach. There has been international interest in our work and the potential for growth is a rather exciting prospect.
For the survivors who are involved, they have ensured that a silent community are now being heard. Survivors’ voices are at the forefront of influencing the innovation in this project and this is evidenced through the development of our secondary harm and sibling sexual abuse services.
The work we have carried out in the field of restorative justice has identified a gap in service provision for survivors of sibling sexual abuse. We ran a second, more focused consultation after this became evident to us. The consultation again, examined what a service would need to look like, what some of the barriers may be, and what current support already is in place. It became clear that this group of people didn’t feel a sense of belonging with support organisations, as they were not designed for them. As a result of this, we as an organisation felt we had to respond. So, we have now begun the process of creating a safe space for survivors and their families that is dedicated to their needs and that offers a model of support and recovery that is currently unavailable in Scotland.
Thriving Survivors really have been paving the way in ensuring the voices of survivors are heard and that they influence the design, development and delivery of services.
Of course, for us to achieve all of this for our restorative justice service, we needed the support, expertise and knowledge from professionals across many different sectors. We created our Advisory Panel and two working groups to assist with the developments.
Here are some examples of organisations that are members of these groups:
- Edinburgh Napier University
- Rape Crisis Scotland
- Midlothian Council
- KU Leuven
- Community Justice Scotland
- Scottish Prison Service
- Restorative Justice Council
- Victim Support Scotland.
As with any fledgling project, there have been many learning experiences throughout and the reality of that is they have changed who we are and how we operate as an organisation and who we are as individuals within this complex and challenging environment.
None more so than the challenges we have faced from those who oppose the use of restorative justice in cases of gender-based violence. The idea behind our consultation was to offer survivors a choice and it was hard in the early stages to fully understand why there was such strong resistance to this approach.
The current criminal justice process is dehumanising, fundamentally flawed and re-traumatising for survivors. Their voices are lost as soon as they enter into the process. So why would anyone or any organisation wish to remove that choice for them to access a service that could provide them a voice and an opportunity to ask questions that only one other person can answer.
On the 1st of September 2022, an open letter addressed to the former First Minister of Scotland, was published by BBC Scotland. The letter expressed the concerns of some violence against women organisations and professionals. The group urged the Scottish Government to withdraw the proposed implementation of restorative justice in cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence for several reasons, one of those listed was:
The main report on which plans are being progressed, is highly flawed. There is recognition that a very small number of women may seek restorative justice as a resolution to the harm they have experienced. However, we strongly contest this is sufficient to endorse a national process with substantial, well-acknowledged risks (Open Letter).
Even with recognition from the group that the Survivors Voices Consultation demonstrated a demand from survivors to access restorative justice, they still insist that no service should be made available. Don’t get me wrong I fully understand where they are coming from, in some ways. This process is not risk free. However, with the robust safety and needs assessments and specialist training, there is a lot we can do to mitigate risk and allow survivors to have the right of choice. We also must consider the risk of not going ahead with a process, people may decide to attempt a conversation that is not facilitated and unsafe.
This project has tested the resilience of both our organisation and our team and in the face of extreme adversity it has tested our resolve to the absolute limit.
We have lifted the lid on what is an emotive subject, not just here in Scotland, but in countries across the globe and of course with change comes challenges; some that at times have felt completely unsurmountable. However, to ensure we remain dedicated to our mission, we always come back to our why. We are doing this so that survivors can define what justice means to them, offering power, choice, and control, back to those who have been harmed. Allowing a space for survivors to change the narrative and to finally be free of the painful questions that only the person responsible can answer.
To find out more about our organisation and the work we do have a look at our website and if you would like to collaborate or have any questions please get in touch. We welcome collaboration.
Published on 17 November 2023.