I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts I have about inclusion. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t consider inclusion. Long before I had heard about restorative justice, I was steeped in a world where the question of who fit in was constantly on my mind and heart. My sister Ashlee, the youngest of four, was born with a rare genetic condition that manifested physical differences. In public and in school I saw the stares and heard the bullying comments. I felt outrage and fierce protectiveness.

Rather than withdrawing from the judgements of certain peers, she made sure she was seen.

A personal start: it’s the inside that counts

But my sister didn’t really need me. Along with Apert Syndrome, Ashlee was born with profound resilience, deep empathy, and a desire to be of service to others. Rather than withdrawing from the judgements of certain peers, she made sure she was seen. Drama class, peer mentoring, piano lessons, Ashlee moved through school not only succeeding but helping others succeed. Despite a young life interrupted by more than forty surgeries, she thrives. She has a strong group of loyal friends, employment, and a beautiful daughter named Emma. Ashlee is one of the happiest, caring, thoughtful, creative, and enthusiastic people I know. My sister is surrounded by accepting and loving people and she uses her life experiences to help other individuals and families that are affected by this syndrome feel included.

Ashlee (left), Emma and Alana

Having a younger sister with physical differences has shown me the importance of inclusion. From a young age, being with my sister sensitised me to which glances from strangers were judgemental and which were kind. I honed a facial expression that quickly and sternly communicated a warning to those unkind eyes and sneers, ‘You’d better watch what you say.’ Over the years, this mask was put away. I knew Ashlee could handle herself. Then, about seven years ago, the exact same look found its way to my face again when I started to see the same judgemental looks directed towards my niece.

 

photo: Ashlee (left), Emma and Alana

When I encounter others, even those who have committed the most heinous acts of violence, I am open, curious, and grounded in the mantras, ‘everyone has a story’ and ‘everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.’

This threatening-looking mask feels uncomfortable on my face as it directly contradicts how I show up in almost every other part of my life. For the last two decades, I have tried to live restoratively. When I encounter others, even those who have committed the most heinous acts of violence, I am open, curious, and grounded in the mantras, ‘everyone has a story’ and ‘everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.’ The selective, defensive mindset I have when I am in public with my sister and niece is troubling to me and out of step with my values. I can rationalise that people stare because they are curious about how my beloveds look and I am sure they don’t mean to cause harm. I believe my uncharitable response to stranger’s gazes is based on my fear that people I love might experience the hurt, loneliness, and despair that can come from feeling like an outsider. I always want them to feel included, accepted, and loved. As my parents would tell my siblings and I after Ashlee was born, ‘What is on the outside is just the packaging. It is what is on the inside that counts.’ I have overheard Ashlee remind Emma of this many times.

Restorative justice in the prison setting

These familial experiences and other life experiences primed me for the call I heard in my early 20s to the vocation of restorative justice. I learned about restorative justice through a course taught by the late Liz Elliott (1). Sitting in the front row of that university classroom, I remember being sceptical of words like ‘healing’ and ‘accountability,’ given my experience as the victim of violence at the hands of someone who was not the least bit remorseful.

Restorative justice felt impossible until I attended a workshop called the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) at Mission medium-security institution with other community volunteers and federally sentenced men. Sitting in circle, we explored the interpersonal and structural violence that had affected us all. I spoke one-on-one with people who were incarcerated for perpetrating the same forms of violence I had been the victim of. As our stories tumbled out of our mouths in stops and starts, tears were shed, and empathy, understanding, and a sense of shared humanity emerged.

My greatest lesson from that workshop was that, hurt people, hurt people.

My greatest lesson from that workshop was that, hurt people, hurt people. Like me, the men I met in prison had multiple experiences of childhood trauma. From this teaching, I came to appreciate that these past hurts explain, rather than excuse our behaviour. Once we are connected with the underlying reasons for our violence, we have the responsibility to learn to find ways of coping that minimise the potential for more violence towards ourselves and others. In that circle, all of us were focusing on healing the wounds of the past and moving forward without violence. However, personal transformation and healing cannot be done in isolation. AVP and the restorative justice community provide me with both the support and accountability I need to engage in the on-going work of healing. I continue to do this work so I can be in a good place to be in service to others that are struggling.

I became involved citizen escort as a way to support people who are frequently excluded and forgotten. Through a process called gradual release, federally sentenced prisoners in Canada are often afforded the opportunity for temporary absences from prison as their parole date gets closer. These leaves from the institution range in duration from a few hours to half a day to a specified location such a counsellors office, family home, or site for community service. Individuals must be supervised by a correctional officer or trained, community volunteer.

The fear, anxiety and other symptoms of institutionalisation were obvious, and it took several temporary absences for prisoners to adjust to the taste of freedom beyond the bars.

As a citizen escort volunteer, I would accompany people into the community for their first time out of prison in many years, sometimes decades. The fear, anxiety and other symptoms of institutionalisation were obvious, and it took several temporary absences for prisoners to adjust to the taste of freedom beyond the bars. One of the most common fears they expressed to me is, ‘I feel like everyone knows I live in prison and they won’t accept me.’

Given my experience working with people in prison and as a criminologist, I knew that their fear of being judged and treated poorly upon their return to society was well founded. During these escorted absences, I felt that familiar, protective, threatening look creep across my face if I saw someone staring at their tattooed necks or outdated clothing. You’d better watch what you say. The idea that these men who had survived the violence of prison needed me to protect them is laughable. However, I couldn’t set aside the fiery reaction to perceiving someone I care about might be excluded. We have now developed community-based AVP for people leaving prison so they have a place to feel accepted, welcome, and valued.

Involving people with cognitive differences: the important role of community

In addition to restorative initiatives in prison, I spent many years working with a program that offered restorative justice responses for criminalised and non-criminalised harm. We accepted referrals involving people with cognitive differences as the result of brain injuries, developmental delays, and other impairments. We welcomed this opportunity to be of service as both victims and offenders impacted by these challenges as they are routinely re-victimised or excluded from the legal system and, therefore, have few opportunities to have their justice needs met. In doing this complex work, we endeavoured to stay grounded in restorative justice principles while being creative about the process.

But how could restorative justice work when one party was non-verbal? What was possible when one person lacked the cognitive capacity to take responsibility for their actions?

We had always taken a ‘person centred’ approach over a ‘process centred’ one which meant building the restorative justice process around the needs of the participants, rather than fitting them into a predetermined model like a conference or circle. We offered a menu of restorative justice processes available that included both direct and indirect dialogue between affected persons. But how could restorative justice work when one party was non-verbal? What was possible when one person lacked the cognitive capacity to take responsibility for their actions? In addition to being flexible and person centred, we discovered the answer to finding restorative ways forward lay in the community.

While there is consensus that restorative justice must include victim, offender and community, how community is defined and involved is unclear. When it came to our work, Pranis’ definition of community as a ‘group of people with a shared interest and sense of connection because of that shared interest’ (1997, p. 1) resonated. When we worked with community members who had varying levels of understanding of how cognitive differences impacted people and behaviour, we focused on the shared interest of healing harm and creating enhanced safety for all.

Community has multiple facets and could be considered geographically (where the harm took place) or it could be socially defined in terms of who was impacted by the harm (Schiff, 2007, p. 235) . When harm involves families/caregivers or occurs in workplaces or other settings where a high level of trust is expected like a group home, there is often significant impact outside of the people directly involved.

When harm impacts or is caused by people with cognitive differences, we noticed widespread harm to other people as well as relationships. Those community members that were harmed (often peers, support workers and family members) were invited into the restorative justice process and acknowledged as victims. In addition, members of the communities of care proved to be a tremendous source of both support and accountability to both the victim and offender.

According to Schiff (2007), restorative justice encourages collective, community-based responses that aim to address the conditions that can create harm and the impacts of harm. In addition to the need for community members to be acknowledged as harmed parties, communities have obligations that include:

  • responsibility for communicating the harm that occurred, its degree and expectations for appropriate repair;
  • communicating standards of expected behaviour, norms, and values;
  • collective ownership of the causes of harm and work together on how to address them;
  • supporting the completion of reparation agreements that result from restorative justice processes;
  • creating a safe environment for community members, including the victim and the perpetrator;
  • being informed of available services to support victims and perpetrators;
  • mentorship and support (materially, physically, emotionally) to victims/survivors and offenders;
  • developing reintegration strategies (Schiff, 2007).

As a restorative justice practitioner, I had never seen such clear examples of community members stepping up to fulfil these obligations as I did while working on cases involving people with cognitive differences. However, the engagement of community was not automatic. Often the harm that occurred had fractured trust between communities of care and the now ‘offender’ they had been caregiving for. In some cases, community members were partially responsible for the harm to the victim due to their own carelessness or neglect. The relationships between victim, offender and community needed repairing prior to the restorative process between the harmed party and the person responsible.

Pranis (1997, p. 2) notes that ‘relationships are the threads of community. The interweaving of relationships is the fabric of community. Mutual responsibility is the loom on which the fabric of community is woven.’

By inviting caregivers, family, and other professional and non-professional members of a person’s community into the restorative process, relationships are built that allow for a sense of shared interest and mutual obligation to emerge.

By inviting caregivers, family, and other professional and non-professional members of a person’s community into the restorative process, relationships are built that allow for a sense of shared interest and mutual obligation to emerge. The community of care around both victim and offender can be re-established and enhanced in cases where it may have been faltering. Healing is more likely to begin from a place of community, particularly when there are complexities related to differences in cognitive capacity.

A case reflection

The case that stands out the most for me involved two young adults who had cognitive differences. Despite both having strong family support and professional caregivers, a serious harm of a sexual nature occurred during an outing to a public pool. Two families, two organisations (each young adult was being supported by a different community agency), the pool, and other persons with cognitive differences and their families who learned of the harm were affected. The young person who was harmed was incredibly distressed. Their personal hygiene declined, symptoms of depression were evident, and they isolated and withdrew from daily activities that once brought them joy. The person who caused the harm was non-verbal and their cognitive capacity was much younger than their age. There was anger and fear in the community about what happened, and blame was being thrown back and forth between families, community agencies, and the public pool.

After spending time with both young adults and the family members and caregivers that made up their communities of care, it was clear that a face-to-face encounter would not meet the needs of anyone. Thinking both restoratively and creatively, in collaboration with the participants, we designed two circles based on capacities of the young people directly involved. There was a circle of support held with the person who was harmed where their community of care acknowledged the harm done and said things like, ‘this shouldn’t have happened to you,’ ‘what happened was wrong,’ and ‘I should have been there to watch out for you.’

As the talking piece was passed from hand to hand, the person harmed went from being slumped over, silent to sitting upright, smiling and engaging.

As the talking piece was passed from hand to hand, the person harmed went from being slumped over, silent to sitting upright, smiling and engaging. As they absorbed the messages of both support and accountability, their demeanour totally changed. We then moved to a discussion of who in the community would be responsible for preventing future harm at the public pool and elsewhere.

There was another circle that took place for the person responsible for the harm. Members of their community articulated the harm caused in a way that they understood. A discussion was held about how this person could communicate an apology to the person they hurt. The person who caused harm created a drawing and it was delivered, by us, to the victim with an explanation. A plan was created to ensure the person who caused harm was not left unsupervised and the details of this were communicated to the victim and their community of care. Healing to people and relationships had begun.

Closing remarks

I feel passionately that the work of restorative justice can create community, inclusion, and connection where it did not previously exist. I am inspired by transformative justice initiatives that are developed by community-led, non-profit organisations seeking to be the first response to harm in communities, circumventing the legal system altogether. I believe Nils Christie would applaud these efforts of taking back our conflict rather than allowing the state to steal it away without any benefit to us.

Despite my 20-year educational journey and knowledge I have gathered through my work in restorative justice, I learned about the value of inclusion from my sister. A few years ago, Emma didn’t want to go to school because she was being teased. Ashlee knelt down to eye level, acknowledged Emma’s feelings, shared insight from her own experience, and offered an embrace. They then put the Lady Gaga song ‘Born this way’ on full blast and mother and daughter had a dance party before leaving for school.

I have appreciated the opportunity to share my reflections about inclusion in relation to restorative justice, family and beyond.

Alana Abramson is a Criminology Instructor at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University, she is the Board Member of Restorative Justice Association of BC and of the British Columbia Bereavement Society, she is the Coordinator, of the Alternatives to Violence Project, a Trainer, at the Crisis Response & Trauma Institute and works with training development, at the Restorative Engagement Program of the Department of National Defense.
Contact: alana.abramson@kpu.ca

Note

(1) Dr Elizabeth Elliott had tremendous influence on me personally but also on restorative justice in Canada. Elliott earned a PhD in Criminology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in 1996. She joined the university’s School of Criminology as a faculty member in 2000 where she co-founded the Centre of Restorative Justice. She was a board member of the Canadian Prisoner Aid Organization, the John Howard Society of the Fraser Valley and the West Coast Prison Justice Society. On September 9, 2011, Liz passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Her book, Security with Care (2011), is part of her profound legacy.