From January 30th to February 3rd, 2023, the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ) organised the very first Winter Academy in Leuven, Belgium. It was a week filled with inspiring workshops, field trips and encounters among 45 participants from 14 different countries.
Three practice-oriented courses were included:
- ‘Sensitive & Complex Cases in Restorative Justice: Domestic Abuse’ trained practitioners to handle complex domestic abuse cases restoratively, with a focus on prioritising victims’ needs. It incorporated research and victim experiences to inform the restorative process and it was led by Tim Chapman and Anna Halonen.
- ‘Victims' Needs and Restorative Justice: Good Practices and Safeguards’ focused on enhancing the skills of professionals working directly with crime victims or involved in the practical implementation of victims’ rights. Led by Peter Crory and Lisa Walters, the course aimed to deepen participants’ understanding of how restorative justice meets the diverse needs of victims and to provide guidance on improving assessment, referral and access to restorative justice services.
- ‘Restorative Approaches for Young People: In Education and Institutions’ provided participants with insights and strategies for transforming relationships and managing conflicts, bullying, challenging behaviours and disruption in educational and youth settings. Led by Dr Belinda Hopkins and Hanne Dehertog, the course emphasised the importance of restorative and emotionally literate approaches in promoting positive outcomes for young people.
We will now hear from three individuals who will share their reflections on the Winter Academy:
- Hanne Dehertog, trainer from Arktos one of the trainers at the Winter Academy,
- Ellen Valkenborgs, a mediator from Alba, who was a participant and
- Elena Lindholm Belloso, an EFRJ intern.
The articles of Hanne Dehertog and Ellen Valkenborgs were published originally in Dutch in the March 2023 Newsflash of the Leuven Restorative City network. Here we provide the first English translation of these texts. This is the first publication of Elena Lindholm Belloso's reflection.
Their insights provide valuable perspectives on the event.
The European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ) organised its Winter Academy in Leuven from January 30th to February 3rd. I had the privilege of participating in this event as a co-trainer with Belinda Hopkins from Arktos in the course ‘Restorative approaches for young people: in education and institutions.’ Additionally, the courses ‘Sensitive & complex cases in restorative justice: domestic abuse’ and ‘Victims’ needs and restorative justice: good practices and safeguards’ were also offered.
Three parallel practice-oriented courses, led by experienced trainers, were offered. These courses invited participants to (further) develop and strengthen their skills, gain practical experience, tackle complex questions and be inspired. The event also included shared learning activities (such as plenary dialogues, discussions, film screenings and excursions), facilitating interdisciplinary exchange and creating a shared learning experience.
It was the very first time that the EFRJ had organised a Winter Academy and they chose their home town, Leuven, for various reasons. Leuven is internationally renowned for its substantial contribution to research on, and the practice of, restorative justice. It is also recognised worldwide for creating societal support for the use of restorative approaches in both criminal justice and the broader society. The EFRJ was established within the Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC) at KU Leuven, which has its own research line on restorative justice and has remained an important partner. Several restorative justice services are present in the city and available to local residents. The Leuven Restorative City (LRC) project gathers and connects organisations and institutions committed to working according to restorative principles, supporting efforts throughout the city to employ non-violent and restorative responses to crime and conflicts. Together, these initiatives make Leuven a symbolic city for restorative justice.
Around 50 participants from diverse sectors and various countries within and outside Europe attended the Winter Academy. This contributed to highly inspiring exchanges during the courses and plenary activities. Participants evaluated the Winter Academy as a positive learning experience. The host city, Leuven, was highly appreciated, as well as the excursions to places such as the Moderator office in Leuven and Don Bosco Groenveld school. Personally, I visited the latter and was deeply inspired by their work and captivated by the passionate presentation by Wim Hanssens and Natalie Francq.
Personally, it was a great honour and a captivating experience to have the opportunity to be a trainer at this event. I was trained a few years ago by Belinda Hopkins in her Transforming Conflict model as a trainer from Arktos. It was a highly interesting and enriching experience to co-teach the course with her. It was valuable to share this model with an international audience and discover how it resonates in different contexts. Additionally, I enjoyed representing a part of the LRC steering group at this international event.
Guiding the ‘Restorative approaches for young people: in education and institutions’ course, participating in the plenary activities of the Winter Academy and particularly the excursion to Don Bosco Groenveld, further enthused and motivated me to engage in the process of establishing a ‘restorative school’ together with Leuven Restorative City, schools and organisations in Leuven.
I strongly believe that Leuven’s schools and organisations already possess a wealth of experience and expertise and exchanging ideas on this topic would be incredibly valuable.
As a mediator at Alba (a non-profit organisation active in integrated youth care in Flemish Brabant and Brussels), I had the opportunity to participate in the Winter Academy organised by the European Forum for Restorative Justice on behalf of Leuven Restorative City (LRC).
For five days, Leuven hosted 45 participants from 15 different countries, exchanging experiences on three themes: domestic violence, the needs of victims (my chosen topic) and youth. During the ‘official’ opening of the Academy, chairs were immediately pushed aside and we were invited to take sides based on where we came from, how many people we knew, whether we tended to be outspoken or reserved in workshops and more. It became clear right away: learning about restorative justice doesn’t happen in a formal setting, sitting on the sidelines, but rather requires active and engaged participation.
From the very beginning, we were awakened to the content as well. We learned that there is significant mistrust among victims regarding restorative justice. This led us to embark on the week with a call for modesty: as practitioners of restorative justice, we don’t have all the answers for victims. Instead, we should primarily listen to their needs before promoting our practices. I certainly acknowledge the risk of instrumentalising a victim in order to obtain an appropriate response for an offender.
After a week, I had experienced an intense five-day journey. Mediators, probation officers, researchers, policy officers, victim support workers — based on our own experiences, we collectively reflected and experimented on how to address the suffering caused by crimes and how to create a safe space to accommodate it. It felt as if I was young again and had gone to camp, experiencing the sense of togetherness and energy that arose from exchanging ideas with people who shared the same beliefs from different perspectives. It reaffirmed the value of investing in restoration.
This year, the European Forum for Restorative Justice, launched its first in person Winter Academy and I, as in intern of the EFRJ, had the chance to help with the organisation and to participate in this inspiring and insightful event. The Winter Academy 2023 took place in Leuven (Belgium) from the 30th of January until the 3rd of February and it was a valuable opportunity for people all around the world interested in learning more about restorative justice to come together and deepen their understanding of this approach.
The event consisted in three parallel practice-oriented courses led by experienced trainers. These courses gave the opportunity to participants to learn from professionals from the field, to develop and strengthen their skills, to get a hands-on experience of good practices and to get challenged by complex questions and inspired by innovative methods. The fact that the courses offered were linked to restoratives justice — victims’ needs, restorative justice in schools and restorative justice in cases of domestic violence — indicates that the organisers recognised the diversity of applications of this approach and the importance of tailoring it to the specific needs of different contexts.
I had the great opportunity to be attending the course on restorative justice in cases of domestic violence, led by Tim Chapman (Northern Ireland), a restorative justice practitioner and trainer, facilitator and an independent researcher and Anna Halonen (Finland), a trainer and practitioner in restorative justice. The course consisted of two modules. The first module was two online preparatory meetings, which introduced key considerations around the subject and focused on understanding domestic abuse and its systemic context, complexity and traumatic impact. In this module I learned about the trauma-informed approach and how to use it in a restorative meeting by restoring the connection that the trauma caused. A trauma-informed approach is not a treatment but a practice that consistently takes into consideration emotional wounds that may make people act irrationally occasionally. Emotional wounds can have a huge impact for example on learning, on how a person takes care of his/her own health, on their experience of pain and on their fear of the restorative process. In a trauma-informed approach the facilitator needs to understand how trauma influences a person’s ability to manage their life. The facilitator should express acceptance, ensure safety and believe in the possibility of supporting the person. This requires facilitators to have self-awareness of their own emotional and bodily reactions.
The second module took place in Leuven and it focused on the practice, on how to design and carry out a safe process together with the parties. I was pretty much interested in knowing more about restorative justice in cases of domestic abuse and gender-based violence given the prevalence and complexity of the cases. Cases of domestic abuse are complex and sensitive due to various factors. Domestic violence normally involves long-term patterns of repetitive violent or oppressive behaviour and there are very established dynamics of power and control between victim and perpetrator. It also causes a harm that violates people’s identities more directly and personally than most crimes. Moreover, there are many variations in types of domestic abuse as well as a diversity of victims and perpetrators; domestic abuse can happen anywhere and to anyone regardless of social class, age, or wealth.
It is a challenging topic and I was willing to learn more about how to address and understand these sensitive cases from a restorative justice perspective. In some countries, like Spain, it is forbidden to perform a restorative process in such types of cases. Restorative justice may not always be the solution for cases of domestic abuse, but there are some reflections with which I stay: to what extent does the criminal justice system protect victims of domestic abuse and at what point in this system can victims exercise choice?
On the first day of the second module of the course, the trainers gave the participants the opportunity to introduce themselves. It was nice to see people from different countries and backgrounds coming together with a shared interest in restorative justice. As a group, we also had to agree on certain commitments in order to generate an effective and safe space to learn from each other. These commitments, which included values such as respect, humour, confidentiality, safety, openness, non/judgment, participation, support, honesty and empathy, likely served as a foundation for creating a sense of trust and mutual understanding among participants. By agreeing to these commitments, the group set the tone for an environment that would facilitate open and honest communication, constructive feedback and a sense of safety and respect for everyone’s experience and perspectives. We immediately created a sense of community and everyone was actively engaged and respectful of each other. This positive atmosphere contributed to a more productive and enriching learning experience for everyone involved. When the course came to an end, we felt a sense of sadness, as the bonds formed during the week were strong and meaningful.
Besides the courses, the event also offered common learning activities such as plenary dialogues, discussions, a film screening and field trips for all the participants in order to allow cross-disciplinary exchange and shared learning experience.
The plenaries were interesting and provided a space for participants to exchange ideas from the other courses and to share their insights and experiences. I specially liked the opening plenary, that included some activities to break the ice and help participants to get to know each other a little better before starting with the week. The questions used to divide the participants into different groups, such as morning person or night person and the statements used to identify with a particular group were engaging and creative ways to allow everyone to connect and exchange ideas in a fun way.
I also found the screening of the documentary ‘Another Justice’ an engaging activity to do. I was happy that some of my friends, for whom the concept of restorative justice was something new, also joined. They found the topic very interesting and intriguing and after the documentary we kept discussing it. It is always nice to have someone from ‘outside’ this word with a critical eye. This highlights the importance of promoting awareness and education about restorative justice, as it is a relatively new concept for many people
Overall, the Winter Academy was a very pleasant experience and I am very grateful that I have been able to take part, both in the organisation of the event and in participating in the courses and activities. The event allowed participants to create a safe space for learning and exchanging ideas, fostering a sense of community and collaboration among everyone. It also provided an opportunity for networking and building relationships with other people interested in restorative justice. These networks could lead to collaborations and partnerships that could further advance the development and implementation of restorative justice practices in the future. It was very well organised and efficient; in general, everything went smoothly. A nice atmosphere was created, we had fun, we socialised and everyone took care of each other and had a great attitude.
The Winter Academy was an intense week full of powerful insights and reflections and I would love to repeat this experience again. However, I think it is also important to take breaks and have time for relaxation and reflections, as well as time for networking and socialising outside of the event venue. Some participants also agreed that the days could have been a bit shorter, to have the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Leuven, connect with the people outside the event and rest in order to be refreshed for the next day. Finally, I want to add that without doubt I think Leuven is the perfect place to do it again, not only because of the charm of the city and its easy access, but also because it is where the European Forum for Restorative Justice was founded. See you next year!