by Ian Marder

On 15th July 2020, the Estonian Social Insurance Board and Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University, Department of Law) organised a fourth meeting of restorative justice services and practitioners in Europe to talk about their work in the context of COVID-19. This involved 30 persons from 17 countries who gathered to discuss the role of technology in restorative justice, and the need for truth and reconciliation in response to the harm, suffering and anger caused by the pandemic.

The group began by reflecting on some of the most meaningful restorative experiences in which they had recently participated. As in previous meetings, the use of restorative circles to support professionals was a common theme throughout this conversation. One participant from Wales described their use of circles to provide wellbeing sessions for school staff. The group heard about how these sessions gave teachers a valuable space in which to reflect and reset after such a busy and stressful period. They also discussed the importance of using energisers online, exemplified by an activity where one person names a sport and all participants act out that sport on camera. Another speaker from Italy described that their local restorative group was offering support circles for social workers who were overwhelmed by their caseloads. 

A third speaker in England spoke of training and supporting local government staff to establish ‘listening hubs’ and ‘time to talk’. These were opportunities for staff, whether they were working remotely or back in the workplace, to have a quick, confidential conversation with a colleague about their anxieties or any other issues they had about returning to the office. A key part of this training, which was delivered online, was the use of restorative inquiry questions to help people access the emotional load they are carrying. This person was also working with youth offending teams to facilitate restorative conversations between young people under their supervision and their significant adults.  

This led the group into a conversation about the merits, benefits and challenges of online practices. It was discussed how restorative practitioners use silence when they are face-to-face with someone but, online, silence can take a different meaning. For example, we might assume that an internet connection was lost. For this and other reasons, it can be awkward to transition our practices online.

A closed down skatepark due to Covid-19 in Ireland

A Dutch participant told the group about their experience of online training and teaching, noting the value of skilful facilitation of the chat function and of providing students with pre-recorded materials in advance. They also said that there were plans to continue using online approaches as part of alternative sanctions for young people in the Netherlands. For example, work and learning schemes for young people could be monitored though video conversations, rather than face-to-face meetings. 

An Irish practitioner described successfully moving their local community of practice online. The trust and relationships they created among this group during the crisis permitted them to facilitate a meaningful conversation about racism and inequality in Ireland following the killing of George Floyd. Another person from Spain likewise described their use of restorative circles during the pandemic, which included circles for young people involving arts and music, intergenerational circles, circles for local health professionals, and circles with university students. These circles gave the participants a space to explore the sociological and psychological effects of the pandemic on their community, and involved creating a process after each circle to sustain the dialogue that had begun.

A mobile phone

The group also heard from practitioners at a Scottish NGO who undertake creative and restorative work with young people. For example, they work with young people on artistic projects, which are often gifted to the person(s) they harmed as part of a restorative process. They continued this work with young people by phone and using online technologies, finding that, unlike before the pandemic, their clients now often work on pieces of art and music outside of their session time, and present these pieces to the practitioners when they meet. The online work also allowed them to engage with people on other islands with whom they could not have worked face-to-face because of travel time.

They found that some of their clients even preferred online or telephone engagement. As such, they have decided to continue offering remote ways of working going forward. Challenges included the greater need to use listening skills when speaking on the phone and the fact that access to technology – e.g. WiFi, smart phones and phone credit – remained the key barrier to participation for many persons. It was also difficult for both clients and practitioners to find confidential places to speak, whether in their houses, or outside, with social distancing: they are based in a small town where most people know each other, and know the kind of services they offer for young people.

Given the successful work that many people had undertaken during the crisis, the group began to reflect on why restorative justice practitioners tend to believe that online and telephone engagement are necessarily inferior to face-to-face work. They noted that, for victim-offender dialogue, indirect work prohibited the participants from shaking hands or embracing, and being in the room together creates a certain ‘energy’ that may be lost. For online training, moreover, it was impossible to recreate the time that participants spent at breaks getting to know each other and creating a new ‘community of learners’. This is especially problematic if the training is delivered to people from different, but nearby, organisations. These people would rarely meet, and so the purpose of their training is partly to build the relationships that enable further learning and local engagement going forward.

Yet, the group noted that some clients felt more comfortable online, whether doing energisers and role-plays during training, opening up in counselling and psychotherapy sessions, or speaking with people who caused them harm. Working online can be more intimate as you can see into each other’s homes. It also creates useful a barrier and a safe distance that may help some people to feel safer, or that the discussion is less intense (e.g. for victim-offender dialogue). 

The other side of this is that people can (e.g. in counselling or psychotherapy) make disclosures too early, or otherwise that the sense of psychological safety created by an online barrier is actually a false sense of security for some. Some of this can be avoided by taking steps to ensure that participants are comfortable and that practitioners have the skills and the plans in place to limit the possibility of harm. It was concluded that clients should be empowered to determine with which medium they are most comfortable, and that is most likely to suit their needs. The problem with the current situation is not that online practices are happening. It is that all cases and persons have been forced online, irrespective of whether this is the best platform through which to meet their needs.

The second part of the conversation focused on the need for truth and reconciliation following the crisis. The group heard from two Italians based in the Lombardy region of Italy where the pandemic had been very severe. Indeed, the group heard that there had been around 11,000 deaths over a small geographical area around Bergamo and Brescia. 

One participant provided examples of truth and reconciliation work in which they had been involved. Their local restorative justice group had decided to conduct circles in their community as soon as the relaxation of public health regulations permitted. In late June, they facilitated a series of circles for their community, attendees at which included medical professionals, people who were hospitalised or lost family members, and people who continued working in other frontline roles, such as in shops, during the crisis. 

Each group met twice, and the purpose of the sessions was to allow people to tell their stories and listen to each other. The circles involved many tears, stories of lost loved ones and doctors’ memories of making impossible decisions in hospitals daily. The facilitators aimed to avoid political debates, which they feared would take away from the storytelling objective. Victims who initially felt that they might direct their grief and anger towards medical professionals felt less angry after listening to doctors’ stories. The group heard the reasoning behind the facilitation of multiple circles for each group: initial circles reflected raw emotion and grief, while second meetings enabled participants, having expressed their emotions, to consider their longer-term needs. Several people from the online meeting expressed the desire to conduct similar work in their local area, and it was considered that practitioners might be able to support each other to do so, especially if the work took place online.

Milan's empty street

The group also heard an impassioned theoretical and practical case for truth and reconciliation in Italy as an alternative to punitive and criminal approaches, for which there are growing calls. Following the recent publication of an article on the subject, another participant from Northern Italy began by describing the unnecessary, widespread criminalisation of people who breached public health regulations. Much in the same way as the criminal law was neither a just nor effective mechanism of responding to this behaviour, they argued that the criminal justice system would not be able to respond appropriately to the collective trauma experienced by the population. Instead, we need to create the space in which people can tell their stories and have these listened to and vindicated, in which accountability can take place, and which allows for collective decision making about how to prevent such harms from reoccurring as far as possible. 

People has experienced grief and injustice in such a manner that we can only find modern parallels in the post-conflict societies of South Africa and El Salvador, among others. Thousands died alone, imprisoned in a hospital; families could not say goodbye to their loved ones. Now, a growing movement seeks to sue and prosecute anyone who could be seen as responsible, including local officials, hospital administrators and the national government. The concern with this, the group heard, is that there is no legal basis to hold these people criminally liable or culpable for such events. Rather, the pursuit of an adversarial system will result in them being defensive and refusing to disclose or admit what they did get wrong and collaborating to create necessary change. Moreover, legal actions – which will take many years inevitably to fail – will divert attention, energy and resources away from the telling and acknowledgement of sorrowful stories and the development of constructive solutions. 

The group agreed to meet again to discuss practical ways that they might promote and build spaces, from the ground up, for truth and reconciliation work. Mediators could also collaborate with artists and people harmed to develop works of art to express materially their experiences.