By Kieran McCartan, PhD
Our friends in America celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a sometimes fraught and challenging holiday. Families and friends come together to celebrate reunion, restoration, and a rekindling of relationships. It sounds easy, but it’s not! It can be difficult and sometimes irreconcilable. Establishing and re-establishing a sense of family or community is not always easy.
Interestingly, this week is also Restorative Justice week. Across Europe, it’s a time to discuss restorative practice in the criminal justice system. Like Thanksgiving in the US, restorative practice is also challenging and complex. It can also help people resolve issues, rebuild lives, and move forward from the trauma they experienced or caused. Restorative practices are common across social justice; we have seen them used in personal, community, and social conflict cases. My first exposure to restorative practice was long before studying criminal justice; it was in my native Northern Ireland, where the process was encouraged as a community-building device in the peace talks and the creation of the Good Friday agreement. However, there is one area where restorative practice is not always accepted, where it’s seen as challenging, difficult, and, at times, a risk: Sexual abuse!
Last week, Thursday and Friday, I chaired two separate and quite distinct events for the Thriving Survivors organization. One was an event hosted by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, where members of the organization discussed their work and highlighted their good practices. The second event was a traditional conference focusing on restorative justice and sexual abuse, calling for the need to have systematic change in the way that restorative justice is responded to. The events focused on the need for a coherent restorative practice to offer to victims of sexual abuse, one that’s victim-led, holistic, strengths-based, and sustainable. The conference illustrated how those who are victimized by sexual abuse should have access to and engagement with the services that they want, not just the services that the state and third parties want to offer them (or, even worse, feel that they should have). The conference showed that sexual abuse is a complex and multifaceted issue that cannot be separated from real life, especially when the abuse is committed by and connected to family systems, friend groups, and peer networks. Sexual abuse needs to be confronted, and people who are victimized seek help as well as support in whatever form they feel comfortable. The speakers (including Dr Marie Keenan; Dr Estelle Zinsstag; and David Russell) and organisations (Stop it now Scotland; The Consent Collective; Restorative Justice Council; All party working group on restorative justice) reiterated the importance of personal choice, support, collaboration, and taking a victim-centred approach. This was brought together by a keynote from Professor Judith Herman, who talked about her new book emphasizing the importance of the voices of those victimized in the healing process. That system-wide change is needed to make the criminal justice system less traumatizing for victims. One way of doing that is through thoughtful, well-planned restorative practice.
The two days reinforced the importance of personal choice and careful, detailed, trauma-informed, and strengths-based services. If done well, restorative practice can support victims in moving forward and finding closure or acceptance. Restorative practice needs to be victim-led, flexible, and accessible to all. The system needs to change to hear the voices of those harmed. In this season of restoration, please ask yourself what everyone needs to come together and talk about and the best way to do this.