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April 8, 2010

Restorative Justice and Abuse

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 4:57 pm
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I was writing this as a footnote on a previous post, but it got long enough I thought I should just give it its own entry.

Jessie also suggested something that hadn’t occurred to either of us until last night, but seems so obvious now: Applying a community-based Restorative Justice model to dealing with perpetrators of abuse. I have some problems with the restorative justice model I learned*; it would take some tweaking and it would only work in certain situations (RJ only works when the perpetrator is willing to own and take responsibility for their crime) – but those situations seem to be the ones in which healing and restoration matters most for the sake of the abuse-victim i.e. the ones in which the abuser and victim are strongly tied together by other family or family-like relationships.

* I’ve never felt comfortable with the way that traditional RJ tends to manifest as just a giant clusterfuck of guilt-tripping – largely because, if someone really is ready to genuinely take responsibility for how they’ve hurt another person, they’re probably feeling pretty guilty already. Having ten people then sit in a circle and tell them what an irredeemable asshole they are just seems like a way to get them to shut back down – and there’s no progress to be made there.

I don’t actually think the ‘guilt-trip’ method is built in to the model however, The idea is behind “Affected Community” sharing is to help the perpetrator come to a deep understanding of their impact on the person or people they harmed – to increase their compassion. Guilt is not a terribly effective way of making people more compassionate; it’s mostly a good way of making people defensive.

I think RJ participants often turn to this sort of shaming behavior in word or tone of voice – rather than genuine compassion-inducing behavior – because we still have the retributive paradigm lodged deep in our mindset, and it tells us the primary purpose of justice is to punish the perpetrator rather than to redress the harm to the victim. Also, I think we just don’t know how to do anything else. For RJ to work well, especially on something as emotionally complex and volatile as abuse, we’d need much more skilled facilitators and affected community members with a lot of consciousness about compassion, human psychology, and non-violent communication.

Most importantly, I think, we need to fill the circle with people who love the abuser. I don’t mean to get all Carebears in Wonderland about this, but seriously folks, truth and reconciliation is a healing action. It doesn’t work for anybody – including and especially not the victim – unless it, itself, steps outside the cycle of violence.

Also: Whoa, check it out! A whole list of links and resources around RJ and Domestic Violence: Applying Restorative Justice to Domestic Violence – Web Resources



  1. I agree that there needs to be some kind of community response process for abusive behavior.
    I also agree that process should be shaped according to the unique needs of each community.

    However…confronting abusers is problematic due to their social and verbal Houdini-esque qualities.
    To put it plainly, abusers are great at:
    1) Denying any wrongdoing
    2) turning the tables and convincingly blaming someone else or their partner for the problem
    2) Admitting they did something without admitting that what they did was wrong
    3) Explicitly not apologizing, or fauxpologizing
    Therefore, the thought of confronting my abuser is terrifying. She would probably find a way of making it sound like her behavior was reasonable and everything was my fault, even in front of my radical community. I would rather just keep away from her, period.

    The sad thing is, she’s still out in my community, abusing someone else. I don’t want to let her get away with it, but I don’t know what to do to stop it. I guess the best thing I can do is speak up about my experience and foster discussions of abusive dynamics. Abuse thrives in silence, and abusers don’t want their abusees communicating with others (because they might wise up, realize they don’t deserve to be treated that way, and leave.)

    People who have enough self-hate to abuse others have a really hard time seeing other people as anything other than tools or obstacles. The idea of “accountability” is a tough concept for them to grasp. I think community accountability is an important tool, so I’ll keep thinking about how to adapt this model to combat abuse in our communities.

    Anyhow, thanks for writing!

    Comment by ann — April 10, 2010 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

    • * hugs *

      Thank you for sharing this.

      Yeah, that’s another key problem with Restorative Justice – it only works when the person is genuinely willing to own and accept responsibility for their actions. I’ve seen some RJ circles where the person was sort of paying lipservice to feeling bad about what they’d done but obviously didn’t actually care – and they were kind of worthless and depressing. (Those circles, I mean, not necessarily the people they were for. Although…) Your reply helps me understand that it’s even less likely for abusers to genuinely take on responsibility enough to participate meaningfully in RJ.

      I do think there are ways to do RJ where the victim can be represented by an advocate or in some other way participate without having to face their victimizer. And I know there have been a few successful RJ circles done around such intense violations as rape and murder – and that, with skilled facilitation and deep investment by the community, I’ve heard these have been intensely healing. But it seems like it would be incredibly difficult to orchestrate something like that…

      Comment by thirdxlucky — April 11, 2010 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

      • I love that this conversation is happening, and have been thinking a lot lately about what this type of accountability would look like for me in regards to my family. In short, it’s quite trixy. I agree that the effectiveness sort of hinges on the willingness and/or awareness of the perpetrator(s) and perhaps for that matter also the willingness and awareness of the victim. I think about how rare it seems to be when someone who has been hurt is in a place where they are willing to begin a healing process WITH the person who hurt them, and vice versa.

        There’s something about our langauge “perpetrator” “victim” etc. that is almost a set up for disaster as far as how individuals in all their multi-faceted complexity are treated or maybe even are used to being treated. Two examples come to mind with these words: some victims do in fact perpetrate, and some perpetrators were once victims. Certainly not all fall into such categories. However, the cycle of violence being what it is, tends to be a many headed monster – and chopping off one of the heads is a good start, but may necesitate the addressing of the three heads that grow in its place. Which is not to say that its lost cause or so overwhleming that it cant be done – just that the roots of violent acts (whether in community or in family) run deep – and that effectively addressing them often takes much follow up, energy and attention.

        Comment by Brandi — April 27, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

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