Family Conferencing reviving on Kauai

Several years ago, youthful offenders on Kauai had the opportunity to be a part of a conference where both victim(s) and offender(s) had the opportunity to talk to each other with a trained facilitator to discuss how each of them felt about the actions that occurred, and how they wanted to proceed in making things right. The offender admitted to doing the action, and had a chance to speak about what led up to the incident. Both sides had some family members, and other support people with them. This restorative justice process is returning to Kauai.

The “Conferencing Handbook” by O’Connell, Wachtel, Wachtel, The Piper’s Press, Pipersville, Pennsylvania, outlines very clearly how the conference proceeds. “The conference facilitator brings the participants together, creates a safe and supportive environment, keeps the process focused and records the decisions of the group. The facilitator does not make or influence the decisions, but lets participants express themselves and find their own creative solutions.”

The conference follows a script that is a simple, reliable tool for directing the conference. After a welcome and introductions, there are open-ended questions which encourage people to respond about how they were affected by the issue, and how it made them feel. The script specifically states, “We are not here to decide whether (the offender) is good or bad. We want to explore in what ways people have been affected and hopefully work toward repairing the harm that has resulted.” So attendees understand right away that judging others is not part of the program, but making things right is.

Offenders are asked to describe the incident and share what they were thinking about at the time. Then they share what they think about it now. They are asked who they think has been affected by their actions, and how they’ve been affected.

Victims are asked to describe their reactions at the time of the incident and how they feel about what happened. They are asked what the hardest thing was for them, and how their friends and family reacted when they heard about the issue.

The offender’s supporters and the victim’s supporters are asked the same questions: “What did you think when you heard about the incident? How do you feel about what happened? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think are the main issues?

The victims are then asked what they would like to happen to repair the harm as a result of the conference. The offender is asked how they feel about it, and there may be some negotiation to come to a mutually satisfying agreement that the facilitator then writes down. It is then read back to the group for final “editing.”

Everyone is asked once again if there is any final statement that they would like to share. Then the participants are thanked, and invited to share some refreshments. That’s right. Refreshments are always served, and it is hoped that the two groups of people may enjoy continuing conversation with each other.

Talking about feelings helps both sides get a clearer picture of what really happened. Questions about “why?” get answered directly. Both sides feel better. In my research about this, I watched a YouTube video of a woman who had witnessed her father get hacked to death at Sunday dinner by the next door neighbor. For years she had allowed her hate and rage to create unhappiness for her. She admitted that she was a very unpleasant person to be with.

She attended a restorative justice conference, and found out that the young man was schizophrenic. He’d served 17 years in jail for the murder, and was being considered for release. She met with Canadian justice officials, but she was determined to keep him detained.

They all met together. Her mother was kind to him right away, which made her angry. But as he talked, cried, admitted his shame, and she heard his side and the pain he’d felt for so many years, she was inspired to hug and forgive him. At that point, the pain she had been carrying was released, and her whole personality changed. She “freed herself of the rage and bitterness she’d kept inside.” She still loved and missed her father, but keeping up the rage and bitterness was not necessary. It was just a part of her life, and not the dominant factor of it.

Offenders who know they made a big mistake often feel shame. According to Donald Nathanson’s “Compass of Shame,” offenders usually react in one of four general patterns: 1. They attack others and try to make it be the victim’s fault. They may lash out verbally or physically. 2. They attack themselves by putting themselves down and even trying to get hurt. 3. They withdraw by isolating themselves from others. 4. They avoid thinking or doing anything about the problem. They may use drugs and/or alcohol to keep numb, or they may do the opposite and try thrill-seeking to distract them from the problem and dealing with it.

Shame is a basic feeling in all human beings when confronted with their hurtful mistakes.

John Baithwaite’s sociological theory of “reintegrative shaming” suggests that it’s important to “separate the deed from the doer so that society clearly disapproves of the crime or inappropriate behavior, but acknowledges the intrinsic worth of the individual.” That is one of the goals of Family Conferencing.

The way it will work on Kauai is that certain youth who continue to offend will be selected to use Family Conferencing to learn empathy and to rally the adults around them to create a plan of support that will help them make better choices.

The victims and their families are there to give the feedback to help create the empathy by sharing their feelings and giving their ideas to the plan.

Family Court will refer specific juvenile offenders and their families to Hale ‘Opio Kauai, who will contact the victim, offender and their support groups, explain the process, and organize a time to meet. At the end of the meeting both sides will get a copy of the agreement. Another copy will go to Family Court, and one to Hale ‘Opio. This process is considered a diversion from the regular Family Court process.

This process has the potential to create meaningful development in youth and understanding and empathy building in everyone. Let’s give it some good support.

Questions?

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Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org

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