Academic Pauline Ashworth examines findings on the effectiveness of restorative justice in cases involving bullying in children’s residential units
Key words: Restorative justice ❙ Bullying ❙ Children’s homes ❙ Young people’s rights
Authors: Brian Littlechild and Helen Sender
Title: The introduction of restorative justice approaches in young people’s residential units: A critical evaluation; NSPCC, 2010, 99 pages, www.nspcc.org.uk
Aim: To examine the use of restorative justice to deal with conflict and bullying in residential units for young people in Hertfordshire.
Methodology: Staff and residents were interviewed alongside analysis of statistics on police call-outs to the units.
Conclusion: Use of the model led to an overall decrease in police call-outs, but how and when restorative practice might be used needs to be defined more clearly.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice seeks to resolve conflicts by bringing victim and offender together to speak directly to one another. The offender is required to explain and take responsibility for the offence they have committed and the victim is afforded the opportunity to speak about how they have been affected by it.
The aim is to obtain genuine expressions of remorse from the offender, and satisfaction for the victim in being part of the decision as to what recompense the offender must make.
Funded by the NSPCC, the report was commissioned by Hertfordshire Council and Hertfordshire Constabulary to review the effectiveness of the restorative justice model.
A pilot scheme was expanded to the council’s four residential units for young people across Hertfordshire in 2002. This report follows a similar evaluation of the pilot in 2003, also by Littlechild.
A key aim of the latest report was to assess the impact of restorative justice on bullying, which had become a particularly challenging issue for staff. It also analysed the effectiveness of the approach in dealing with criminal and antisocial behaviour and interpersonal conflicts, using the number of times police were called to the residential units as a key indicator.
Findings and Analysis
In view of the relative lack of research on this topic, Littlechild and Sender’s evaluation is to be welcomed. Both this and Littlechild’s previous report contain similar findings regarding an overall reduction in police call-outs and general satisfaction, on the part of staff at least, with the way in which restorative approaches had improved their way of dealing with conflicts in the units.
Similarly, the two reports note the problems encountered when trying to use restorative practices to deal with incidents of bullying, with staff commenting on how training in restorative justice did not readily assist them to apply the techniques to the residential setting.
The latest report contains one element missing from the earlier piece of research, namely concerns about using restorative practices with young people with attachment disorders, learning disabilities and other impairments.
Given the similarities, one might question what the new report adds to the findings of the 2003 evaluation; the key aim of addressing the issue of bullying appears to offer little beyond that it is not readily susceptible to restorative justice. It is of concern that most of the residents who were involved in the research reported that they had been bullied and had bullied others.
They seemed to accept this as part of life in residential care. One is left wondering about the nature of the regimes that permit such a situation to persist, and it would have been interesting had the report focused more closely on the reasons why the issue was so resistant to the restorative approach.
It could be that staff in the residential units were enthusiastic about restorative practice because it provided an alternative way of continuing to focus on outcomes rather than the underlying causes of the difficulties experienced by the young residents. A deeper analysis of these underlying issues would have been welcome.
The report raises interesting questions about the training that residential staff receive and the applicability of restorative justice, and it would have been interesting had it appended an outline of the training and how it was adapted, if at all, to the residential setting.
It also would have been useful had the report outlined the processes and procedures actually used in the residential units, and if an analysis of the effectiveness of different methods in different situations had been offered.
As it is, while Littlechild and Sender allude to the claims, by the young people in particular, that the effectiveness of the process depended “on the situation, on the person” (Rosie, cited on page 54), they do not examine the point further.
Young people’s rights
Concerns about the rights of young people are alluded to, but not fully examined in the report. It is worrying that whatever safeguards in terms of young people’s rights that are applied to formal restorative justice procedures appear to be disregarded in both the report and in the residential units themselves, despite staff’s responsibility to uphold the young people’s rights.
Further, reference is made to the close nature of the community, “where relationships can be intimate”. Littlechild and Sender suggest that these relationships “are more similar to domestic relationships”, and that disputes between residents, and residents and staff, can be likened to “domestic conflicts”. I believe this is a potentially dangerous analogy as it can serve to infantilise young people.
The methodology and presentation of the findings hint at a bias in favour of the staff. It is perhaps significant that much of what is reported refers to the comments and feelings of the staff with the young people’s opinions generally being afforded much less space and attention. One might question whether this is a reflection of what in fact happens in the residential units.
At times, conclusions are drawn from the research findings that are not sufficiently supported by cited evidence. For instance, reference is made to the way in which “restorative justice methods can enhance attachments and resilience” but no evidence is cited to support this assertion.
The research focus also appears muddled. There is no clear distinction between formal restorative justice and the more informal practices that appear to have been adopted. At times, restorative justice is contrasted with “relational conflict resolution” and “mediation”, but the terms are used interchangeably, and the evaluation at times lacks coherence.
The overall impression is of a work in progress which raises interesting questions that deserve further examination, not least the nature and relevance of the training that staff receive and, critically, the development of a clearer definition and understanding of what exactly is being done and how it relates to restorative justice or practice.
For policy makers:
● Greater clarity about the nature and scope of restorative practice is needed.
● Attention needs to be paid to staff training and how this relates to particular circumstances in different residential units.
● The difficulties in dealing with particular behaviours (bullying, for instance) and with residents with special needs are highlighted and require much closer examination before restorative practices can be adopted.
For staff and managers:
● The different concerns expressed by the staff and residents suggest that closer attention needs to be paid to these differences in order to ensure that restorative interventions are designed to meet quite distinct needs.
● One key implication of this is the time necessary to give individual cases such close and in-depth attention.
● At the same time, the report does highlight the way in which such attention can reap rewards in terms of future behaviour and the consequent effects in terms of staff stress and lowered morale.
● Used wisely, restorative practice does have a positive effect in creating a better working environment for staff and residents.
This article is published in the 26 August issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Restorative justice in children’s homes
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● Ashworth A (2001), “Is Restorative Justice the Way Forward for Criminal Justice?” Current Legal Problems, 2001, vol.54, pp347-76
● Cunneen C (2006), “Thinking Critically about Restorative Justice” in McLaughlin E, Fergusson R, Hughes G, Westmarland L, Restorative Justice: Critical Issues, Sage Publications with the Open University
● Hayden C, Gough D (2010), Implementing restorative justice in children’s residential care, The Policy Press
● Hopkins B (2008), Restorative approaches in residential child care, National Children’s Bureau – Highlight No. 242
● Littlechild B (2003), An evaluation of the implementation of a restorative justice approach in a residential unit for young people in Hertfordshire, University of Hertfordshire
● Willmott N (2007), A review of the use of restorative justice in children’s residential care, NCB
About the author: Pauline Ashworth is a teaching fellow at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York