Good Practice: Restorative justice for children who sexually harm

Chloe Stothart reports on a scheme that brings victims of sexual violence face to face with their assailant.

Chloe Stothart reports on a scheme that brings victims of sexual violence face to face with their assailant.

Project details

Project name: AIM’s Restorative Justice Project

Aims and objectives: To provide restorative justice services in suitable cases where adolescents display sexually harmful behaviour. To learn from a small set of cases and provide advice to practitioners.

Numbers of service users: About 10 cases since it began in 2006.

Cost/funding: £60,000 from Lloyds TSB Foundation over three years (from January 2010 to December 2012)

Restorative justice is seldom used with sex offenders, especially young ones. “It is an area where practitioners have feared to tread in the past,” says Vince Mercer, restorative justice co-ordinator at the
AIM project, a Salford-based scheme advising professionals working with young people who behave in sexually harmful ways.

But Mercer was prepared to step into such uncharted territory. While working on a restorative justice project for Greater Manchester Youth Justice Trust, he shared an office with AIM’s manager Julie Hennicker and discussion of each other’s work prompted them to work together.

Because most of the cases AIM deals with concern abuse within the family, restorative justice can be an innovative way to tackle the mediation and planning needed to ensure the safety of the victim and others when the offender returns to the family.

The project began with a small number of cases referred by Greater Manchester’s 10 youth offending teams but has since expanded to accept referrals from agencies such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. AIM also produces guidance leaflets for restorative justice practitioners and provides training and support.

The process begins if one of the parties requests a meeting. AIM looks at the case, the motives and attitudes of the parties involved and decides whether restorative justice is suitable. “If the young person was in significant denial of the offence we would not go down the restorative justice route because we do not want the victim to be blamed or victimised,” says Mercer.

About two-thirds of cases referred do not result in a meeting between the victim and offender, either because the cases are assessed as unsuitable or one of the participants refuses to engage.

Extensive preparation work involves both parties separately before any meeting is held. Practitioners examine what both people want to ask and hear, what issues cause them most emotional difficulty, what they expect, how they might react to what they might find out, and how they would handle the reactions of the other person.

They also run through how the participants will signal that they need time out of the meeting and communicate with the relative or professional they have chosen to support them through the process. Participants will view the layout of the room where the meeting will take place, where they will sit relative to the door and to the other person and what furniture is between them. They will also consider how both parties arrive and leave so that they remain apart until the meeting begins.

Mercer says he opens by reminding both parties of the ground rules. “The victim then usually starts by saying what they want to do and the dialogue usually flows between the victim and offender,” says Mercer. “I say very little because the work has been done in the preparation and the space is now owned by the participants.”

One difficulty the project has encountered is a lack of services for victims of sexual assault in some parts of the country. “You have to be mindful about how they will be supported throughout a challenging process, how have they got to this point where they feel able to participate and how will they be supported after with issues that might arise,” Mercer says.

AIM’s restorative justice work has never been externally evaluated but participants in each case review the process at the end. One group that took part was the family of a girl of 15 who was raped by her 17-year-old brother.

The girl stated: “The most important thing was me and my mum talkingabout her not meaning to ignore me we wouldn’t have had that conversation without the meeting.” She said it gave the family a chance to “put it behind usto move on” while her mother said it was the first time the family had talked about the incident and “it did us good”. The brother also said he felt “safe” in the meeting. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which has referred cases to AIM, has praised the project’s “skilled and thoughtful approach”, claiming the process benefits both victim and offender.

While restorative justice work with young sex offenders is still rare, Mercer believes it has a huge impact on the people who take part. “It allows victims and offenders to ask the questions of each other that the criminal justice system fails to answer,” he says.

Case study: ‘He had control of me but I took that control back’

Jo Nodding was raped by a boy she knew. “I went to court because I thought it would be the only opportunity I would get to face this person,” she says. During the trial the judge told the rapist that he had ruined Nodding’s life.

Nodding: After a heartfelt apology from the offender who raped her, she was able to forgive him

“He had control of me that day but I am taking control back,” she says. “I wanted him to know he had not ruined my life.”

Although one of her victim liaison officers felt restorative justice was “too dangerous” for a serious crime such as rape, another agreed to contact the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which was working with her attacker.

Before the meeting, AIM’s restorative justice co-ordinator, Vince Mercer, checked why she wanted to meet the offender.

“If I was going there to scream and shout it would not do him any good,” she says. “He also made sure I would not be disappointed. If I was going in just to get answers I might not get them and might feel even more down.”

Fourteen months after first discussing restorative justice, she had a meeting with the boy who attacked her. Nodding says she talked about how scared he had made her feel, because she believed he would kill her, and the trauma it had caused her family.

The boy made a heartfelt apology for what he had done and Nodding says she was able to forgive him.

“It was fantastic,” she says. “I walked out of the room feeling on top of the world. It gave me complete closure because I knew that he knew exactly what he had done.”

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