How restorative justice can improve relationships in children’s homes

Restorative justice can be effective in developing empathy in troubled young people. Camilla Pemberton looks at one model being used in children's homes

Restorative justice can be effective in developing empathy in troubled young people. Camilla Pemberton looks at one model being used in children’s homes

Project details

Project name: Restorative approaches in Norfolk’s children’s homes.

Aims and objectives: To reduce the number of looked-after children in the youth justice system and develop better ways of working with children in residential care.

Number of staff: 100 residential workers trained to deliver restorative approaches.

Cost of project: The council invested £150,000 to develop restorative approaches across all its services for looked-after children between 2010 and 2015.

Timescale: The number of looked-after children in the criminal justice system has halved over the past two years and relationships between staff and young people have improved.

On his 16th birthday, Oliver* learned two things: that his mother had a new boyfriend and that she had chosen to spend the day with this man, rather than with her son, as planned. The second piece of news sent Oliver, a resident at Easthills children’s home in Norfolk, into an uncontrollable rage which culminated in him seriously assaulting residential worker Linda Madden.

Due to the severity of the incident, in January 2011, police were called to the home and Oliver was later charged. But, at Madden’s request, magistrates recommended that the pair take part in a restorative justice conference, where victims and offenders meet, with a trained mediator, to discuss the impact of a crime and how to repair the damage caused.

It was there that Madden learned of the private grief that had provoked Oliver’s violent outburst and the teenager learned how deeply the assault had affected Madden. “It shocked him,” she says. “Often young people, especially those who have experienced a lot of pain, lash out without thinking about the consequences. But it completely changed him. He’s been a different young man ever since and we’ve had no problems with his behaviour.”

It was essential that Oliver engaged with the conference, took responsibility for his actions and showed remorse – had he not, he faced being sent back to court and ending up with a criminal record – but its purpose was not to make him feel guilty, Madden says.

“We want young people to take responsibility and show remorse, but not to be burdened with guilt,” Madden says. “A lot of them suffer from guilt and that isn’t helpful. It’s not what restorative approaches are about. We just want young people to move forward, with a sense of awareness that will prevent them from offending again.”

The case highlights the “transformative” power of restorative approaches when working with looked-after young people, says counsellor Brian Hannah, Norfolk’s champion for restorative approaches. An ex-prison officer, Hannah had seen the approach being used by youth offending teams and was convinced it could be applied more widely.

“We don’t want to criminalise our young people if we can avoid it,” Hannah says. “We want to help them to empathise with their victims and really understand the consequences of their actions. That’s a more effective deterrent than a criminal record.”

His confidence in the alternative intervention was shared by Norfolk Council. In 2009 the authority set up a Restorative Approaches Strategic Board (RASB) and last year invested £150,000 in its plan to provide every young person in Norfolk with access to restorative approaches by 2015. “We’ll be a restorative county by 2015,” Hannah says.

Kirsten Cooper, Norfolk’s restorative approaches development manager, says the council’s reasons for developing the approach with looked-after children were threefold: to reduce the number of looked-after children in the youth justice system; to reduce police call-outs to children’s homes; and to develop better ways of working between carers and children.

Since a joint initiative was launched between children’s services and Norfolk Constabulary, restorative approaches have become embedded in Norfolk’s children’s homes. To help control costs, the police agreed to provide free training to residential workers on the basis that improved outcomes would cut the time officers spent dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour. Between January and February, 100 residential workers were trained to use restorative approaches. The RASB runs evaluations once a month to monitor how staff are using their training.

Restorative conferences are held after incidents between young people within the home, Madden says, but also after more serious incidents where young people, like Oliver, have been charged with a criminal offence. These take place outside the home, with an independent chair. In either setting, the aim is to reduce re-offending and repair the damage caused by a crime, whether the victim is another young person, a member of staff or someone in the community.

Already the results have been impressive. Police have reported a dramatic drop in the number of calls from children’s homes, while the number of looked-after young people charged with criminal offences has dropped by 52% over the past two years. The commitment of residential staff has contributed hugely to the steady progress, Cooper says.

Alison Thomas, Norfolk’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We want to give our looked-after children the chance to resolve conflict, learn how to empathise with others and develop skills that are essential to their adult life. Restorative approaches are helping us to achieve this and reduce the proportion of children involved with the criminal justice system.

“We are seeing the benefits of this approach in our schools, children’s homes and local communities.”

‘A weight was lifted and we have a great relationship now’

Linda Madden describes her experience of a restorative justice conference

“After I was assaulted by Oliver, I wanted to deal with the matter restoratively and asked magistrates for this opportunity. Four months after the court hearing, we met at an independent venue away from the home, with a police officer who was our trained mediator.

“I was supported by my manager and Oliver was supported by another residential worker, which was important. A neutral setting was also important to formalise the arrangement, and to ensure Oliver took it seriously, but I brought drinks and snacks so that we could socialise afterwards and show that we could move on and be relaxed with each other.

“The conference lasted about 40 minutes. I was asked questions first to give Oliver time to relax. I was asked how the attack had made me feel and I explained that I had felt scared about coming back to work.

“I could see that Oliver was listening to this and was taking it all in. He was asked how he had been feeling and he explained that he had been angry that his mother did not want to see him on his birthday. I understood that his behaviour had been a manifestation of these feelings of rejection.

“He was also asked how he thought I might have felt and what he thought could be done to repair the harm.

“The questions are focused and designed to get young people feeling and thinking in a safe space. Confrontational questions, such as, ‘Why did you do it?’ are avoided. It was also important not to talk about the incident, just about its impact.

“After the conference, it was as though a weight had been lifted and we have never looked back. We have a great relationship now.”

*Name has been changed

Published in 15 September 2011 edition of Community Care under heading ‘Remorse without Guilt’

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Title Guide to restorative justice within the youth justice system

Author Dr Jo Staines (née Lipscombe), teaching fellow, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

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