Thursday, June 17, 2021

Embracing Restorative Approaches to Address Sexual Harm.

By Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD, Alexa Sardina, PhD, & Kevin Lynch 

In June 2018, four rape survivors of rape sat in an accountability circle for a man who had committed a rape 40 years prior.  We, the authors of this piece, are two of those women, and the man who committed the rape.  For over three hours, we grappled with topics related to our individual experiences with sexual harm. We did not know it at the time, but this accountability circle was the start of a journey that the three of us would take together.

For several years, Alissa has been participating in, facilitating, and writing about restorative justice as it relates to sexual harm. While restorative justice has gained popularity in general, few people advocate for its use in instances of sexual harm, despite evidence that it can be effective in helping survivors to heal and holding those who have harmed accountable.  In 2016, Kevin had written a blog in the Huffington Post in which he admitted committing rape in his early 20s.  Kevin had subsequently learned about the work Alissa was doing and asked her to organize a vicarious accountability circle for him.  Alexa was one of the survivors who also participated. For Kevin and Alexa, the experience of that circle was enough to convince them that others should be made aware of the healing power of restorative justice and should be able to participate in restorative processes if they so choose.

Current criminal justice interventions do not prevent or decrease rates of sexual harm, nor do they address the needs of survivors.  As such, the criminal legal process should not be the only avenue available to address sexual harm. Restorative justice offers a trauma-informed, humane approach to holding people accountable and providing opportunities for healing for all parties.

Restorative justice is a human-centered approach to repairing and preventing harm. It requires honesty and often difficult conversations between people who have experienced harm and those who have caused it.  Restorative processes can take many forms, including one-on-one facilitated conversations and circle processes that provide everyone involved (and their support people) the opportunity to be seen and heard. Restorative justice allows people who have experienced harm to speak their truth and ask for their specific needs to be met.  It requires people who have caused harm to fully acknowledge the harm they’ve caused by naming it, discussing their understanding of the impact of their actions, actively listening to the person, they harmed (or a proxy), and then making amends for that harm.

Some of the most common needs expressed by survivors of sexual harm include telling their story in their own way, understanding why the harm was perpetrated against them, having their harm and their pain acknowledged and hearing how future harmful behavior by the person who harmed them will be prevented.  A restorative justice response encourages collaboration and reintegration of all parties, neither further coercing nor isolating either party, as our current criminal legal responses tend to do.

Not all survivors are willing to meet with the person who harmed them. Conversely, individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses may not be allowed to meet the person they harmed.  Vicarious restorative justice is an alternative model that brings people who have been harmed together with those who have harmed. However, these individuals are not parties to the same acts of sexual harm. The accountability circle in which we engaged is a prime example of vicarious restorative justice.

Much of the work Alissa has done using the vicarious restorative justice model has been done in treatment groups with people who have committed acts of sexual harm.  Based on this work with over 500 individuals, she has come to understand the value of this process for use in clinical practice. As such, ATSA members may be interested in learning more about this process.

Since the accountability circle, we participated in three years ago, together we have learned a lot about the value of restorative justice. For Alexa, the most important lesson was that people who experience sexual harm and those who perpetrate it have more in common than most people would believe. There is more that unites us than separates us. For Kevin, it was the realization both of the lasting harm he likely had caused, and of the power of accountability as a means of healing for survivors.  For Alissa, it was the recognition that all people impacted by sexual harm could experience healing through restorative processes. Together, we have found that most people do not fully understand what restorative justice is, what it requires of people, or how they can participate in restorative processes if interested.

…. And we believe the time has come to take concrete steps to restore the world from sexual harm by making restorative justice inclusive of and accessible to more and more people and communities who are affected by it.  Such steps might include developing a model for how to use it, training facilitators and practitioners to use it, helping communities, organizations, and institutions develop restorative processes, advocating for restorative justice, and taking steps to engage more people who have been harmed, as well as people who have been harmed.

Current criminal legal processes have failed to prevent sexual violence, to help survivors to heal, or to truly hold people accountable for the sexual harms they cause. The time has come to embrace restorative approaches to address all forms of sexual harm. This requires that we accept the complex dualities and contradictions that must be understood and mastered to restore the world from sexual harm. We believe that ending sexual harm requires that everyone be at the table.


*Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD is a criminal justice professor at California State University, Fullerton. Alexa Sardina, PhD is a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento. Kevin Lynch is a consultant and writer in the nonprofit and social enterprise fields.  Together they are co-founders of Ampersands Restorative Justice, an organization designed to brining restorative justice for sexual harm to scale.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The New World of Telehealth: The Challenges and Benefits.

By Janet DiGiorgio-Miller, Ph.D.

Whether you have decided to take a hybrid approach or do all virtual therapy sessions you have come to find that there are challenges as well as benefits to telehealth. I moved out of my office on July 31st, 2020 after 18 years. It was a three-room, third-floor office space in a 1929 building with beautiful big windows in a bustling little town in New Jersey. It felt like a safe and secure place for my clients and for myself.

While I missed that office, I soon came to appreciate my home office with my furniture and my paintings and all the benefits that come with staying at home during the day. As my practice became totally virtual, I thought that I would begin to write down what worked and did not work. I also asked my clients. The following are the challenges and benefits of virtual therapy. Please feel free to continue this blog by posting your thoughts.


Telehealth presents challenges for both the provider and the client. Probably the most challenging issue is working with young children. It is difficult to keep their attention by just talking. Usually, when you are working with a child you have some play materials to assist in the conversation. This is a task that is exceedingly difficult to replicate virtually. In addition, teenagers may be viewing more than one screen at a time or multitasking. When this issue presents itself, it is good to address it and ask the client if they are attending the session. Another issue that I found is that you cannot see the whole person’s body and sometimes cannot tell if they gained weight/ lost weight or are fidgeting and or distracted.

The biggest challenge for some clients is to have a private conversation and worry if they are being overheard. This concern has led some to clients doing sessions in their car.

Another challenge is that parole officers will not allow a client to use the Internet to have a virtual appointment. Some clients have had their attorney lobby for this privilege and other clients must use the telephone to have appointments.

As we all know, you can have technology/internet issues. It is helpful to watch YouTube videos of the technical issues and find tips there. It is also helpful to remind ourselves that we as well as our clients are learning more and more about technology. So, I tell myself to be patient (with myself and others) which is one attitudinal foundation of mindfulness.


The biggest benefit by far is the convenience for clients. Therapy is now available for any client who has 45 minutes to take out of their day. Previously a client would have to find a therapist in their area, drive to the therapist's office, park and/or pay, find the office or suite, and then drive back to home or to work. Instead of taking 45 minutes to find a private place to talk clients have to take at least two hours out of their day to have a therapy appointment. It is easier for clients who work a regular job or work overnight to find 45 minutes. It is also easier get approval from their supervisor to leave for 45 minutes as opposed to two or more hours. They also save money on gas and parking. In addition, if a client forgets their appointment, I can text them and remind them and we can have a session instead of missing an appointment. I can also text clients to remind them of their appointments. Or if the client cancels an appointment at the last minute, I can fill the slot with someone who is waiting for an appointment. Another benefit is that client does not have to find childcare to attend their appointment. I had one client turn the camera away and breastfeed a baby while she was speaking in therapy.  

Teens and millennials are extremely comfortable using the computer as a forum to talk. Many times, I see adolescents and young adults in their hoodies, on their beds with a cup of tea talking. In fact, some people eat their breakfast and lunch because they are in a hurry to get to work or to get back to work. I have noticed that you can see a person’s personality when they are talking from different parts of their home. You can ask them about their surroundings to get to know them better. It is also a perfect forum for clients who have been in your care and then go off to college in a different state. They have continuity of care since telehealth. You can also invite other family members to join a session.

Another benefit is you can see different people throughout your entire state/territory as opposed to having geographical limitations regarding clients coming to your office. That means the expertise is spread throughout the state or territory. This is extremely helpful since therapists with expertise in treating sexual abusers are few and far between. Another benefit is that you can evaluate and treat clients in a safe place.

Telehealth is ideal for anxious clients. Clients who have anxiety are worried about getting to the office, finding parking, being on time, and then having to settle down to discuss their anxiety in therapy.

You can still use certain tools such as reading cards, sharing screens to test clients, and showing books to suggest that they read. You can also meditate virtually. You can do your progress notes while talking to a client in a discreet manner. You can also refer to the last session notes to have a point of discussion if needed.

One unexpected benefit is that the US government is supporting telehealth by waiving copays for mental health for most insurance companies

Clients Perspective

Some clients find telehealth extremely convenient and useful however some clients indicated that they like in person sessions because it is a space for them to feel safe talking about their issues. One client told me that on one hand “It is a designated safe space to have a conversation however due not having it, it allowed me to work on several safe spaces (in and around) my home to talk.”

My/Therapist Perspective:  

It is nice to be able to eat healthy food and have no commute. It also a pleasure that my husband is home more often. I can come down to my office at any time to do my work instead of having to drive anywhere. All my documents are in one place. I have more time to balance my work and self-care.

To summarize, I have found that telehealth primarily benefits clients. I do not see a difference in live or virtual therapy regarding rapport with clients or having them open up to discuss their issues. In fact, they seem more comfortable in their own home discussing personal issues. In addition, they do not have to worry or stress about getting to an office. Regardless of the shift of their work they can find 45 minutes a week to be available for a therapy session as opposed to over 2 hours if they would have to leave their home and go to the office.

I have chosen to continue doing telehealth as it is the best option for clients and has the added bonus of being home. Another major advantage of staying home is saving money by having no rent or additional expenses related to having an office, and less wear and tear on my car.

The lack of commute is a definite bonus.   

I think telehealth is convenient, benefits clients, and is here to stay. So, embrace the change, notice the benefits, and enjoy.


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Double Standard, Human Rights, and beyond?

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW and Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D

The week before last we wrote about the apparent double standard involved in a European singer’s affair with a 15-year-old. We took note of how many in society condemn sex with underage people even as they seem to make exceptions for those who are well-to-do and/or celebrities. Within hours of its publication, we learned of a related news item in the USA. In this case, a state senator seeking to replace a member of the US House of Representatives openly acknowledged impregnating a 14-year old who he later married (and divorced).

Recognizing that sexual misconduct is not the province of any one political party and that it has often appeared to be rampant in some governments, it was hard not to notice the shifting of blame in this case. The person involved blamed the political status quo. To some, his account may seem familiar:

"Everybody has something in their life that they did ... We’ve all had these problems. Why is this a big deal?" .... So, bottom line, it's a story when I was young. Two teenagers, girl gets pregnant. You've heard those stories before. She was a little younger than me, so it's like the Romeo and Juliet story," he said.

The news account further states, “He said he tried to ‘do the right thing’ and told the paper he married the girl when she was 15. They later went through what he described as ‘kind of a bitter divorce,’ … the ex-wife died by suicide when she was 20.” There is no description of her motivation to take her own life and so readers can only speculate. The aspiring politician says he tried to do the right thing but never says what the right thing is. Strikingly absent is the perspective of those who have other perspectives, in particular those with less power

It’s been the authors’ experience that some readers comment on how men marrying adolescent females has, at times throughout history, been commonplace. Many of these marriages end up being described and/or remembered as happy. We don’t doubt that this is the case; happiness and fulfillment can occur under all kinds of circumstances. Even in cases of chronic abuse, victims are struggling with the fact that they sometimes also experience positive emotions toward the person who abuses them – which confuses them even more. These observations, in turn, lead to further questions which are worthy of reflection for all seeking to prevent abuse from (re)occurring.

The first question is whether there are bright lines discerning abuse from non-abuse in situations like this and the celebrity we discussed last week? We suspect that there will always be situations that don’t fit into neat categories. Humans, and the lives we lead, tend to be too complex for that.

Still, the question that follows from there is what price young women pay when married off at an early age. Were they able to provide anything close to informed consent? Are the cases we hear about situations in which people made the best of circumstances that didn’t go their way? Did anyone ask the young women involved whether they saw or preferred other options? Did the young women have the opportunity to ask what part of their full potential they would not live up to through sexual behaviors and/or marriage in mid-adolescence?

Given the stakes involved in this recent news item, where the wife took her own life at the age of 20, we are reminded that the outcomes of sexual relationships in early and mid-adolescence are never entirely known. Whatever has unfolded in the past, it seems that all young people should have the chance to make these decisions in a fully informed way as well as in accordance with the law. Our collective years in working to prevent abuse has led us to conclude that unless we are working to uphold others’ autonomy we may be preventing them from living up to their full potential.

These cases highlight how far we’ve come as a society and how far we still have to go. The first author (David) had a great-grandmother who was considered “insane,” in large part because she insisted that her brother had forced her into having sex; this did not fit with her family’s wishes. Her circumstances would, hopefully, have been far more fortuitous today. Nonetheless, the news item described here, in which the voice of the young wife who killed herself is absent, reminds us how important it is to listen to our most vulnerable members of society outside the often implicit paradigms that belong to the past.