Friday, March 10, 2023

Restorative Justice and sexual abuse: Emerging research from Scotland

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & David S. Prescott, LICSW

The field of sexual abuse can be emotionally charged, challenging, and often causes us to reflect on our lives and actions. There are times when professionals draw lines (quite often artificial) between people who work with those who have harmed and those that have been harmed. It is common to hear that professionals in each field have different agendas and want different things, to the point of being at loggerheads. We disagree, even as we acknowledge that it can sometimes appear that way when we make snap judgments of others without really understanding where they are coming from.


Instead, we would say that the “victim side” and the “offender side,” as they are often called, want the same thing (i.e., the abuse to stop, victims to be support and people who have offended to be held accountable and manage their risk moving forward). The real difference is in the perspectives they bring to their daily work. One area of rehabilitation and therapeutic work in the wake of sexual abuse that brings these sides together is Restorative Justice. We have discussed Restorative Justice on the blog before and recognize the sensitives it involves and the process for both sets of participants, so this is not a rehashing of old ground but rather an opportunity to discuss new research and practice. As much as any approach, Restorative Justice shows that there aren’t different “sides” to the issues, but diverse roles that we can all play in our attempts to end sexual violence.


Scotland has always had a reputation for being forward thinking in its approaches to health, justice, risk, and risk management, particularly in the areas of sexual abuse, drugs/alcohol, and youth crime. Recently, there has been momentum in Scotland to understand the role that Restorative Justice can play in helping to repair the damage created by sexual abuse. In 2021, a nationwide consultation was led by Thriving Survivors (with a number of other organizations across the sector) on  with survivors of Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence to Establish Awareness, Opinion, and Demand Related to the Ongoing Development of a National Restorative Justice Policy and Practice Framework for Scotland. The consultation highlighted “the importance for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence that their voices are heard and that they have a choice related to how they deal with the aftermath of their victimization, including access to Restorative Justice.” This resulted in a series of recommendations including more research, development, and consultation on the issue, which led to the publication of a second report with some of the key players from the original, published last week, called “Restorative Justice & Sexual Harm: the voices of those who have harmed”.


The new report is based on a mixed-methods research design with people convicted of sexual offenses and their views on the relevance, use, and impact of Restorative Justice. The research found that the 44 participants who understood what Restorative Justice is described it as a process led by those who have been victimized, and that if it was not handled properly, it could be retraumatizing and activating for victims; caution is required. The participants felt that the benefits of doing Restorative Justice, if done properly and thoughtfully, outweighed any potential negative outcomes. This resulted in the authors suggesting that although cases should be looked at and considered in an individual light, they should be considered as people who can understand, be receptive to, and benefit from the use of Restorative Justice. The report gave some key recommendations, including that facilitators running Restorative Justice programmes in sexual abuse cases need to be specially trained; the consent of the participants need to be properly obtained; that the process needs to be trauma-informed; all participants should be fully briefed on what to expect from the process; if a traditional face-to-face approach is not appropriate then an alternative approach should be investigated; and the cognitive ability, neurological level, and psychological wellbeing of all participants should be checked as well catered to throughout the process.


In many respects, this publication reinforces previous research and policies in Restorative Justice (i.e., look at individual cases and then tread gently), but what makes it stand out is that it has been done with people convicted of sexual offenses. This is an important report in that it reinforces what a lot of research in the field of sexual abuse has indicated over the years: that people convicted of sexual offenses in the main want to understand the harm that they have done, become accountable, and move on an offense-free life. Additionally, this report also recognises the importance of trauma-informed approaches to this work, indicating that men convicted of sexual offenses offend have trauma histories that they are recovering from and that have contributed to their offending, and therefore the restorative justice process can help their healing.

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