Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 14
Restorative Justice and Gender-Based Violence: Revisiting the Conversation in British Columbia
By Ending Violence Association of BC and Just Outcomes
Across Canada and internationally, conversations about the intersection of Restorative JusticeFootnote 16 (RJ) and Gender-Based ViolenceFootnote 17 (GBV) are ongoing, and available research illustrates the complexities of applying RJ in cases of GBV. Some people who work in GBV are cautious and/or skeptical about current approaches to the application of RJ in cases of GBV.
Recognizing the unique experiences and needs of victims/survivors of GBV, questions about whether and how RJ approaches may be used in cases of GBV surfaced in the late 1990s. Several concerns were raised then, including inadequate safeguards and supports for victims/survivors, inadequate accountability mechanisms for offenders, lack of training on GBV among RJ practitioners, a strong offender focus of RJ initiatives, pressure on victims/survivors to participate in RJ programs, power imbalances in RJ processes, and increased risk due to offenders’ motivation to engage in RJ programs.Footnote 18
RJ practices have demonstrated some encouraging outcomes for victims/survivors of crime outside of the context of GBV (Sherman et al. 2007). However, these approaches have not always lived up to their promise for crime victims/survivors generally, and have not established themselves as a trusted and credible discipline within the movement to end GBV in British Columbia (BC) (Choi et al. 2012). Based on the historical critiques by feminist scholars and leaders in the GBV sector, there has been a moratorium on the use of RJ processes in GBV cases within most contexts in BC. Meanwhile, Indigenous approaches to addressing GBV within Indigenous communities in BC have continued according to traditional and evolving knowledge outside of the dominant/Eurocentric discourse of both RJ and GBV disciplines. While there are few non-Indigenous initiatives applying RJ approaches to cases of GBV in Canada, RJ practitioners are increasing the skills and knowledge needed to better meet the needs of victims/survivors. Yet the relationship between those working in GBV and RJ (at least those rooted in dominant/Eurocentric culture) in BC is still evolving.
The Government of BC is currently exploring the further use of RJ practices as a response to crime, and BC’s RJ practitioners are actively developing capacity to orient and respond safely to the needs of victims/survivors more broadly. This renewed interest in RJ inevitably raises old and new questions about the use of RJ practices in cases of GBV, including those that involve intimate partner violence and sexual violence; it also underscores the need for greater understanding and collaborative partnerships among those working in the RJ and GBV fields.
A premise of the work described in this summary report is that any efforts toward the consideration of RJ approaches in GBV cases must simultaneously honour and harness both the experience and expertise of BC’s RJ and GBV leaders, while also upholding the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous traditions in communities across BC where restorative and relational approaches are used to address harm.
The #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on the need for more accountability from perpetrators of sexual violence, and for more options for victims/survivors (see for example, Hazelwood 2016), and some feminist scholars have begun to consider the potential alignment of RJ values and feminist principles in responding to the needs of victims/survivors (Goodmark 2018; Randall 2013). Within this social context, the Department of Justice Canada (JUS) contracted Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA BC) and Just Outcomes Canada (JO) to undertake a project on RJ and GBV in BC. JO is an RJ-focused organization with considerable experience, and EVA BC is a provincial umbrella association that supports and coordinates the work of over 300 community-based anti-violence programs and initiatives across BC. Together, JUS, JO, and EVA BC worked as partners throughout the project (herein “project partners”).
The objectives of the project were: to foster dialogue; examine the risks and potential benefits of restorative approaches to address GBV; increase awareness of the dynamics of GBV; and identify research gaps and best practices in the use of RJ practices in cases of GBV. The project involved the development of a discussion paper, a dialogue with key leaders and experts, and a summary report.
This paper describes the methodology and key themes of the dialogue aspect of this project, along with some learnings and observations intended to inform future initiatives of this kind and continued conversations in service of victims/survivors.
It was important to JO and EVA BC to collaborate throughout the project and thus strong partnerships became the foundation on which to design the dialogue. The project partners were motivated by a desire to have open and honest dialogue about the use of RJ practices in cases of GBV, to ask difficult questions and to explore justice options for GBV victims/survivors whose needs have not been met through the mainstream criminal justice system. Through a facilitated dialogue, a group of RJ, GBV, and Indigenous and immigrant leaders from across the province, and two subject matter experts from outside of BC, explored the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV, while acknowledging historical and ongoing barriers and concerns.
The project partners identified participants from both the GBV and RJ communities who were known to be both influential and open to diverse perspectives about the risks and potential benefits of the use of RJ practices in cases of GBV. Geographic diversity was also considered in the selection of some participants. The dialogue aimed to build relationships and connections, and so was limited to 25 participants including RJ, GBV, and Indigenous leaders, and representatives of Indigenous and immigrant-serving organizations, and representatives of the provincial and federal governments.Footnote 19
While the initial plan was to hold a one-day in-person session in May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic required an online format. The implementation team (JO and EVA BC) created an agenda that extended the dialogue to four weekly 2.5-hour sessions in October 2020 via videoconference. The team engaged a facilitator with expertise in navigating online conversations, and continued to develop the design and process collaboratively with the facilitator. These regular planning meetings occurred both before the dialogue began, and on a weekly basis between dialogue sessions. The sessions were designed to be dynamic and interactive, using a variety of methods, including small and large group discussions, sharing in pairs, and a series of 30-minute presentations. An Elder of the Stó:lō Nation generously offered an opening prayer at the start of each session and participated in the dialogue. Four presenters were invited to speak to the risks and benefits of using RJ approaches in cases of GBV. They included an RJ practitioner and trainer from Alberta, a feminist legal scholar from Ontario and representatives of two Indigenous Justice Programs – in Nisga’a and Heiltsuk Nations.
In addition to the focus on building relationships and awareness, the project was guided by the following research questions, which helped to structure the dialogue sessions:
- What are the risks and potential benefits of restorative approaches to addressing GBV?
- What are the research gaps in this area?
- Is there more openness to using RJ approaches at different stages of the criminal justice system (i.e., pre-charge, post-charge, pre-sentencing, post-sentencing, post-revocation)?
- What are some promising practices that could be used to forward the discussion about the use of RJ in gender and power-based crimes?
A discussion paper was distributed to all participants prior to the dialogue, outlining research on the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV and the historical context in BC. Participants were also invited to complete pre- and post-dialogue surveys.
Following the dialogue, JO and EVA BC continued through a series of meetings to discuss the sessions and explore opportunities and concerns with respect to continued conversations on the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV. These meetings helped to build further understanding and strengthen the relationship between JO and EVA BC, and to identify some shared values for the continuation of the conversation in BC, which will be discussed in the conclusion of this report.
The dialogue themes are highlighted below, drawing on subject-matter expert presentations and question-and-answer periods, large and small group discussions, chat and virtual whiteboard comments, and pre- and post-dialogue survey responses.
Community Resources and Supports
It became clear, through the dialogue, that more and better community resources and supports for victims/survivors, as well as community-based supports for offenders are needed before RJ approaches can be successful. Indigenous leaders articulated a need for greater access to healing spaces in communities where violence is prevalent in order to address intergenerational trauma, mental health and substance use issues, and poverty. They also emphasized the importance of RJ practitioners’ wellness, particularly those working with individuals and communities experiencing layers of trauma and/or who have experienced trauma themselves. Participants agreed that the current victim/survivor support system lacks resources to the point that most communities do not have a community-based victim support program or where they do exist, the program is so underfunded that many have only one staff person.
The Need for Justice Options Within and Outside of the Criminal Legal System
Few victims/survivors of GBV choose to report their experiences to police (Conroy et al. 2019; Cotter and Savage 2019). This reality, which has long been recognized by GBV leaders as an access to justice issue, was raised during the dialogue as an important context for conversations about RJ and GBV. While RJ methodologies are often applied in conjunction with criminal processes (e.g., using restorative processes to inform sentencing, or at a post-sentence stage within the system), they can also be employed at a community level, outside of the formal system, and thus represent one approach to community empowerment in responding to violence. GBV leaders have also rightly been at the forefront of working to ensure that incidents of sexual and intimate partner violence are understood and addressed as criminal violations. There was discussion over how justice alternatives — under the RJ umbrella and otherwise — could potentially provide more meaningful justice to victims/survivors who may or may not wish to involve police and courts in the redress of harms resulting from GBV. Addressing some of the concerns about RJ approaches in GBV cases that have been outlined historically would also contribute to more meaningful justice.
Key Barriers and Concerns in the use of RJ in GBV Cases
Feminist scholars and GBV leaders have articulated a number of historical and ongoing concerns with the use of RJ approaches in GBV cases, many of which are outlined in the introduction to this article and in the companion article in this issue of the Digest “Restorative Justice and Gender-Based Violence: A Look at the Literature”(Evans 2021). The RJ practitioner who presented at the dialogue validated many of these concerns, including: victim/survivor safety; a general lack of training for RJ practitioners on the dynamics of GBV; the potential for RJ practitioners and processes to minimize violence and its impacts; the potential for RJ to be used as a court-diversion strategy at the expense of justice; pressure on victims/survivors to participate in RJ processes; RJ approaches as more focused on offenders than on victims; and limited linkages between RJ and GBV programs. Dialogue participants discussed these concerns, emphasizing a need to: screen out cases where violence is ongoing to safeguard victims/survivors; ensure communities have the resources to address trauma and other social issues; assess and enhance RJ program capacity and GBV training for RJ practitioners; and fund cross-sector collaboration.
Screening to Address Victim/Survivor Safety Concerns
Participants highlighted concerns about victim/survivor safety, and pressure from family and community members to participate in RJ processes. They emphasized the importance of screening GBV cases and offenders to ensure that RJ approaches do not increase risk for victims/survivors and to make sure that RJ practices would not be initiated in cases where there was ongoing violence or where there were related victim/survivor safety concerns. There was also consensus that each GBV case must be examined individually given the unique dynamics of sexual and intimate partner violence, and the individuals and communities impacted, before a determination can be made about whether RJ approaches would be appropriate.
Assessment and Enhancement of RJ Program Capacity and GBV Training
Participants noted that it was important to reflect on and assess the capacity of RJ programs to address GBV, and to increase GBV-related expertise in RJ programs before taking on GBV cases. There was strong agreement among RJ and GBV participants that RJ practitioners needed training in the dynamics of GBV, as well as in risk identification and safety planning, to avoid replicating the harms of the mainstream criminal justice system. RJ leaders shared that, similar to the mainstream criminal justice system, RJ practitioners have focused on single incidents of violence, rather than the patterns of behaviour that may be present in many cases of GBV. They also shared that, given the moratorium on RJ practices in GBV cases in BC, many RJ practitioners have often not built their knowledge and skills in the area of GBV, and so there is a need for training in this area if RJ programs are to take on GBV cases. Specialized knowledge and training on GBV for RJ practitioners should be developed collaboratively through partnerships with GBV workers and organizations.
Funding to Support Cross-Sector Collaboration
Participants identified a number of important factors that would influence the effective use of RJ approaches to address GBV; these include the significant funding and resources needed to (1) enhance supports for victims/survivors of GBV, and (2) expand the options available to meet victims/survivors’ diverse needs, including RJ practices. Participants articulated several key factors, including the need for relationship-building, cross-sector coordination, and buy-in to ensure there is adequate funding to serve victims/survivors, whether through community-based GBV services or RJ processes. RJ participants acknowledged the importance of strengthening RJ processes, through meaningful partnerships with GBV sector organizations, to ensure RJ practitioners understand the complexities and dynamics of GBV and can better mitigate the risks and concerns raised.
Potential Opportunities to use RJ in GBV Cases
Despite the concerns and risks, dialogue participants articulated several possible benefits of using RJ practices in GBV cases, including: a flexible approach to meet the diverse needs of victims/survivors; meaningful accountability through a non-punitive approach; avoiding the harms of the mainstream criminal justice system; and supporting healing and transformation for victims/survivors, offenders, families and communities.
The feminist legal scholar who presented at the dialogue spoke theoretically of the opportunity RJ provides as a relational form of justice that focuses on repairing harm, and which meaningfully engages victims/survivors and communities. However, she also cautioned that RJ approaches must not be pursued by governments as a cost-saving measure, instead noting that RJ approaches are time consuming, and require specialized knowledge and skill, careful screening of cases, assessment of capacities, and extensive community engagement and preparation. Still, she emphasized that RJ offers an opportunity to facilitate reconnection following trauma, echoing the views of some Indigenous participants and presenters who shared that RJ approaches could be empowering for GBV victims/survivors, particularly where there are layers of intergenerational trauma.
Contributing to Victim/Survivor Recovery
Some participants discussed how, as a relational approach to justice, RJ practices may contribute to trauma recovery and wellness of victims/survivors. For example, one Indigenous participant spoke about the potential for: renewing victim/survivor voice/control (“taking their power back”); being supported and vindicated by family and community members; and receiving information and answers to questions in order to make informed choices concerning victim/survivor safety and justice needs. The RJ practitioner who presented at the dialogue also spoke about victims’ justice needs and moving toward best practices in using RJ approaches in GBV cases. However, immigrant participants raised concerns in this discussion about the use of RJ approaches in immigrant communities where family and community may not be a source of support, or where community leaders do not have a strong understanding of GBV, and victims/survivors face barriers due to a lack of victim/survivor-centered, culturally appropriate services.
Expanding Justice Options for Victims/Survivors Beyond the Criminal Justice System
Questions emerged about the relationship between RJ and the mainstream criminal justice system, and whether RJ practices should occur within, outside, or alongside the system. Most dialogue participants who completed the evaluation indicated they were open to the use of RJ approaches at any stage of the criminal justice system. For example, one participant noted “it would be an error to be prescriptive” given the unique nature of each case, and that these decisions should be determined based on the needs of victims/survivors; another participant suggested RJ approaches should only occur “when all parties are ready to participate.” Still, some participants voiced concerns about the motivation of offenders to engage in RJ approaches at some stages of the criminal justice system, such as pre-charge to avoid charges, or pre-sentencing to avoid a sentence that may be more suitable for the crime. The feminist legal scholar who presented at the dialogue emphasized that RJ should not replace the mainstream criminal justice system, but rather expand the options available to victims/survivors and engage the community in taking responsibility for the social and structural conditions that contribute to violence and harm.
Engaging Communities in Preventing and Responding to GBV
Indigenous leaders who presented at the dialogue offered examples of RJ programs and relational processes in Indigenous communities across BC that prevent and respond to conflict and harm, including in GBV cases. These programs are rooted in Indigenous values and emphasize the role of the community in promoting safety. RJ and GBV participants said they were inspired by these programs. They reflected on the important role of community in supporting healing for all parties involved, and the need for more programs for those who cause harm and stronger connections between victim-serving, offender-serving, and other community-based programs and agencies.
Research and Knowledge Gaps
Dialogue participants identified a number of gaps in research and knowledge related to the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV. Some of these gaps focused on foundational issues, such as a lack of shared definitions of RJ and a lack of understanding about theories of GBV, and questions about how the field of RJ (in its western context) will integrate a structural analysis of violence and a de-colonial lens. Participants also highlighted gaps in research and knowledge related to the experiences of Indigenous and racialized people with respect to racism in the mainstream criminal justice system, and whether RJ would be able to address those concerns. Participants also articulated a need for more research and dialogue about using RJ approaches to address GBV in diverse cultural communities, including immigrant and refugee communities.
Several participants pointed to gaps in evaluation research on RJ practices in cases of GBV, including pilot projects and program evaluations to measure outcomes, and better understand the short- and long-term impacts on victims/survivors (including their experiences and satisfaction) and on people who have caused harm (including recidivism rates, particularly in comparison to other offender interventions). In his presentation, the RJ practitioner considered what an RJ lens could offer GBV cases, and shared research and best practices from several RJ programs abroad that respond to GBV; however, participants expressed concern that there was limited research evaluating RJ approaches in GBV cases, especially in Canada. Understanding the unique issues and dynamics relevant to victims/survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual violence will be important in considering the use of RJ practices in cases of GBV before moving forward.
Participants highlighted the need for sharing best practices and resources based not only on research, but also rooted in experience. For example, some participants noted a need for best practices in educating criminal justice system personnel about: the use of RJ practices in GBV cases; when not to use RJ practices in GBV cases; screening for cases of GBV where RJ practices are considered an option; maintaining confidentiality and privacy; and providing appropriate supports and resources.
Participants also noted important differences between RJ practices within and outside of Indigenous communities, and pointed to the importance of Indigenous-led research and dialogue on restorative and Indigenous justice approaches in cases of GBV that are rooted in traditional Indigenous teachings and cultural practices.
Key Learnings from the Dialogue
Throughout the dialogue, several participants expressed a sense of hope, enthusiasm, openness, interest, trust, shared values and possibility. A number of participants shared that they were engaged and grateful for the space to have open conversations, to learn from the experiences and expertise of other leaders, to build trusting relationships, and identify common goals. Some participants also indicated that they would have been able to better engage in the dialogue if there was a clear goal or intended outcome, or if they had more background information. Increased relationship-building within RJ, GBV, and Indigenous cohorts who participated in the dialogue, and discussions about their needs and interests prior to the first dialogue session, may have supported the dialogue process and outcome.
Some of the GBV leaders who participated in the dialogue expressed that they gained useful insights into the two Indigenous programs. However, they felt that more conversations and deeper engagement would have increased their comfort and confidence in moving towards using RJ as a way to address GBV.
It is clear that with more time and an in-person format, the dialogue sessions could have explored more of the complexities and nuances of the potential use of RJ approaches in addressing GBV. While relationships and connections were developed through the dialogue sessions, more difficult conversations about the use of RJ practices in GBV cases were not explored as fully as they might have been with trusted colleagues. This learning underscores the need for further dialogue between RJ, GBV, and Indigenous and immigrant leaders in BC on the use of RJ practices in GBV cases, so that any issues can be addressed and resolved in a supportive and relational context.
Possibilities Moving Forward
Many participants were highly engaged in this dialogue. The overwhelming majority of those who completed the post-dialogue survey indicated that they would be interested in participating in ongoing conversations about the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV in BC. Recognizing that this was only a first step in revisiting the conversation about the use of RJ approaches to address GBV in the province, participants were invited to share who else should be involved in future conversations. Suggestions included victims/survivors (particularly those who have been involved in RJ processes), offender-serving organizations, criminal justice system stakeholders (e.g., police officers, Crown prosecutors, defence counsel, judges, correctional officers), child protection workers, health care providers (e.g., mental health, substance use), housing providers, multicultural community leaders, and government bodies responsible for funding justice programs.
Several unanswered questions raised throughout the dialogue could serve as a springboard for future dialogue processes with RJ and GBV leaders in BC:
- How can we build a framework to enhance resources and capacity for programs that support victim/survivors of GBV across the province?
- What shared understandings of RJ, and of the factors contributing to GBV, might help guide further dialogue between RJ and GBV leaders?
- What, if any, concrete evidence is there that using RJ practices in cases of GBV creates more safety in the long term?
- Is there openness to using RJ practices to address the needs of victims/survivors of some forms of GBV — for example, sexual violence or intimate partner violence?
- What types of training, experience and/or education should be expected of RJ practitioners prior to working with GBV victims/survivors, if they were to work in this area?
- Under what circumstances might communication or dialogue processes be appropriate in GBV cases? How should specific GBV cases be screened for involvement in RJ processes?
- To what extent can RJ processes and programs created in small, rural communities or in Indigenous communities be replicated in large urban centres, if at all?
- If RJ approaches are to be used in cases of GBV, how will success be defined and how will outcomes be measured, including victim/survivor satisfaction?
- What models exist for meaningful and effective partnerships between GBV and RJ leaders in serving the diverse needs of victims/survivors of GBV?
- What work needs to be done to create and sustain an environment of equitable leadership among programs/practitioners of diverse identities, cultures and worldviews in future dialogues on these topics?
The project partners brought together GBV, RJ, and Indigenous and immigrant leaders from across BC, and two subject-matter experts from outside the province, to engage in a dialogue, share promising practices, and discuss the risks/concerns and potential benefits of using RJ approaches in cases of GBV. Two Indigenous leaders shared examples of how a relational approach can work to effectively address GBV in Indigenous communities where supports for victims/survivors and offenders are in place. However, many questions were raised — and remain unanswered — about the capacity, knowledge and expertise of non-Indigenous RJ practitioners with respect to GBV. While relationships were built through the dialogue, the online format prevented participants from having more difficult, nuanced conversations to address the concerns that were raised by feminists and GBV experts in the 1990s. For some participants, these concerns remain.
The relationship between the host organizations allowed for the two organizations to continue, and to deepen, the discussion in subsequent conversations. There was strong agreement that if RJ approaches are to be used in GBV cases, these approaches must be vigorously held to their values of being victim/survivor-centered, trauma-informed and informed by the expertise of leaders in the GBV sector. Within these subsequent conversations, it was also suggested that, if RJ approaches are used in cases of GBV, they could perhaps be operated from within victim/survivor support programs. RJ practitioners must work in partnership with the GBV sector, and restorative initiatives addressing GBV would ideally be embedded within GBV programs. However, community-based services and supports for GBV victims/survivors must also be enhanced and adequately funded to explore and expand options to meet their justice needs. Above all, conversations about the use of RJ approaches in cases of GBV in BC must be built on a strong foundation of trust and on strong relationships.
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