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Just care: Restorative justice approaches to working with children in public care.

May 11, 2010

by Martin Wright

More and more schools are turning to restorative methods,` often helped by Belinda Hopkins’s previous book Just schools.  Now she has applied the same principles to meeting the needs of the troubled and troublesome children who are looked after in state institutions.  The ethos is similar, and the approach is spelt out clearly for those who do not have previous knowledge of it, with numerous diagrams and a good index.  The examples are chosen to reflect the needs of the staff in children’s homes;  others such as youth workers and foster parents could also find this book helpful. 

Restorative approaches are essentially about making and maintaining relationships, based on respect rather than power;  restorative justice is applying those principles to the response to wrongdoing.  In England and Wales, for lack of a better system, there has been a tendency in children’s homes to call the police for relatively minor incidents, and Hopkins spells out the damaging effects of criminalizing young people in this way.  (She might have added that there has been concern about excessive use of physical restraint.)  She traces the origins of restorative justice, and its adoption by schools.  Conflicts are dealt with by asking those affected to tell their own story, and work out how to make things right. 

Five restorative themes are identified:  respect for individual perspectives, mutual understanding,  focus on how to repair harm for all concerned, appreciating individual needs, and accountability.  These are achieved by team and community building, interpersonal conflict management, mediation and restorative conferencing.  They are approached with a restorative mindset, and Hopkins spells out the risks of conventional punitive behaviour management systems based on sanctions and the use of force. 

In place of asking Whose fault was it? is the fact-finding What happened? and then How did each person experience it?  Instead of punishing the culprit, he or she is held accountable;  then everyone is involved in putting it right, and the power to do this is shared, not imposed.

Six chapters follow, taking us step by step through these applications of the principles, labelled by the number of dots on dice (though I wondered whether the stages had been expanded to make sure that there were six of them). 

Firstly there is the restorative enquiry, comparable to Marshall Rosenberg’s (1999) ‘Observing without evaluating’.  Hopkins does not favour a ‘script’ of questions, but suggests various useful phrases (and words to avoid, such as the unhelpful ‘Why did you do it?’).

Secondly, restorative dialogue, ‘sorting things out together’:  it is restorative to say ‘I need ,,,’ followed by a noun, and a request – not ‘I need you to …’.  From her experience Hopkins recommends training the staff, who in turn can train the pupils;  this is more likely to convert the whole school to restorative practices. 

Thirdly, the same five questions can be asked in small restorative meetings, for which a restorative framework and numerous practical details are suggested.  There is an apparent contradiction here:  Hopkins says that the facilitator should not suggest what people’s needs are (p. 120), but in Figure 5.8 does seem to show a facilitator translating demands into needs.  Larger and more formal meetings are called ‘conferencing’, which can be carried out by a member of staff already experienced in restorative practices, or from another agency.  Plenty of practical tips are given, from agreeing the wording of the notice on the door to providing refreshments at the end to that everyone can ‘practise what it is like being back on speaking terms … over a cup of tea and biscuits’ (p. 133).  

Much of the above implies that someone has done something wrong, but the approach can be used in other ways:  daily circles for staff and residents, problem-solving circles, circles for repairing harm or for celebration (of an event or an individual’s achievement).  Practical examples are given of this kind of activity.

The last two chapters are practical in a different way:  they are about working in partnership with other agencies, and implementation and sustainability.  Examples are given in an English context, but could be adapted to other systems.  Hopkins warns against criminal justice agencies attempting restorative practices with insufficient training (p. 164 n.23), and policymakers who misunderstand restorative practices by ignoring the process and focusing on ‘reparative’ tasks such as working in public in conspicuous clothing, which pretends to be restorative but is really punitive (p. 167). 

To make the restorative approach sustainable, you need a few people with vision and enthusiasm who will be the ‘sparks’ who start the ‘fire’ (a somewhat two-edged metaphor!)  An example is Hertfordshire, the first English county to train all residential care staff where researchers have found a long list of benefits including a 39 per cent reduction in police call-outs.  An action plan for implementation is outlined, so that the seeds can grow into a garden (a better analogy!)  The book ends with several appendices with practical checklists, action plans, and record-keeping forms.

Many people still assume that discipline is about controlling behaviour with power.  Those who campaign for children’s rights and the reduction of the use of physical restraint and police intervention, need to show staff what they can do instead.  This book claims to be the first to apply restorative methods to the residential care of young people, and shows, in a practical way, how an approach based on respect can handle conflict and secure co-operation.


Rosenberg, M (1999)  Nonviolent communication: a language of compassion.  Del Mar CA:  PuddleDancer Press. 

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Nigel Archer
Nigel Archer says:
Oct 19, 2010 08:56 AM

Nowhere in your website or in any literature about RJ is there mention of the fact that it cannot be used with persons with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I have had to spend hours explaining to an RJ practitioner why their attempts at RJ with a child with ASD has only caused more problems for him. This needs to be made explicit in all RJ literature.

lparker says:
Oct 19, 2010 09:10 AM

Nigel, <br />Thank you for your note. I'm not aware of research in this area. Would you mind elaborating on why RJ and Autistic Spectrum Disorders are incompatible? The information could be beneficial for practitioners. <br /> <br />Regards, <br />Lynette

Nigel says:
Oct 20, 2010 08:29 AM

People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders score very low on tests of empathy quotients. Due to problems with 'Theory of Mind' and weak 'Central Coherence' they are unable to feel empathy or see anything from another's perspective. Both of which are key elements of RJ as in order to understand the impact on the other party / parties you must do both in order to see how your behaviour has affected them. They also become extremely anxious and stressed when in unfamiliar surroundings or settings and with people they do not know. Their lack of social skills and communication problems also make understanding conversations difficult. They also need extra time to process information and in most cases if able they prefer written communication as this does not require the skills of understanding the back and forth of questioning or conversation which is extremely difficult for them. In short an RJ session is their worst nightmare and will inevitably lead to their complete withdrawal and failure to participate and may have a negative impact on any future work with them to help them modify their behaviours.

Lynette says:
Oct 20, 2010 11:15 AM

Nigel, <br /> <br />Thank you for your great explanation of the issues involved in working with someone with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. I understand the issues about not being able to the inability to feel empathy. However, would a modified process that involved an exchange of written communication be useful. A restorative process can be done in different ways.I'm just wondering if there would be any benefit in exploring ways that a process could be adapted to benefit someone with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. <br />Regards, <br />Lynette

Nigel says:
Oct 20, 2010 11:47 AM

As it is many years since my RJ training and use of it, I can't provide an answer on potential modifications off the top of my head. I would of course be willing to discuss this and suggest that you contact me via my e-mail address rather than continuing this conversation on a blog. You will note from my e-mail address that I work for an autism charity, my role being Criminal Justice Sector Development Coordinator a role which calls on my knowledge of autism and my previous experience as a police officer.

rick kelly
rick kelly says:
Oct 27, 2010 11:17 AM

Coincidentally that came up in a workshop I was doing on Monday on RP. My answer had a few components (after I thought deeply) <br />For these individuals they could be responded to in a restorative fashion by: <br />*use of social stories and 'pics&quot; that illlustrate the causal links and impacts of behaviour <br />*simple pics that have symbols for &quot;broken&quot; &quot;fix&quot; <br />*responding in non punitive ways to behavioural incidents <br />*modelling for parents and other care providers <br />*by building community around individuals who are haremd by further isolation. <br />For me part of the challenge is to think broadly about the principles and then applying them.

Eschum says:
Aug 21, 2014 01:22 AM

My son is on the spectrum. He is capable of feeling empathy and when he has been the offender he needs to hear how his actions have made another person feel. This is real time education. Not all individuals on the spectrum are alike and as impaired as others. This is a wonderful tool for the many social blunders and incidents these children commit and are also victims of. There needs to be a facilitator who is familiar with spectrum issues, but I definitely think there should be more of this happening in schools.

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