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Listening to crime victims: North Carolina restorative justice conference

Jul 25, 2011

by Lisa Rea

When crime victims speak about the effect violent crime has had on their lives you have to listen. On June 9th I moderated a crime victims roundtable during the 3rd Annual Restorative Justice Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina coordinated this year by Campbell University Law School. The roundtable called "Listening to Crime Victims: Their Journeys Toward Healing" was sponsored by the Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing. The four victims of violence who told their stories were Bill Pelke, chair, Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing (Alaska), Stephen Watt, Stephen Watt Ministries (Wyoming) , Bess Klassen-Landis, musician and teacher (Vermont), and Kim Book, executive director, Victims Voices Heard (Delaware). No matter how many crime victims panels I have moderated the stories are always riveting and often what I hear the victims say is new even when I am familiar with the stories. I learn something new as the victims move along in their lives---their own personal journeys.

When I prepare for these panels I ask what I think a listening audience would want to know. I also think of questions that the victim would want to answer.  Each victim had a very short set time to tell their stories given the time constraints. I would follow up with questions. As I considered each victim/survivor I thought of how different each story was from the other. Bill Pelke's grandmother, Ruth, was brutally murdered by a group of ninth grade girls in 1985. Stephen Watt, a Wyoming state trooper at the time, was shot multiple times by a fleeing bank robber in 1982 leaving Watt in his police vehicle bleeding to death. Bess Klassen-Landis 's mother, Helen, was brutally raped and murdered by a man in 1969  in the family's Indiana home Bess was 13 years old.  Kim Book's only daughter, Nicole, was murdered in 1995 at 17 years of age in her father's home in Delaware by a boy known by her daughter.  Again, there is no way to hear such horrible stories and not be affected.

Crime Victim Roundtable

From left to right: Bill Pelke, Kim Book, Lisa Rea, Bess Klassen-Landis, Stephen Watt

What I wanted to know was how had each of these victims come to place where they supported restorative justice? Had they experienced restorative justice in a way that allowed for some kind of healing in their lives? How? Two of the four victims had met with the offender(s) or had some kind of direct contact (i.e. through letter contact). Bill had contact with the "ring leader," Paula, on many occasions.  Stephen had been in contact with his offender, Mark, both by letter and in person. Bess and Kim's stories were different. Neither had contact with the offenders. The offender who killed Bess's mother was never apprehended. In Kim's case, the offender did not take responsibility for his actions---a critical requirement in restorative justice.

Listening to each tell his/her story led me to realize that each victim had experienced some kind of healing because of restorative justice. Each had moved on with their lives in ways that can only be described as "healthy". Forgiveness was raised during the roundtable.  Each spoke of their opposition to the death penalty, particularly Bill and Bess who have spoken around the country, and around the world, declaring their strong opposition to the death penalty. Bill founded the nonprofit Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing to organize the increasing number of murder victims family members speaking out against capital punishment. Bess talked about finding her voice after joining the Journey on a speaking tour. Healing came for her through telling her story and finding others who were finding their way forward after horrific violence by promoting peace and nonviolence. 

Kim had founded a nonprofit also: Victims Voices Heard, which promotes restorative justice and seeks to assist victims by urging victim offender dialogue. Even though a restorative justice meeting with her own offender had not happened and perhaps never will Kim sees the value and is a strong advocate for such one-on-one victim-offender meetings.

Stephen had met his offender, Mark, by making contact directly himself. That contact happened through Stephen writing the offender. Steve tells how hatred was eating him alive before he forgave the man who almost killed him. But since he contacted the offender and then later met him in person he now supports him and has become his strongest advocate seeking a parole date to release him from prison. In fact, right before the North Carolina conference Stephen was in Wyoming at a parole hearing for Mark, one of many, pleading that the state release him after serving 29 years in prison.  Stephen tells of the terrible effect Mark's incarceration has had on him due to flashbacks of the terrible violence when he was shot in 1982. Post-traumatic stress disorder is real; Stephen experiences it often but especially every time Mark comes up for parole. According to Stephen, what would help him heal, more than he has to date, is to see Mark out of prison.

What these stories told me during the roundtable is that direct victim offender dialogue is incredibly powerful. It does provide for healing in the victim. It also provides hope for the offender if and when the offender is released. In Bill Pelke's case, he is waiting for the day when Paula will be released. That date is about two years away. He is already making plans to set up a committee to, as he says, "restore Paula".  He wants her to have a chance at starting her life over.  Bill is concerned that Paula will have a hard time in the "outside".  Through restorative justice, Paula has taken responsibility for that horrible crime that brutally took Bill's grandmother from this earth. But Bill has forgiven Paula, as he states. That forgiveness has led Bill to the place he is today.

For Kim and Bess, their healing is less complete. The offender in Bess's case was never found. Could he still be found?  As I work in the field of wrongful convictions and watch the increasing number of exonerees be freed from prison, and sometimes death row, I wonder could the case of Bess's mother, Helen Bohn Klassen, ever be solved?  Maybe one day Bess, too, will have contact with the offender. Maybe.  I am aware that Bess would meet the offender but nevertheless Bess has found some healing as she has found her "voice" to speak for justice---restorative justice and ways of bringing peace into the world.

Kim also has not met with the offender, a man she has explained does not express remorse; he does not take responsibility for the killing of her daughter.  Again, a restorative justice dialogue, or a victim offender meeting, cannot occur until the guilty party takes responsibly for his actions.  Some in the justice field forget this fact, I believe. Restorative justice is real justice that truly puts the victim in the center of the system in ways that allow some kind of restoration to occur. Does healing and restoration occur in the offender also?  Yes, I believe it does. It happens through offender accountability which allows change or transformation in the offender.  In Kim's case, the offender may never take responsibility for his actions. But that has not changed Kim's mind about the great value of restorative justice. Kim wants other victims to have the choice to meet their offenders, something that often is not available or even at times such meetings are strongly discouraged.

I've been asked since attending this national conference what I enjoyed about it the most?  What was most significant? Which speakers were the best?  My answer is that the victim's voices who spoke at the conference were the voices I heard the loudest. It is with their voices raised that the justice system in the U.S. and around the world will change. Victims like these four survivors are urging the adoption of restorative justice policies.  The restorative justice movement needs to make room to hear their victims. We need to do a better job of presenting their views to lawmakers and to the media. We need more conferences in the U.S. and around the world that shine a light on their stories. Their voices will change the system ultimately for the better. We will move closer to a justice system based on restorative justice when we listen to crime victims like these four individuals.

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Melanie G. Snyder
Melanie G. Snyder says:
Jul 25, 2011 10:49 AM

Lisa - this is an EXCELLENT write-up about the power of victims' voices and a great reminder of the importance of providing forums for their voices to be heard. It was so great to meet you at the RJ conference (though briefly!) I don't know what the protocol might be for this, but I'm wondering if you'd be willing to do a guest blog post for my blog on this same topic? Let's talk...

Roger Trott
Roger Trott says:
Jul 25, 2011 05:29 PM

Thank you for the powerful summary of your experience working with these four victims. As you so elegantly put it, we need to shine a light on their stories to move the justice system to a more restorative place for all.

Russ Turner
Russ Turner says:
Jul 26, 2011 01:23 PM

I echo the thoughts above. I met with the young man serving 17 Years to Life for the death of my oldest son Jeremy. Our journey, like many others was driven by a willingness to of both to meet face to face, to be transparent, to answer hard questions and to forgive. <br /> <br />The result was a video document that has been seen by hundreds of thousands of young people, looking a Choise, Impact, and Consequences. And a path to healing for the victims family. <br /> <br />Russ Turner <br />Duideadin5seconds.com

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Jul 26, 2011 05:30 PM

I was pleased to see Russ Turner's post here. Again, victims of violent crime are seeking ways to have a dialogue with their offenders. It is not always possible, paraticularly if the offender is unwilling or cannot be found, but the option to meet and have that victim-offender dialogue should not be denied by any &quot;state&quot;. <br /> <br />Russ's story was also told through Trinity Broadcasting System (TBS) and a program called Lifestyle Magazine. You can find it online. Russ and I appeared on that show. Russ tells his story in great detail. <br /> <br />What we see from just these few stories is that restorative justice has great value for not only the victim of crime but the offender also. Public safety therefore is enhanced through the use of restorative justice processes. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins
Jennifer Bishop Jenkins says:
Jul 26, 2011 11:35 PM

Congrats to all involved in this very meaningful conversation and opportunity, and thanks to Lisa for telling us all about it. <br /> <br />As always, I love the opportunity to push deeper into the words we use in this most delicate field of endeavor. I would like to raise a question about the use of the word &quot;healing&quot;. In my many years of work with victims of crime and in restorative justice, I have found some of us resist this word because it implies a sort of &quot;disease&quot; model. <br /> <br />We should consider instead words that do not imply that somehow there is something wrong with the victim that needs to be fixed. I am not ill in any way because my sister and her family were murdered. I am grief-stricken, traumatized, and forever changed. But I am not sick in need of getting well. <br /> <br />&quot;Healing&quot; as the term for our journey and process may put too much of a burden on victims to somehow see themselves as the problem that needs to be fixed. The problem lay in the crime, in the offense. Not in ourselves. That is the definition more than anything in being a victim. That acts were done to us beyond our control that harmed us. <br /> <br />These acts also forever put us in a forced relationship with the offender, whether we like it or not. One of the many good things about RJ is the way it empowers the victim to take back more control. <br /> <br />But lets consider as a movement what other words we might use for the process than &quot;healing&quot;. <br /> <br />Even the term &quot;Restorative&quot; Justice are a problem for us murder victims family members. We can never have restored to us what was taken. We prefer often the term &quot;Transformative&quot; Justice for that reason. <br /> <br />We know that words are powerful, and that RJ relies heavily on words. We know that good things are meant when people say they hope victims can &quot;heal&quot;. But when I hear it, I get very concerned. <br /> <br />I am not sick, I don't need to heal. My sister was murdered. That is not going to change. I am living in the new normal now in which she is gone and I can make choices every day about how best to live - for her, for me, for the community, for violence prevention, for other victims, and to work to make good things come from tragedy.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Jul 29, 2011 03:53 PM

Jennifer, I appreciate your comments. For those reading this blog you might remember that I have written a blog article or two on Jennifer Bishop Jenkin's case (&quot;When Victims Disagree&quot;. We have known each other for a number of years. There are times when crime victims disagree with each other and advocates for restorative justice hold differing views. <br /> <br />There are no perfect words we can use to properly describe the work we do. For Jennifer, the word &quot;healing&quot; is offensive but for other victims, including the four victims who spoke at the North Carolina roundtable, the word &quot;healing&quot; would apply. Let us hope that these types of conversations down sidetrack our work as we push for a system that is more restorative. <br /> <br />I founded The Justice &amp; Reconciliation Project (JRP) which sought to reach out and organize victims around restorative justice and to provide a forum for victims to tell their stories. At that time, I was counseled by some crime victims that I might want to use another word instead of &quot;reconciliation&quot;. It seems that we can easily offend regardless of the vision we offer up. <br /> <br />Our intention in this work, I think I can say, is to work towards a justice system that seeks to change the behavior of offenders (and yes, transform lives) while acknowledging the needs of crime victims. We seek, ideally, to be involved in processes that improve the lives of victims and offenders while driving down crime rates. <br /> <br />Let us get to work and continue to labor to improve the justice system through the work we do in advocating for restorative justice. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />California <br /> <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;

Kim Book
Kim Book says:
Jul 27, 2011 02:47 PM

As Lisa stated in her summary of the Round Table at the RJ conference in North Carolina, victims voices can be powerful advocates for the RJ movement in our country. And although I have not met with the young man who murdered by daughter, and I cannot speak to a face to face meeting, I can tell you from facilitating these dialogues...there is nothing more powerful than an victim facing their offender and hearing that offender take responsibility for their crime and expressing remorse. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;I have been facilitating dialogues in cases of severe violence for 9 years in the state of Delaware. Victims' Voices Heard Severe Violence Dialogue Program was met with tremendous opposition from correctional staff and Wardens when the program was first introduced. I faced an any mob, so to speak, however, once the institution began to see the powerful way victims and offenders lives were changed because of the meting, and that there was no danger; fears were calmed. Today, myself and the dialogue program are welcome in every institution in the state. I am even introducing a new program, Victim Impact classes for offenders that will teach offenders victim empathy, and those programs are being openly received as well. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;The tide in our country is changing and restorative justice is the answer to prison overcrowding as well ending repeated violence. <br />But victims must keep speaking up and out in formums that will give us the opportunity to tell others, not only the loss we have suffered, but how restorative justce practices can help us heal.

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Aug 03, 2011 01:51 AM

Lisa, <br /> <br />Thank you for your work on the 3rd Annual Restorative Justice Conference panel &quot;Listening to Crime Victims: Their Journeys Toward Healing&quot; that was sponsored by the Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing. <br /> <br />Jennifer Bishop Jenkins states how she questions and resists the word healing. She said it is because it implies a sort of “disease” model and that somehow there is something wrong with the victim that needs to be fixed. <br /> <br />The Journey of Hope is an organization led by murder victim family members that have experienced the healing power of forgiveness. That does not mean we are sick, but that we were injured and suffered a great deal of pain and found healing through forgiveness. Many murder victim family members feel they will never heal from the pain of their lost loved one. We share our stories to let people know how we healed and that it is possible for others to heal. Healing is what murder victim family members need. <br /> <br />The Journey of Hope encourages forgiveness as a way of healing and restorative justice as a way of life. When I learned the lesson of forgiveness it brought a tremendous healing to me after my grandmother was brutally murdered. I was not sick when the healing took place, but I had been injured. I may have been sick with the desire for revenge, and lack of compassion for the people who committed the crime, but that is another story. <br /> <br />The healing power of God’s forgiveness is a wonderful gift. <br />

lisa Rea
lisa Rea says:
Aug 03, 2011 05:00 PM

Bill, thank you so much for your words. For many who read them I am sure they are like balm to the soul. <br /> <br />Over at least 20 years some of the most difficult work I have ever done has been with victims of violent crime. I think that is because the injury, as you say, runs so very deep. Restorative justice processes offer some kind of relief for victims of violent crime---some way to assist victims to move on with their lives. It might not always move a victim towards forgiveness, but it can. You and so many other victims are an example of this. Many of those crime victims are affiliated with the important work of the Journey of Hope. <br /> <br />I think restorative justice can allow for some kind of relief, and yes---healing, even if forgiveness has not been embraced. That is why I work with the Journey of Hope and head a committee on restorative justice within the organization. <br /> <br />Thank you for your witness, Bill, as always. <br /> <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br /> <br /> <br />

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