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Victim Offender Meetings:A Restorative Focus for Victims

A sensitive issue for restorative justice programmes is how to approach crime victims about participating in the programmes. In this article, Eric Gilman, restorative justice coordinator for Clark County Juvenile Court, suggests that programmes should respond to victims restoratively, viewing them as people who have needs growing out of the harms they experienced in the crime, rather than simply as possible participants in a VOM process

Victim Offender Meeting (VOM) programs can be most effective in working with crime victims when the work is understood as being about the community responding restoratively to crime. This focus on a restorative response should shape both the intent and the content contacts made with victims of a crime. 

The general practice of victim offender meeting programs (most commonly called victim offender mediation programs) is to make an initial contact with crime victims by letter or telephone for the purpose of exploring their interest in participating in mediation. VOM programs using this approach generally see their work as being primarily about offering mediation as a means to address a crime.  

This way of framing initial conversation with victims is very limiting, and will often not speak to their needs. It also, unintentionally, creates pressure for VOM workers. If the sole focus is mediation then success is invariably defined as bringing people to a mediation session. This is seen in what VOM programs measure, the number of mediation completed. If people do not agree to mediate, the VOM worker can feel a sense of having failed. 

A focus on mediation is understandable given the historic close relationship victim offender mediation programs have with the broader field of mediation. In fact, many VOM programs are operated by community mediation agencies. However, both the restorative justice roots of VOM and the high level of communication skills of VOM workers mean these programs have much more than mediation to offer crime victims and the justice system. To realize the full potential of these programs it will, however, require practitioners to see their work as being primarily about responding restoratively to victims and offenders, with mediation as only one option. 

This broader perspective allows VOM programs to explore additional ways of restoratively addressing victim needs. These are services such programs already have the skills and experience to provide effectively. A multi-faceted offering of services opens the door to finding the most restorative response the community can make to meet the needs of victims, needs defined by the victims themselves. 

An example of a program practicing this broader restorative approach is the Victim Offender Meeting Program of the Clark County Juvenile Court (CCJC). The program still views mediation as a valuable restorative tool, but sees it as only one of several possible responses. While CCJC remains deeply committed to the value of the mediation process and what it can offer to victims, the program recognizes that its contact with victims provides a rich opportunity to provide a meaningful restorative service to victims even when mediation is not the end result. 

The VOM model used by the Clark County program assigns cases to staff facilitators at the point of initial contact. These facilitators are highly trained and experienced mediators and are responsible for all preliminary work with both the victims and offenders in any case assigned to them. The Clark County program places great value on the initial contacts with victims. These contacts may be by phone or letter and offer the opportunity to engage in ways that are deeply meaningful to victims. 

Given this desire to provide a restorative response to victims, the primary focus of the initial contact with a crime victim is to convey the community’s commitment to respond to the crime in ways that hold the offender accountable for harms done and that are meaningful to the victim.  

Through a thoughtfully worded letter and/or phone contact, this initial connection with the victim seeks to:

  • acknowledge the harm done to the victim and express the community’s concern about the harm, and express the community’s commitment to hold the offender accountable in ways that are meaningful to the victim (acknowledgement)

  • provide the victim with general information about the justice system and specific information about what is happening in their case (information)

  • offer victims the opportunity to talk about the impacts of the crime on them (a voice)

  • provide choices for participation in the justice process (a choice to participate).

At this point of initial contact it is not known whether mediation will be a meaningful service to offer a victim. Determining whether to raise mediation as an option is based on the information and responses given by victims in the course of a broader conversation about the offense and its impacts. As acknowledgement and information is provided to the victim in the context of what the victim is sharing, it is almost always clear whether or not the option of mediation would be helpful to introduce into the conversation. VOM staff trained and experienced in active listening skills, and who approach this conversation with a victim-sensitive mindset, are ideal individuals for this contact work. 

An additional element of Clark County Juvenile Court being able to effectively practice this restorative approach to VOM is its protocol to refer all identifiable victims of juvenile crime for this type of contact.  This practice differs from the standard practice of VOM programs in that victims, not offenders, are referred to the program. Victims’ needs and interests guide the flow of the process. Ultimately, if a victim has interest in contact with the offender, probation counselors who work with the offenders help determine whether a face-to-face meeting is likely to be useful in a given case.  

While the needs of offenders in this restorative approach to VOM is not being addressed here, it is important to note that the Clark County program remains deeply committed to the restorative value of VOM for offenders. How offender aspect of the program’s work is carried out is the focus of another discussion. 

If a VOM case in Clark County moves to a face-to-face meeting between a victim and offender, both people receive active support to prepare for the encounter. Conversations are held with both about the potential value for each person participating. The goal for each is that there be a restorative outcome that addresses their needs and the needs of the community. 

As noted earlier, if victim offender mediation is not offered, or accepted, as an option, the VOM contact with the victim is not considered a failure or waste of effort. All of the restorative goals discussed above will have been addressed. Since the ultimate goal is to serve the victim of the crime well, success is measured by the provision of restorative service that is meaningful to the victim. 

When victim offender mediation programs move to viewing their work as being primarily about working restoratively, they become much richer and more useful resources for the community, for victims and for offenders. 

Examples of opening comments made in an initial VOM contact that is focused on working restoratively with a crime victim: 

Hello, Mr. Smith. My name is________. I’m with the Victim Offender Meeting Program of the Clark County Juvenile Court. I am contacting you about the harms caused to you and your property when your car was broken into two weeks ago. 

The community would like the youth responsible for this offense to be accountable in ways that address the harms done to you, and in ways that are meaningful to you. I am hoping it would be possible to talk with you about how you and your family have been impacted by this offense. Is this a good time to talk?  

In addition to hearing how you have been impacted, I would like to provide you with information about the juvenile court process and let you know about resources that are available to you as a victim of crime in our community.

November 2004

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