Restorative justice can change approach to abuse

Bermuda’s justice system is due for change in its approach to cases of sexual abuse, according to children’s welfare campaigner Sheelagh Cooper.

In a bid to transform the way Bermuda treats its most dangerous criminal offenders, Ms Cooper has joined forces with the Women’s Resource Centre to bring restorative justice experts to the Island.

“This is an initiative is dedicated to keeping women and children safe,” Ms Cooper told The Royal Gazette. “We’re not in any way interested in something that won’t increase safety in every way. Having looked at what’s out there, we believe this is the best way to a safer community.”

Restorative justice is based on “dealing directly with offenders, and trying to provide meaningful resolution for all parties — both victims and offenders”, Ms Cooper explained.

Two Canadian specialists will offer seminars as part of ten days of lectures and activities hoped to bring about a paradigm shift in how the Island sees crime.

Canada’s Susan Love deals with “high risk sexual offenders”, she said, while David Gustafson specialises in face-to-face meetings between crime victims and perpetrators.

Restorative justice is a field in which interest has grown significantly in Bermuda over the past decade, she added.

“We’re recognising that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, and that if we keep on trying to do the same thing, we’re going to get the same results,” Ms Cooper said.

At the same time, the Coalition for the Protection of Children worker acknowledged, stories of sexual abuse elicit fury from the public — especially where children are concerned.

“It’s that very response that we’ve been watching in the community. We want to work outside the box to channel that energy. What we don't want to see is a knee-jerk reaction that further marginalises people. That’s why having this week to educate people to recognise that the only real way to have safer communities is to provide meaningful resolution.”

Both guest speakers hail from Canadian programmes, where Ms Cooper has worked in the same field.

“I was involved in victim-offender mediation there 35 years ago, when the concept was in its infancy, and I saw the effect it can have on the juvenile population. It’s a particularly useful approach for juveniles. I’ve seen cases where the victim, after hearing the story of the young person who’s broken into their home, feels the full extent of the background that leads the young person to commit the crime.”

She added: “Very often, a strong bond is created. I’ve seen victims reaching out to help offenders move on. Of course, the effect on the offender is to change the perception they had, because they had to objectify their victim to justify robbing them.”

A 30-year veteran of victim offender reconciliation in British Columbia, Mr Gustafson is coming to the Island to offer a two-day course in mediation training on December 4 and 5, through the Coalition. Participants in the course should have experience in the field of criminal justice or conflict resolution.

Ms Love, meanwhile, is director of the Ottawa-based programme Circles of Support and Accountability, or CoSA. She will offer a free seminar on December 2, at Charities House in Paget.

“This is in response to a series of situations in which we felt the judiciary hadn’t taken the problem of sexual abuse for children and women in this country really seriously,” said Ms Cooper. “We researched viable programmes elsewhere and discovered the most viable in North America was CoSA.”

The programme targets high profile sex offenders, considered dangerous and likely to reoffend. Ms Cooper said CoSa has enjoyed a 100 percent success rate over the past six years with roughly 30 offenders.

“Canada’s normal rate of recidivism is about 85 percent for sexual offenders, and these aren’t the ordinary offenders; all were classed as dangerous.”

Following incarceration, offenders are linked with a circle of trained volunteers who work with them over a minimum period of one year, in a dual programme of support and accountability.

Said Ms Cooper: “The relationships begins prior to release, so that the circle can assist in providing housing and job opportunities post-release. But accountability is every bit as important. It refers to the fact that in each case, the individual is aware of his triggers are.”

Conceding that many communities outside Bermuda are “more open to restorative practices”, Ms Cooper said: “Our hope is raising the general consciousness in the community — and convince people that it’s worthwhile to do the training involved.”

Restorative Justice Week commences on Monday with two short films offered at the Bermuda Youth Counselling Services boardroom on Victoria Street, followed by a discussion with members of the police service, the Ministry of Education, and the Coalition for the Protection of Children.

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Published Nov 17, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 20, 2012 at 12:34 am)

Restorative justice can change approach to abuse

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