Social work and restorative justice

Social Work and Restorative Justice:  Skills for Dialogue, Peacemaking and Reconciliation, edited by Elizabeth Beck, Nancy P. Kropf and Pamela Blume-Leonard (Oxford University Press, 2011), is an important collection of essays on this subject. It will be of interest to both social work and restorative justice practitioners.  The following is the Afterword that Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz and I were invited to contribute:

The field that has come to be known as restorative justice was born in experiment and practice rather than theory; the term “restorative justice” and the conceptual framework came later. Although it did not directly emerge from the field of social work, restorative justice was born in a context and era much influenced by social work. It is appropriate, then, that the fields of restorative justice and social work are again converging, as the authors in this volume so convincingly argue.

We acknowledge deep historical roots for the field of restorative justice; many indigenous traditions were essentially restorative, though with different terminology.  However, the first practical programs grew out of juvenile probation in the 1970s, in an era when probation was more social work than surveillance. In fact, it was common for probation officers of this era to have social work backgrounds. Steve Miller was the chief juvenile probation officer under whom the first U.S. “victim offender reconciliation program” or VORP was developed (in Elkhart, Indiana, in the mid 1970s). Although he had graduated with a B.A. in sociology, he had taken a variety of social work courses that he says were foundational to his work. Mark Yantzi, the Canadian probation officer who, with Dave Worth, in 1974 conducted what is considered the first VORP case, similarly had a sociology degree with a focus on human services. Yantzi later did a Masters of Applied Science in Human Relations and Counseling, his thesis focusing on “the role of the third party in the victim-offender conflict.”

Following the misguided discrediting of the “liberal” strategies of the 1960’s that focused on rehabilitation and jobs, the 1970’s and 80s reflected a more conservative emphasis that called for “just deserts” and more punitive sentencing.  Although this emphasis was most pronounced in adult justice, juvenile justice was affected as well.  This was not an environment that fit well with social work and as the authors here describe, social work began to move away from courts and corrections. Meanwhile, in this punitive environment, restorative justice developed as an ongoing attempt to provide justice theory and practices that were more human and service-centered for both victim and offender. As it has matured, its links with social work – actual as well as potential – have grown increasingly important. We echo the chorus of voices in this book calling for stronger bonds.

One of the most evident intersections of restorative justice and social work is in the foundational issue of values. Moreover, their ultimate goal is similar: to help build and maintain healthy individuals, relationships and communities. Restorative justice offers a framework and a set of practices to repair, to the extent possible, relationships that have been damaged, focusing especially on human needs and obligations. These practices and concepts have greatly benefited by the skills and framework offered by social work. This is exemplified in our own collaboration over the past three decades.

Both of us – Lorraine and Howard – have been with the field of restorative justice since its early years. Howard was director of the first VORP in the U.S., in Elkhart, Indiana, and is considered one of the developers of the conceptual framework. He has played a significant role in the spread of the field internationally. His work has largely been in the criminal justice arena.  Lorraine has often credited her degree in social work as the beginning of her work in the area of crime and justice. During her junior year in college, she did a year-long practicum in a pre-trial diversion agency which piqued her interest in the area of juvenile justice. She then began her career in the Elkhart VORP as well and has since concentrated especially on practice and training of practitioners. Following a number of years of practice, she received her Masters in Social Work and was heartened to see the excitement growing in the field in the area of criminal justice. She has found it especially significant that the Encyclopedia of Social Work discusses the importance of not only social workers within the field of criminal justice and also that there is a growing trend toward restorative justice in social work.

As the two of us have worked together throughout most of these years, often collaborating on projects, trainings and cases, we have certainly experienced the benefits of the knowledge both fields have to offer.  Our latest collaboration, for example, has resulted in a book entitled What Will Happen to Me? [scheduled for release in January] highlighting photographic portraits and quotes from some of the hidden victims of crime – children who have parents in prison.  Intended in part for caregivers of these children such as grandparents, teachers – and social workers – the project is informed by some key restorative justice values or goals:  to help us address the needs of “stakeholders” in justice, to reduce the “othering” of people who are marginalized by society, to create dialogue around these issues.  The project was inspired by Lorraine’s MSW thesis that focused on the issues these children face.  The first phase of this project was an exhibit that features photographic portraits by Howard as well as interviews with children of incarcerated parents as a way to give a voice to those children who are not heard through  the justice process.

Restorative justice arose as an effort to address some of the deficiencies in the criminal justice system: its neglect of victims, its failure to hold those who offend accountable in a meaningful way, its disempowerment of the community, its tendency to heighten rather than reduce social conflict.  This application of restorative justice within criminal justice continues to expand throughout the world.  However, because the values, principles and practices of these two approaches are often at such odds, the relationship continues to be an uneasy one.

In spite of its deficiencies, the criminal justice system has some crucial functions: at its best it provides a way to sort out at least a semblance of “truth” when people are in denial, to uphold due process and the rule of law, to draw boundaries on unacceptable behavior. Unfortunately, though, it does so in a way that is largely negative. Its basic message is: if you harm others, we will harm you in return. This tends to reinforce the tit-for-tat concept of justice that drives much wrongdoing. Moreover, the conceptual framework is largely negative. Thus it is necessary to bring other values from “outside” into play in order to mitigate this negativity. Probation or correctional officers’ jobs are primarily to contain bad behavior so in order to create humane conditions, we have to impose other values and guidelines that humanize their roles. A vision of how we as human beings want to live together is not inherent in these roles, in short, so we provide behavioral guidelines and consequences to insure that the roles are done humanely.

Unlike the criminal justice framework, we argue that restorative justice and social work contain within them a vision of how we want to live together in our communities. The values and practices that are required to maintain healthy individuals and relationships are inherent in the conceptual and value frameworks themselves. The two fields also share an inherent vision to address the critical issues within both areas: systemic issues of oppression that have often been pushed to the back burner in the interests of meeting human need in the here and now. Arguably, therefore, there is a much stronger natural affinity between restorative justice and social work than between criminal justice and restorative justice. This is just one more reason that we are so appreciative of the editors and authors of this book.

As this book makes clear, restorative justice’s applications go far beyond the justice system. Schools, for example, are an area of considerable growth; whole school approaches seek not only to respond to wrongdoing restoratively but also to build climates of safety and care within the classroom and community.  University conduct and workplace harms are other areas of growth.  Child welfare is an arena in which restorative justice is making significant inroads and where social workers play essential roles; the relationship between case coordinators for family group conferences/decision-making and case social workers is essential. While there may be current tensions between what is seen as restorative justice processes (family group conferences) and social services (child welfare cases) because of limited available funding for social services, our hope is that the clear benefit to families and communities of these overlapping models will lead to more interaction between these fields.

Social work and restorative justice have much to gain from each other.  Indeed, we need each other!  This book makes a significant contribution to an essential dialogue and collaboration.