Until recently, survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in New York City had limited options for reckoning with an abusive partner. Survivors could find services for themselves, but in mainstream IPV programs it was almost taboo to plan with partners who had been violent. They could use police and the courts to try to halt violence, but surveys show most survivors do not. Or they could attempt to navigate with their partner on their own.
None of these options offered survivors what many wanted: control over a supported process of building safety in their families. That left survivors less safe.
Now, through a slow and cautious process of experimentation, that is beginning to change. A number of IPV programs have developed restorative justice practices that offer a new pathway to safety outside of policing systems. These approaches leverage the power of a family’s own community — rather than the power of the judicial system — to support them in confronting harm and staying accountable as they build safety.
Community-based restorative justice to address harm in families is an “upstream” approach worth investing in more broadly. Many families hurting for reasons beyond IPV could benefit from this kind of community process and pathway to repair.
Obviously, even before child welfare steps in, many parents recognize: “I’ve been drinking too much,” “I’m losing it with my teenager,” or, “I’m depressed and having a hard time taking care of my kids.” Family, friends and even older youth often make efforts to confront parents about the impact of their actions. But without a structured and supported process, it can be difficult to plan for safety and sustain change.
Currently, mandated reporting laws restrict restorative programs from exploring how they might play this role for families. Because neglect is so broadly defined, there is simply no way to run deeply honest restorative circles to address harm without running into a legal gray area about whether a hotline call is required, and families can’t trust opening up if it would invite an investigation.
Yet, as with IPV survivors and the court system, relying on child welfare as the only pathway to safety makes kids less safe. At times when truly upstream investments can’t protect families from being carried down toward treacherous waters, restorative approaches can operate as a second set of life preservers, lifting families out of danger.
One way to work toward building these practices is to learn from the years of effort that have gone into developing restorative and transformative justice practices to address IPV, the trauma of past child sexual abuse in adults and other violence.
Collected in the Creative Interventions Toolkit, the workbook Fumbling Towards Repair and the book Beyond Survival, among others, these strategies have been developed by BIPOC, immigrant and queer community groups that have never been safe calling on policing systems. Instead, they’ve experimented to painstakingly accrue “small victories” through processes that rely on relationship, not threat, to motivate the hard work of accountability and repair. These largely depend on skilled facilitators, the structure of restorative circles and “support people” — which have been described as someone who “loves you, checks you, and may be available to you always, and will help participants face the realities of the situation and the impacts they are having on others.”
Before she learned about restorative circles, Elizabeth Clemants, executive director of Hidden Water, first tried using mediation to support adult child sexual abuse survivors who wanted to work through conflict with their families as part of the healing process.
It did not go well. “It would be so hurtful,” Clemants said. “It felt like it harmed them more.”
Today, Hidden Water runs separate circles for adults harmed in childhood, those who caused harm and others in their lives. Family members have the option to come together after healing apart.
As an individual — even as a trained social worker and mediator who had faced five generations of child sexual abuse in her own family — Clemants couldn’t overcome what she now calls “phase one behaviors” like denial, minimizing, justifying, blame. “I had no power. I was a single outside person against a family system.” By contrast, circles stocked with healed people “stack the deck” against those crushing responses.
The first family that went through separate circles at Hidden Water and then convened together had a clear goal: they wanted to make a survivor-centered plan to gather for a family event. That would mean sharing the work of safety. As Clemants says, “It’s not healing when you’re functioning around the harm; it’s healing when others are there for you when it flares up,”
The family made, essentially, a safety plan. A year later, they came back and planned another time to be together.
For many families, this is the kind of container that’s missing: a setting where they can find formal support to confront active harm and, centering the harmed person’s needs, plan for their own safety.
Importantly, participants in restorative circles do not have to confront the person who harmed them and “restoration” does not need to mean returning to family relationships. If that’s a survivor’s goal, it’s a process to move toward face-to-face accountability.
Inevitably, issues of children’s safety already come up within restorative processes addressing other facets of family life. The “phase one” behaviors of adult survivors of sexual abuse, for instance, may include “anger bombs,” staying in the fetal position for days, harming yourself or others and abusing substances. All of these can put children in danger and lead to child welfare involvement, particularly for stigmatized families. As Micarline Laventure wrote in Rise about how she became child welfare impacted:
“I felt like my past had completely destroyed me and my relationship with everyone. I felt disrespected by everyone, including my children. I often felt so angry at them that they were afraid of me.
As a child I was also violated so many times I can’t even count. As an adult, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t even sleep with my bedroom door open. I just didn’t feel safe, even behind closed doors.”
At Common Justice, which operates a survivor-centered restorative alternative to criminal court, issues of family safety come up frequently. “We do a lot of relationship-building early on, so when these issues arise, they have people there for them,” says Danielle Sered, its executive director. “We keep bringing more people into the circle: neighbors, family, friends, clergy.”
Still, mandated reporter laws engender tricky dynamics in any setting where people with professional training have a role. Often, families must dance around naming reality (“it’s been bad”) while trying to address it. Families also can’t directly seek out these supports by Googling them and walking in.
The IPV community of practice has grown in part because it has moved, step by step, through a process of documentation and growing collaboration.
At first, the concept seemed dangerous to many. As IPV expert Purvi Shah put it in a 2017 report, “I too have advanced received wisdom such as ‘mediation can’t work,’ ‘counseling can’t work,’ ‘batterers don’t change.’ I am personally grateful to have had my own assumptions challenged through the process of speaking with survivors.”
However, through a series of workgroups and in reports authored by Shah, IPV expert Charlene Allen and the Center for Court Innovation, the IPV community explored the need to shift to restorative IPV practices in New York City and highlighted promising approaches developed by communities of color across the country. Then, in a Blueprint for New York City, they laid out a vision for emerging local practices to become more accessible to survivors citywide. Today, Shah and Allen co-coordinate a workgroup that includes 10 organizations using restorative practices to address IPV, which include providing holistic support to violent partners.
To IPV advocates, the work is about expanding the safety options for survivors. Most forms of abuse and violence are underreported, in part because policing systems offer punishment when survivors want safety. Similarly, child welfare is better at compliance than repair, and few families turn to the system for help. Expanding the options for families beyond the system can expand children’s safety.
A similar step-by-step approach can develop to create restorative options to address harm within families that parents, older youth, or extended family and friends might initiate. That can begin with learning more about what’s already being tried but is under the radar and then developing pilot programs that will allow community groups unaffiliated with child welfare to test out accountability processes without reporting families to the hotline.
A second step is for New York City to invest more comprehensively in the restorative approaches that have already been developed. Intimate partner violence and past sexual abuse are, directly and indirectly, significant drivers of child welfare involvement and sources of family pain.
For me, what comes to mind is a writing group I ran in 2015 with five mothers whose children were in foster care. Two mothers began their very first drafts by rooting their child welfare involvement in sexual abuse they’d suffered decades before, as is common at Rise. “Life was not the way I thought it would be,” wrote Rebecca Mohammed.
“The abuse I encountered at a young age left scars so deep. I suffer from them as I write this story,” wrote Latoya Fitzgerald.
Ideally, as rushing water began to close in around them, Rebecca and Latoya could have found support and accountability to address intergenerational scars without intergenerational foster care.