Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Beyond Headline News: The Promise and Healing of Restorative Justice.

By Alissa Ackerman, PhD

On September 28, 2018, HBO’s Vice News Tonight aired a special on consent and accountability. The episode ended with a restorative justice (RJ) session that I facilitated. For the first time, a mainstream media outlet highlighted the power and depth of RJ in cases of sexual misconduct.

I have written elsewhere about the importance of RJ. During the heightened conversations around accountability in response to the Brock Turner case, Dr Jill Levenson and I co-authored several blogs on what a different conversation might look like, even appearing as guest bloggers for the Sexual Abuse blog. We have written about the importance of a change in discourse, where we no longer see those who have perpetrated sexual abuse and those who have experienced it as diametrically opposed and we have discussed the importance of actual accountability, a process that the criminal justice process seriously thwarts. Yet, in the years of engaging this work, I have not experienced the promise of a moment of reckoning such as this one.

The conversation around RJ and sexual misconduct is not new, but it has not been mainstream either. The Vice News episode on consent and accountability created an opportunity to shift popular discourse. Prior to this episode, few had even heard of the term restorative justice. One television anchor repeatedly referred to the process as reformative justice. Despite the lack of collective knowledge or understanding of what RJ promises, the responses I have received since the HBO episode aired almost two weeks ago have been both heart wrenching and full of hope.

I have heard from those who have experienced sexual abuse who want nothing more than to find closure and hope for the opportunity to sit face to face with the person who harmed them. I have heard from people – both those in my life and complete strangers – that the Vice News episode expanded their thinking about the ways they have behaved in the past. I have also heard from those who are now remembering experiences that were harmful.

For too long we have allowed our conversations around sexual abuse and misconduct to remain siloed. This includes many of us in the fields of sexual abuse treatment and prevention. There are professionals who advocate for those who have been sexually victimized and those who work with individuals who have sexually violated others. Even when we recognize that many of our clients fit both boxes, we tend to talk about “survivors” and “perpetrators” as mutually exclusive groups.

The fact of the matter is that all of us focus on the same end goals – healing and prevention.

The Vice News special featured two RJ participants, Alexis and James. I have been working closely with Alexis and James since January. Their progress, both as individuals and collectively, has been nothing short of amazing.  Both articulate how the process has helped them rediscover each other’s humanity. Alexis has seen a marked decrease in the PTSD symptoms she had lived with for the previous ten years. More healing has occurred in the last nine months than in the previous ten years, simply because the two were willing to connect in a vulnerable and authentic way.

Criminal justice processes can include RJ. In fact, most of the RJ work in which I have engaged has been with men and woman mandated to treatment after a sex offence conviction. The most life-changing and life-affirming moments have arisen from these RJ processes, but they leave me wondering what impact RJ could have at the beginning of the criminal justice process. How much harm, pain, and shame could be avoided if we engaged? How many people would take accountability for their actions, or at the very least consider the harm their behaviour may have caused if there were spaces for them to do so?

When I first began speaking about RJ and sex crimes, the very idea offended many people. Today, those same people have inquired about how they can be involved. The HBO Vice News episode finally shined a light on a process that can help heal individuals, communities, and perhaps our entire society. One cannot disentangle the timing of this episode and our current political climate. Indeed, Lara Bazelon published a piece in Slate about how we are in dire need of RJ in the wake of this most recent Supreme Court confirmation. We remain fully entrenched in an adversarial model that has proven repeatedly that it does not work.  Perhaps when we move away from such a model, healing can finally begin.


We are professionals in the field of prevention and treatment and we must be the first to step out of our silos.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Even Folks in Our Field Get the Blues: When Implementation of Best Practices Goes Wrong, Part 1


By David S. Prescott, LICSW

A participant in a training recently described frustration in adopting Motivational Interviewing in their practice.  This confirmed a concern I’d seen expressed in social media. As the discussion progressed, another participant expressed similar experiences. Although small in number, their concerns were important: There can be side effects when adjusting to the use of positive, collaborative, strengths-based approaches such as Motivational Interviewing (MI) and the Good Lives Model (GLM). How can this be? What can we do?

First, it’s important to examine the context. In many instances, the complaint centres on probation officers and other supervising agents who come away from trainings believing that they now need to behave like therapists. Others have complained that they have to pay attention to how they respond and use reflective listening rather than focus on efforts at rehabilitation. Still, others feel cornered into working in a fashion that is at odds with their personal style. One person lamented that clients are challenging their treatment before they even get started. The result, in the estimation of these professionals, is that clients can appear more hostile, often with a sense of entitlement. Where public safety and client care are on the line, these are important concerns.

What do we know? First, the jury has returned on many of the characteristics of effective treatment for people who have abused. Marshall (2005) summarized findings showing that the most effective therapists are those who are warm, empathic, rewarding, and directive. In practice, any one or two of those qualities can be easy, but balancing all four can be a challenge. Three years later, Parhar and her colleagues demonstrated in a meta-analysis that the more coercive the treatment experience for mandated clients, the less effective they are. There’s really no question that the often harsh and confrontational practices of yesteryear don’t work and can make matters worse. It is no wonder that Moyers and Miller (2013) argued that low levels of demonstrated empathy are toxic. Since that time, the use of MI (and its derivatives) with criminal justice populations has only become more widespread. Earlier this year, Blasko and Taxman (2018) found that clients who perceived their probation officer as fair and respectful had lower rates of violating their conditions and returned to prison less frequently.

Does that really mean that effective practices create more problematic clients? I don’t believe so, although it’s an important question. Here’s what I mean:

First, clients feeling free to challenge their treatment and treatment providers at the outset may actually be preferable in the long run to clients who give the surface impression that they are actively engaged but in fact participating minimally. As the old adage goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Although every case is different, there may even be real merit in challenging one’s circumstances prior to making peace with them and getting involved in meaningful change processes. This idea is central to self-determination theory, which holds that extrinsic motivation often precedes intrinsic motivation. In the long run, pushing back against extrinsic motivators as a pathway to awakening internal motivation can have real value in treatment.

Further, there are contextual challenges with our training approaches. All too often, trainees are “voluntold” to attend trainings and adopt the new practices (that strange experience of being volunteered by a supervisor to participate against one’s will). Not surprisingly, there is a strong parallel process between the practitioner who is ambivalent about adopting new treatment methods and the client who is ambivalent about change. As much as agencies focus on what they believe are best practices, it is easy to forget the importance of the change process for the professional. Further, the fact that some agencies prefer some evidence-based approaches over others speaks to the fact that we are often not as evidence-informed as we would like to think.

Then, there are other problems with implementing new approaches. Often overlooked, an entire body of research has examined how treatment implementation efforts succeed and fail. Bringing in the expert from out of the area to do training is easy; implementing with fidelity and minimal attrition and client drop-out is another matter entirely. Often, this can occur when professionals only learn the basics and are expected to jump into practice. For example, many MI trainees wonder how they will carry out parts of their job (sometimes known as “telling the hard truth”) without having learned the explicit methods for doing so (for example, the elicit-provide-elicit method of providing information and feedback).

Finally, all of these efforts rest on the foundation of a strong working alliance. The alliance is often mistaken for having a good relationship with a client, but in fact has been defined for decades as having an agreement on the goals and tasks of treatment, as well as agreement on the nature of the working relationship. More recent conceptualizations consider the strong personal values and beliefs of the client. In my experience, many programs who seek enthusiastically to develop expertise in a specific model or set of techniques can also be those that rate themselves as doing well enough with their alliances that this needn’t be an ongoing area of focus for them. This is despite the fact that simply ensuring a solid alliance is itself a highly evidence-informed practice.  

In the end, when clients become challenging despite the available collaborative approaches, it may be as simple as returning to basic discussions about what the client wants out of the experience in order to establish goals. After that, the practitioner can work on gaining clarity on the exact nature of who the practitioner and client are so that they can agree on the nature of the relationship. Next, the practitioner may want to ensure that his or her approach is a good fit for the client, and consider a person’s unique characteristics, culture, values, and beliefs.


All too often, the problems lie not in the methods or models, but in the ways, we attempt to implement them. This can be especially problematic when we attempt to use newer methods without first ensuring a solid working alliance.