Child Sexual Abuse and Restorative Justice
by Aliza Khan
Restorative justice allows those affected by all forms of crime to explain to the offenders the impact their criminality has had on them. It gives victims a voice. The damage caused by the sexual abuse of children is incalculable. The practice of restorative justice emerged in various countries as a way of dealing constructively with those legally or morally responsible for the abuse. It can aid victims of abuse in their recovery, but also the rehabilitation process for offenders.
The Ministry of Justice defines restorative justice as “the process that brings those harmed by crime, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.”
According to the Ministry, there are numerous processes of restorative justice, including:
- Victim-Offender Conferencing – this involves bringing the victim(s), offender(s) and supporters (such as a partner or family members) together in a meeting.
- A Community Conference – this includes bringing together the members of a community which has been affected by a particular crime and the offenders.
- “Shuttle RJ” – this consists of a trained restorative justice facilitator passing messages back and forth between the victim and offender. The participants do not meet.
- Neighbourhood Justice Panels – this involves trained volunteers from a local community facilitating meetings between victims and offenders for low-level crime and antisocial behaviour.
- “Street RJ” – is usually facilitated by police officers between offenders, victims and other stakeholders in attendance at the time of the incident.
Today four main types of child abuse are generally recognised including (1) Physical Abuse (2) Emotional Abuse (3) Sexual Abuse (4) Neglect. According to the NSPCC sexual abuse is defined as (but not limited to) the following:
- Sexual abuse occurs when a child is forced or tricked into sexual activities. This can include using a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child, making a child undress or touch someone else, exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a minor, making, viewing or distributing child abuse images or videos.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 3.1 million people aged 18-74 were sexually abused in childhood. The use of restorative justice with victims of child sexual abuse is much debated. People point to the dangers of re-victimising the victim, others point to the benefits of empowering the victim (Penal Reform International, 2016). Taking this into consideration: How beneficial is restorative justice in addressing child sexual abuse?
One noticeable benefit is that it provides a valuable context and rich insight into the circumstances of both victims and offenders. The restorative process shines a beacon on the issues and vulnerabilities the offender is facing (Catch 22, 2020). Child sexual abuse isn’t limited to geography, social class, religion, culture or ethnicity. There are several deeply rooted, complex and interrelated societal factors that can contribute to sexual abuse. Research demonstrates that social problems such as domestic violence, substance misuse and poverty can play a factor in the facilitation of abuse (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2004). Knowledge like this helps victims to understand what led that person to crime. In a randomised trial Victims First, highlight that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate. For many victims, meeting the person who has harmed them can be a huge step in healing and recovering from the crime. They demonstrate:
- 72% of victims said their conference had provided them with a sense of closure.
- 78% of victims would recommend to others.
In reverse, the offender begins to see the impact of their actions on the lives of their victim. Child sexual abuse has numerous potential consequences that can last a lifetime and span generations, with serious effects on health, education, employment, and the economic well-being of the individual (Media Kit on Sexual Assault, 2020).
Statistics published by Darkness to Light indicate:
- Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to report a suicide attempt.
- Female adult survivors of child sexual abuse are nearly three times more likely to report substance use problems.
- Male sexual abuse survivors have twice the HIV infection rate of non-abused males.
The Restorative Justice Council note that restorative justice has been shown to help reduce re-offending by 14%.
This article has examined the potential of restorative justice programmes to facilitate conflict resolution for victims of child sexual abuse and the rehabilitation of offenders. Meeting face to face can be a powerful and rewarding experience for both. There is clear evidence that restorative justice can provide tangible benefits and is a powerful tool in developing cohesive and democratic societies. However, it’s important to note that restorative justice can have its limitations too (Penal Reform International, 2016). Notably, some concerns include:
- The victim can be re-victimised by the process.
- Psychological harm may be brought to the victim especially if the offender shows no empathy towards them.
- It relies on voluntary cooperation from the victim and the offender. Criminals may not want to participate or take responsibility for their crime.
- The safety of victims, particularly in a situation of power imbalance.
Taking this into consideration restorative justice can be highly beneficial as long as victims’ needs are placed at the forefront and securing redress remains the central objective.
Catch 22, (2020), Why restorative justice matters for victims, offenders and communities, https://www.catch-22.org.uk/news/why-restorative-justice-matters-for-victims-offenders-and-communities/
Child Welfare Information Gateway, (2004), Risk and Protective Factors for Child Abuse and Neglect, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/riskprotectivefactors.pdf
Media Kit on Sexual Assault, (2020), CONSEQUENCES OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, https://www.inspq.qc.ca/en/sexual-assault/understanding-sexual-assault/consequences
Penal Reform International, (2016), What can restorative justice offer victims of domestic violence?,https://www.penalreform.org/blog/can-restorative-justice-offer-victims-domestic-violence/