Assault Causing Harm –
Restorative Conference

An Garda Síochána 

Assault Causing Harm

Restorative Conference

This case concerns a child who was referred through the Garda Youth Diversion Programme for an offence of Assault Causing Harm. Another child’s jaw was broken in a fight at a disco in an Irish city. The perpetrator and several other young males were arrested at the scene. It emerged that two groups of children fought outside the disco. The harmed person had his jaw broken during the fight and the perpetrator was arrested for striking him in the face.

A Juvenile Liaison Officer (JLO), trained in restorative justice facilitation, met with the offending child and his family. By that time, the child was in the care of his grandparents, as both his parents were deceased. He and his grandparents had a strong bond and were very close. They were all slightly apprehensive about meeting with the JLO, and enquired as to what was happening with the other young people involved in the assault. This is a common reaction when JLOs call to the homes of children who offend. There also appeared to be an issue of trust between the family and the Gardaí. It was now a matter of building a relationship with the family before the JLO could consider mentioning the possibility of a restorative conference.

The JLO spoke with the family about the assault, and the child admitted to being present when the assault took place. He also admitted to striking the other child, but stated that others also struck him. After some time, the facilitator left the family and advised them to seek legal advice. They stated that they knew someone who might advise them. When the JLO met the family again, they stated that the child admitted the offence and wanted to be considered for diversion. The child spoke about the night of the offence: what happened, where they went, how they met the other group. He said that the fight was stupid and should not have happened. The JLO told the child that a report would be done on their suitability for diversion, that this took many things into consideration, and that there may be an opportunity to meet the injured child if they would like to consider this. The family asked several questions about such a meeting and the JLO told them that the possibility could be revisited once a decision on the child’s diversion was made.

The child was ultimately granted a formal caution on the Garda Youth Diversion Programme. The JLO met the family again and discussed the idea of a restorative conference. The JLO informed the family that that a conference would only happen after the JLO had met the other family, and only then if all parties wanted it and were considered suitable for the process. The JLO assured the family that they would not be put in an unsafe situation. The family agreed that the facilitator could contact the other family to see if they were interested in meeting. The JLO noted that they always ask perpetrators first about the possibility of a restorative conference so that the victim does not feel disappointed if they agree to a meeting, but the perpetrator declines.

The JLO arranged to meet with the harmed person and his family, who were much wealthier than the perpetrator’s family. They were very quiet about what had happened and there was a solemn mood. It transpired that the mother was diagnosed with a serious illness that week and that they were still dealing with this. The JLO spoke about the assault and diversion programme and what could happen in a restorative conference should they wish to participate. The JLO said that they would return later to discuss this further. Several weeks later, the JLO returned to speak about a potential conference. The harmed boy said that he was willing to attend, as were his parents once they knew it was safe. The JLO reassured the family that the meeting would not take place if it were not safe for everyone. They agreed to meet the other family in a restorative conference.

The harmed person’s family asked that the meeting take place away from where they lived. The facilitator found a room that suited all parties. Everyone was informed that the meeting would involve the perpetrating and harmed children, as well as the grandparents of the former and the parents of the latter, and another Garda who would attend in plain clothes.

Consideration was given as to who entered the room first and who sat where: those who entered first would not sit opposite the door so they did not feel that they were being stared at when the other party entered. The conference began with the facilitator welcoming everyone and thanking them for attending. After setting the focus of the meeting, the facilitator asked the perpetrator the restorative questions. He engaged well with the process. He admitted that he assaulted the harmed person by punching him in the face. He stated that he did not know if he had caused the injury but stated that it could easily have been him.

The harmed person was then asked the restorative questions. He spoke about what happened on the night and how he ended up in the fight. He showed courage by saying that he was partially to blame for the fight. The parents of the harmed person were then also asked the restorative questions together. They told their story of what happened. When asked how they felt, they said they were worried about their son. They also disclosed the recent diagnosis and stated that this was a worry for them and their son. This added to the emotion in the room.

The perpetrator’s grandparents were then asked the restorative questions. They told the story of collecting their grandson from the police station and their concern that he could be arrested again. They said that they were very worried about him. When asked about who was affected, they mentioned the harmed person and his parents. Crucially, the grandmother mentioned that they felt very sorry for them and for the diagnosis, disclosing that the same illness had affected their own family. This again brought up a lot of emotion in the room, and the harmed person and his parents were very moved.

After the story-telling phase of the conference, the facilitator asked the perpetrator if he believed that harm had been done. He replied that he did. He was asked if he would like to say anything at this time. He said that he was sorry for what he had done and extended his hand to the harmed person, who accepted this and shook his hand. This prompted the grandparents and the parents to stand up and shake hands. This was a powerful ‘acknowledgment phase’ of the conference, in which the emotion in the room changed from negative to neutral. When everyone retook their seats, the group were asked if anything needed to be done to repair the harm. A conversation started where both families talked freely about their children. The grandparents explained that their grandson was hoping to get an apprenticeship after school. The families wished each other well, with the grandparents wishing the harmed person’s mother well with her treatment. There appeared to be no further repair required. The facilitator explained that the perpetrator would be supervised for a period of twelve months as part of his formal caution. Everybody was asked if they wanted to say anything else but, other than wishing each other well, they said that they did not. The conference was finished and, again, people shook hands.

Afterwards, the facilitator stated:

“Some families will not have a trusting relationship with the police. This sometimes needs to be worked on by JLOs so they can trust the diversion process and consider a restorative process. Perpetrators do not always accept full responsibility in the first instance. It may take more than a single conversation to discuss legal, technical and harm-related issues. In this case, the shared illness between the families created a bond, empathy and common ground. Sometimes, even in serious cases, such a meeting – hearing each other’s stories, acknowledging what had happened and apologising – can be enough to repair the harm for all concerned. There was no mention of money or compensation, but everyone still seemed to get what they needed. The questions are designed to begin with the negative emotions and then to allow the parties, if they wish, to move to neutral and positive emotions by the time they leave the room.”