Criminal Damage, Arson –

Restorative Conference

An Garda Síochána 

Criminal Damage and Arson

Restorative Conference

A group of children set fire to a trailer owned by a small business, parked on private property, causing damage to the trailer. The children were all first-time offenders and were referred to the Garda Youth Diversion Programme. The Juvenile Liaison Officer (JLO) for the area met with each of the children and their parents, and suggested a restorative conference to repair the harm.

The JLO asked an experienced garda to facilitate this conference. The facilitator met the harmed persons to understand if they wanted to participate in a conference and, if so, what they wanted from it. They agreed to participate and said that they wanted some remuneration for their loss, which the Garda said could not be guaranteed at the outset.

The Garda asked the JLO about the other people coming to the conference to enable them to prepare the process and arrange the seating. For example, they wanted to determine where to seat the harmed party and the order in which they would ask the children to speak. The JLO reported that the child who was most responsible for the damage was open to talking. This person was therefore seated to the left of the facilitating Garda and would be asked to speak first. In total, 18 people attended the restorative conference, including seven children, one parent of each child, two harmed persons, the JLO and the Garda facilitator. One child and their family did not wish to take part in the conference.

The Garda facilitator welcomed everyone to the conference, noticing a lot of unease in the room. This was understandable given the number of attendees and the shame and embarrassment that are present in conferences with clear wrongdoing. The facilitator explained what would happen and started by asking the child on their left what had happened on the night.

One of the most important things in conferences is to have the story told and for the harmed persons to hear the story of what happened, the events preceding it and what happened after. The first child was quite shy about what happened. The facilitator did not ask all the restorative questions, but the child told much of the story and described who they thought was affected by what they had done. The facilitator moved to the next child and so on around the seven children. Most children clearly acknowledged that the harmed persons were the most affected, apart from one child who did not seem happy to be present. Each child was thanked, before the two harmed persons were invited to tell their story.

These two people were upset and, although one of the couple expressed a lot of emotion about what had happened, they said they were fine to continue without a break. Both told their story of how they and others were affected by the fire. In a powerful moment that sometimes happens in conferences, they acknowledged that the children and their parents were also affected.

Next, the parents of each child were asked, in turn, to tell their story, including what they thought when they realised what had happened and who had been affected. This, again, was very moving. The facilitator started with the parent of the child who spoke first. The last parent to speak was that of the child who seemed least engaged. They stated that they had a problem with their child being involved in the conference, because their child had done nothing wrong. For facilitators, these moments are critical and can make or break a conference. The facilitator asked the person to tell their story, which was powerful, before offering thanks for the story (without challenging that perspective), looking into this parent’s eyes and ‘dragging’ them over to the JLO.

The JLO was invited to speak next, playing a two-fold role: firstly, telling their own story; secondly, explaining what it meant from a policing perspective. The JLO noted that all present had been affected by what happened and, upon being asked to do so by the facilitator, explained the law around ‘being part of an act’ and the legal implications for those who were present, but had not personally set the fire. They explained that the law states that such persons may be ‘secondary to the act,’ playing a supporting role for others. The facilitator then went back to the last parent to see what they thought about this, but it did not change their perspective. This concluded the story-telling phase of the conference.

The facilitator asked each child: ‘what do you think about what has been said?’ Most volunteered an apology for what happened at that point. Those who did not were asked: ‘was there anything they would like to say at this time?’ This opened the door for the remaining children to apologise. The child who initially did not accept responsibility said that they were sorry for what happened, but maintained that they did not light the fire. The facilitator was careful not to let this move the conference from the acknowledgement phase, in which emotions are neutral, back to a negative atmosphere associated with the story-telling phase. Luckily, the parents began to acknowledge what had been said which maintained a neutral emotion. They all apologised for the wrongdoing, except for the one child and their parent. These two people began to appear somewhat isolated within the group, which the facilitator acknowledged for their sake, stating that the issue of ‘joint enterprise’ was not straightforward, and that they understood that these participants saw things differently. The harmed persons thanked everyone for what had been said.

Moving into the repair phase, the facilitator asked the group what needed to happen to repair the harm. The harmed persons spoke about remuneration and this was discussed. Some parents at this time offered to come up with money for the harmed persons. The facilitator invited the JLO to manage this conversation as it was they who knew the families and would have to manage any remuneration. An agreement was reached about a certain amount. The parent who was not admitting to the offence did not take part in this conversation and declined to be a part of this agreement. This was accepted by the group.

The parents then stated that they felt a lot better having had this meeting as they had avoided some people in the area since the incident had taken place. The children seemed to be relieved as well and made promises of assisting the parents by contributing towards the remuneration and making assurances never to do anything like this again. Everyone was asked if they were happy with the agreement and they stated they were. Everyone was then invited to say anything else if they wished. Most people thanked the harmed persons and this was reciprocated. As such, the conference entered the ‘repair phase,’ characterised by positive emotion. The facilitator thanked everyone for attending and closed the meeting. Tea and biscuits were served, during which the harmed persons and the parent who did not accept responsibility had an amicable conversation and shook hands.

Afterwards, the facilitator said:

“It was necessary to explain the process clearly to all who attend because most people are not familiar with restorative interventions. Equally, it was important not to be too hard on the parent who did not accept responsibility for their child. Sometimes such events within a conference can add to it, if allowed. The worst thing to do is to ignore or play down these conversations within a conference, but it was not for me to tackle this gentleman about his perspective on the case. The biggest lesson from this conference was that most people can be trusted in this type of setting. I don’t like to train participants or over prepare them for conferences. I like to trust people to ‘try and do the right thing’ in the space.”