by Julia Steiny
In 2010, Leeds, the 3rd largest city in England, filched Nigel Richardson from his post as Director of Children’s Services in nearby Hull. He’d led the charge to make Hull the world’s first “Restorative City.” Using restorative practices across Hull’s agencies, both public and private, yielded stunning results after only 5 years. For example, costs for the youth justice system came down by 3.5 million pounds (roughly $5.8 million) and school exclusions by 80 percent.
Leeds clearly wanted Richardson, so they must have wanted restorative practices. Interestingly, they didn’t want to become another Restorative City. Hmm, and why not? First, the word “restoration” is often associated with restorative justice, which is to say, wrong-doing. They didn’t want to feel stuck in the mode of fixing wrong-doing. (For this reason, I too call my own work restorative “practices,” however much wrong-doing it involves.) And secondly, Leeds didn’t feel it had much former glory to restore.
But Child-Friendly Cities (CFC) offered an unambiguously positive spin on the tough cultural changes Leeds would need to turn around its ugly social stats. While also joining excellent international company, “Child-Friendly” presents an attractive face to the public, good for rallying support.
Critically, CFC’s goals dovetail nicely with restorative practices, the interpersonal skills that lifted Hull out of the doldrums. Leeds’ genius, then, is to combine two powerful, internationally-growing movements into one astounding initiative. The CFC’s goals are exciting, inspiring. But the gritty, daily work of changing a city’s culture demands handling oceans of interpersonal conflict — from schoolyard beefs to calming entrenched bureaucrats as systems change. So restorative interactions are the powerful fuel driving the engine behind CFC’s lofty goals. Richardson says, “The default behaviour of children’s services in all its dealings with local citizens, partners, and organisations will be restorative – high support with high challenge.”
This time Richardson knows exactly how to accomplish the task.
He hired Sharon Inglis, Director of the non-profit Circles Training and Consultancy, to oversee the spread of restorative training across agencies, schools and families, just as she’d done in Hull.
Speaking recently, she said, “Family is the most important resource in the 21st century. Children are born into families, that make up communities; communities make up cities. Every day (in Leeds) 175,000 people brush up against children. How do they think about their behavior when they do?”
Just as Inglis started her new job, one woman’s 12th child was being taken into state care. Really? No earlier intervention had either helped that woman become a functional mom or prevented her from bearing kids to be raised by the state.
The problem is that state agencies can become thoughtlessly punitive. Frightened of bad press and often just lazy, public systems find punishing “bad” moms far easier than working with them. But public-service punishments only exacerbate the conditions driving large numbers of children into care (and school failure). Punitive solutions mainly serve to cover personal and agency butts.
“We have to change the relationship between government and the family.”
Inglis notes that a terrific frontline worker might work with an extended family to create a smart, solid plan for wrapping supports around a kid, but her supervisor says, “Oh no, that won’t work. I didn’t see the family in action, so I don’t believe it.” The supervisor’s authority trumps. So forget the plan; remove the kids. Here the problem is between the supervisor and worker. They are not behaving restoratively with one another. Only when Restoration is well established within agencies can workers effectively use the practices with their client families as well as teach families to use the skills themselves. Inglis asks, “What does Human Resources look like if it’s restorative?”
She gives the example of an veteran manager who’s highly competent, but harsh to her staff. One social worker was hopelessly behind in her paperwork. Normally the manager would berate her, put a letter in her file, or fire her. But having just been trained, the manager avoided “laying into her, and instead began to ask restorative questions.” However obvious it sounds, questions are a principal tool of restoration. Gather information about what’s going on first. Often people are thrilled just to be consulted.
Still, the manager was sure that asking questions would just lead to a wad of excuses. Instead, the worker admitted she had no idea how to manage certain things and said flat out she felt unequipped to do her job well. And lo! The manager discovered that the worker had never had certain training critical to her work. Always thorough, the manager investigated and found that the lack of that training was widespread. Suddenly the landscape looked quite different. Information flowed. A flaw exposed can be fixed.
Everyone needs to be more highly skilled at interacting.
Leeds Child Services now requires its social workers to conduct at least 22 family group conferences a year, empowering families to make their own healthy decisions, while modeling calm, restorative interactions. Foster-care numbers are declining “radically.”
Schools, police, municipal offices all need to become skilled at getting and using information restoratively. Hull’s story proves that this mindset works. Leeds’ bet is that when the fabric of the whole city is restorative, and their families are healthier, the economy will also improve.
Next week, in the last of this series, we’ll look at the thing both CFC and Restoration hold most dear: children’s voice.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.