Julia Steiny: A Fabulous Question Rescues a Teen’s Life


By Julia Steiny

At the ripe old age of 13, the girl had already spent a couple of years being prostituted by her mother and taking all manner of drugs, thanks to Mom and the johns. Nice, huh? Among very young girls, the sex trade is less about the stereotypical pimp on the corner, and mostly about family members who see easy bucks and don't think there's anything all that wrong about it. That's not what today's story is about; I'm just saying, 'cause most people don't know. Let's call our 13-year-old "Charity."

Minnesota child-protective services removed her from her home. Apparently Mom came from an amazing family, because, as you'll see, they went to great lengths to keep Charity out of foster care. Not surprisingly, given what she'd been through, she was a hot mess. Her rules were those of the mean streets, aggressive. So living with kindly Grandma and Grandpa was not destined to be a great experience for any of them. When the family gathered in a last ditch effort to save her, at the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center, Grandma was still beside herself with rage about how horribly the girl had treated them.

After the grandparents had had it, Charity's heroic uncle had taken her in. But she was a beast there too. One day she swiped the urn containing the ashes of the uncle's partner's parents off the mantle, smashing it and scattering its contents all over the living room. That was it. The partner was done. The uncle could choose between them.

Try a restorative justice circle or become another bad social statistic.

Social services begged the family to talk it over one more time, in a circle process that Kris Miner, Director of SCVRJC, has honed into a near-science. These days, courts, schools, social services and the local colleges routinely send her cases. So Charity, her social worker, extended family and therapist met at SCVRJC.

Accountability circles are inevitably edgey, anxious, tearful. Something bad has happened; people are upset; repair is urgent. Skilled circle keepers (facilitators) reassure the parties that while such conversations are tough, everyone will have their say, and usually people walk away feeling better. Keepers foster empathy so the group feels open to real repair, not vengeance, as they work toward a restoration plan.

In my experience, Miner's circles are unique. She spends the first full hour establishing a set of core values among the participants. "I try to keep this part light-hearted. We ask them to recall a fond memory of someone they're close to, or who believed in them, and then ask what quality of that relationship makes it work. They write it down on a paper plate. The idea is to flood their brains with pleasantness so we can get to the compassion. We're helping people to get through the experience, to ease them into it so it's safe and okay to be there."

The great qualities of those close relationships are predictable: trust, respect, forgiveness. When ready, each person puts their picnic-paper plate on the floor in front of them, creating a circle of values — basically a cooler version of group norms. Then Miner asks, "Can you commit to try your best to honor these values while we're together?" Only then does she dig in to the specifics of what happened, who was affected, and what on earth they can do to make things right.

Per reputation, Charity was horrible.

Restoration only works if a caring community helps offenders see the hurt and wretchedness they've inflicted on others. Some miscreants are already so out of reach, they're beyond caring that other people care about them. Charity's circle was going sour; she wasn't getting it. While radically improving the odds of a good outcome, restoration is no guarantee.

Miner says, "The success of circles is all about asking useful questions, and the questions depend on who's in front of you." That day Miner asked, "What was each person in the group doing when they were 13?" This got Charity's attention. Every adult was once 13. Charity was particularly struck that her therapist's parents were in the Peace Corps at the time, in a place that sounded insane to Charity. Well yeah, it was, said the therapist, but there was no alternative. Charity finally connected with the participants when she could imagine them at her age. They were proof that life went on, things changed, and here they are all those years later. "Empathy really grew," Miner says.

Charity wasn't exactly repentant. But she did arrive at the all-important point when the offender can see herself in the context of concerned people knocking themselves out to hang onto her but not the anti-social behavior. Suddenly foster care looked really unappealing, especially as compared with making a good-faith effort to cooperate with her family. Together the group hashed out a solution which had family members sharing the burden, providing generous respite care for the primary caretaker. One kid saved.

Miner's question brought a girl back. No small feat. Inspired restorative questions are this side of magic.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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