Restorative Justice Circles, congruent with evidence-based trauma support treatments.

The training title:

Understanding and Treating Traumatized Youth: An Integrated, Evidence-Based Approach

 The training was provided by Cross Country Education (

We learned that trauma treatment has 3 phases (originated by Judith Herman).  The first phase is Safety & Stabilization.  One technique was to use the senses to calm and ground, touch, for example was giving the young person something to hold, squishy, cold, prickly.

I immediately thought of the safety established in Circle, and how some students gravitate to the squishy, playful talking pieces.  Safety is when the enviroment is free from threats.  Circles ground us with an opening, and predictability.  We know how this works, it is structured with a talking piece, and the guidelines/values for how we will relate.  Everyone makes a committment to those values.  We know people will be trying to do their best.

I realized that the squishy ball, the playful talking pieces work as well as any.  Sometimes we have fun, stretching and shaking the green fringe ball other times, you forget the person is even holding a toy.  You forget because you are so drawn into the sharing.  Youth consistently out share, what adults would have expected.  If that adult is unfamiliar with Circle.  Even in all the Circles I have been part of, sometimes I am amazed at the disclosure.

This ties into the 2nd evidence based strategy congruent with Restorative Justice, storytelling.  We learned how storytelling helps move the trauma in your brain.  From non-language reptilian center, to the cortex area that includes language. 

I have an ego and I was enjoying the training because it was reinforcing.  The day before I was telling a speaker about his amygdala, being the shape of almonds!  He said mine might be almonds, but his are peas!  We shared a laugh, but he understood my explanation of sharing his story. 

In 2009 trainer Frida Rundell, Ph.D. gave us almonds, and explained our amygdala and I STILL have those very almonds!  I was at the IIRP conference and the session was sharing how restorative justice changes the brain!  I thought about “change of behavior, by a change of brain“!  I’ve stuck with change of heart!

Did you know trauma can make our DNA express itself differently?  It is called epigenetic changes.  Scientists stressed a pregnant rat enough that her pups were born with gray fur (instead of white).  I think about the trauma of domestic violence.  I am motivated to try to bring the healing components of restorative justice to survivors.

I am also a bit skeptical about all this pressure and emphasis on “evidence-based”.  Common sense should prevail.  We don’t have “evidence” of a higher power – however we know that can have a huge impact on people.  Can we create studies that help us?  I think yes.  Can we generalize that what evidence worked in New York City will work in Africa, just because it is “evidence-based”?  It frustrates me.

We put all this stock in the evidence.  The DSM (diagnostic Statistical Manual) is THE book, that gives you the criteria for mental health.  The book has a V -code for Bereavement – apparently if it lasts more than 2 months, you have a problem.  Really?  I mean really?  It seems to me we all know, it takes more than 2 months.  I get that people develop symptoms that become issues.  My point is that we all KNOW it takes more than 2 months.  If we rely exclusively on evidence based, we dismiss our common sense, our hard-earned professional wisdom and we aren’t helping each other as humans.  I prefer the model blogged on here.

Restorative Justice Circles affirming worth and remove defenses.

In a discussion about civility, someone used the phase “pre-judge”.  Reflecting upon the shortcoming of making assumptions about other people.  I started thinking about the difference between judging and pre-judging.  I don’t think there is much of a difference, being judged is no fun.

On the flip side, we all have defenses built up to those judgements.  When people think that I can’t do something, I get frustrated.  I have a defense.  I want and need to be percieved as competent and capable.  Yes, I know, I should get to therapy for my perfectionism.

I also had a defense about being a single parent.  If I thought I was being judged, it tapped my defenses.  When we operate from a place of being defensive, we aren’t usually being very kind.

In the You Tube video below, Stephen Covey talks about the power of the talking stick.  Who am I to disagree with International guru Stephen Covey, but I am going to.  I got defensive about the talking piece and need to speak my peace on that.

In the video he mentions a pencil would do.  It could.  However, I believe that the talking piece should be an item of value.  You can place value on something by sharing it’s meaning.  You can pick up a rock and say, this is a talking piece, here are the rules.  Or you can relate a story about where you got the rock, why it has meaning to you.  Making meaning and giving items significance is a common human experience.  It generates connection to know you are holding someone elses touchstone.  Check out the category “talking pieces” on the blog.

Covey talks about how the talking piece provides work, potential and affirmation when we listen.  He explains how it breaks down defenses.  That is exactly what I have experienced.  The person who shared a shortcoming of “pre-judging” might have meant, until he listens he doesn’t really know the other person.  As I have blogged before you teach empathy, by teaching listening.

The covey video:


Co-mingling of formal and informal support.

Formal support is a therapist, dr, professional, anyone paid to provide a service to you.

Informal support is the friend that brings a hotdish, gives you a ride to the airport, takes a late night tearful call from you.

Support helps if you have an incident.  By incident I mean anything that overwhelms your coping skills.  What you gain from having good formal support and strong informal support can reduce PTSD, help you with your healing.     I believe in both informal and formal support.  I’ve spent some years doing both; being a friend to friend, a therapist to families, being a family member to my family and being a social worker to teens.

As a restorative justice practitioner and non-profit director I get the best of both worlds.  I co-mingle formal and informal support.

It takes a mighty brave professional.  It takes a confident community member.  It takes balancing your head and your heart.  It transforms people to help them from a place of caring and compassion than a place of payment and role.  I know some darn good professionals, and believe me social workers and teachers are not in it for the money.  I don’t want to imply that, I am focused on how it feels to the recipient.  When someone is paid to bring me a beverage, I appreciate it.  When the guy I’m dating brings me a cup of coffee, I feel loved.

Some really great professionals are great, because of who they are as a person.  You can just tell when a person cares.  Think about the “have a nice day” at the checkout from the person saying what they are supposed to say.  Then the “have a nice day”, with a smile, eye contact and a sincere tone.

I know a teacher who gives up her prep time, to help the school with Circles.  She cares, and people who care will go outside the bounds of what they are being paid, with time, money, energy and committment.  I love those types.  I also have to be careful because I assume everyone is like that and they are not.  I ask because I am a co-mingler.

I rely on a Circle question when I have volunteer community members in Circle.  To get acquainted I ask “where would you be, what would you be doing, if you weren’t here?”.  This reminds those who are attending at the recommendation of the court, that others are in Circle because they WANT to be, not because the HAVE to be.  To hear the lady sitting next to you could be out riding her horse and is instead volunteering at Restorative Justice . . . how do you think that transforms a clients feelings about attending, those also in attendance?

Another great thing about co-mingling is that community members get to see professionals in action.  The police officer that talks to young people about traffic safety or a response to a call generated by the action of a young person educates us all.  The school staff that speak to young people as a mentor and not just as the disciplinarian, show all of us, genuine care and concern can be done with professional boundaries AND informal support co-mingled.

Community members want to see professionals be relatable, it increases their faith and belief in them.  To see a professional, be vulnerable and open up (not alot, just a little) reminds us they are human.  No one is simply the uniform, the job, the title.

Besides when you co-mingle interesting things happen, for example one volunteer is brining another smelt.  Only at a Restorative Justice Center!

A Restorative Justice practioner considers how crime impacts sex.

This may very well be the craziest blog title yet and I’m not doing it for the google rankings either.  I better get right to the point and start explaining that title.

St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program reaches out to survivors of traffic fatalities, suicide, homicide and deaths caused by underage drinking and drug over-dose.  We invite survivors to share their stories.  This can be done in the context of Restorative Response Circles, speaking at other sessions or participating as a community member in Circles.  I work with all of our volunteers.

I believe that “harm” is in the eye of the beholder.  Who we are at the time of impact, impacts how we will deal after.  I want to help people heal.  Be it victim, offender, community member.  I want to understand trauma, loss, healing, victimization, survivorship, re-entry challenges, recovery and any other personal experience that might relate to how we, as people can be more compassionate, more just and more in respectful relationships.

So I read.

I am reading Touching the Edge: A Mother’s Spiritual Pathy from Loss to Life by Margaret Wurtele.  Margaret’s son Phil was killed on a climbing rescue mission on Mt. Rainer.  The book takes you through her experience of this tragic grief.  I am reading it to be better prepared to relate to people I work with (and I love stories of resilience).  I am learning a great deal in Margaret’s story.

One aspect of her story, really made me aware.  She knew her relationship with her husband needed to survive.  She knew their intimacy was expressed, as most couples, with sex.  She very tastefully, shares the pain of being in grief and having sex.  It is in the book if you to know more.

I don’t talk to SCVRJP volunteer about their sex lives.  However, realizing and knowing that NOTHING is the same after the loss of a family member, and considering that even your sex life can be impacted by crime makes sense.  Restorative Justice is all about relationships.  Who we are, is impacted by crime.  Our relationship to ourselves changes as crime occurs.  One of our most intimate expression of ourselves is in sex (I think).  As a person who cares deeply in helping others, spending time understanding the experience of others helps me with my empathy.  So I was considering how crime impacts sex.

I hope to never know the pain of losing a child.  I hope to help many grieving parents.  I now know, crime impacts sex.

Restorative Justice is an overarching philosophy.  It is not a checklist curriculum.  Restorative Justice calls on me to be the best I can be for who I am with at any moment in time.  I have learned to let go of feeling I am having too much compassion for an offender.  I give the offender all the compassion I have at that moment.  I know when I am with the victim, I will have compassion for the victim, all the compassion I can have at that moment.  Learning to have empathy helps me have compassion.

It’s very different than being neutral – that would mean I take neither side.  Restorative Justice takes 3 sides: victim, offender, community member.  By reading and learning about the loss of life, I can deepen my well of understanding and that helps all those sides.

 Up next Ten Degrees of Reckoning by Hester Rumberg.  The true story of Judy, who survives an accident where her husband and two children were killed.

A ride on a mountain bike resembled Restorative Justice.

In March I had the good fortune of having an overnight retreat session with Kay Pranis.  Kay wrote the book on Restorative Justice Circles.  If you haven’t read Peacemaking Circles, I highly recommend it.

I have known Kay for years, she and I thought maybe as far back as 1997, when I still worked in Rochester, Minnesota.  Kay helped SCVRJP develop our mission statement, she provided Circle training to staff that I supervised.  I attended a training in 2002 when her book was just published.  At conferences and trainings we have connected.  In March, we stayed at a State Park cabin, a cozy place free of distractions.  I felt so safe, so honored and so satisfied with deep conversations about Circle, the history of Circles in the US.  I related cases, Kay provided insights, offerings and support.  We drifted off to sleep after sharing how valuable the process is to each of us.  She thinks she might become sick if she doesn’t do it.

I was back at the state park a few days ago.  Instead of snowshoes, I was on my mountain bike.  As I was riding along the path that Kay and I walked just two months ago, it occurred to me that I never blogged on my lessons with her.  She gave me full permission, I thought of several amazing posts to write.  Thinking them is never the problem, typing them is the challenge.

On my bike that day, I was beyond my physical limits.  Something I like to, it’s odd, I like to push myself.  I was panting, my legs were burning, I was seriously questioning my sanity.  Sometimes I couldn’t think, all I could do was focus on continuing to pedal.

To get up hills, I was having to stand up and lean forward.  As I pedaled and pushed with determination this became a response.  It really worked, and in one movement I caught myself.  It didn’t make any sense!  I had stood up on the pedals and leaned so far forward, my heart was above the front tire.  I had a feeling for a split second I was going to wipe out.  I realized this made it easy to get up the hill.  It could only be a second or I would have toppled forward.  It hit me that my mountain bike ride was resembling restorative justice.

To do restorative justice you must lead with your heart.  You must put yourself forward in a risky way.  An offender must lay all cards on the table, admit all harms, acknowledge the full extent of hurts.  A victim must open and push themselves to a place of deep awareness, to go towards what healing needs they have.

Maybe it was the energy of the area, because Kay and I had walked and talked there.  Maybe it was my odd passion for restorative justice, it could also have been the lack of oxygen, the lazy winter and out of shape 40 something on her bike.  Maybe all of the above, but the lesson was real and I believe it:  Lead with your heart to get restorative justice.

Listen in to this amazing story:

Restorative Response – talking circles for those impacted by suicide.

From the April 20, 2011 River Falls Journal

A forum last spring opened a dialogue about suicide after an unusually high number in and around River Falls led authorities to hold the public meeting and say, “What can we do to help?”

That led to a local remembrance walk, more discussion and the formation of a committee.

Police Chief Roger Leque and many others in the community have played key roles in creating a Restorative Response.

Two local women shepherding the effort are Kris Miner, director of the River Falls-based St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program, and Lesa Woitas, a UW-River Falls police officer and SCVRJP volunteer.

The new community program aims at dealing openly with the trauma that follows a death by suicide, homicide or car crash.

Miner explained that the goals of Restorative Response include prevention, intervention, and post-trauma support.

RR operates on Restorative Justice principles, which include repairing harm and rebuilding relationships among communities, as well as providing opportunities for dialogue.

Debbie Griffin photo

Leque said the effort originates from good collaboration and cooperation among many different groups.

“The more we can gain by working together with other professionals in the field, the better off we will be,” said Leque.

Pages for preparedness

Woitas and Miner said the group will produce in May one of the things it identified as a need: the “Grieving Family Guide.”

It gathered input for the small publication from families and friends of victims, mental health professionals, coroners, funeral directors, law enforcement, EMTs, school counselors, psychologists and others in the community.

With a week or two left before printing, Miner said input on it is still welcome.

Many professionals who work death scenes said they sometimes wish to be more helpful to people, maybe offer some of the basic information officials know they will need.

Survivors agreed an informational resource would be good to have at a time when people aren’t thinking straight, but there is a lot of information coming at them.

One survivor said all she had when everyone left was a coroner’s number scrawled on a scrap of paper.

The 16-page booklet-style publication includes a place to write the responding agency names, a case number, investigator’s name and other need-to-know details. It gives tips on what to “do now” and about some things to expect and anticipate.

It lists resources for support and gives logistical information about contacting a funeral home. The booklet makes suggestions about locating important paperwork and managing household tasks plus includes information survivors may need.

Miner said about the guide’s reviewers, “They all said this is really good.”

They like it because it puts several resources into one place for bereft, overwhelmed survivors. To get started producing a guide for use in Pierce and St. Croix counties, the group said Minnesota State Troopers shared a similar resource it could use as a model.

Circling around

Miner and Woitas have also conducted “talking circles,” a key technique of the 10-year-old SCVRJP, about sudden-death trauma. They agree it is shocking to see and learn how many people have been affected by it and how many still need and seek healing decades after the trauma.

The women say there is still a stigma attached to “talking about it,” especially suicide. They conducted some circles right after the forum last year then again in the fall; they began a new series recently and plan to hold more in the future.

Woitas says the circle response is staggering noting, “When you ask them the question: Has suicide ever touched your life?”

Miner said, “We didn’t have to look too far to find resources for the circle.”

She said the feedback after last year’s circles was “overwhelmingly positive.” Many of the people who came said they either couldn’t find local resources and/or didn’t feel like they fit into the ones they found.

Miner said each person in the circles had some kind of experience with suicide and has a little bit different perspective.

She says their stories “blew her socks off.” Woitas, whose husband of 22 years took his own life, said, “It changes you when you hear people’s stories.”

They say some of the people in circles had survived suicide attempts. One girl said after seeing how it affects those left, she was glad she hadn’t succeeded.

“It impacts a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” says Woitas, later adding, “Each time you tell your story in circle, a piece of your own pain goes away.”

She and Miner say Restorative Response will also include pairs of people who work as a team visiting survivors, possibly giving them a Grieving Family Guide if an officer hasn’t already.

In time, the group might organize a team of peer counselors and/or a crisis support team who can be help survivors.

Miner said she sometimes sees people involved in the Restorative Justice Program, a DUI offender for example, have troubles in their life as a result of being affected by the trauma of suicide or another kind of sudden death.

“I think people realize there is a need in the community,” said Miner.

She said she’s applied for some grants and hopes to hear a positive response on them. Some community organizations have given funds to support the new program, and Miner says interest and need are driving the Restorative Response, so funding will likely follow.

Miner says people can get more information about SCVRJP and about scheduling for the next series of Restorative Response talking circles by looking on the organization’s website at

Start and end a conversation with two words.

“You should . . .” 

If you start a sentence with that, you are ending a conversation with me.  I was just born with this independent streak.  I can not stand to be told what to do.  Yet I have this aggressive, competitive, “be the best” spirit and that must mean I need to listen to someone!  Examining why I was so offended by the person who started and ended a conversation with those two words, led me to the thoughts in this blog.

Many of the young people who come to restorative justice, have had some sort of conflict with authority.  More clearly the ‘law’, which translates a negative interaction with ‘law enforcement’  then the ‘criminal justice system’.  All these stages, involve a relationship to the authority and often times, it is negative.  We all have authority in our life, in one way or another.  We deal with relationships that bring us obligations.  From being a United States citizen to being a Mother, our relationships shape and define us.  We are relational creatures. 

What is the difference or similarity between ‘authority’ and ‘obligation’? 

We choose our relationships that bring those obligations.  We elect the relationship or we are born into it (spouse/parent).  Authority on the other hand, can come with those relationships or it comes from systems around us.  For our young people, authority begins at home, then school, then further school, work and as we age, more autonomy and less authority.

The Juvenile Justice Coalition of Minnesota, recently published Diversion-Manual1, which includes delinquency that begins with pathway called “authority conflict”.  PS- This is an excellent resource for promoting diversion programming!

My defenses rose from hearing “you should”, and I felt like I was at the end of someone’s finger, and being scolded.  I had to remember this was offered in the spirit of helping me.  I responded as kindly as possible.  My reaction bothered me and I thought of it later, and looked for the lesson for myself in it.  Restorative Justice helped.  I realized that even when we speak to young people in the “spirit of help”, they may also feel as I did: dis-empowered, angry, confused at my own feelings.

Further analysis and I realized this: I got defensive, because I didn’t have a relationship with the person offering me advice.  The same goes when young people are expected to obey authority, and there is no relationship.  Some young people do fine with authority, others are more like me, and need more relationship.

Relationship building is glue to a group.  A group of students got to know each other in Circle.  Soon, they were feeling safe and began to open up.  Stories were shared related to life experiences that helped us really deeply know each other.  The students also related to questions about cliques, very openly.  They shared experiences, and by relating experiences we build relationships.  Those relationships become the bonds that allow others to move from authority to those we are in obligation with.

We honor our obligations because we select them.  Build a relationship with a person, especially a young person and your authority becomes more effective.  Be authority by being authentic about who you are.  Spell out the pro’s and con’s of the other persons choice, weave in how you will also be impacted by the young person’s choice.  (Instead of dishing out the “you should . . .”).