the experience of trauma and the experience of trauma

Well as you can imagine in my work, I try to learn as much as possible about grief, trauma, victim impact, etc.   And . . . to know me is to know that I’m pretty intense and real about Restorative Justice.

So I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and funneled it into my own experiences and really developed my own ‘philosophies’ contributed to by lots of great learning.  So here’s a quick bullet list of what I have been teaching about ‘trauma’.

  • trauma is in the eye of the beholder(heard it somewhere, Umbriet I do believe) – the person experiencing it sees it, feels it, lives it, it belongs to each person individually, etc.
  • You create the story – once you experience trauma, you look for where was the beginning of this, where is the middle, how do I get to the end.
  • your brain slows down and takes visual “snapshots” for you.
  • dealing with trauma – emotional and physical side effects- eye ticks, sleep loss, etc. etc.

The experience of the experience.  You see I got burned three days ago.  I had to release an employee.  It’s hit me hard.  Ten being a loss of a family member, death of a loved one . . . Okay . . . I just found a way to make it lower!  I was going to say 7, but I put it down to 5.  But still . . . a 5 when you want life to hand you zero’s and 1’s!

So I have been experience trauma and loss.  My kid got woke up two days in a row to “Ky, I can’t sleep, going into work early, you’ll have to get yourself up for school”.  Later that day asking me to come home.  So my family has been impacted by someone Else’s choices.  I am thinking of the offender at these moments.  Wanting her to know my pain.

I also cried after hot coffee hit my lips.  It wasn’t from the pain of the coffee, it was the residual stress of it all.

I went to log on my home laptop.  It occurred to me, last time I was on my computer was before I knew this incident had happened.  I was ‘bookmarking’.  That’s what we do when we need to ‘story’ the event.  When did it begin. 

Sometimes I tell victims, the trauma is like walking across a suspension bridge, and we remember every step along the way.  Unfortunately some trauma’s (like the loss of a child) you just get used to living on that bridge.

I’m holding ‘snapshots’ . I found myself traumatized to be handed the “Victim” packet after making a police report.  That is a snapshot in my brain.  I know this isn’t huge trauma – – but it’s the same victim experience:

  • I don’t deserve this.
  • How did this happen in the first place, am I responsible?
  • I am soooo mad, no sad, no confused, wait . . . what am I.
  • I’m embarresed to be dealing with this.
  • I am now ‘cleaning up’ somebody elses mess
  • How do I move past this event and be a better person?

I’m experiencing all the experiences, I train people to be aware of when working with victims.  I hope I gain the most out of this as possible.  Violations of trust, and relationships destroyed, those are tough things.

I’ve decided to continue on in kindness and generosity.  With some new parameters and boundaries.  (of course like all victims do)  Now the only person allowed to charge things and call in payroll is the executive director.  All new staff will have a time card.  Work computers will have blocks on chatting sites.  Long distance calls will have to be authorized by a code.    (long sigh . . .)

Restorative Justice ‘peace’ and ‘belonging’.

The St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Mission is to build & sustain a culture of peace & belonging using restorative justices principles & programs.

SCVRJP developed this mission statement with Kay Pranis, in Circle. I really appreciate that we have the words “build and sustain”.  To me that says we create and nuture.  Sometimes you plant seeds that others will water and still others will reap the harvest.  To build it is one action to sustain is another.

What is a ‘culture’ . . . our group decided a ‘culture’ means the natural standard, the ‘default’ setting on how things are done.  To me, culture, means everything from the things we can see, touch to the unseen things.  The unseen are the things we only ‘feel’ with our hearts.

Peace & Belonging – Peace & Belonging – Peace & Belonging.  I’ve made these two words, these two concepts, actions and actually a ‘state’ of mind.

Peace is more than just the absence of violence.  Peace is not just the absence of harm.  To me Restorative Justice peace, is finding ‘balance’.  This morning we held a small Circle, 2 offenders & 2 community members joined me in Circle, a Victim Empathy Seminar.  One offense was a year old, and the other 2 and a half years.  We experienced ‘peace’ on many levels.

1.) we made our hearts and minds a little more quiet.  When you gather in Circle, you focus on wisdom.  You slow down a bit, you collectively face the Center and it’s a time of reflection.  To me this is the first state of Peace we experienced.

2.)we brought ‘peace’ to the incidents/harms that happened.  I found myself sharing that in hearing a story about domestic violence, I had an emotional reaction.  The feelings I had when someone hurt me, that I had trusted, resurfaced.  I explained it takes a long time to feel safe again.  In the end, I was given feedback about my sharing.  My incident, of which this man was not a part of, was used to ‘balance’ his incident.  Allowing him to hear from someone that even after 12 years, a wound from violence is still wound.

3.) Peace about ourselves and our community.  One volunteer/community member shared towards the end of the Circle, that he was ‘helped’ as much as the offenders in the Circle.  By sharing our time together this morning, speaking with two people that were putting harms behind them, we were all assured that crime can have outcomes of people not reoffending again.

Belonging aside Peace, is powerful.  Belonging in and of it self is a great concept.  In our mission statement we put Peace & Belonging together.  Belonging is knowing you are part of the collective human spirit.  Belonging is understanding not only your happiness, but the happiness of those around you, is enhanced by good, right relationships.

See, I believe, deep down, we all really know how to treat each other.  When we remember we belong to each other, we don’t want to harm anyone else. 

I just finished watching this TED speaker – it’s very interesting and I think our ‘right brains’ are engaged when we feel like we belong.  Check it out.  (You get to see a real brain, and hear about the experience of having a stroke, from the perspective of a brain researcher)

A common identity in Victim Offender Conferencing

I have had the good fortune to be around victim offender conferencing for over 10 years.  I must completely admit, when I sat in a circle, with a cardboard necklace that said “victim”, I thought “yeah, right”.  I didn’t much care for the role plays.  I remember it clearly, sitting in a Circle, in a Church basement.  I even remembering being confused over why we weren’t using the County conference rooms, where most trainings took place.  We processed an apartment building vandalism.  I even remember that.

So cases have come and gone.  A common theme I have seen is the ‘victim’ who owns the offense. 

When a student pulled the fire alarm at prom, a teacher said “If only I had been watching closer”.

When a trusted employee took money, a supervisor said “well, if we had better accounting”.

When jewlery was stolen “I shouldn’t have left it out for a temptation”.

You see when victimized, self blame is an option to try to define and make meaning of the crime.

Sometimes it makes me mad, when people outside of the crime do this.  There was a violent rape and a South Dakota rest stop.  Our Governor at the time said “I wouldn’t want my daughter to stop there”.  He was blaming the victim.  My years as a rape crisis responder just make me a little upset.

Some cases not all, have that person wanting to take responsibility, which isn’t always a terrible thing.  I prefer when it comes from a community member.  Remember the three pillars of RJ, and these apply to everyone (victim/offender/community).


In another case several contributing factors combined – and a building was burned down.  Playing with fire was intentional, burning an entire building and the food supply for the farm animals, was not.


One of the victims, who orginally had no interest in attending, turned around and donated scholorships for the young people to attend summer activities.  That is taking up a piece of needs and obligation.


It’s a theme, and I think it’s important to deal with the victims that self blame just a little differently.  Thankfully in a recent conference, it was the offender who directly told the victim, “it’s not your fault I stole those things”.picture1jpg

Supporting Restorative Justice Volunteers – Creativity Needed!

At St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice, we are fortunate to have active volunteers.  Really committed and active volunteers.  Let me explain . . .

‘Gina” (name changed) showed up for her second pre-conference meeting at 10 am on a Sunday,  the meeting was supposed to be 1 pm on Monday.  When she called ‘Dan’, the volunteer he was home in his pajamas!  He quickly got ready and went down to meet her.  He now knows, how important  appointment reminders will be for Gina.  This kind of thing happen around Victim-Offender Conferencing and I think it reminds us how important it is to explore feelings with people. 

People who committed harm subconsiously know, and some quite consiously know, meeting with the victims is going to be difficult.  Often times what they imagine it to be is so different from the actual outcome.

We have a conferencing case going on, that involved people from an elderly community.  Property theft, and since the crime, the formal court process and now just two months of pre-conferencing preparation and two of the victims have died.  So I supported my volunteer by listening to the story of meeting the 80 year old couple, the pre-conference discussion.  The volunteer shared how when the couple left, and he watched them side by side, walker to walker, he got a tear in his eye.  They met in college and had been together 63 years.  My volunteer got choked up, sharing how devestated the wife must be.  He also felt connected to the person that called and let him know of the husbands passing.  So my volunteer support today is about dealing with grief and loss, since people in the conference are passing away.

I’m going to a home jewlrey party at the end of the month.  I was invited by a young woman, that volunteers a few hours every month.  She’s been really consistent the last 2 1/2 years.  It’s so helpful to have the same person come time after time.  She knows the flow of our program.  Plus I love this brand of home jewlrey :).

The point is relationships.  Relationships to program volunteers.  Nurturing the relationship the volunteer has with your organization.  I love Restorative Justice and the many relationships it brings to my life!


Knowing our own skills and boundaries

A fellow Restorative Justice practitioner emailed today.  She had recieved a referral dealing with a loss of life.  She was looking for some help, support and guidance.  I coached her to the best of my skill and ability.

The referral was well intented, but did not seem to generate from the victims, and that is always of primary interest.  So that was my first piece of advisement.

She was complimented that the case was referred to her, but she was wise enough to see it was out of her range of experience and training.  I really have to compliment her on seeing that.  I’ve experienced people taking cases just because they were referred. 

Considering your own training, bias, experiences is VERY important.  I completed the “advance” or severe crime and violence training offered by Dr. Mark Umbriet at the U of M.  It was two years later that I finally completed the MN Dept of Corrections procedures training.  I needed that two years to feel I was in a place of being able to facilitate loss of life cases.

I had a deep wound from leaving one job very quickly.  That needed to heal, I also needed to gather my sense of spirituality, after life and my own belief system about Restorative Justice.  During that time, I also helped our Victim Impact Panels Speakers, this meant supporting them in storytelling about having a loved on killed by drunk driving.  I helped offenders, vicitms, survivors and grew in my comfort over grief, loss and loss of life.  Once I completed the required DOC training, I was a community member in a VOCARE’ program.  The process uses Circles, and stories of those that lost loved ones, and those that took lives from drinking & driving decisions.  I then went on to co-facilitate a Vocare’ session.

The point I really want to make, it to please – don’t be afraid to say ‘NO’ to taking a case.  Especially around severe crime and violence.  Don’t be self centered about wanting to do such a case, that you miss where you might cause harm.  RJ is about REPAIRING Harm, not causing further harm.

Another thing I have seen and want to advise against – – PLEASE do not take loss of life cases on as an individual, you should always CO-facilitate.

We have an obligation to this field and those that seek our services.  There is a careful boundary to seek support, mentorship and deep evaluation before heading into severe crime and violence cases.  Always do your best!


School Settings: Restorative Justice or Restorative Practices

In my opinion Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices are exactly the same thing.  I have gotten feedback that “Justice” is not a good word for schools to use.  That’s fine, if “Practices” works better for your school or community – use that.  Being aware of practicing the philosophy is most important.

I stick to calling our work in schools Restorative Justice.  For one, that’s what I believe that it is.  The journey to schools, evolved from our Restorative Justice program.  Maybe if our organization was just starting, or started in a school setting we would be using a different title.

I was being introduced for a training, and the school principal doing the introduction, made an excellent point.  He explained the success of Restorative Justice in the juvenile justice system, was now being utilized in rj-busschool communities.  He went on to explain that the trainer, had experience in both, and was one of only a few people that he knew able to bring this information.  It was worth the $20 I paid him to say that (just kidding!).

Bringing RJ to schools is one of the most rewarding things I do. 

Catherine’s stories and experiences in her classroom are amazing!  I’m so glad she’s sharing those in this blog.  I get feedback from other school practitioners, and each one reinforces the need to keep offering training sessions.

We can relate the use of Circles to Social Emotional Learning, important for academic achievement.  I’d like to recommend the book Compassionate Classroom for every teacher!  That clears up any questions about safety and learning links.

Schools have a variety of options for implementation.  The results are amazing, my friends at Central MI have saved 465 suspension days (Jan – Oct data) to the schools in their district.  Here is a link to a recent article on their program.

Regardless of the name – using conferences and circles – inclusive processes focusing on making things right and engaging those involved is the BUS to to take!

Have a Happy Day!


Pre-restorative justice preparing

At SCVRJP we do a variety of programs.  We will take referrals in and work with what makes sense.  Three recent situations, all will be addressed restoratively, using different process. 

My poor office associate, trying to learn how to “label” cases and which “program” to file them under.  I bet she wonders somedays if I really have both oars!  She’s only been working at SCVRJP for 5 months, and she learned about Restorative Justice when she applied.  She’s doing awesome, and really understands this ‘work of the heart’.  She’s much more organized than I am (although that wouldn’t take much).

Here are some situations, you might find you deal with things like this!

A municipal court clerk called.  Her Judge was feeling concerned about a young man, whose parents were going through a divorce, the expense of the curfew ticket was simply adding to the families burden.  I suggested a referral to us for a “family circle”.  We don’t really offer that as a service or program, but it would be similiar to what a conference/circle or seminar would be.  I did find myself wondering after, why I don’t ever turn a case away.  Actually that would be the opposite of a restorative value, inclusiveness.  So we will be meeting with those harmed by the curfew ticket, and holding a Circle to “make things right”.

We got a call from Elroy, we’ve been playing phone tag.  His voice mail said “I want to know more about this Restorative Justice stuff”.  He sounded like an older gentleman, a little bit of a scruffy voice.  After taking two more turns leaving messages, I had my (confused) office associate call Elroy.  Turns out he was hit and hurt by a young woman that had been driving drunk.  Now office associate wants to match this with the court referral.  No court referral, Elroy found us on his own.  We’ll meet with him, explain what we offer and see where we can help.  Sorry, no “program” or “label” for this case (yet).

Then we have the referral from the probation officer.  We have the police report, the court documents and he is court ordered to a Victim Empathy Seminar.  Now a reminder the Seminar’s are with surrogate victims.  But, in this case, the victim recieved an apology letter and contacted the probation agent with questions.  The agent asked the victim if she knew about restorative justice.  No, she did not, was interested and would like information.  NOW, you can imagine, my office associate is tired of this game.  The document says “seminar”, now the victim is calling so it’s a “conference”.  My answer is “Maybe”  we have to talk with the victim and see what she wants.

I love that no two days are the same!  No two cases are the same.  No two victims grieve the same.  No two crimes are exactly the same.  I’m confident all of these cases will provide some healing and level of “making things right” for the individuals involved.

My office associate is quickly learning that my most common responses are, “yes, sort of”, “it depends” and “well maybe”.  I so appreciate having someone in the office that helps.  It’s amazing that SCVRJP moved from a budget of  $49,000 (in ’05) to a budget of $161,000 in 2008.  We have been embraced by the community and some wonderful foundations.  Now we keep up the good work by serving every person as our most important case.  We just won’t know what program label (yet).

Thanks Office Associate!!  🙂


Classroom Story – by Catherine

Just another example of how circles make a huge difference in the classroom.

I teach 2nd grade in an urban (St. Paul, MN) elementary school. We are over 70% poverty and about the same for minority percentages. I implemented circles into my daily practice last year after taking a training from Kris Miner at St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice in River Falls, WI.

I begin everyday with a talking circle (we call it a sharing circle). Everyone gets to share interesting or important things from the evening before or they can ask questions about the upcoming school day. Sort of like, getting them ready to learn. This gives us a chance to resolve breakfast issues, bus conflicts, or any question they may have before the academic day begins.

I close each day with a “Closing” Circle where students share favorite activities of the day, what they learned, or what they still have questions about. Closing circle is also used for conflicts that may have arisen during the day.

Today a little red headed 2nd grader (very sensitive emotionally) started crying during the last 20 minutes of the day as the class was returning from another classroom. He dove behind the recycling bin trying to hide his crying from the rest of the class. Several children brought it to my attention immediately and then told me that the “new” girl had said something to make the little red headed boy feel bad. The “new” girl had arrived yesterday. My room is the third school for this youngster in three years and the second one already this year. So wasn’t feeling very connected to anything.

While talking to the boy hiding behind the recycling bin I found out that the “new” girl had laughed at his pictures of the early american settlers and called him stupid. Many children in the classroom had overheard the hurtful comment. When I tried to comfort the boy he just looked up and said, “Mrs. Cranston, can we bring it to circle?” I said, “Of course”.

Within 5 minutes everyone gathered for Closing Circle. I explained that today’s circle was going to be a problem solving circle not just a regular talking circle. One student made a comment to his neighbor, “That means this is important.” We passed the talking piece remembering our agreed upon values (which are posted on the wall near the circle space). We did several rounds of, “what it feel like to have someone call you stupid and what it would feel like to have someone make fun of your drawings or other things special to you”. The 2nd graders had powerful stories. One little chubby kid told about being called “fat” at his old school and how that made him cry. The other newest student (has been in the class about 3 weeks) shared that he didn’t know who the victim was today, but he sure felt sorry for him. That was the first truly honest and heartfelt sharing from that new student. Needless to say the committment piece was almost tearful for some as they very seriously promised to never say mean things to someone or laugh at them. One little girl looked right at the offender and said, “You know when you laughed at (victim) you hurt all of us today.”

By the end of the circle everyone had told the “new” girl that they were positive she could change her ways and fix the problem. The “new” girl then looked right at the vicim (asked him his name) and apoligized in front of everyone. I had not asked her to do that. She did so independently.

This process was so powerful because it wasn’t about me, the teacher, telling a student what they had done wrong. It was about her peers looking at her calmly while telling her they were hurt by her behavior today. And that they have high expectations for her in the future. It wasn’t about blaming, it was about holding her accountable for the harm. Crazy stuff from 8 year olds!!!

I believe they have the skills to do this because they practice “fun” talking circles and “sharing” circles every single day. Today’s problem solving circle was just a normal way of tackling a problem for them…no big deal.

Then the kicker… newest little boy walked up to the “new” (offender) girl after the circle, put his arm on her shoulder and said, “It’s ok, you will be fine in about a month. It took me about that long to figure it out too.”

RJ Conferences and Circles

Posting from the International Institute of Restorative Practices Conference in Toronto Canada!

Today I was volunteering at the Living Justice Press, book sales table.  I got to interact with a number of conference attendees.  I decided to volunteer, since LJP will be publishing an upcoming text on Safe Teen Driving Circles.  (two links to other blog posts).

I was approached to answer a question.  “what is the difference between a Conference and a Circle?”  Other practitioners at the table offered ideas and suggestions.

Here our a few of our observations:

1.) Conferencing questions, can happen in the 3rd phase of the Circle.  Based on the 4 stages outlined by Kay Pranis, in the book Peacemaking Circles.

2.) Conferences typically respond to a incident of harm.  Circles can happen for any purpose.

3.) Conferences involve a recommended “script” and Circles involve process stages.  Although prepared questions to use in a Circle is helpful.

4.) Emotional Charge of the incident is a factor when I decide to conference or Circle.  The number of participants and ability to speak and listen is another decision making factor.

Maybe I’ll work on a tree?  Would that help?  Is this a question readers have?  Post a comment, let me know!

Thanks for all of you that visited me at the booth today!


Restorative Justice – meeting with victims

Recently I’ve had a number of meetings with victims, and worked with them in a variety of places in the Restorative Justice process.  Restorative Justice is victim centered, meaning the victims make decisions about participating, about the conference and support them after a restorative experience.

I’d like to offer you my experiences and suggestions for working with people who have experienced harm.  I’ve got a few key tips for each of the stages of working with a vicitm.


Each story is individual.  Try to keep the neutral mind, being aware and acknowledging your own judgements.  Allow the space for a victim to share, keeping the conversation flowing around the conferencing questions.  I use questions centering around “how did your feel when you realized what happened”, “what was the hardest part”.  Often times I use the IIRP Cards scroll to the bottom of this link to find them.  I have often found that it’s not exactly the crime, but things that follow because of the crime are often the hardest.  Having these discussions with support people of victims helps the supporters understand a victims needs.

Prepare I often say that “restorative justice is about repairing harm, so we don’t want to cause further harm”  and explain that we want this to be healing.  I explore to the extend possible, how the victim can prepare for the process without holding on to expectations and outcomes that neither of us have any control over.  Be careful not to bring your judgments here and don’t get tempted to be a go between.

Helping vicitms identify motivations for meeting with offenders is crucial and important to be talking about.  Give the victim the control, they decide who tells their story first.  Try to allow victims control over seating arrangements.  Provide all the details to the flow of the conference or circle.  Prepare how the conference will end.  I did a conference knowing I would walk the offender out, and come back in to process with the victim.  Ask and ask if victims have questions, make yourself available for them to be feeling completely prepared.


Monitor Emotional Climate During the conference it is important to hold compassion, yet not interupt the process or get distracted by emotional content.  I often clear the path for emotions and emotional expression.  When preparing victims if they get teary, if appropriate I comment on observing that.  I often ask about the comfort for these emotions during the conference session.  I monitor that what we found in the preconference is present in the conference, without pushing.

I have been left feeling amazed at times, when a dialogue and exchange between two individuals takes place.  It is very difficult to explain but I would look to Dr. Mark Umbriets work around humanistic mediation to explain it.  I’m hardly needed and the process is an honor to be part of.

Post Conference

Supportthe crime victims healing.  Victims can experience trauma in unexpected places.  Triggers can be identified and avoided, or addressed.  Simply telling the story often lifts the stigma, storytelling is healing.  Victims may experience new triggers after a conference session.  Life happens in layers and we heal in stages.  I spent 45 minutes on the phone with a victim,  almost 2 months after a conference, then remembered the anniversary date was quickly approaching.  We then discussed self-care on this day, and I offered the “normal” response to trauma anniversaries was to feel off center.

When we help victims heal, we heal a piece of the world.  Tread lightly and use compassion as your tools.