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Themes That Emerged From Interviews With Program Staff

1. In VOM programs, procedures, practices, and program design and viability are affected by the program's community context.

Community context is a significant factor in the development of VOM programs. General attitudes about crime among the populace and receptivity to restorative justice among victim service providers and juvenile and criminal justice system personnel influence the procurement of funding, accessibility of referrals to mediation, and availability of volunteers to serve as mediators. Many interviewees commented on the retributive, "conservative" attitudes in their geographical areas and their negative impact on the growth and effectiveness of the victim-offender program. They bemoaned the difficulty of working with unsympathetic judges, attorneys, and victim services personnel and the challenge of cultivating a cadre of mediators who are sensitive and empathic.

Without support at the top, interviewees noted, it is hard to develop a viable program. When court personnel do not understand the principles of restorative justice and the nature of the VOM process, they may be prone to apply pressure for particular outcomes or simply for a "quick fix." "A huge mind-change is needed!" commented one interviewee. When volunteer mediators lack sufficient commitment, programs may shorten mediation training and even curtail the process, omitting an in-person preparation phase. Other interviewees said it is usually a lack of funding that eliminates the preparation phase. As a consequence, a program may then limit itself to mediation of less serious offenses because more serious offenses require greater preparation.

Some programs encounter difficulties due to a community's highly transient population. Volunteer mediators, as well as victims and offenders, are often on the move, restricting the program's ability to provide services and to ensure quality and continuity. Programs located in rural communities where people know one another have found that this greater stability may help shape and achieve the goals of the mediation session. In a locale where frequently "everyone runs into everyone," issues of confidentiality can be particularly important and challenging; when "wrongs last a lifetime," reconciliation may become compelling to participants.

As the needs of the local community and the availability of funding and referrals change, many programs make major adaptations, carving out a new way for the victim-offender process to match the community's changing needs. For example, one program works primarily with shoplifting cases, whereas another specializes in providing mediation for runaway juveniles and their parents and for juveniles returning home after treatment.

2. VOM programs frequently operate in relative isolation from other programs and, as a corollary, mediators often complete their cases having minimal contact with other mediators or staff personnel.

A concern about isolation was expressed by a number of interviewees. Many program directors commented that they have no idea what other programs are doing and no peers with whom to discuss critical issues in the field, strategies for program development, procedures, and practices. Interviewees attributed this isolation to geographical distance or to lack of resources, primarily staff time. For some, the survey interview represented the first opportunity to discuss, in depth, concerns about their programs, accomplishments, and issues of interest in the field of victim-offender mediation.

This isolation is echoed in the relative autonomy with which mediators work cases. "I wish I had others to talk to before a mediation," lamented one program director who also mediates cases. The exceptional, and rare, program provides the mediator with up-front brainstorming and coaching with staff prior to the mediation session, and then full case debriefing with staff. Although some programs conduct quarterly case review sessions for all volunteer mediators, most programs offer only informal debriefing as requested by mediators.

3. VOM programs are being asked to mediate crimes of increasing severity and complexity.

Many programs reported a trend in referrals toward a "higher level of crime," as they see it. They are being asked by the courts to mediate cases that are increasingly serious and complex. Cases often entail greater violence, committed by offenders with several prior convictions. Cases may also involve more parties and/or some degree of ambiguity relative to the identity and role of the victim and the offender. Occasionally multiple parties have both offended and been victimized.

Program directors are wondering: At what point is our process or the training of our mediators inadequate to meet the needs of these more serious cases? Furthermore, if we question the appropriateness of mediation in these cases, will that diminish the flow of referrals and threaten funding?

4. The preparation phase of the VOM process, while a fundamental element for most programs, continues to raise questions for some.

Program directors who see in-person preparation of mediation participants as central to the effectiveness of the VOM process cited the importance of spending adequate quality time with all parties to lay the groundwork for an effective mediation session. Seriously "working the case," with commitment, is essential, according to many. Some interviewees suggested that even if the parties do not proceed to mediation, the pre-mediation session itself is a valuable service (indeed, an intervention).

Several program directors indicated that with victims of property crimes, particularly lower level offenses, it doesn't seem necessary to conduct a pre-mediation interview because there has been little if any personal trauma. Other directors disagreed, commenting that many people feel personally violated by property crimes.

A few interviewees, representing community mediation programs that have added a victim-offender component, voiced concern about mediator neutrality, positing that preparation of the parties for the mediation session crosses the line of neutrality (being unbiased, not taking sides even though they are not equal), as the mediator presents the benefits of mediation and eases the parties' concerns.

5. Program staff in VOM programs typically express strong convictions about the positive impact mediation has on participants and communities.

Zeal and enthusiasm for mediation characterized the attitudes of many, if not most, program directors. Clearly, those most involved in the practice and administration of victim-offender mediation believe that these programs are useful. When asked about the benefits of mediation for participants, interviewees had much to say. They reported high levels of participant satisfaction, gleaned from evaluation instruments and informal comments. Interviewees added that communities benefit as well, because mediation works to reduce community isolation and fragmentation.

The following statements are examples of the comments made by program directors:

  • "When they walk into the mediation session, these are people who don't trust each other or recognize any importance or commonality in each other. Then an hour and a half later they walk out recognizing their commonality. . . . It's sort of a soul-purging for something that had happened to them—they get it off their minds and it's really a revelation for them. They get it out and get on with their lives. . . . It is a wonderful thing to be able to say you're sorry."

  • "When offenders are done with probation, the probation officer asks them what it is that will most help them not reoffend. Those who have experienced mediation often remark, 'Mediation was the hardest thing to do, but I get it now—it made me think about the victim.' "

  • "Just even contacting the parties and acknowledging that they've been through an experience that's different. . . . They don't have this opportunity elsewhere in their lives to have a third person assist them through a recognition process. They come out saying, 'This is really nice—everyone should have a chance to do this.' "

  • "If we truly follow the process, people will be changed even if we don't see it. . . . We can't undo the damage or take pain away but we can help them put it into perspective, set it aside a bit or use it, and move ahead, so they don't have to define themselves only as a victim."

The dedication of program staff is noteworthy. A number of programs are run virtually on a shoestring budget—in one instance, solely on the pension of the director. The enthusiasm and dedication of mediators and program staff have no doubt contributed to the growing interest in restorative justice measures evident in many judicial systems. Interviewees reported that victim-offender mediation is, in fact, finding its way into the penal codes of a number of States.

6. Although VOM programs may use different practices in the mediation process, their goals are relatively similar. Typically, they focus more on achieving transformation of the participants than on the settlement of any monetary loss.

Some programs seeking a process that addresses the needs of both victims and offenders encourage parents of juvenile offenders to attend the mediation session to support their children and later to encourage them to fulfill the agreement. Other programs, also asserting the importance of a dialogue meaningful to both parties, discourage the presence of parents, feeling they may be intrusive and controlling and detract from the juvenile's experience. Certain programs may seek to limit the number of people in attendance at a mediation session, wishing to preserve the personal, private quality of the face-to-face dialogue, whereas other programs seek to expand the number of attendees, believing that extensive ongoing emotional support for the victim and support for the offender combined with recognition of accountability enhances the mediation session and the effectiveness of the followup phase.

A range of perspectives also exists in regard to who speaks first in the mediation session. According to some programs, victims need to be encouraged to speak first because they should have the right to be heard in full and validated as someone who has been hurt; their story is undiminished by any remorse or apology offered by the offender. In other programs the offender is urged to start, sparing the victim the discomfort and risk of speaking first. Still others ask the parties to decide, ensuring equality of opportunity for both parties. One interviewee commented that victims are often moved that the offender has spoken voluntarily, offering words of remorse not elicited by the victim's remarks.

Similar variations exist regarding seating. Some programs use rectangular tables, others round tables, and still others no table at all. One interviewee commented that the round table eliminates any position of power or "head of table" status. What is agreed upon is that the parties should be seated in a way that enhances their comfort and allows for direct dialogue between them, at such time as they feel ready.

A number of programs reported that it is important to decide these particulars on a case-by-case basis, rather than set rules that apply to all cases. Other programs establish set practices as a way to standardize quality of service and simplify responsibilities for mediators.

Although the actual procedures may vary among programs, the underlying intentions seem relatively compatible. Victim sensitivity, for example, while a concern of virtually all programs, is manifested in a range of practices. Even though it may be argued that certain structures or procedures are more effectively sensitive to victims than others, it must also be granted that any particular practice can be made more victim sensitive and that perhaps, as many report, the most important elements of victim sensitivity are not tied to any particular practices. They are, rather, the style and attitude of the mediator who listens patiently, empathizing, not pressuring or pushing, and allowing sufficient time for the dialogue to unfold naturally.

7. Considerable agreement exists among VOM programs regarding the training format, the importance of role playing, and the issues that mediators need to address during training.

There is relative consensus among victim-offender programs that training is most effective when it is interactive, participatory, and experiential, with a varied format that allows for different learning styles. Training, thus, typically involves the use of videos, written material, brief presentations, discussion of cases, written exercises, skill practice, and modeling of skills and processes. Many programs also encourage trainees to draw from their experiences to understand the nature of conflict and the experience of victims and offenders.

Apprenticeship with an experienced mediator is seen as fundamental to the successful training of mediators. Through this experiential mode, training can be customized to the needs of particular trainees. It allows new mediators to observe an experienced mediator in action and to receive the benefit of coaching.

Role playing is generally seen as essential to the effectiveness of mediation training. Many programs, to customize role-play activities to the needs of trainees, shape the roles to reflect certain problems or issues, such as cross-cultural challenges or frequent sources of impasse. Other adaptations are made to enhance the efficacy of role playing, including the use of experienced mediators to play the roles of victims and offenders or simply to serve as coaches, the videotaping of trainees as mediators, and the attendance of actual offenders and victims to the training to play the appropriate roles.

The critical issues for trainees that are commonly incorporated into mediation training include the following: maintaining neutrality (being unbiased and not taking sides even though they are not equal); appreciating diversity and working with diverse participants; dealing with difficult people; and handling conflict and expressions of intense emotions, particularly anger. Working effectively with juveniles and cultivating empathy for the offender represent other concerns mentioned by a number of program directors.

8. Followup to the mediation session, although often given little more than routine attention, is being taken more seriously as an area for substantive and creative enhancement of VOM programming.

Program directors often lamented the inadequacy of their followup procedures. More could be done, they suggested, to evaluate the mediation session, for example, or to support the victim and the offender following the mediation, and to monitor and encourage the completion of the agreement. Several interviewees expressed regret that once the agreements are signed, other agencies then monitor completion. At that point, compliance may founder for lack of support, and even when agreements are fulfilled, the results may not be communicated to the mediation program or to the victims themselves.

A number of programs are experimenting with the followup phase in a variety of ways. Some are exploring new ways of gaining helpful information about the mediation session from participants, for example, by using volunteers to conduct in-person interviews with the parties several months after the mediation. Other programs are asking mediators to debrief comediators, staff, and other volunteer mediators at regular debriefing sessions.

Continued contact with victims is a standard feature in a number of programs. Most often this service is provided by staff members. Victims are contacted repeatedly by phone and encouraged to stay in touch with the program. Referrals are made as needs arise. Occasionally visits are made to the victim's home, or victim advocates provide ongoing support, services, or referrals.

In some programs, compliance with the agreement is monitored by the mediator. The mediator provides ongoing contact with all parties and arranges additional mediation sessions if the terms of the agreement need to be renegotiated.

9. Many VOM programs reported the following as major challenges: securing funding; ensuring referrals; building support in the community and in the justice system; and eliciting victim participation.

A frequent complaint is the paucity of resources for victim-offender mediation. Despite the overall effectiveness of the process and high levels of satisfaction on the part of participants, funds may be difficult to secure from either private or public sources.

Another concern is ensuring a continuing supply of referrals, particularly for offenders who are appropriate candidates for participation in mediation. Programs reported considerable fluctuation in referrals. Sometimes a drop in referrals seems to correlate with an influx of new personnel in a referring agency, who may be unfamiliar with VOM and thereby reluctant to refer cases. At times, referral sources simply appear to need fresh reminders about the availability and efficacy of the mediation program.

The concerns voiced about referrals and funding suggest that mediation programs would do well to invest in the development of these external relationships. Such an investment will also contribute to changing attitudes within the community and the justice system toward a more restorative approach.

10. Practitioners in the VOM field continue to wrestle with a variety of issues and to raise questions about the long-range implications of procedures and practices.

Interviewees voiced numerous concerns that may suggest areas of growth for the field of victim-offender mediation. Some lingering questions that emerged from the interviews are:

A. Certification of mediators

  • If certification for victim-offender mediators becomes legislatively mandated, will the field move in the direction of professionalism and away from volunteerism? Will the shift be away from a "grassroots movement" paradigm and lose the citizen participation or community involvement that undergirds the goals of restorative justice and the efficacy of the mediation process itself?

  • Would certification of mediators lead to higher quality mediations? How do we maintain quality standards in the field?

B. The mediation process

  • How can we balance the needs of victims and offenders?

  • Is preparation of the parties in separate face-to-face sessions essential to maximize the potential of VOM?

  • Is it possible for victims to be revictimized by the process, despite best efforts to be victim sensitive?

  • Is it possible for offenders to be victimized by a process that may be strongly punitive and shaming?

C. The presence of parents and other supporters in the mediation session

  • Is it helpful to have multiple supporters attend the mediation session with the victim and offender? Can the presence of too many "others" detract from the mediation, shifting what was intended to be a personal meeting between the people immediately involved into a "show and tell" session?

  • What is an appropriate and helpful role for parents of juvenile offenders in the mediation session? Are parents inherently problematic in this setting or are they essential as potential supporters of compliance with the agreement?

D. Program procedures

  • Under what circumstances should comediation be practiced? Is it always the preferable model unless limited resources prohibit it, or is it appropriate primarily for cases involving multiple parties?

  • If VOM is sponsored by victim services or by an arm of probation or corrections, will the neutrality of the program be jeopardized in the eyes of participants?

  • Is VOM more useful as an alternative to adjudication, treatment, or incarceration or as a supplement to the conventional court process?

E. Relationships with victim service providers and the judicial system

  • How can the program establish a healthy, collegial, nonadversarial working relationship with victim service providers?

  • How can victim service providers, in good conscience, deal with pressure from the court system for particular outcomes, for example, a quick settlement? Can providers maintain positive relationships with referral sources while maintaining the integrity of the mediation process? How can providers help judicial personnel understand the labor-intensive nature of VOM? Finally, can providers define for themselves what constitutes a successful mediation and a successful program—one that provides important services even in cases where agreement is not reached?

F. Screening of cases

  • At what point in a victim's healing process following the crime is it most beneficial for mediation to occur?

  • Is an unequivocal confession of guilt by the offender necessary before proceeding with the mediation process? Is the victim-offender process potentially effective even if the offender takes only some responsibility for the crime or for a portion of the crime? Should it be solely the victim's decision whether to move forward with mediation when the offender does not express guilt?

G. Training

  • What should be taught in the classroom, and what is better taught through apprenticeship or continuing education?

  • How useful is it to teach communication techniques, when they often seem to work against a natural flow and authentic, spontaneous communication style?

  • Is mediation role playing realistic enough to be genuinely helpful to trainees?

  • How can mediators be trained to empathize with the unique experiences of both the victim and the offender? How can practitioners of victim-offender mediation counter the danger of labeling, which identifies a person solely as "victim" or "offender," while still recognizing the situational imbalance of power as a result of the reality that a crime has been committed by one participant against another?

  • Does training need to be geared to the victim-offender model of mediation, or can it focus on a more generic intervention model? How does the victim-offender model differ from other models of mediation? Is it advisable for mediators to have experience mediating other kinds of cases, for example, community conflicts, prior to working victim-offender cases?

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National Survey of Victim-Offender
Mediation Programs in the United States
April 2000
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