2015 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

“The way of wisdom is the way of pondering, the way of holding every kind of pain, suffering, delight, and contradiction long enough until it transforms you, gestates compassion within you, and brings you to your knees in a thousand surrenders.” - Ron Rohlheiser

Perhaps you, like me, vividly recall seeing the 1983 photo of Pope John Paul II, meeting in a prison in Rome, with Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who had shot him four times, critically wounding him in an attempt to assassinate him two years earlier during a procession at the Vatican. John Paul II survived, but for days his life hung in the balance. Even then, he asked people to “pray for my brother…whom I have sincerely forgiven.”

I recall that, long before the advent of social media, this photo and the story behind it ‘went viral’ in the international press. Pope John Paul II had apparently said that he wanted this meeting photographed and publicized in hopes that it would speak to a world filled with “unforgiving hatreds, with hostile superpowers and with smaller, implacable fanaticisms.” Most of the resulting commentary was positive, much of it expressing astonishment that anyone could ever take the step of meeting with one who had intended, and done, such violent harm to them. And far beyond just meeting, had forgiven him. The story played out: Agca was pardoned, at the pope’s request, but extradited to his native Turkey where he was convicted of earlier violent crimes. He served a total of 29 years in prison before being released. In 2014 he visited Italy again, this time to lay flowers on John Paul II’s tomb. The former extremist had experienced a personal transformation, touched, and compelled, by grace.

What struck me then, and does today, is that the international press treated John Paul’s visit to Agca as an astonishing event, as a rare anomaly, as though it was virtually unheard of for a victim/survivor of a violent crime to need or desire to meet with the assailant; as something reserved for saints (or popes). Some expressed skepticism, seeing it as even less likely that such a meeting would have an impact on the offender, much less that any offender could be motivated by their own depth of remorse to initiate such a dialogue.

It certainly must be true that these sorts of victim offender encounters are relatively rare in the grand scheme of things. Yet, here at CJI, (and across the country now that the Victim Offender Mediation Program (VOMP) we pioneered in 1990, functions coast to coast), these kinds of scenarios play out over and over again, year after year, in prisons across the nation. This year saw some of the most memorable outcomes we have witnessed in 26 years of the program’s operation.

It should be clearly stated that not everyone who seeks to participate in VOMP does so motivated to forgive (or to seek forgiveness). In fact, many victims/survivors start in a far different place, simply needing answers to questions never answered in the Criminal Justice System’s processing of their cases. Some need respite from desperate pain, and hope that their experience will be as helpful as that of others whose stories they have heard. Some seek what they describe as “healing”: a new degree of resolution of the trauma, recognizing that the practitioners are well informed in these matters, hoping for an increase of peace and greater resilience for themselves and their loved ones. Others still, (both victims and offenders) participate in hopes that their involvement will impact the other for good, as Pope John Paul II did.

Whatever the motivation, most find a good deal of what they were looking for when they determined to ask for an encounter with “The Other”. And, did as the participants in the story I’ll relate here, some report experiencing that granting forgiveness can set both themselves and their offenders free in ways they had never expected nor anticipated.

There is really only room for one case story in this report, one story representative of a number of others that could be told from last year’s referrals, alone. We’ve been given permission to share this one by the woman involved. In fact, she, herself shared the story, writing a letter in which she recounted her experience of CJI’s Victim Offender Mediation Program as one Aboriginal woman to another: our new Minister of Justice, The Honourable Jodi Wilson-Raybould. As always, we respect the need of our program participants for privacy and, in that light, have used pseudonyms for them below.

‘Ann’ was one of a number of children whose father, a police officer, was murdered in the line of duty by two men whom he had pulled over on the highway. Ann and her siblings had adored their father and were devastated by his loss to them, to their mother, and to their community. As in far too many cases, while the people responsible were arrested and sent to prison, the needs not only went on, but magnified, over time. Ann is very open about what transpired in the aftermath of her father’s killing: anesthetizing the pain led to years of addiction, downward spiral, despair, and dysfunction.

Many years had passed when, ‘Charles’ one of the men responsible for her father’s death contacted us through his Institutional Parole Officer. Charles had heard from another inmate who had met with the family survivors harmed by the commission of his own crime, that it had been an astonishing experience, one he would recommend to others. That began a time in which we visited with Charles from time to time to try to discern together whether or not to attempt to reach the victims/survivors in his case. Charles was torn between wanting to share with them the depth of his sorrow for having taken their father’s life, and wanting to avoid the possibility of re-traumatizing them with a further contact, even by a sensitive third party. We made clear that, in the absence of any further information from the victims indicating interest in the process, we would not proceed until either he was more certain, or something new had transpired to indicate victim interest in the program.

Then, out of nowhere, Ann’s brother wrote to us, unaware that we had been in conversation with Charles, saying he had been informed that Charles was incarcerated in our region, and wondering if we might be able to get a letter to him. We quickly responded to his letter by phone. “This step,” he explained, “is one I need to take toward my own healing: I’ve written a letter for ‘Charles’ unconditionally granting forgiveness to him.” He had come to the conviction, he said, that in order to be completely freed from the last vestiges of his addiction, he needed to forgive Charles, and finally rid himself of the remaining animosity, anger and desire for vengeance that he had used to justify his own substance abuse and long-term addiction. We promised to deliver his letter to Charles.

A few days later, we met with Charles, who sat quietly as he read the letter we had just handed him, slowly shaking his head in amazement at the words he was reading. He took the letter to his cell, read it a number of times daily, then composed a reply, finally able to express to one of the family members the depth of his sorrow and remorse for having taken their father’s life, and ending with a profound statement of gratitude for the gift of forgiveness he had been given.

Within a few months, the next letter arrived from a member of the victim’s family, this time from Ann. She had seen the impact on her brother of just the exchange of correspondence, and the new degree of freedom he exhibited. She wrote saying she wanted to write to Charles, as well, but that she had hoped that an exchange of letters between them would culminate in an actual meeting: a face-to-face dialogue which VOMP staff would facilitate. Charles needed some time to get his head around that notion, meeting with the Institutional Elder and praying about it together. It didn’t take long before he asked us to set the meeting up, saying just the prospect of meeting with her had him almost overwhelmed with emotion at times, not certain what he could ever say that would be remotely adequate to the circumstance, yet hoping that whatever he might offer would help assuage her pain and increase a sense of peace for her.

At the end of March, Ann flew into Abbotsford, where we met her and spent some additional time with her to help prepare her for what the following day’s meeting might bring. For 2 hours the next morning and two more in the afternoon these two met, sharing along a simple format: the past—the impact of the crime and its aftermath for both; the present (what each was doing to heal and move on toward a more successful future), and the future: what hopes Charles held, given the length of sentence he had yet to serve, and what Ann hoped to accomplish, working with others, especially young women, from backgrounds and circumstances not dissimilar from her own. Toward the end of the afternoon, the Institutional Elder, who had previously been invited, joined us, He commended both Charles and Ann for having done “this courageous thing”, then, using the traditional drum that Charles had expertly painted with symbols deeply meaningful to Ann from her own Aboriginal tradition, the Elder sang a song befitting their meeting, shared deeply from his own heart, then prayed a prayer of thanksgiving, a celebration of the new degree of healing they had witnessed to, and safe travel for Ann.

In the next few weeks, we debriefed that encounter with both Ann and Charles. Ann told us she had written a letter to the Minister of Justice, believing that, as a woman of Aboriginal heritage, the Minister might just understand the deep healing of the spirit Ann was attempting to describe. She sent a copy of the letter to us, with permission to share it with others. This is what she wrote, edited only slightly for length,

Dear Ms. Jodi Wilson Raybould, Minister of Justice,

I am writing you this letter today in regards to a successful story of Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association’s Victim Offender Mediation (Restorative Justice) Program, Langley, British Columbia.

My late father [a police officer] was gunned down in the line of duty [a number of years ago]. The offender is currently serving a life sentence in a prison in British Columbia. I had the chance to visit him in prison for a face-to-face meeting to help my healing process of this horrific loss in my life. This encounter took place on March 29, 2016. I believe this meeting to be history in the making.

I would like to thank you personally for having these programs in place so that families can take these opportunities to guide them in their healing process. I would like to commend the amazing work of Mr. Dave Gustafson and Susan Underwood, the two mediators that made this possible for myself to accomplish. Without the hard work that the staff do for this program, I would not have been able to take this path in my journey to heal and to guide the rest of my family towards this avenue.

The killing of my late father has been the hardest and most difficult thing to overcome; however no one (I believe) ever overcomes it. A person is able to forgive but never forgets. Two entirely different situations. I firmly believe in miracles as well, as the spirit world is in me, I feel it as I am an Aboriginal person. I was able to witness a miracle because I was able to forgive the offender and saw with my own eyes and heart that he truly was sorry and took full responsibility for his actions. Without the work of these mediators, the two of us (myself and the offender) would not have been able to meet one another for this very important event in our lives.

I could go on and on, however… all I need for you to know is that I came back home from this meeting with no hatred, anger or resentment in my heart whatsoever.

If you ever need a voice in the success of these stories, feel free to contact me. I will try to help other families find the closure they need, as I did. Once again, I would like for you to know that the VOMP Facilitators are angels from God. I cannot thank them enough for helping me in my journey to live happy, joyous and free.

Sincerely,

Ann

For the VOMP staff, while we have seen these dynamics played out multiplied times now, each case, each outcome, has about it something absolutely unique, for each person is unique, and precious in their own way. We find ourselves often pondering how, as we assist in holding every kind of pain, of suffering, and often witnessing delight, these processes can produce what they do, never able to answer that question, quite, but recognizing that being part of it all brings transformation to us, the facilitators, as well, recognizing that, indeed:

“The way of wisdom is the way of pondering, the way of holding every kind of pain, suffering, delight, and contradiction long enough until it transforms you, gestates compassion within you, and brings you to your knees in a thousand surrenders.”

Thank you to each of you: CJI staff, Board Members, Association Members, supporters, Correctional Service Staff and Public Servants whose commitments and collaboration enable these outcomes. Thank you on behalf of those we serve, and thank you for the joy of meaningful work which you enable.

2014 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

Last May, my son and I sat across from “M”, the offender serving a 10-year sentence for 2nd degree murder for the death of my son’s father.

Both the offender and my son’s father struggled with alcohol over the years and both were in the same place at the same time: the wrong place at the wrong time.  The altercation started with an argument and a beating ended it – my son’s father died later the next day in hospital of a brain hemorrhage.

Our son, Darshan, meaning blessing, has felt everything but blessed since that terrible night.  He was 15 years old at the time – a bright light suddenly dimmed by the devastation of his father’s death.

Prior to the mediation, I read in the sentencing transcript that ”M” apparently suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and learning disabilities – his personal challenges are immense and often overwhelming.  Both of his parents and at least one uncle were victims too – of the residential school program – a shameful era in our country and in the church.  .  I’m so sorry for everything and for everyone – for the generational damage it’s done – and especially for them and their son.  It’s so sad and so obvious to me now that this man was a victim himself long before he ever became an offender.

I had also found the name of an advocate speaking on his behalf.  Susan is a retired probation officer and has been a long-time friend of the offender’s First Nation, and has known “M” since he was a child.

I called Susan and explained who I was and that I was considering victim offender mediation with an inmate she had once been an advocate for at a sentencing hearing.  We met later that week and discussed it some more.  Then Susan drove me down to the reserve and introduced me to the offender’s uncle who had also appeared as an advocate at that sentencing hearing.

We all talked for a while and it became clear that everyone affected needed healing in one way or another and the uncle agreed that mediation with his nephew would be a good start.  A healing circle upon “M’s” release could be another.

The mediators, Dave and Aaron, cautioned us not to expect “M” to say much, and maybe only to stay for 10 minutes, as he’s quite shy and was feeling very nervous.  Before he arrived we prayed for comfort and confidence for him and my son, and that they would have the words they needed to express themselves.  “M” stayed and talked with us for almost 2 hours!

I started by telling him that we were there to see his eyes and to see his heart.  I read M’s statement from the transcript aloud, “I would hope that one day they could understand that I wish that this did not happen and I wish I could take it back.  I wish there could be a way to show them I am sorry”.   Victim offender mediation was the way – and I hoped that he would show my son how sorry he was.

Making eye contact with us, “M” then spoke softly and bravely from his heart and  his apologies were very sincere.  He himself was clearly so wounded, so deeply sorry and so surprisingly humble.

My son Darshan was courageous, respectful and open throughout the meeting.  He confronted ”M” cautiously and asked only a few questions.  Over those few hours, he moved from his place of rage to a place of understanding, and from there to empathy.  My son couldn’t forgive “M” at that time, but it’s important to note that forgiveness is not a required or expected outcome of victim offender mediation.  However, I believe that forgiveness is the key to releasing my son from his own prison of grief.

We thanked “M” for his heartfelt apologies and then we just paused to breathe.  Dave said it took courage for us to face each other in this way, and it did – and then we all started to relax – finally.

 We then spoke of the loss of Dar’s dad in an intimate and meaningful way.  “M” told my son he had an idea of how hard the death of his dad has been because his mother had passed away a few years ago.  He then apologized again and told him how sorry he was, especially because he was responsible for it.  We then talked about regret, unrealized milestones, addiction, and broken families.  And then we talked about restoration.

“M” told us he’s been knitting scarves for school children in the Chilcotin in one of his occupational therapy programs.  He smiled when he told us how good it feels to help those kids.  He even agreed to make one for me – a symbolic offering—and the only thing available to him to offer, in the circumstances.  “M” said he’s “learning to think right and to act right” and is learning how to become a healthier man.

As we came to the end of our mediation, I asked “M” if I could come over to give him a hug from his uncle.  He said sure, grinned and got to his feet right away.  As we hugged I was able to tell him that I could finally forgive him and that while we’ll all never forget the person he took from us: a father, son, uncle, brother and friend, I hoped that he too could forgive himself in some measure and move forward to become the healthier man he wants to be.  He apologized one more time, right into my eyes, and said again he won’t ever forget what he did, and that he never wants to hurt anyone ever again.  By talking it through with “M”, I am free from my own feelings of fear and anger about my ex-husband’s senseless death.

I’m told that a month after our mediation, “M”, for the first time in his incarcerated life, took the initiative to ask for more help from the counsellors and therapists available to him.  It seems he now continues his inner work and his programs with renewed interest and purpose.  I pray his desire to help people will lead to a transformed life and that he will be blessed to do that in some way upon his release – then he too will truly be free.

As for my son, the unbearable weight of his father’s death has started to lift, and with it, some of the defiance and depression he’s been nursing for the last number of years.  He now has more energy and interest in life, and is reconnecting with people and sports.  His bright, personable self is re-emerging and he’s looking toward the future and making some plans.

So while we too wish that the offender could take it all back, we finally have peace in our loss.

Restorative principles have spiritual roots, I’ve learned, and pave the way to restoration and transformation – for victims and offenders

Meeting with “M” has certainly infilled the holes in our souls – I’m so grateful he agreed to it.

The offender’s name has been withheld from our story to ensure privacy and confidentiality.  I would rather have used his name because my opinion of him changed after meeting and talking with him.  He’s not the monster we thought he would be – he’s a son, a brother, a cousin and friend.  I hope this is clear by what I’ve written here.  

 

2013 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

It has been another remarkable year for the Victim Offender Mediation Program (VOMP). Originally funded as a two year “Pilot Project”, in 1990, outcomes were so positive they often astonished even those of us who had conceived of and developed the project. As a result, that two year “Pilot” phase was extended. We’ve now been delivering services to victims, offenders, their kin and communities continuously, for 23 years. And we are still often quite moved and astonished at the outcomes. 

Sandi Bergen alluded to this in her report this year, and Fraser Simmons, in his report as Board Chair, specifically mentioned the unforgettable story presented by two mothers at our Annual Dinner, last Fall.  I had chosen, earlier, to highlight this same case, especially given that Supriya Deas had given me her permission to use her article however I saw fit. VOMP staff worked on many truly memorable cases this past year and, in a number of these, have had the joy of witnessing deeply healing outcomes which touched and assuaged grievous pain and loss. The mothers, former MP Dona Cadman and Supriya, whose story follows, have become devoted friends. They are currently engaged in writing a book together which will flesh out the story CJI members and supporters heard at the dinner, which was reported in B.C.’s major media, and which appears here. I can think of no better way to report on program outcomes than to reprint Supriya’s article as an example of what can and does happen in a significant percentage of the cases referred to us.  Profound thanks to the participants in the approximately 70 cases we worked on last year, as well as to those who refer cases from the victim service and correctional service communities, and to all of you who enable these degrees of healing to occur by assisting CJI to provide the ways and means.

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Two mothers, that's what we were... two mothers, alone with our pain. Not to say we didn't have people around us, we did. When the jury went into deliberation we could hear the quiet chatter of the reporters, police officers, family and friends echoing in a void we could not touch.

And then, one by one the people disappeared up the hall, looking for coffee and a bite to eat. In the awkward silence the victim's mother and I found ourselves standing alone on opposite sides of the corridor. I went over to her; the one whose son my own had killed.

They were only sixteen ... the thoughts in my mind went round and round, searching for some understanding, some reason why life had taken our two sons so young. Holding out my arms I approached the fragile woman with caution.

"We're in this together," I whispered.

The grieving mother hugged me back and then quickly released my embrace. "I must go," she whispered. "My family will be coming back soon and they won't understand."

Within the hour we were called back into the courtroom and the judge announced the verdict.

"Guilty", he said. "Ten to life."

That night I cried myself to sleep. Brutal scenes from prison movies and stories of rape and violence flashed through my mind as the relentless sobs racked my body with grief. Towards morning I had a dream. The victim's mother was leaning over my bed compassionately holding out her arms to give me a hug.

‘We're in this together,’ she said, and I awoke with my arms reaching high in the air.

It was almost twenty years later before I saw the woman again. She had come for my son's parole hearing and was waiting for the proceedings to begin. Over the past several months, a mediator from the Restorative Opportunities Program had been helping my son communicate with her and her daughter through a series of letters. When the daughter agreed to meet with my son, two ladies from the program filmed their healing exchange and then brought it to my house for a private viewing. They also showed it to the victim's mother who lived across the country, near her daughter.

After watching the video, the victim's mother was so touched by the changes she saw in my son that she offered to speak on his behalf at his parole hearing. She also asked to meet privately with us after the hearing. It was during this time that the two Restorative Opportunities mediators helped the victim's mother and my son speak openly about the horrible night he killed her son. After so many years of keeping it all inside, my son was finally given the opportunity to express how sorry he was and offered to answer any and all questions the woman needed to ask. After a couple hours of frank discussion she turned to face me.

"And I want to apologize to you." she said. "Apologize to me?" I asked, rather shocked by her offer.

"Yes" she said. "I was so angry and hurt that I think I treated you poorly during the trial.

She looked relieved when I told her my only memory of her was our short exchange in the hallway outside the courtroom while waiting for the verdict to come in. I shared with her that, "I cried myself to sleep that night and towards morning I dreamed you were leaning over my bed to comfort me. ‘We're in this together,' you said kindly, and when I awoke I was reaching up to hug you. I have no memory of your treating me poorly. In fact, I've been praying for you all these years that someday you might find forgiveness in your heart so you won't have to hurt so much anymore."

Just then, the victim's mother pulled out a plastic bag she'd been holding on her lap.

“I brought you a gift” she said, passing it to my son across the large oval table.

“A gift?” he replied, his wide-eyed surprise impossible to conceal.

"Yes, it's a dog," she said, as he pulled the small stuffed animal out of the bag.

"A dog Isaac! Just what you always wanted!" I said, recalling our prison visit conversations over the years.

"And when you get out I'm going to buy you your first real dog." the woman promised. Then, quite unexpectedly, she pushed back her chair and went around the table to embrace my son. Without a moment's hesitation he stood up to accept her hug. Before going back to sit down, the woman whispered something in my son's ear.

As the meeting came to a close the woman asked if she could continue to contact us to which of course, we both heartily agreed. Once everyone was gone I asked my son what the woman said to him while they were hugging.

Turning the little dog over and over in his hands he replied quietly, "She said, 'I forgive you'."

 

2012 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

We often remark that there is no such thing as a ‘usual’ VOMP case, that each is unique in its own way. ‘Kari’s’ story is a case in point. What is not unique about Kari, is that she is one of an entire category of people harmed by crime but whose stories usually go untold.  Victims of serious crime often feel marginalized, that theirs is “A View From the Shadows”. In fact, an early documentary about the struggle for victims’ rights is named just that. But for some victims, like Kari, (who, while she did not suffer violent harm directly at the hands of another, is nevertheless a victim of crime)[i], the shadows can prove even deeper. Kari, as you may have discerned by now, is the daughter of a federal prisoner, who, for this purpose, we’ll call ‘Tim’. As a prisoner’s child, Kari grew up with sparse information about her father. Well meaning others shielded the bewildered toddler from the truth about where her daddy had gone—he had simply “disappeared” one night at her age 2. Perhaps worse, the fragments of information she was able to gather over the years produced a veritable kaleidoscope of views tumbling through her adolescence and early adulthood, much of the information untrue, warped and spun as it was by a few family members and media pundits with agenda of their own.

‘Tim’, had last seen his daughter as he hugged her on his way out the door of their family home on his way to meet a relative for a beer. The relative, it turned out, had a plan to commit what he believed would be a lucrative and relatively low risk crime.   Things did not go as planned, in fact, everything went very badly wrong. ‘Tim’ ended up doing ‘life’ in prison, while the little girl he left that night grew into a woman, along with many others directly impacted, suffering the downstream consequences of her father’s choices and his long term incarceration. 

Through the years, there was little communication between Tim and Kari, but a good deal of it among family members and from media. Part of the reason Kari had not sought to correspond with her father was that at least some other family members had so demonized him. Ironically, part of the reason Tim had not sought more contact with Kari is that he had been so demonized by a few family members and by one journalist, in particular, that he felt Kari might be best off parented by her mom and step-dad, without his intrusion or influence in her life. Finally, the time came to ‘close the gap.’ Tim had become one of a growing cohort of Canadian prisoners, the aged, the ill, the infirm. As his health worsened, Tim began to speak to one of the prison chaplains about the daughter he had so loved, and lost…. The chaplain contacted VOMP to see if there was anything we might do to assist the two to talk to one another, to share their stories with one another and perhaps to see them reconciled before all opportunity was past.

Over the next few weeks we met with Kari a number of times, listening to her side of the equation and exploring with her a range of feelings from euphoria about her father’s initiative in reaching out to her, to significant fears: of rejection, or, having secretly hoped to find him and build a relationship with him, of discovering that he was as evil as others had described him to be.

Finally, the decision was made. Kari was determined to meet her father. He was delighted, but cautious in his optimism. As a long-term inmate, Tim had seen too many things go awry when he had dared to hope too much. For many years, his desire to communicate with Kari had been resisted.  But things began to shift. The warden, who had originally resisted the idea of allowing this meeting to take place, had experienced VOMP outcomes in another institution. He expressed confidence in VOMP staff, and agreed to allow Tim and Kari to meet, provided that VOMP staff were facilitating the dialogue, and arranging the logistics.

Thirty-six years had passed. Kari was seated in the prison chapel, together with me, as facilitator and with her husband at her side. Tim was wheeled in, seated in his wheelchair, the Chaplain at his side. Years melted away, as Tim shared with Kari that not a day had gone by when she was not in his heart, sharing letters he had begun but never sent, and as Kari asked him the questions that helped her place the scores of puzzle pieces she had hoped to fit into place. She was candid with him that she had suffered significant harms: confusion about his role in the crimes, feeling abandoned, fatherless, without the role model, love and protection she had seen her friends enjoy. She was candid about having come to suspect that the rumours might be true, that he was dangerous, and dangerous even to her. She shared about the complications in her career choices, as she had come to believe that a career in law or law enforcement would be denied her, given her ‘criminal lineage’. Her father listened, heard, acknowledged. While he had long since learned not to emote too freely in a prison, his love for his daughter and pride in all she had accomplished was palpable. She felt it too. After our usual lunchtime break and debrief with each side, we reconvened. I moved from my position at the table between them, to allow them to sit side by side. Kari took Tim’s hand, and her husband, Wes, signalled that he had some things he would like to say. Tim had clearly affirmed Kari’s choice of Wes, saying, “I had heard that you’d been married, and had a fine man.” “I can see for myself that he is committed to you, and I’m glad.” Wes, addressed Tim, and said, “I am a pretty traditional kind of guy, I suppose. I always felt badly that it wasn’t possible for me to come and ask you for Kari’s hand in marriage.”   “It’s a little late for that, now, I suppose, but I’d like to know I have your blessing”. Tim reached out and shook Wes’s hand, saying, “Absolutely, if you are her choice and she is yours, I can do nothing but say, ‘you are a class act for doing this, and of course you have my blessing.’”

The day ended on a similar note, with gratitude and a sense of blessing on all sides. Tim got up from his wheelchair, hugged us all, then walked, smiling, back toward his unit. His chaplain had not seen him walk that far for many months. Kari, Wes and I left for the long drive back to the city, reflecting on the power of this simple process and what it had accomplished for them. 

A few weeks later, Kari wrote the warden to express her appreciation for all that had transpired:

Dear [Warden _______],

I was hoping to be able to thank-you face to face however you were [out of the institution on the day] I arrived. I just want you to know that your understanding and compassion will never be forgotten. Due to my father’s health and your graciousness in allowing me to visit last minute, you have assisted in a healing process 36 years in the making and one that words can’t accurately describe.

Given your initial reservations about a face to face meeting, your decision to allow me this opportunity means more than I can ever express to you. ‘Closure’ is a word I have been chasing for so many years (unsuccessfully) and now I realize that it doesn’t really exist. I’ve learned that it is a state of mind, a peace of mind which you have allowed me. I have slept so peacefully since meeting my father and putting to bed unanswered questions, unresolved feelings and just letting go. The healing opportunity you give people through allowing mediations through the Victim Offender Mediation Program is a priceless gift – a gift for which I will forever be grateful.

[The Correctional Supervisor, the Chaplain, the Institutional Parole Officer] and the security staff on duty that day played an enormous part in the ease and peace I left with. Their assistance, compassion and professionalism truly went above and beyond. I thank-you, each and every one.

My sincerest regards,

Kari …..

A few months later, Tim’s health began to rapidly fail. He died, as he was sure he would, in prison, scant months from another opportunity for parole. As I wrote this article, I reflected on words I had read just the night before:

I thought of how many people go to their graves unforgiven and unforgiving. I thought of how many people have had siblings or friends or children or lovers disappear from their lives before precious words of clemency or absolution could be passed along….

How do the survivors of terminated relationships ever endure the pain of unfinished business[ii]  

As I turned the book over and reached to turn out the light, I felt a deep welling gratitude for the privilege of seeing these things come to pass, over and over through the years. The participants do the work but, as they make clear to us, without the safely engineered bridges we design and build, they likely could not accomplish what they hope to achieve. In this case, though both Tim and Kari lamented the years lost to them, the “precious words of clemency [and] absolution” were voiced before Tim passed on, freeing both. Neither had to endure any longer “the pain of unfinished business”.
 


 

[i] Recent legislation has expanded the definition of a victim of crime to include “anyone who suffers harm” as the result of the criminal actions of another.

[ii] Gilbert, Elizabeth (2006). Eat, Pray, Love.

 

2011 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

The following story begins with what Allison, a past participant in CJI’s Victim Offender Mediation Program (VOMP), called her “speech”, her presentation to the May 2011, Police Victim Services Conference in Burnaby, BC. She has given us permission to reproduce it here. We do so gladly, aware that her words, as the young woman describing her experience from her perspective, speak more eloquently than we can ever do from our own:

Eighteen years ago, my mother, Karen became a rape and murder victim. Her offender was a 17 year old youth, a man I went to school with and at one time was friends with. (For this purpose, we’ll just call him ‘Sam’).  At the time, I was 15 years old, scared, confused, angry and lost without my mom. I’ve seen several counsellors, psychiatrists, victim services, National Parole Board members as well as many other programs, always ending up with no answers to the questions I most needed answers to. 

Following one of my calls to the prison where the offender was being held, attempting once more to seek information I considered vital, I was put through to the Chief of Social Work. He listened to me, told me there was little that he was allowed to divulge about the offender, but, given what I was seeking, asked if he could refer me to the Victim Offender Mediation Program. Dave and Sandi contacted me and we began to quickly form a relationship built on honesty, trust, friendship and respect, all with the same goal: to heal.   At this time in my life I lived with a lot of guilt, confusion, anger, hurt and fear. I had so many unanswered questions, there was so much I needed to know and understand in order to continue my own healing process. While I was leery, sceptical, scared and unsure, [about meeting ‘Sam’] at first, I was also eager for answers, understanding and most of all to know “WHY?” I decided to do a face-to-face [a Victim Offender Mediation Program facilitated dialogue] with ‘Sam’, the offender. 

I left with SO much more than I went in with: I left with answers, and a new level of understanding (which is different than accepting) where his head had been at the time and where it was now. I left with information about [treatment] programs and an introduction to the psychiatrist Sam was seeing. I left having heard him say he was just as afraid to see me in public (once he was released) as I was to see him. I listened. I left released from one of my greatest fears, having heard him say “It had nothing to do with you, Allison”. I was, in no way, responsible. I guess one could say that all he had to offer me was words, and the emotion under them, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned how powerful those words would actually be. All of my most important questions now had answers; I could continue the healing process. This process was such an incredibly powerful tool in my life.

I want to tell you a quick story that my girlfriend reminded me of, a story of a particular time in my life that reminds me of how powerful my face-to-face proved to be. I was planning to go to the Cloverdale Rodeo with my husband, two kids and one other couple and their kids. Four hours prior to leaving  for that event, I got a phone call telling me that Sam, who by then was in a minimum security prison, had been given [a Temporary Absence] permission to attend that Rodeo with members of his family. I decided to go. Why? Because during my face-to-face Sam told me something. He told me that he was so scared to ever see me in public when he got out, that he didn’t know what he would do, or say; that he would turn around and leave. I thought about that, instead of thinking the way I used to: that he would hurt me, or even just see me without me seeing him. I went [to the Rodeo] and yes, it was a little uncomfortable, but we had fun. Fun, because of the information I got from my face-to-face, meeting. It gave me another way of thinking, and I liked it. Years ago, I would think about my mom and horrifying, vivid images and thoughts of what happened to her would come to mind. Because my thoughts were so unsettled and questions were not answered, I was unable to see past that. Now I am settled. My questions are answered and my thoughts and images of her are again funny, silly, sweet memories of her laughing, joking or just simply calling out “Hey girls”. 

I am now a mother of two and the wife of an amazing man. I am a registered care aid; I work with seniors that fill my life with joy. Today I can move forward with strength, courage and confidence. I do not forgive, and I can never forget what Sam did to my mom, [those things are for her to forgive, not me]. I can use what I’ve learned, though, through VOMP, to help others. This program has done so much for me…. Dave and Sandi have been there for me from my worst to my very best days, including my wedding day. [The program has] given me the gift of knowledge, guidance, support and friendship, but most of all, the ability to heal. For that I am forever grateful,

Thank you, to each of you, [workshop participants] for coming to listen to me this afternoon.   

One of the primary themes in Allison’s conference presentation was that, as a result of her VOMP participation, her experience of virtually all of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which she had previously suffered had been sharply reduced. As part of that presentation, Allison allowed me to share the inventories she had filled out through the duration of the time we were working with her, therapeutically. As we went through the inventories together, comparing them for the conference attendees, Allison commented on what she saw as the vast difference between her current experience of those symptoms and her experience as the “confused, terrified, angry and pretty much shattered 15-year-old at the time my mom was taken from us”.   Further, she indicated that while she currently experienced a few symptoms in each of the inventory’s categories, the resurfacing of those symptoms occurred so infrequently that she had altered the inventory form for the purposes of this presentation, taking out the descriptor “(1 x per week)” in the heading marked “Seldom”. She reported that, for her, “Seldom” now meant “a few times per year”.   She was also clear that, while her experience of those symptoms had continued to diminish “… over the fourteen years since my face-to-face meeting, most of them [i.e. the symptoms] began to disappear immediately after the face-to-face.” 

She reported that in the months following her dialogue with Sam, and as she met fairly regularly with VOMP staff to work on a few therapeutic objectives, she became increasingly free to live, free of survivor guilt and free to experience joy once more. Allison had experienced a reassertion of her ability to love and work. The crippling fears experienced earlier were gone; she was now sure that she would be able to parent her children without obsessively fearing that she might be taken from them by murder (or them from her). Finally, she felt that she had achieved a new vision for her life, as a caregiver herself, working part-time as a Care-Aid, assisting seniors living in extended care facilities.

And what of Sam, the young man who acted out so violently at age 17? Is there hope for one such as him? Has his experience of VOMP been healing for him, as well? Despite initial grave concerns for Sam’s prognosis and the high risk potential (according to earlier risk assessment instruments) for violent recidivism, there have been no new charges or parole condition violations. Sam has been on parole for four years, now, working to rebuild his life, to heal relationships in his own family of origin, to make a positive contribution to his community through diligent skilled work as a tradesman and as a contributing member of society. The frequent contacts with him have slowed, then ended. Sam now is working, like Allison-- and in large measure because of the challenges she put to him in their face-to-face meeting--to develop and live out a new vision for his life. All indicators are that he is doing just that. 

 

2010 Annual Report
Victim Offender Mediation Story

“…the power of it, it goes so deep…it almost makes your heart stop, when you’re forgiven for something you didn’t think you should be forgiven for

(Dan, a VOMP participant reflecting on the impact of the process and the facilitated dialogue with his victim, Emily).

One of the joys of having had the privilege of serving Victim Offender Mediation program participants over the past 25 years is that we get to see the long-term impacts, the fruits of our labours. The case presented here, as briefly as we dare, is just one example in which those impacts have proven to be long-lasting and profound. We were again reminded, after recently re-connecting with both Dan and Emily (not their real names), the participants in this case, of what a gift it is to be privileged to do this work. Their case was the subject of a one hour CBC radio documentary broadcast a number of years ago on the TAPESTRY program as part of a series. It was simply titled “Apologies”. As we visited together and filled in the history since we had last all been in one room in a federal prison, Dan and Emily underscored for us what we had heard then and how it had impacted them since. Emily produced the copy she had been given by the producers of the Tapestry tape and we revisited some of the story along with interviews and things published since. The story and all that surrounds it could easily fill a book. I’ll share just a few excerpts from the things published to try to bring the characters to life.

Danny was one of the last people one would suspect of having what he now refers to as his dangerous ‘dark side’. Apparently pro-social, a reliable friend, steadily employed as a correctional officer, Danny harboured a secret rage. Women within a certain age bracket and with a resemblance to a care-giver who had violently sexually assaulted him as a four year old, would trigger an association for him, he says, that made them potential targets for the need he felt to have his own injury avenged. Emily, the last person in the world who would ever harm anyone, much less sexually harm a child, tragically bore just enough resemblance to his victimizer that Danny chose her as one of the targets of his rage. He was ultimately arrested, charged with five similar sexual assaults and sentenced, upon his guilty plea, to eighteen years in prison. He recalls the first years of his incarceration:

I remember being in [a maximum security penitentiary] looking up at the hill …hanging onto the bars and knowing that I was facing 18 years in prison. And I [remember] thinking, “What happened”? “What is this”? “What am I doing here”? “How could I have done what I did”? 

Years were to pass. Dan’s violation of her had thrown Emily into a hellish ‘prison’ of her own. Afraid to leave her home, and afraid to be in it, Emily was just existing, watching her world become smaller, her circle of friends and family abandoning her, unable to understand her plight and unable to offer her any real help. Even after Dan was imprisoned Emily’s fear states and hyper vigilance improved only marginally. She was experiencing what most trauma survivors do: that the symptoms following traumatic incidents of the magnitude that cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) persevere, unrelentingly, and long after the initial danger has passed.

A number of years into his incarceration, Danny began to recognize that without serious help and serious effort on his own part to answer the questions he had been posing earlier, he would never be free of the rage he felt related to his own childhood sexual victimization or of the deviance that had caused harm to so many and consumed the best years of his life. He recalls the questions changing. He began to ask, “How can I become the man I really want to be?”  “I think it started from there”, he says. That led to a conversation “with another prisoner who had participated in the VOMP program. He told me it had helped turn his life around; he was the one who suggested it to me.” 

Fortunately, Danny also had one prison staff member who was prepared to believe in him, who trusted that Danny’s desire to understand how he had become so ‘bent’, to work hard at his treatment and rehabilitation and to seek to make meaningful amends to those he had harmed were all genuine. She made the formal referral to VOMP. 

When we first met Emily, she was quite clear about having had need for answers to her questions. She was equally clear about her interest—even at this late date—in being provided with a mechanism for attempting to get answers to the questions that had plagued her for years, the questions she would have posed to Danny in the court room if that had been possible. That doesn’t happen of course. The rules are clear: the prosecutor, not the victim, asks the questions. And it is not unlikely that the victim/witness will be vigorously cross-examined to the point of wondering who is actually on trial. Emily was grateful for a mechanism (the VOMP process) and for a safe forum in which she could finally ask the questions that had relevance for her.

There is a danger, in the way that stories can ‘telescope’ time, that telling this one in so small a space might suggest that this went quickly or was a ‘miracle cure’. On the contrary. It was arduous, hard work for all involved, work that took months of concentrated effort. But it paid off. Step by step, as we supported both Emily and Danny in the individual work they felt they needed to do to prepare for their facilitated dialogues, it became clear that this case which at the beginning had been so rife with potential pitfalls now had much to recommend that we proceed. Emily wrote an initial list of questions out. Danny agreed to respond to them on videotape, in the moment, as we read them to him. We then returned to Emily’s home, taking Danny’s videotape with us, playing sections at a time and debriefing each of them. 

Emily is a woman of amazing grace and strength. She was already feeling as though she had made substantial gains in her own healing as a result of her participation in the early phases of the VOMP process, but decided that she would make the 500 km trip to the prison to meet face-to-face with Dan, believing that, for both of them, the best was yet to come. Weeks later, all the arrangements had been made, and Emily was walking with us, through the principal entrance of the prison to the Board room where the dialogue would take place. She recalls:

The questions began, awkwardly at first and then, in a more meaningful way, the prisoner and I began to talk freely while I questioned every detail of why he did this to me. Much to the surprise of everyone in the room tears began to flow (tears of forgiveness, apology, repentance and relief). What began as a tense, frightening experience turned into a powerful encounter, one in which my truth--much of which had been denied by others—was validated and vindicated (Government of Canada, 2007).

A CBC radio documentary about the case provides the following dialogue:

EMILY: For the villain to come and say he was deeply sorry was a wonderful healing process…someone believes me, at last. He knows what he did; he knows, because he was there, and he’s saying he’s sorry….. The feeling of being ‘unclean’…--once he apologized--that seemed to go away, and I began to see myself as something good, and not something dirty, or promiscuous or wild, or all these different things that [society suggests a rape victim must be]…once he apologized, then I began to feel relief, that’s when the real relief began to come (CBC Radio, 1997).   

In the testimonial she wrote for National Crime Victims Awareness Week, Emily concluded:

I cannot begin to relate what a difference it has made in my life when [CJI’s VOMP staff] took the time to walk me through all the steps needed to put closure to such a traumatic event. Not only have these people…helped me to accomplish what I had set out to do, which was to forgive and to overcome my fears, but they have kept in touch by phone, by visits to my home and with e-mails over the ensuing years. They have never abandoned me since the case was closed. Their care, client centred approach and understanding of complex psychology assisted me to the point that all of the post-trauma symptoms that had plagued me for years completely evaporated within months of meeting them (Government of Canada). 

For his part, Danny recalls the astonishment he felt when he realized that Emily had come, not just to rage at him, but to get answers for herself, to offer forgiveness in response to a meaningful apology, and to challenge him to get whatever healing assistance he needed to ensure that there would be no more victims. He struggled to describe the feeling, and offered this:

[W]hen she showed me care and concern it was like a knife that went straight into my heart. Like, it’s like telling a demon that you love him: it would kill him, you know? (CBC Radio). 

As a result, I mean it not only seemed to really be a revelation for [Emily], the residual was, was, a total…a total metamorphoses for me, you know, like I completely changed from an animal into a human being, umm, as a spiritual person, as an intellectual person—everything--in a very short span (post VOMP participation interview, January 3, 2007). 

There can be tremendous cynicism around how people (outside observers, that is) view these victim offender dialogues and these sorts of apologies. But for two full decades now (and with a substantial portion of the more than 500 referrals we’ve received, since we began, culminating in face-to-face meetings between the victim and offender participants) we have seen those apologies have tremendous meaning to the people who receive them and the prisoners who make them. The outcomes for both victims and offenders are of real interest to trauma recovery and offender treatment specialists alike. For many victims, sincere apology seems to have a powerful impact on their sense of vindication and validation as innocent parties.   Beyond that, the process, of which apology is often a part, seems to have the ability to free them and release them, even to the point of diminishing or even extinguishing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Gustafson, 2005).

Tellingly, too, commitments made by prisoners to their victims in these facilitated dialogues to have “no more victims” result in remarkably low rates of repeat offending—a measure which certainly has meaning for victims, no matter what else it might mean to other observers. Low rates of recidivism as a program outcome for VOMP participants continue to be borne out by research, such as the successive Victim Offender Mediation Program (VOMP) Correctional Results Reports (Petrellis, 2009). 

Once offender participants make commitments to their victims as part of VOMP process, they keep them to a degree most sceptics would never believe. Danny explains his own motivation:  

No one, absolutely no one: not the judge, not the cops, not the prison system, no one, has more power than my victim to suggest I change my ways or to require things of me…and yet what motivates me is not some additional kind of coercion, but the gift of her grace and forgiveness. I can never repay her for that, never. But I’m going to work at it…. Unconditional love has changed my life (interview, January 03, 2007).    

Forgiveness of offenders by their victims is not one of the program goals or objectives of VOMP. Healing, transformation and change, rather, are paramount. In fact, staff raise the issue of forgiveness only when program participants, themselves, do. But when forgiveness is offered in response to genuine responsibility taking, genuine apology and attempts to make meaningful amends—as it so often is—it can be an integral part of what participants experience as ‘healing’ and an amazing thing to witness. That is especially true in situations where the harms are as serious as those with which we deal. We frequently witness the paradox which Nic Tavuchis describes this way: “an apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do” (1991:33).  

And when it does, when true repentance and apology do their work, when forgiveness flows:

“…the power of it, it goes so deep…
it almost makes your heart stop….”

References:

“Apologies”. Tapestry Program. CBC Radio. Trish Naylor, producer. Jan. 26, 1997.

Canada. National Crime Victims Awareness Week, Resource Manual Testimonials (2007), Ottawa. 

Gustafson, D (2005). Exploring Treatment and Trauma Recovery Implications of Facilitating Victim Offender Encounters in Crimes of Severe Violence: Lessons from the Canadian Experience. In E. Elliott & R. Gordon (Eds.), New Directions in Restorative Justice: Issues, Practice, Evaluation, (193-228), Cullompton, Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.

Petrellis, T., (2009). Presentation to Restorative Practices International Conference, Vancouver, BC., June 1, 2009).

Tavuchis, N. (1991). Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

Community Justice Initiatives Association

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