Victim Offender Dialogue FAQs for SURVIVORS

What IS Victim-Centered VOD?

VOD is a facilitated process, through which victims/survivors who have chosen to pursue it, say some things to, and ask some things of the offender(s) in their crime. It is also a process through which offenders receive and respond to those things in a way that reflects understanding of some of the impacts of their crime(s) and, whenever possible, an expression of personal accountability by the offender to the victim/survivor.

How does VOD help victims/survivors?

VOD provides victims/survivors of severe and/or violent crimes and violations a process through which to have an emotionally and physically safe opportunity to say some important things to the offender, and to ask some important things of the offender – often questions only the offender can answer. Typically, being able to say things to, or ask things of the offender helps victims/survivors move forward in their journey toward healing. The VOD itself often proceeds for several hours, according to the needs of the survivor.

Does VOD have anything to do with forgiveness or reconciliation?

Not usually. Victim-Centered VOD is intended to provide victims/survivors with a chance to be fully and directly heard by the offender. It is intended to provide survivors an opportunity to have more of the choices and the control they have long needed and deserved. If they fully and sincerely wish to “forgive” or “reconcile with” the offender in some way, facilitators can help enable that possibility, but properly trained VOD facilitators never initiate or impose any sort of expectations about forgiveness or reconciliation. Survivors must always be allowed and enabled to simply say what they need to say to the offender, in a way that the offender can fully listen and hear them.

Is VOD appropriate for every kind of violent crime, and every kind of victim?

Depending on the capacity of the offender, VOD can be appropriate for many severely violent crimes and violations – provided the approach is rigorously victim-centered, and the facilitator is properly and thoroughly trained in facilitating such cases. Cases of intentional and unintentional murder, attempted murder, rape, other sexual assault or exploitation, kidnapping, armed robbery, manslaughter, and other such deeply traumatizing crimes are among the many that have been successfully facilitated. Cases in which the offender acted in severely psychopathic or sadistic ways require facilitators with special training, as do cases involving domestic assault, sexual assault, and sexual exploitation. Some of those states with VOD programs severely limit the pursuit of the latter cases, while others do not. All states are committed to protecting the physical and emotional well-being of victims/survivors and the safety of incarcerated offenders.

Why are domestic assault and sexual assault or exploitation cases, and cases of sadistic behavior, for that matter, approached differently from other crimes of severe violence?

To begin with, these are typically cases in which power and control are exercised in unimaginably predatory ways by extremely manipulative and/or persuasive individuals, and the mechanisms by which the power and control are exercised tend to be very subtle. The facilitators in such situations – whether they be acquaintance/date, or marital rape, for example, or a sudden attack by a stranger – must be familiar with these power and control dynamics, and with the continuing possibility of their being applied anew in extremely subtle and clever ways. Moreover, the profound effects upon the survivors of the victimization and violation in such cases require a specific sensitivity and experience on the part of the facilitator. As for sadistic behaviors, they – and the factors that propel them – are several orders of magnitude more complex than what we consider “ordinary” violent crime and violation, and require specific sensitivity and experience on the part of the facilitator.

What about a family member who sexually victimized us for a number of years?

Incest survivors and others betrayed or violated by fathers, mothers, siblings, cousins, grandparents, or other family members or trusted friends or mentors wrestle with some of the most intensely complicated and conflicting feelings of all. And in some cases, in addition to all the pain of the betrayals and violations themselves, many of these offenders minimize or vigorously deny ever having done anything wrong – which deepens the wounds. Because VOD requires that the offender admit to his/her role and responsibility in the crime or violation, these cases are sometimes confronted with enormous challenges. But there are also times when the survivor only wants to speak her/his truth to the offender, whether or not he or she admits to the violations, and occasionally, in such cases of denial, VOD may be possible. In any case, a properly trained facilitator can often help the survivor in such situations – even if only to come to the final conclusion that the offender may never find the courage to admit to the harms he or she caused.

Is there a minimum age a survivor must be to do this?

Most Victim Service agencies require that a survivor be 16 years of age or more, in order to participate in the preparation and dialogue process. In some cases, a decision may be made to allow a somewhat younger survivor to participate, but this is rareKeep in mind that all correctional facilities have a minimum age at which a person may enter secure areas, and this in itself can limit the possibilities. Variations in policy would always require the approval or agreement of the Office of Victim Services.

What about cases where the offender is on Death Row?

A number of states with the death penalty also allow VOD in such cases. As above, these are more complex cases, but the fundamental principle is the same – to allow and enable survivors of murdered loved ones to give voice to that which they need and deserve to be able to say to the offender. For those victims/survivors who feel this need, being prevented by the State from talking in a facilitated VOD with the condemned offender can be further re-wounding for them, ironically. Dialogues in death penalty cases have been very successfully conducted in states where the work of the facilitator is sufficiently victim-centered, and there is no agenda for a stay of execution or a commutation of the offender’s sentence. As long as the facilitated VOD is initiated and genuinely wished for by the victim/survivor, and the offender is willing to participate, the potential for a greater sense of healing and of justice for the victim/survivor is enormous.

Is VOD the same as victim offender mediation?

Not in the precise sense of the word. Although these terms are often used interchangeably by some in the field, victim-centered VOD is definitely not, technically, “mediation.” That is, the process is not about getting to some middle ground, or “agreement.” And while facilitators must sometimes be capable of “mediating” discussion of certain issues, they should not be directing the preparation and dialogue process toward anything more than enabling the fullest meeting of the victim/survivor’s needs, and the fullest expression of the offender’s readiness for this. Violent victimization is not a misunderstanding; it is not a conflict to be resolved. It is a profoundly devastating experience from which survivors are working to recover and to heal, and from which they seek and expect a personal sense of justice – whatever that means for them. For these reasons, the work of facilitators is to facilitate, or make easier, the process by which survivors and offenders give voice to the pain and the shame of their experiences of victimization and violation. In this sense, facilitation is very different from mediation.

It seems like some crimes are unintentional, in a way, as in a drunk-driving accident, where someone was killed, as opposed to murder. How does VOD work in that kind of case?

Victim-centered VOD focuses primarily on the needs of the victim/survivor – that is, the person whose life has been devastated by the choices and actions of another. While it’s true that, for example, almost no one drinks with the deliberate intention of getting behind the wheel and killing someone, the fact is that the choice to drink and drive can often be a lethal one, resulting in the senseless loss, or the partial or complete disabling, of a thoroughly innocent and undeserving person. This is why victims/survivors in cases like these find the word “accident” to be so infuriating. It may have been “unintentional” devastation, but drinking and driving is a choice, not an accident. What survivors need from offenders in situations like this is to know that the offenders understand the utterly devastating consequences of the choices they made. The job of the VOD facilitator, then, is to help prepare the offender to receive this understanding from the survivor, and to find suitable ways to express a form of accountability to the survivor – whatever that may mean for the survivor and the offender.

My son and I were both assaulted by the offender. Can we meet with him together?

If you or your son cannot do this any other way, then it is definitely possible to have two survivors in a VOD with an offender. But there are many reasons for VODs to be one on one. The first and most important is that each survivor, no matter how close the relationship, and no matter how identical the event(s), has a very different and very individual experience of victimization and violation. In order for Victim-Centered VOD to be effective, offenders need to understand the unique and different impacts of their actions and behaviors, as well as the ones in common. This can only happen when each individual is allowed to give full voice to his/her own experiences. In addition, when family members or other acquaintances are speaking together in the VOD, it can often prevent either or both of them from saying all that they want to say to the offender – out of concern for the other, politeness, or fear about some private disclosure. Victimization and violation are very private and personal matters for survivors, and they deserve to be treated in very private and personal ways.

There are two offenders convicted in the murder of my father, and I want to meet with both of them. How does that work?

The most appropriate way to do this is to work (separately, of course) with the two offenders at the same time, and then to conduct the separate VODs at about the same time, as well. It is a mistake to conduct sequential preparation and dialogue in the same case, because it effectively doubles the preparation process for the survivor, which is undeserved. Of much greater concern is the fact that the stories of the two offenders will very likely be somewhat different, and possibly conflicting, and working simultaneously with them allows discrepancies to be aired and addressed as they arise. Following up on discrepancies with an offender who has already gone through the VOD is a virtual impossibility.

As the survivor of a murdered family member, I feel that talking with an offender “dignifies” him, in a way, or “absolves” him, somehow. I’d rather stay angry at him. Do other victims feel this way?

Many survivors wrestle with such feelings, and there are many good reasons you may wish never to talk with the offender in your loved one’s case. On the other hand, some survivors find themselves wishing to get rid of some of that anger they carry, because they feel it’s eating them up. VOD can often help alleviate this feeling, to some extent, as it provides an opportunity for them to finally “give a voice” to their lost loved one. But Victim-Centered VOD definitely does not absolve the offender of anything. On the contrary, it causes the offender to finally face and feel the deeply personal impacts of what he or she did. This kind of VOD is anything but easy for them. However, VOD is not necessarily for everyone, and no one should push you into something like this unless you know it is exactly what you need and want to do – for yourself, or for your loved one.

The offender who murdered my loved one later committed suicide. Is there any way that VOD can be helpful in situations like mine?

This is yet another of the heartbreaking and frustrating situations in which survivors can feel completely helpless and lost. Obviously, an offender who commits suicide leaves many questions that will be forever unanswerable. Sometimes, however, “surrogate” offenders can provide answers and explanations that might apply – even if only generally – to the circumstances under which your loved one was killed. In states where “surrogate” dialogues are allowed, offenders who are known to be interested in apologizing for their crimes may be engaged to participate in an abbreviated preparation and dialogue process, in order to help the survivor receive a measure of understanding that would have been altogether impossible, otherwise.

What about cases of felony stalking by a stranger?

VOD in stalking cases is widely considered to be a very bad idea. This is because stalkers have been found to remain persistently unable to “get the message” – no matter how the message is conveyed. Rather, they allow themselves only to believe that the target of their obsession simply doesn’t yet “know” enough about them to realize that they are “meant” to be in a relationship with one another. Experienced professionals believe that an encounter – even a facilitated encounter – in which disinterest is expressed in no uncertain terms – will only feed the obsession and/or delusion of the stalker.

Is there anything victims/survivors and offenders can’t talk about in VOD? Can I ask any question I want?

VOD is intended to focus on the crime of record – the crime against the victim/survivor or the loved one of the victim/survivor by the offender. Within that framework, nothing is off limits as long as the offender is willing and able to talk about it. It also sometimes happens that, after the more emotional aspects of the crime and its aftermath have been talked about, other subjects may come up, especially between former acquaintances, partners, or family members. As long as the survivor is completely comfortable talking in this way, it can often help to diffuse some of the emotional impacts of the VOD.

What if I find that, after starting the VOD preparation process, I don’t want to continue with it?

You always have the right to stop the preparation – or dialogue – process at any time, and for any reason. You also have the right to take it up again if and when you feel ready to do that – assuming the offender is willing to participate again. The facilitator should make it very easy for you to stop, if that’s what you want, or even to leave it tentative. This is meant to be your process, and you should be in control of it, to the extent possible.

How do I find out if VOD is a possibility in my state?

JUST Alternatives maintains a list of states (currently 26) in which VOD in crimes of severe violence is allowed, but you can always inquire of your own state’s Department of Corrections Victim Service Office. VOD can only be initiated by the victim/survivor through the DOC office of Victim Services, and not by offenders. It’s important to keep in mind that each state’s Office of Victim Services will have policies that vary from those of other states. They also have the right and responsibility to refuse to allow VOD preparation to be pursued if they believe it would in any way be unsafe to do so.

I have NO interest in ever talking with the offender in my case. But what if he wants to contact me about what happened? Is he allowed to do that?

He is not. As noted above, VOD can be initiated only by victims/survivors. But if the offender in your case makes an attempt to contact you about this – whether directly or indirectly – you can contact your office of Victim Services to let them know, and all efforts will be made to prevent the offender from doing this again.

My son is an incarcerated offender, and he wants to apologize to his victim for his crime, but he’s not allowed to. Why is that?

Experience in corrections-based Victim Services has shown that many survivors do not want to receive an uninvited apology from the offender. Reasons for this vary, but among the most common is their belief that the offender cannot possibly know what he is apologizing for, since he has not lived with the victimization and devastation and its aftermath. On the other hand, many victims/survivors do want to know if the offender in their case feels anything about what he did. The Victim Service offices in some states maintain “offender accountability” or “offender apology” letter files, in case the offender does make an attempt to write something like this. Some of these letters are sincere and heartfelt and some are thinly-disguised attempts to be self-serving or even manipulative. This is another reason facilitated VOD can be helpful, because preparation with a trained facilitator enables the offender to begin to better understand the effects and impacts of what he did.

I know where the offender in my case is incarcerated, and I definitely don’t want anyone to “coach” him about what to say. Why couldn’t I just go see him?

In some states, it’s possible to do this, but it can be emotionally dangerous. In most states, if you are registered or certified with the DOC office of Victim Services, or otherwise known as a victim/survivor in the crime the offender is incarcerated for, and even if the offender agrees to put you on his visitation list, you would likely not be allowed to visit at all. This is for the safety and protection of both the victim/survivor and the offender, and the policy comes from tragic experience. There are some survivors who have managed to get on visitation lists without the facilities’ catching this ahead of time, but it is risky in many ways. Properly trained and experienced facilitators play a vital role in helping the survivor give full voice to all that they need and deserve to say. They also play a critical role in preparing the offender to begin to receive and understand what the survivor has to say. But facilitators should never “coach” offenders about what to say. They do often have to help offenders understand how not to say something in a way that could cause the survivor to suddenly stop the conversation altogether – because of the offender’s failure to comprehend the effects of putting something tactlessly. The potential for misunderstandings and failed expectations – to say nothing of the potential for emotional re-wounding – is enormous. So conversations between survivors and offenders in crimes of severe violence require and deserve considerable and careful preparation beforehand, to ensure that each person is truly ready to deal with the many deep and complex feelings that will arise in the conversation. Doing this without a trained facilitator is akin to pursuing a legal case without an attorney. It could be done, but the result will almost always be an unnecessarily bitter disappointment.

What if I don’t want to have a “Dialogue?” What if I just want to tell the offender some things?

Even if you only want to say some things and then leave, the challenge is to ensure that the offender is actually capable of listening to, and hearing you, rather than simply shutting down. Experience has shown that expecting to be heard by someone who is shut down can end up being deeply frustrating and infuriating for a survivor. This is why some degree of preparation with a facilitator is always essential.

What if I can’t help feeling like I want to strangle the offender for what he did to my loved one?

As you may imagine, you’re not alone in this feeling, and many victims/survivors probably feel very much the same way. But even though you may feel he doesn’t deserve any protection, it’s important to know that the job of the correctional facility is to ensure that offenders serve their full sentence, and their safety is part of the mission of corrections. In addition, part of the job of the facilitator is to reduce the potential for harm — physical and emotional — to each person. And although many survivors may feel as you do at the beginning of the preparation process, these feelings moderate considerably as the process continues. This is because most of us do not act in violent, impulsive, or predatory ways. On the other hand, many survivors have a need to understand — as well as to be heard and understood by — those who do act in these ways. In any case, while a properly trained facilitator must do everything possible to ensure physical safety, he or she will also be committed to ensuring that all your feelings — no matter how unpleasant or “unacceptable” they might seem to outsiders — have a very safe place for full expression during the preparation process. Your anger and your pain and your grief deserve to be heard, if that’s what you wish to express, and properly trained facilitators are there to make that possible for you, if they can.

Does the offender receive any benefit in return for doing this?

No. There is no change in the offender’s release or classification status in return for participating in the VOD preparation and dialogue process. It is a strictly personal process, which many offenders consent to in order to “finally do something right” for the victim/survivor. The increase in their understanding of the impacts of their choices and actions is usually substantial, and that can actually be a burden to them. But this is an understanding they actually yearn for. On the other hand, it’s generally reported that about 25% of the offenders who have been asked refused to participate in VOD preparation.

Why does the VOD preparation process have to take so long?

Talking about the deep and complex feelings that surround the devastation of victimization and violation is a very difficult process, and yet, this kind of talking is exactly what many survivors – and some offenders – need to be able to safely do. In most cases, victims/survivors and offenders do want to recall and talk about these most overwhelming and devastating feelings as a way of fully “dealing” with them, but this delicate and deeply personal process cannot be hurried. Each must be able to take enough time to find words for the many feelings, so that enough can be expressed during the one-time-only meeting. Typically, after the VOD, survivors finally feel they no longer have to talk about the crime and devastation as they once needed to. And although VOD preparation is not therapy, and facilitators are not therapists, the process of talking fully about what happened is, in fact, a somewhat therapeutic and clarifying experience, as powerful feelings are expressed in authentic ways. Some survivors see therapists while they’re involved in the preparation process, and others choose not to. Offenders sometimes have counselors with whom they can talk if they wish to, but they often do not, in order to avoid higher visibility and uninvited scrutiny. In any case, the typical preparation process requires many months, and sometimes more than a year. One major exception is the Death Row case in which the execution date has been set, and the victim/survivor suddenly realizes it is possible to have a facilitated VOD with the offender. In such cases, the facilitator must work within a very compressed time frame to prepare the offender and the survivor.

Where does the VOD usually take place in the prison, and who’s usually there?

The VOD usually takes place in a room at the prison that is private and quiet. Typically, it is a room that is away from inmate traffic of any kind, so that the survivor and the offender have absolute privacy from the scrutiny of other inmates. Administrative offices, conference or meeting rooms, and chapel offices are often utilized for VOD. The preeminent need for Security is such that a Correctional Officer must be able to see into the room at any time, but not hear what is being said, in order to preserve the privacy and confidentiality of the conversation. In the room itself are the victim/survivor, the offender, and the facilitator. Under certain circumstances, survivors may request that a support person, if one is wanted, be in the room for the VOD, rather than in another room nearby. If this feels absolutely essential, it may be possible to arrange for a support person to be in the room, but not at the table. Remember, the VOD is between you and the offender. Experience has shown that survivors can become distracted by their concern for the feelings of the support person, rather than their own feelings. They can also be vulnerable to censoring some of their feelings and words in a way that can dilute the very purpose of the VOD.

I’ve been “strong” for a lot of years since my father’s murder, but I’m not sure how strong I could be in a conversation with the man who murdered him. I want to be strong, but what if I get emotional? Is that OK?

It’s more than OK. Allowing yourself the option to express any and all feelings you wish to express, in your own authentic way, is the underlying purpose of Victim-Centered VOD. While VOD is not an appropriate place for expressing uncontrolled rage, you do not have to act “calm and controlled” if you’re not feeling calm and controlled. If you’re like most victims/survivors, you’ve been waiting a very long time to give voice to these long-held feelings, and the VOD is exactly the place for that – assuming that’s what you want to do. The VOD is for you. It’s your day.

What happens to the offender, after participating in the VOD process?

Typically, offenders come away with a completely new and different understanding of the devastating impacts of what they have done, an understanding that would have been impossible to fully grasp and absorb at the time of the trial and/or sentencing. (This is one of the reasons VOD is more effective when it’s initiated some years after sentencing, rather than sooner.) The VOD experience usually enables a new understanding of personal accountability for offenders, and what it means to “carry” this, as they remain in prison. For those survivors who succeed in conveying this understanding to the offenders, a common feeling is that they have finally been able to “leave some of the pain and grief at the prison, with the offender, where it belongs.” Ironically, many offenders actually appreciate this, as painful as it may be, because they feel they have finally been held to account by the “true” authority, at last. And it is no longer as easy to “sleepwalk” through their sentence, where they are not expected to talk about their crimes in terms of accountability for their choices. And because they have been held to more personal account and seen as “a person” by the survivor, they begin to feel that maybe they can do some good, now, and make some meaning, from the pain and devastation they have caused. It is only the survivor who can hold them to account in this way. Unfortunately, there is usually no ongoing programmatic follow-up with offenders who have participated in VOD, and it is not always easy for them to sustain the unique insights and awareness they gained from the VOD preparation and dialogue experience.

Do victims and offenders stay in touch, after the VOD?

Normally, they do not stay in touch in any way, neither by correspondence nor through visits, and most Victim Service professionals discourage the idea for a number of good reasons. In some cases, there are court-ordered prohibitions against contact of any kind, and going against such orders is a violation of the law that may result in additional sanctions against the offender, and possible sanctions against the victim/survivor. There have, however, been situations in which victims/survivors have continued contact by letter and/or visits with offenders in their cases, following a VOD. Each state may have its own specific policy regarding such situations, but when there is no direct prohibition of contact, and the victim/survivor has freely chosen to maintain the contact for personal reasons, the victim/survivor is presumed to know what she or he needs, in this regard. It should be noted, however, that the risks involved in conducting corresponding and/or visiting relationships with incarcerated offenders include the strong possibility of manipulation and exploitation of the relationship by the offender. It can be extremely easy for thoughtful and intelligent people to feel understandable sympathy and pity for incarcerated offenders, and to come to believe they know and understand these offenders in ways that others do not. This may, in rare cases, turn out to be true, but hard experience has shown that this path is fraught with emotional – and sometimes physical – risk and danger.

What if the offender in a case says no to the victim/survivor’s wish to do this?

VOD must always be voluntary on the part of each, and there are times when offenders just cannot – or will not – participate in the preparation process. In such cases, it may be possible to create an alternative option for the victim/survivor, including separate interviews by a facilitator, audiotaped or videotaped conversations with the facilitator, or even – in some states – the utilization of a “surrogate” offender, incarcerated for a closely similar crime, and willing to talk about it with another victim/survivor. Sadly, there are sometimes circumstances in which almost nothing VOD-related can be done to help survivors in such situations. But corrections-based Victim Service offices typically work very hard to provide survivors with options and alternatives – assuming they can be safely enabled.