Not everyone attracted to the idea of facilitating the VOD preparation and dialogue process in crimes of severe violence is appropriately suited to it, whether by temperament, training, or experience. Although there is enormous promise in Victim Offender Dialogue, there are psychological risks and hazards to survivors, and to offenders, in the long-term aftermath of crimes of severe violence and violation. There are also hazards for facilitators with insufficient experience or uninformed objectives. VOD is definitely not the same as “mediation;” it is not the same as conflict resolution. Mediation training and experience, and Restorative Justice training and experience are not, per se, directly applicable to facilitating preparation and dialogue in crimes of severe violence and violation – unless those who take those trainings are also well informed by specific Victim-Centered training in this work, and by sufficient understanding of the victim/survivor experience, trauma and post-traumatic stress, and the offender experience.
With survivors, we are working with the most raw and vulnerable elements of the human experience – areas of devastating violence and the most intimate and personal violation and loss. We’re working around severely traumatizing events that, in addition to the physical destruction and wounding, may have totally shattered fundamental belief systems and world views of victims, and their deepest sense of safety and trust. If we have not experienced something directly comparable, or spent long hours working very closely with such victims/survivors, we cannot begin to comprehend what they feel like, and what they live with, every day. Indeed, survivors often become reluctant to believe that they can trust anyone else – even close friends and family – to understand what they continue to endure, even years and years after the event itself, and long after the offender has been convicted and incarcerated. Thus, it can be easy for an inappropriately trained facilitator to misunderstand or inadvertently misjudge the more fragile aspects of a survivor’s experience, and to fail her/his needs in subtle ways. We all make mistakes in this work. Our job is to ensure that the mistakes we make are small and forgivable enough that we do not endanger the well-being, or the relationship and trust that are so essential.
With many offenders, we’re also working around raw and vulnerable aspects of experience, and around some of the most emotionally “shut-down” areas, as well. We often work with individuals who are, at best, accustomed to acting on impulse, not thinking at all about their feelings, or about articulating them. Indeed, some offenders wonder if they even have feelings, when we begin working together. In addition, the world they live in while imprisoned is both highly controlled and dangerously volatile. The threat of violence, exploitation, and betrayal of trust by other offenders is a constant in their daily lives, and they survive in part by trusting virtually no one at all. To a certain extent, they also survive by becoming adroit at taking advantage of whatever situations or individuals they can, to greater or lesser degrees, in circumstances they encounter. Thus, well-meaning but inexperienced attitudes in facilitators unaccustomed to working with offenders can leave them vulnerable to subtle – or not-so-subtle – manipulation. This can create a cascade of unintended effects not only upon the facilitator and the victim/survivor, but within the prison itself. And this is why prison facilities operate with such great care and caution, and why facilitators must be accountable to these facilities as well as to the offices of Victim Services through which they are assigned cases.
For all these reasons, facilitators must be not only sensitive, empathic, and sympathetic, but also knowledgeable and discerning, and very clear about the objectives of VOD. They must be at once strong enough to support and to “hold” – especially on behalf of the survivor, but also the offender – the excruciating, disturbing details and the impacts of the most despicable and horrific of behaviors. They must also be able to suspend inclinations to be harshly judgmental of offenders, and to recognize and take in stride the normal tendencies of evasion, denial, minimization, self-absorption, and manipulation among certain of them. Facilitators must try to establish relationships of trust and authenticity, which is not always easy around offenders with abundant criminogenic needs. They are often more the “norm.” As for offenders who are severely psychopathic, sadistic, and/or predatory – even “softly” predatory – they bring a much more complex dynamic altogether, and they require a much more sophisticated level of training and experience in facilitators. This is why there is a growing tendency among agencies to utilize veteran correctional or community supervision staff, because they are so familiar with the general needs and natures of offenders. It is harder (though not impossible) for them to be “conned.”
More importantly, facilitators are not required to be neutral. After all, in the work of Victim-Centered VOD, their help is needed because someone has been victimized and/or violated. Victimization is not a mere misunderstanding to be reconciled. The persistent impacts and effects of victimization are the very reason the VOD preparation and dialogue process exists. But the “bias” arising from this position does not mean that facilitators need be harshly judgmental. They need only be capable of anchoring their facilitation work in meeting the needs of the victim/survivor, which typically means enabling survivors, first and foremost, to be able to feel heard. But this anchoring is not at odds with helping offenders to better understand the effects of what they’ve done, and to express and embody an authentic and genuine degree of accountability if they can. On the other hand, it is not the facilitator’s job to scold them into understanding, as some might believe. If scolding turns out to be part of what the victim/survivor needs to express, it is the job of the victim/survivor to do that, not the facilitator. The facilitator’s job is to help the victim/survivor find the words s/he wants or needs to be able to say, and to properly prepare the offender to be able to hear and receive these words with respect and understanding, if possible. Ironically, helping survivors feel fully heard in such ways is as powerful as it is because it is this listening to survivors that almost always awakens a deeper and more personal sense of accountability in offenders. And deep down, most offenders tell us, they want to be held to account in this way by the survivor. Only in this way can they feel that they have, at last, faced the very person (or the loved one of the very person) they actually harmed: the true Authority. This is very different from the “detached” punishment of incarceration. As offenders will often say, “doing time” is a lot easier than facing their victims/survivors directly. And yet, facing their victims/survivors directly is what certain offenders know they “need to do” – it’s just not easy for them to do it. But skilled, sensitive, and effective facilitators can help enable offenders to do this, and to want to do it, with trust and commitment, despite the uneasiness they feel about losing “control” in this way. And for many survivors, finally having a sense of control, however limited, through the VOD, enables them to feel a greater sense of “justice.”
To do this work well on behalf of survivors, facilitators must, above all, be extremely sensitive and compassionate listeners, capable of hearing and understanding both text and subtext – what is spoken and what is unspoken. They must also be capable of both leading and following the needs of survivors and offenders, anticipating and responding to the subtle and changing needs in each, and helping them move toward the dialogue the survivor seeks. Facilitators must be able to both bear witness to their experiences and guide their intentions with sensitivity, humanity, understanding, and purpose during the preparation process. It is not enough to simply bring survivors and offenders together. If the two are insufficiently prepared for the wide range of deep feelings that will naturally arise, the VOD will fail its healing potential for the survivor and its accountability potential for the offender, and it will very likely do more harm than good. Preparation requires patience, perspective, and professionalism.
Ultimately, every VOD case requires emotional intelligence and sensitivity, and each facilitator requires a sophisticated set of what might best be called empathic, compassionate, and discerning listening skills. Each case also requires an understanding of the complexity of the victim/survivor experience and an understanding of the needs and natures of offenders. Most facilitators conduct this work as unpaid volunteers, a commitment they make because it is so deeply gratifying, transforming, and privileged an endeavor. The JUST Alternatives VOD Facilitator Trainings are rigorously Victim-Centered while being simultaneously Offender-Sensitive. They affirm the absolutely critical importance of “anchoring” our work in meeting the needs of the victim/survivor.