For certain victims/survivors of severe violence and violation – from direct violence, or the wounding or loss of a loved one – facilitated victim offender dialogue (VOD) can provide a pathway to a sense of further healing and further justice. Though this may not be for every survivor, the experience of talking directly, in a safe and secure setting, with the offender who committed the violence or violation can enable survivors to give full voice to some of the pain and trauma they have experienced. At the same time, when offenders are able to listen and respond to them, and to give voice to the complexity of feelings about what they have done, they can better understand the devastating effects of their behaviors, and how they came to be capable of such behaviors. With this increased understanding, some will be better able to “account” to the survivor for their choices and actions, and will begin to try and make new and purposeful meaning from their experience. A better name for encounters like this is Victim Offender Accountability Dialogues. But whether the offenders get to that point or not, the survivors who choose VOD come to feel that they have finally said what they needed to say to the offender. This in itself can be healing for them.
But a VOD in a crime of severe violence and violation is not simply a conversation. To be truly effective, it requires thorough and lengthy preparation with a trained facilitator. This helps both the survivor and the offender acknowledge and articulate some of the many painful feelings – from grief and shame to anger and outrage – that wait to be expressed. VOD is not about forgiveness or reconciliation – unless that is absolutely and unequivocally what the survivor wants it to be about. The primary objective is for the survivor to feel heard, and for the offender to fully understand the effects of what he or she has done.
At its most effective, victim-centered VOD enables victims/survivors of violent crime to hold offenders personally accountable for their choices and actions. When offenders face their victims directly in order to listen as they describe the impacts of the crimes, there is a dramatic increase in the victims’ sense of being heard. In this way, two of the most important needs for victims in the aftermath of victimization – a sense of being heard, and a personal sense of justice – can sometimes be much more effectively enabled through VOD than through our traditional approaches. But unless the VOD practices are sufficiently “victim-centered,” or absolutely centered on addressing the needs of victims, these practices can also imperil them – by bringing risks for emotional re-victimization.
The risk for re-victimization of victims/survivors has become more significant as the field of restorative justice work has attracted individuals of heart and conscience who believe deeply in the power of “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” for victims and offenders – but who have little understanding of the depth of the victim experience, the effects of trauma and post-trauma, or even the realities of the offender experience. The result is that, in recent years, a shift has been occurring in the field, effectively altering the meaning of restorative justice in some circles to emphasize its healing potential for offenders over victims. Thus, what began as an opportunity to enable harms to victims to be acknowledged in personal ways by offenders has, in some cases, left victims feeling further victimized – by imposing upon them uninvited and sometimes repugnant ideas of “balancing” the needs of such victims with those of offenders, and of society. This is the peril of practices that are insufficiently victim-centered. On the other hand, practices that are firmly and unambiguously anchored in addressing the needs of victims while being simultaneously sensitive to the issues of offenders offer significant potential for victims/survivors and offenders – even when the degrees of victimization and violation are indescribably horrific.
For offenders, victim-centered VOD in crimes of severe violence begins with their acknowledging complete and personal responsibility for what they have done. This means being willing to comprehend the impacts of their actions and behaviors, to face and feel a personal sense of accountability for them, and to feel remorse for the full effects of those actions upon the victims/survivors. It means having a truer understanding of the depth of the pain and grief and suffering they have caused. Victim-centered VOD for offenders is not merely about apology, especially for what can never be restored or made whole again. There are many victims/survivors who do not even want an apology if it is uninformed by the survivor’s experience. They do not want the offenders in their cases to be allowed the “easy grace” of apology. They alone can tell offenders exactly how what happened has affected them, and they alone are the ones who need and deserve to be in control of when – and whether – to receive an apology.
Most survivors want the offender to understand not only what he did to the victim, but the persistent after-effects of what he did. When a loved one has been murdered, or when innocence has been shattered by sexual assault or other violation, nothing can be done to “pay back” the life, or the innocence lost, or the trauma and post-trauma endured. And it is only through a better understanding of how profoundly victims/survivors have been wounded that an offender can begin to comprehend what apology can – and cannot – be. This is why VOD can never be merely a matter of an offender’s summoning the courage – as hard as that may be, and regardless of its sincerity – to express an apology. And it’s not about forgiveness for offenders – unless victims/survivors feel within themselves an unequivocal wish to freely offer that forgiveness. This is why VOD must be primarily about the survivor’s needs – not the needs of the offender.
Ironically, it is within this difficult context of reaching a truly personal understanding of accountability that some violent offenders begin to see that bringing new meaning to their future from the devastation they caused in the past is worth changing their attitudes, their behaviors, and their lives for – even while still incarcerated. This is how a self-actualized commitment to rehabilitation – and to No More Victims – can be ignited within them, as another positive outcome of VOD. For some victims/survivors, continually struggling to make meaning from their own indescribable violation and loss, this realization by offenders can be an important milestone in their determined journey forward.
If you’re a survivor with a possible interest in VOD, or the family member of an incarcerated offender for whom VOD might one day be a possible option, please take a look at the VOD FAQs pages for Survivors and Offenders for answers to some of the more common questions we receive.