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'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options

By Wendy McElroy
web posted October 7, 2002

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. To deal effectively with domestic violence, it is necessary to see beyond the politically correct approach to this issue.

Some victims need an alternate method of handling domestic violence, which allows them to preserve their relationships while preventing future violence.

Domestic violence is undergoing a redefinition. For example, it used to be considered a "woman's" issue: that is, men commit violence against women. But men's rights advocates have vigorously publicized an impressive body of research indicating that the sexes batter each other at roughly the same rate. The changing face of the domestic violence victim is only one departure from political correctness.

The concept of Restorative Justice is another.

Restorative Justice is the collective name given to various approaches to domestic violence which try to end the violence through techniques such as therapy, negotiation and community involvement. Restorative Justice has the twin goals of a) restoring to the victim what has been lost -- e.g. dignity or control, and b) achieving a resolution between the parties in conflict.

It is always wrong to strike another person in anything but self-defense. But when violence occurs, the one-size-fits-all solution of criminal prosecution isn't what many victims want. There should options beyond going to court or silently enduring the violence.

This new paradigm offers another option.

Restorative Justice stands in sharp contrast to the traditional criminal approach. It defines the abuse as violence against another person to whom a debt therefore is owed, not as a crime against the state. It emphasizes problem solving and prevention, not guilt. The parties directly involved decide what is a "just" outcome rather than leaving that decision to a law book or a government agency.

Restorative Justice solves the social problem of domestic violence without creating a second one (incarceration in a bulging prison system). Moreover, the abuser takes responsibility for the violence rather than merely enduring punishment and, so, true remorse and reform become more likely.

Restorative Justice will not work for everyone. It will certainly not work in circumstances where the abuser has no remorse. But for situations in which dialogue, therapy and arbitration are possible, Restorative Justice "workshops" can be positive. Such workshops are beginning to spread, often with the encouragement of police departments.

One of the main barriers to the spread of Restorative Justice is the hostile reaction of politically correct feminists. In its summer 2000 issue, Interaction, the publication of the Canadian Network Interaction for Conflict Resolution, recounts a confrontation between the director of a woman's group and a group of non-profit agencies using Restorative Justice. 

The feminist attacked them for "focusing on the abuser," screaming, "Women's lives are at stake!"

A director from a non-profit recalled, "No one responded ... The truth was all of us were savvy enough to know she wasn't asking for a response that involved discussion or dialogue, rather a strong clear message about Restorative Justice was being delivered. The message was 'STOP!'"

Similar scenarios are being played out wherever Restorative Justice is tried. PC feminists argue that working to preserve the family in the face of violence not only ignores the damage done to the victim but also places her (or him) back into a dangerous environment. And, in some cases, that criticism may be right. But it must be remembered that Restorative Justice is not a substitute for criminal penalties: It is an alternative that exists in parallel with them.

Many valid questions can be raised concerning current Restorative Justice programs. For example, they may not be sufficiently condemnatory of abusers; the facilitators are often lay people, from churches or other non-profits.

But the PC objections are largely invalid and may spring from the fact that Restorative Justice is a reproach to the standard feminist view of domestic violence. For example, Restorative Justice argues that zero tolerance -- imprisonment for a first offense -- may be a damaging approach when the victim favors forgiveness and resolution.

Perhaps PC feminists perceive a threat to "the domestic violence industry" -- a multibillion-dollar "business" that has ballooned on taxpayers' backs. Included in this industry are the shelter directors, therapists, political advocates, lawyers, university professors, social workers, and consultants whose incomes derive from domestic violence. It would be embarrassing if non-profit organizations could solve the problem as well ... or better.

It must be repeated: No one should be battered. No one should be battering. But when violence happens, there should be more than one option available.

This October, the best way to honor Domestic Violence Awareness Month is to applaud every choice available to victims. To respect the women and men who choose to stay as well as those who leave. Domestic violence is as complex as human nature itself. The "right" choice to make varies according to personal beliefs, the presence of children, background, financial status ... a diverse array of circumstances. For many victims of domestic violence, the current system and solutions are not working.

And yet, feminist critics have one thing right: Women's lives are at stake. And men's. Let's give the victims more choice.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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