CYC-Online 66 JULY 2004
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Restorative work: An integral feature of South African child and youth care

Mirriam Siluma

"No, no, no, I did just the right thing! I was right to punch Jabu for dating my girl. He has done it so many times before. I tried to warn him over and over again, but he wouldn’t stop. He deserves the beating; he is lucky I did not call my friends to help me handle him. I have taught him a lesson. Next time he will know how to respect other people. I have fixed him. He won’t do it again.”

Fifteen-year-old Regi utters these words following a fierce fight with his friend, Jabu. Regi was admitted to a South African residential treatment programme after he was found to have difficulty staying peacefully with his parents. His words are a reflection of how he experiences and interprets Jabu’s behaviour. At this moment within the life space, their previously friendly relationship ceases. The strength of connection decreases as the distance between them increases. Jabu’s actions have disturbed the balance. A relationship has been violated. For both, a state of comfort and contentment has transformed into anger and sadness. Balance has to be restored.

The following discussion explores how the policy framework and the atmosphere in South Africa supports the practice of life space and restorative elements such as the expression of subjective reality, needs-based intervention, humanity and belonging, context of relationship and intervention in residential settings based on the above fictitious but typical example.

Framework for services
South African child and youth care is practiced within the context of South Africa as a country. One of the principles underpinning the South African child and youth care system is restorative justice. According to the South African Interim Policy Document (1996) it is defined as “a conflict resolution model which focuses on healing and accountability rather than punishment, and which involves the participation of the community surrounding an incident, including a young person and his or family, as well as the victim where appropriate.” (p. 17) Restorative justice forms part of the policy framework for South Africa. The Interim Policy Recommendations state that the approach to young people in trouble with the law should focus on relationships between individuals in society and how to restore these. Howard Zehr (2002) defines restorative justice as “a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”(p.37)

Centuries ago traditional indigenous people of South Africa practiced restorative justice to respond to crime. This system was based on respect and understanding between individuals. In 1994, with the introduction of a democratic dispensation, the South African government introduced youth justice reforms. The then minister of justice instructed the South African Law Commission to draw up the Child Justice Bill and the Draft New Sentencing Bill that would address the needs of young people in trouble with the law. The Bill is based on restorative justice principles, namely that crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships, violations create obligations, the central obligation is to put things right. The bill is proactive in nature as its objective is to divert young people away from the criminal justice system. The principle underpinning the bill is the recognition that communities have the power and resources to resolve conflicts.

The approach used in restorative justice may also be implemented to address daily situations of wrongdoing in a variety of ways. It is interesting to note that while this approach originated as a crime response, it essentially constitutes core features of child and youth care methodology such as life space work, attaching meaning to events and the use of relationships. According to Zehr (2002) restorative processes are applicable for micro-communities, where people live near and interact with each other. These processes involve the participation of victim, offender and their significant others.

South Africa is faced with a challenge of 2000 children awaiting trial for periods as long as two years and the practice of restorative work is not effective yet. (Allsopp & Thumbadoo, 2002). In addition there is a culture of youth gangs, street violence, violence in schools, communities and families. Allsopp and Thumbadoo express optimism that despite these challenges there is hope, since the approach of working in a restorative way with young people is being promoted and demonstrated. Child and youth care workers receive training that is based on African practices of Inkundla or Lekgotla, a traditional court system which is based on traditional African values of belonging, orderliness, discipline, respect and tolerance. This work is incorporated and adapted to effective restorative work with young people and families. It is based on guiding the behaviour of children and youth with the assistance of communities and putting an emphasis on interdependence, mutual support and sharing. Training provides child and youth care workers with skills in creative restorative environments through a continuum of restorative practices as well as in facilitating formal restorative conferences. Allsopp and Thumbadoo report that restorative work and practices take place in residential care programmes, family preservation work and youth programmes as well as wilderness programmes in South Africa. However, they admit that these are only the first steps towards a restorative culture.

Life space work
Restorative work is practised in the life space of children and youth. According to Payne and White (2002) life space work is the methodology of child and youth care in the same way that group work is a methodology for social work. Child and youth care uses daily life events as a focus for intervention. Krueger (1991) calls it “counseling on the go”.

The victim (Jabu), offender (Regi) and the child care worker presently occupy an event and physical setting called the life space. Maluccio (1991) emphasizes that the worker should respond quickly while the event is fresh so as to teach the young people skills and to meet some need that they have. Jabu’s story, as related above, involves their immediate life experience, and according to Long, Wood and Fecser (2001) it is thus an optimal time for learning. This event is loaded with information that provides insight on Regi’s and even Jabu’s worldview, needs, social skills and their understanding of how one should respond when others have offended them. How each of these young people perceives this event is a creation of their reality of how people in this world react to wrongdoing.

The phenomenological approach (seeing things from the subjective view of the child) is used in this context to understand the young people’s individual interpretations of this life space situation. According to Garfat (2004) people create meaning in the course of their experiences. Durrant (1993) confirms that the meaning of any behaviour or event is not fixed, one can describe a situation differently, giving it quite a different meaning. The following questions arise. How do the past experiences of each individual young person in this incident impact on how they deal with conflict and solving problems? What did they learn from these experiences? How does this affect the way they see this situation right now? What does Jabu think about his action that has angered his friend? How does he regard Regi’s warnings? Did he anticipate that his actions would violate this relationship? Does the relationship matter to him? Does Jabu value this relationship? How is Jabu feeling right now? What about Regi’s feelings? What interpretation did Regi make of Jabu’s action of ignoring his warnings?

It is perfectly clear from his words, that Regi believes in punishment. His opinion is that punishment is an effective deterrent. To him justice means revenge. This is how Regi makes sense of this experience in this moment within this context. Regi’s reality may differ from the reality that the worker or another professional has created and attaches meaning to. Garfat (2004) assets that people see things the way they chose or the way they have learnt. Culture provides a lens through which Regi understands how to respond to wrongdoing. This understanding guides his behaviour.

Regi’s attempt to express responsible independence might be viewed as rebellion by an adult as he tries to exercise decision-making and authority (deciding to fix people who trouble others). Regi might have learnt from adult that success is defined by getting others to do what you want.

Regi’s surrounding context at present consists of life space events that may be viewed as the central area of focus. As Anthony Maluccio puts it “Child and youth care intervention requires this event to be viewed as an arena for change” (cited in Beker 1991:57). Elements of this arena include the child and youth care worker’s presence in this life space, her awareness of her own beliefs, values and the meaning she attaches to justice are crucial factors. This includes her assumptions about Regi and Jabu’s behaviour.

The process of change includes what Beker & Eisikovits (1991) call “the creation of shared meaning through the interaction of different reality constructions”, that of the worker and that of the child. In this short moment the child and youth care worker experiences immediacy, which means that she has to cope with the overwhelming demand of exercising self awareness, knowledge utilisation and implementation of techniques based on child and youth care theory. She has two choices: to follow the process to restore relationship and harmony, negotiate consequences, and teach life skills or to resort to quick-fix-methods such as punishment.

The worker sees this as a good opportunity to invite Jabu and Regi to take part in this journey of learning how to solve problems the restorative way. He teaches skills and transcends the bridge of change with Regi and Jabu. Transition is facilitated so as to move from a retributive understanding of conflict resolution to a restorative one. Garfat (2004) in his article on meaning-making in Foster Care, provides suggests that it is possible to influence a young person to change the way they give meaning to events so that they see them differently.

Initially Regi, Jabu and the worker might have different individual ways of understanding how and why Regi reacts with rage, hostility and revenge-seeking. They then become involved in a dialogue to share their views, experiences and beliefs. Consequently through such a connection and engagement they reach a different reality together and discover an alternative way to resolve this problem, the restorative process.

The question of how individuals and especially societies should respond to wrongdoing has always bothered mankind. The Western legal system has over the years convinced the world that those who break the law must be made to suffer in order that those injured may be happy. Krueger (1998) asserted that punishment reinforces a poor sense of self worth and leads to more destructive behaviour. Comparing it with discipline he concluded that punishment relies on external control, fear and that it involves exclusion. This is contrary to restorative action that is based on co-operation and inclusion. Garfat (2003) investigated punitive models which some programmes implement and define as behavioural approaches. He discovered that even B. F. Skinner, seen by many as the father of the behavioural approach, admitted that punishment causes rather than alleviates human suffering and that it does not eliminate negative behaviour. It follows then that if care lies at the heart of child and youth care work, there is no place for retribution. Nevertheless Zehr (2002:12) urges us to be cautious as “restorative justice is neither a panacea nor necessarily a replacement for the legal system”. He maintains that the western legal system is necessary for backup and guardian of human rights.

Although Zehr’s suggestion sounds like a contradiction, I agree, for example, that child and youth care workers who are called for disciplinary action when children die in their care should not be given a second chance. The challenge is: how does one accommodate the fact that the system that they work in has failed them? Very few child and youth care practitioners receive the appropriate supervision in many facilities (see, for example, Michael, this book). Most workers are untrained and have the child to staff ratio is appalling. With these mitigating factors can we afford to seek reconciliation?

Restorative processes are relationship-based. Connecting, engaging and interacting to achieve a common solution enhances relationship. They employ the same principles that are used in effective discipline. Mark Krueger (1998: 106) confirms that discipline allows the young person to quickly rejoin as part of the ongoing activity and conveys the message: “we want you back as soon as you are ready to return”. Thus restorative processes are inclusive.

The incident between Jabu and Regi, occurred in a residential treatment setting, thus their families' involvement is essential. Durrant (1993) emphasized that the meaning that parents ascribe to their involvement in the lives of their children should be taken seriously. Karen VanderVen (1991) reiterates this point when she suggests that innovative approaches on family-oriented service models in residential treatment are linked to successful out comes. Garfat (1990) argues that family involvement ensures that the values, attitude and culture of the family and community are an integral part of the young person's daily environment. This means that the inclusion of the families of Jabu and Regi provides valuable knowledge as well as resources on how wrongdoing is resolved in their communities. The relationship between youth, families and worker cannot be ignored.

Berscheid (2003) noted that there is close association between the status of social relationships human beings engage in and their risk of premature death. She also asserts that mental health and happiness are closely related to personal relationships. Moreover traditional theorists many years ago discovered that infants needed to experience secure attachment in order to be able to form intimate relationships in their teenage and adult years.

In addition respected child and youth care pioneers have advocated for the centrality of relationships in child and youth care methodology. Different child and youth care literature [Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern (1998), Trieschman, Whittaker and Brendtro (1969), Maier (1987)] further supports this fact, which promotes what George Thomas, as cited in Brendtro et al (1998) refers to as “relationship technology”.

The restorative approach to addressing the scenario presented at the beginning of this discussion has this at its heart. In fact Janusz Korczak, one of the pioneers in the child and youth care field, believed in the use of symbolic consequences such as public reprimand and personal apology. According to Brendtro (1992:3) Korczak regarded expulsion as “the educator’s version of capital punishment.” He believed that the aim of discipline is to reclaim the offender and restore harmony in the relationship through reparation and forgiveness. This is the essence of restorative processes, which are part of the South African child and youth care system and the South African nation.

Ubuntu (oo-boon-too) is a South African Nguni word that refers to humanity. It is the spirit and heritage of Southern African people that characterizes a way of being human. Ubuntu is an indigenous African philosophy of humanism and co-existence. In African culture Ubuntu is the capacity to express compassion, justice, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interest of building, maintaining and strengthening community. In South African culture, Ubuntu speaks to the interconnectedness, common humanity and the responsibility to each other that flows from the people’s connection. Ubuntu is not just a concept. It is a fundamental principle underpinning a culture that seeks to honor human relationships as primary in any social activity. Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel peace price winner captured the essence of this philosophy as follows:

My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. I am a human because I belong. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good: for he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppres- sed, or treated as if they were less that who they are. (1999: 35).

The process
Because the incident involving Jabu and Regi, takes place in a South African residential treatment programme, there is an expectation that the worker will draw on the South African philosophy of Ubuntu. According to Brendtro and Brokenleg (1998) maintaining balance in relationships helps to secure balance in one’s own life. Their view is that the commonality between native culture and Western democracy is the core principle of the responsibility for the welfare of all others in the community (1998). It therefore follows that Jabu should take responsibility for his share in disturbing the balance in the relationship. Likewise Regi has to take responsibility for physically and emotionally hurting Jabu.

At face value, however, it appears as though Regi is the offender and Jabu is the victim However, the circular effect model Krueger (1998) where one person behaves negatively and the others in turn are forced to respond negatively seems to be at play here. Applying this approach reveals that both young people contributed to the deterioration of this relationship, and thus carry equal responsibility for the offence. Jabu, for going out with Regi’s girl and Regi, for punching Jabu. Restorative approaches, contrary to the circular effect model, have clear boundaries related to who is regarded as the offender and who as the victim. In restorative justice the victim is cleared of the responsibility for causing the harm. But in this case, are there two victims?

Critical questions arise. How can the staff influence Regi’s worldview on justice without getting trapped into a conflict cycle? How do they engage in a process that teaches generosity and unselfishness as a virtue within this moment? How to show the young people that status, being macho, showing physical strength, and competition are less important than people and co-operation? What should be done to pass a strong message that it is noble to measure the intrinsic worth of a person rather that external appearance?

Jabu expects Regi to be punished for punching him and Regi expects sympathy and understanding that he acted in self-defense. How should the staff encourage Regi and Jabu to acknowledge the wrongness of their behaviour? How can they be made to take responsibility for their actions? How can we send messages of disapproval without ostracizing the young person? How can we provide opportunities for the young people to repair the harm? How can we hold them accountable?

The needs
All behaviour is an expression of needs. To understand the needs in this scenario one has to see beyond Regi’s violent behavior and Jabu’s involvement with his friend's girl. Regi’s copes with this stressful event by using violence and defying authority. According to Brendtro et al (1998) this is an expression of a distorted sense of independence. This young person attempts to gain control over objects and events in his environment by being reckless and macho. He is at this stage unable to handle strong feelings of anger. At this stage the young person seems only to be focused on himself. Regi’s ability to respect and care for other people’s feelings have temporarily been suspended.

The needs of both the offender and the victim are central in restorative processes. To address their needs the young people participate in a process that involves discussion and dialogue together with their families and significant others. In this way the need for belonging and attachment is met. Regi is given the opportunity to relate his story while the rest of the group listens. The need for mastery is met as he is afforded a chance to verbally express his feelings without having to resort to violent methods of problem solving. Regi develops inner control of feelings. In this life space situation both young people learn negotiation and problem-solving skills. Jabu explains to Regi how he experiences Regi’s violent reaction.

This crisis serves as an opportunity for the worker to model appropriate behaviour. He treats each young person with respect and dignity giving a message that they are valued and have an important contribution to offer to this discussion. Both young people experience enhanced self-worth and an increased sense of well being as they meet their need for altruism. Moreover, the young people experience a sense of being cared for. They are given enough opportunity to share their experiences. Regi discovers how his actions affected Jabu. Jabu discovers how his actions affected Regi. This mutual exchange of information builds empathy and helps to foster a spirit of gene- rosity within the two young people. With this achieved what follows next involves getting Regi to acknowledge that he was wrong.

In principle, restorative processes are against the use of coercion to get the young person to acknowledge guilt. The requirement for a relationship to be fully restored is the expression of genuine remorse by the offender. Beck (1998) suggests the application of a life space crisis intervention (LSCI) technique called “Symptom Estrangement Intervention” for youth who hurt others without remorse. This strategy uses the usual steps of LSCI such as asking questions, establishing a timeline and acknowledging feelings and strengths. According to Beck the most important stage in this technique is help Regi realize that his established pattern of aggressive coping strategies is self-defeating in the long run. Planning for progress during a LSCI is similar to the stage where the victim, offender and other participants jointly seek alternative ways. This provides ample opportunity to share ideas, make decisions and choices and mobilize resources and skills to deal with the injury. These activities promote accountability and responsibility for Regi while they enhance the development of inner control and a sense of power for both young people. In this exercise there is an implicit message to the youth that “You are needed in this process and your contribution is valuable."

The context
Garfat (2004) suggests that young people do not only interpret the environment but also the actions of those in the particular context. At this stage it might be helpful to start by exploring the immediate environment, the residential setting, which is the smaller subsystem of the country, South Africa. Within the immediate surroundings of this life space is the overall philosophy of the residential facility. This environment influences the extent to which the two young people are likely to be influenced to change at this stage.

Young people’s behaviour often acts as a mirror reflecting on adults' responses to situations. Indeed if the staff in this treatment programme get warning letters when, for example, children refuse to go to school, this will surface. If the staff calls the police each time the youth display inappropriate group behaviour, Regi will act this out. When staff are subjected to external control they will act in a controlling manner with the young people and it is this approach that the young people will learn and model.

This philosophy is reflected in the seemingly unimportant daily events such as routine and behaviour management strategies in the programme. If staff reacts to a child who is late for breakfast by withdrawing food, Regi might withdraw his friendship to spite Jabu. If they respond to a toddler who has broken a glass by shouting at him, Regi will learn that it’s helpful to shout at Jabu.

The question is, does staff in this place believe in reconciliation as a way to resolve conflict and ease tension? Are consequences for behaviour negotiated with young people or is punishment meted out and then labeled as consequences to give it some kind of window dressing? Does the staff value relationships, harmony and humility? Do they strongly hold the conviction that relationships are a primary need for every human being? Is everyone, child and youth care workers, supervisors and the director in this programme, committed to the relational? The response to Regi’s particular behaviour, in itself, has to be restorative if it has to be meaningful the individual young people within the context of this scenario.

The South African setting
Karen VanderVen (1991) suggests that effective ecological intervention for the child must include the child, family, community and other economic, political, educational, and other variables that affect their lives. In addition to the role of the family and residential treatment center discussed above in the incident involving Jabu and Regi there is a global influence exerted by the surrounding community, city, country, continent and the world.

Garfat, (2004) says that western countries raise children within the framework of punishment. It is very true that most countries in the world have been influenced to practice retribution and South Africa is no exception. Indeed the legal system reflects this. It is only recently, after 1994, when this country became a signatory of the United Nations Declaration that the justice system considered restorative justice for young people in trouble with the law and introduced legislation to outlaw physical and psychological punishment in schools.

Brendtro and du Toit (2003) researched and reported scientific evidence that there is a shift in the balance from coercive to restorative methods in raising children and youth in South Africa. The introduction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 in South Africa, effectively laid an atmosphere of restorative justice philosophy in this country. Nelson Mandela appointed this commission in order to heal injuries inflicted during the apartheid era (an oppressive system of rule that deprived most South Africans their human rights). This commission was firmly grounded on the main principle of Ubuntu, namely that our relationship to others is central to our existence as human beings.

Tutu (1999) traces the thinking that the commission went through in trying to restore a balance in the relationships among South Africans. He recounts the three options that were explored to heal the South African nation. The first one, which he refers to as the Nuremberg trial paradigm (reflecting the method that the victorious Allies used on the Nazis after the Second World War) which was out of question because South Africa could not impose the “victor’s justice” as there were neither winners nor losers at the end of the apartheid era. The second option was general amnesty or “national amnesia” in which the victims would forgive and let bygones be bygones. This method was not viable as it denied the offenders the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions. In support of negative implications that these punitive approaches could have on the South African society, Tutu adds that these methods would build long-term resentment within society. Victims and offenders would not be able to live with each other in the future. Punishment in a form of trials would have been costly for the country. Thus a negotiated settlement was the only way.

The lessons
Tutu (1999: 34) asks: “What is it that constrained so many to choose to forgive rather than to demand retribution, to be so magnanimous rather than wreaking vengeance?” South African child and youth care practitioners may ask: “What element of child care practice and methodology can heal the pain of emotionally hurting young people in South Africa so that they develop resilience?” This country, through the action of the TRC walked its talk. She modelled to the world, and indeed to our children and youth that there is another process for problem solving, the restorative process. As Tutu (1999) puts it, it heals breaches, redresses imbalances, restores broken relationships, seeks to rehabilitate victim and offender, and gives the offenders the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he/she has injured by his offence.

Child and youth care workers in South Africa have learnt that there is a far more advanced and effective perspective to addressing wrongdoing in this country. It is a more personal approach, based on relationship technology and the spirit of Ubuntu. It views offensive behaviour as something that has happened to people (not the rules of a residential facility) that has ruptured relationships. For child and youth care workers in South Africa the main goal of conflict resolution and problem-solving should be to work for restoration of human dignity for children, both those who have been harmed and those who have offended. It is true that the wrong act has affected both. If residential treatment in South Africa is rooted in Ubuntu then restorative action is guaranteed provided that we teach young people the reality of the social order Krueger (1988).

The developmental approach to our work demands that we give young people opportunities for trial and error learning, just as the restorative approach provides opportunities for the offender to put right, that which has gone wrong. Even during the South African Truth Commission reparation was expected from the offenders. Children from families who were deprived of education during the apartheid era received bursaries for their education. The main challenge was the realisation that sometimes it is difficult to undo the damage done, like in a case where a life has been lost. In this case symbolic reparations were made.

Be that as it may, Tutu (1990) relates that some victims were so modest in their expectations that it humbled the commission. They asked for reparation such as; a tombstone to be erected for my child; assistance to find the remains of my child. What is important is that the victims were vindicated. The offenders acknowledged the harm done and human dignity was restored. In child and youth care language this reparation is called a logical consequence. Krueger (1988) asserts that these consequences are mutually agreed on and should be logically related to the social conditions of the group (South African society). The logical consequences reflect the needs of the group during the restorative process.

The bigger picture
Garbarino (1992) indicated that according to the ecological perspective there is a mutual influence between individuals and their environments. The ecology of human development proves that society raises young people in an environment consisting of a complex combination of activities, beliefs and values. Since 1995, the South African Society raised young people within a cultural context of reconciliation, harmony and humility. Garbarino stated that children are the bridge between the past and the future. Thus when the South African society transformed in 1995 young people were exposed to restorative values that are now an integral part of the culture of this country.

The world as a macro system is moving away from punishment. Africa as continent has laid a foundation of traditional indigenous restorative justice principles. The South African Truth and Reconciliation commission has modelled the power of restorative justice, Ubuntu, connectedness, relationship and co-operation to humans, both adult and youth. The field of child and youth care has equipped South African practitioners with the principles of life space work, doing with (not for or to), meaning “making and being with people in their lives (Garfat,2004). Nothing prevents us from utilising this knowledge. The context is very much enabling.


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This feature: Siluma, M. (2005). Restorative work: An integral feature of South African child and youth care. In Garfat, T. and Gannon, B. (eds.) Aspects of Child and Youth Care practice in the South African Context. Cape Town: Pretext

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