Ellen is a probation officer from Lichtenburg, a rural area in South Africa, gets called on frequently by colleagues in the North West Province who say that whenever they have a difficult matter they “phone Ellen”. She reports here on three successful interventions with child offenders.
Restorative justice in action
Four children in Lichtenburg, who were charged with housebreaking and theft, were referred to probation services for assessment. The children had allegedly committed the offence at the local school. The probation officer recommended a family group conference and that the children attend a youth empowerment programme. The recommendation was made after it was realised that all the children concerned were exposed to negative peer group influences.
The probation officer prepared for the conference by interacting with:
The accused's families
The accused children, who were aged between 15 and 17 years
The school governing body
The school principal
The guidance counsellor.
It was difficult for the probation officer to convey the idea of restorative justice to the school governing body and the school teachers as they were angry with the children on account of three of the children having attended the school the previous year. However, ultimately all the participants agreed to the proposal of a family group conference.
The conference was conducted in Itsoseng township in June 2002. The participants included the school principal, members of the school’s governing body, the accused and their parents.
Prior to the conference, the school governing body and the school principal were convinced that the children committed the offence at the instigation of an adult. However, it transpired that this was not the case. The children admitted that they committed the act on their own. During the conference it was also established that the children were smoking dagga. The school governing body and the school principal played an important role in this regard as they encouraged the children to seek help in relation to their dagga usage.
As a way of providing some form of restitution, the children volunteered to clean the school premises during their leisure time. The participants welcomed this. The chairperson of the school governing body volunteered to monitor and supervise the children, and the school principal volunteered to play a mentoring role by ensuring that the children attended their different schools.
This conference has led to the feeling that restorative justice is a reality and it encourages community members to play a vital role in shaping children's lives.
An example of house arrest conducted by
parents, police and probation officer
In January 2002 four children, between the ages of 14 and 1 6 years, were assessed by the probation services office in Lichtenburg. They were charged with housebreaking and theft.
The children were thought to be street children and none of them attended school. They all pleaded not guilty, which made diversion impossible.
The probation officer recommended house arrest pending trial with compulsory school attendance as a condition. The motivation behind this recommendation was to try and reunite the children with their parents.
In Lichtenburg there is no assistant probation officer who could have assisted with the programme. Accordingly the probation officer, prosecutor and senior police official agreed that the children be monitored by their parents, the investigating officer and the probation officer. This was done in order to enable the parents to contribute positively towards their children's well-being. They were expected to keep records of their children's movements and report back to the investigating officer and probation officer.
What was particularly encouraging was the willingness of the investigating officer to participate in the programme. He monitored the children every day by visiting their homes, even though he did not live in their area.
The programme was successfully completed. In addition to school attendance, the children also participated in an empowerment programme facilitated by Ondersteuningsraad ("support panel"), a local NGO. Although the decision was taken not to divert the children as they had not acknowledged guilt, later on the prosecutor withdrew the charges against the children on account of their successful participation in the interventions.
A Family Group Conference between farm
owners and farm workers' children
The Lichtenburg probation officer assessed two children who were charged with housebreaking and theft. The victims in the case were farm owners and the offenders were two children whose parents worked on the victims' farm. The offenders broke into Mr and Mrs V-H’s house and as a result they were so angry that they considered evicting the family.
The probation officer prepared for a family group conference in very difficult circumstances, as tensions between the parties were running high. Ultimately Mr and Mrs V-H, the two offenders, their parents and the investigating officer all participated in the conference.
During the conference the victims expressed the feeling that the children had too much free time on their hands and this led them to committing the offences, as they did not attend school. The parents mentioned that they were unable to finance their children's school funds as a result of low wages. Mr and Mrs V-H then stated that the parents had a tendency to abuse alcohol, despite their low income. Thus the conference was strained owing to factors that extended beyond the issue of the offence.
Mrs V-H then stated that she would make sure that the parents took their responsibilities seriously. It was agreed that the children would help with farming activities on weekends as a means of compensation. The agreement helped Mr and Mrs V-H to accept the fact that the children committed the offence without anyone’s assistance or influence as previously thought.
The investigating officer volunteered to monitor the process and report back to the probation officer. Three months later it was found that the children were attending school regularly. They had also completed their services on the farm successfully.
Restorative justice avoided an eviction that was likely to leave family members homeless and unemployed. It also showed that victims can contribute positively towards the rehabilitation of offenders and thereby obtain victim satisfaction. The exercise, although initiated by the commission of an offence, seemed to lead to healing that went beyond the offenders and the victims and eased feelings of resentment that only became apparent through the conference.
This feature: Article 40: The Dynamics of Youth Justice and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in South Africa. Volume 4 Number 2, July 2002, pp.4-5