Case 33 from 40 Cases: Restorative Justice & Victim-Offender Mediation
(edited by Paul Crosland & Marian Liebmann)
Arson: –seeing the emotional consequences of a burnt-out home
This case is written in the first person by the mediator who undertook all the visits to the parties –and found herself co-mediating the face to face mediation.
The Youth Offending Team officer referred the case to the partnership agency at the pre-sentence report stage of proceedings. Will was 14 years old and had been involved with 3 others clowning around outside 3 houses. One boy said to one of the others 'have you got a light?' Will lit the piece of paper that was subsequently thrown into a house by another person who was prosecuted (he was older and had a string of previous offences). Will was prosecuted for arson as well as he clearly knew when he lit the paper that it was going to be thrown into the house.
I went to see Will and his mum at home. I told Will what mediation was and that we weren't going to make victim contact before sentencing. Will said to me 'you won't make me meet them' and I'd said I wasn' t going to make him do anything he didn't want to do’.
**“Will said to me 'you won't make me meet them' and I'd said I wasn' t going to make him do anything he didn't want to do’.”
Will and his mum were quite strung out about what the sentence was going to be and also because there had been an article in the paper about how this woman had lost her home, for which she had no insurance. In real terms all the damage amounted to £80,000.
Will was given a 12 month custodial sentence (in a secure unit, due to his age). When I saw him in the secure unit he was very emotional, and I judged him too fragile to be ready to face the consequences of his crime in a face to face mediation. This visit focussed instead on his understanding of his offence because he was hung up about ' I didn't throw this into the house, I just lit it'. Always when working with young people, if they have trouble in understanding it, I try and simplify their understanding . So I talked of it in terms of needing all the ingredients to make an apple pie. If you had apples and no pastry you just have stewed apples and if you have pastry and no apples you just have a lump of dough. In consequence he could understand “OK, if I hadn't had lit this, there wouldn't have been an offence”. Once he could take that on board the next stage towards a mediation was to raise his awareness of how the arson might have affected the victim. By this stage (2nd visit to the secure unit), I’d made an initial visit to the victim, Yvonne.
Yvonne had come back to her house that day just before Christmas with her 3 children to find it burnt out and the floors dripping with the water from the Fire Brigade’s work. Yvonne was pregnant with her 4th child. This was to be her new partner, Howard’s first child and he gave the whole family refuge at his house - 30 miles away. When I went to see Yvonne in the town 30 miles away, there was a huge amount of anger, not particularly from her but from her partner, Howard, who wanted to know what Will was going to do to repay £80,000 of damage.
There had been a huge impact on all the family. The 2 school aged children had to move schools. In the school that they'd had to go to have showers after games. For one of the girls this proved to be enormously traumatic because her association with the shower was seeing all the water dripping through the ceiling in the house having been burnt down, with the fire brigade having to put it out.
Instead of focussing on Yvonne’s feelings in relation to the cost I encouraged her to focus on her personal experience and her children's experiences of it. (Will’s understanding of money could be simplified as how far a fiver will go). Yvonne had said “I am angry, I am hurt, I'm upset because its costing me large amounts of money” and I had replied “Well, do you think a young boy of 14 can understand those large amounts of money?”
**“Well, do you think a young boy of 14 can understand those large amounts of money?”
She said she couldn't. What he could understand was things such as the fact that all the photographs of the children as babies had been burnt - so there were no visual memories, no pictures, no videos of them. In relaying this information (with permission) to Will it proved to be very powerful because Will know that his mum had a video of him as a baby and photographs of him on the wall. Hewas greatly saddened that Yvonne would never be able to show people photographs of her children as babies. She was pregnant with the new baby and there would be photographs of that new baby but never of her other children as babies.
When Will expressed his understanding of Yvonne’s feelings at this point, I asked him how he could tell this woman that he was listening to what she was saying. He decided he would write and we went through bullet points of things we would include in the letter.I then relinquished the responsibility for doing that to him. His key worker at the secure unit agreed to help him with it as it wasn't something that could be done in just half an hour, but over a period of time. I briefed her about everything She supported him with the writing of the letter. As with all people I always check if there are any literacy issues but there weren't in this case. I received the letter and checked it over to check it wasn't likely to make the victim feel guilty or contain other possible ‘re-victimising’ material.
When I had delivered the letter to Yvonne, she read it whilst I was there and said that she wanted to write back to Will. So I agreed that I would take a letter back to him. She decided to write “you are a really good boy for listening to how things have affected my family and I appreciate that you'd had some pain through all this”
**“You are a really good boy for listening to how things have affected my family and I appreciate that you'd had some pain through all this”
She wrote that if she’d been his mother she'd be upset if her son was in a secure unit at Christmas and not with the family. Yvonne also wrote “please don't allow this crime to be the thing that drags you down in life – into a life of offending. Look at your associates, think how upset you're mum would be loosing you to the prison service.”
I continued to talk to Yvonne and she mentioned that the children had been devastated that the goldfish had been boiled alive and they’d found the goldfish tank melted away. This led to the idea of restoration towards the children. Clearly Will was not going to be able to make any restorative measure in terms of the £80,000 but we looked at what he could do by means of reparation to the children.
After 3 months in the secure unit, when Will had his first opportunity to go out of the unit for a few hours and visit his home and his mum. Instead, he went with his key worker to buy 2 new goldfish and gravel and a fish bowl with his pocket money. A few days later - having contacted Yvonne to see if she would accept the fish for her children- I went to the secure unit, collected the fish and took them to Yvonne.
Yvonne was becoming more confident that Will’s remorse was genuine, that this boy was taking this seriously, and that the exchange of letters and the goldfish had not arisen out of a young offender wishing to score ‘Brownie’ points in the criminal justice system. Yvonne’s personal faith was not to add insult to injury but to support where she could. This went against the feelings of her partner Howard who was predominantly very angry that this little “toe rag” could get away with this and nobody could be held to account for it in terms of the finance. Howard didn’t express that there was any value in the communication that was taking place between Yvonne and Will.
Yvonne still wanted Will to understand more about the devastation that the family had been through, not just in the financial sense. On the The 2nd appointment Yvonne was there on her own. She said she was engaging in mediation for her own needs - not the rest of the family’s.
Having given Will Yvonne’s first letter, I asked Will what he thought of the letter. That was when he had decided he'd buy new goldfish. Having delivered the fish I returned to Will with the message that Yvonne felt that if he was a young man who could have give up that visit to his mum in order to go and buy goldfish, then she was absolutely delighted with that and would wished him well.As I was rounding things up with him he said he'd asked “do you think I could see the lady?” .You could have knocked me down with a feather!.
**“As I was rounding things up with him he said he'd asked ' do you think I could see the lady?' You could have knocked me down with a feather!.”
So once back at my office, I phoned her Yvonne said “how would you feel about coming across to meet with Will?”. I explained that the meeting would have to be at the secure unit and she said “Yes”. A couple of days before the meeting Will rang his mum and told her he was going to meet the woman whose house he'd burnt down. His Mum panicked and rang the Principal of the unit to try to stop the meeting. I was contacted by the unit and telephoned Wills Mum(I'd met her once before pre sentence). I gave her a resume of the whole thing and told her how proud she could be of Will for engaging in this way - it is not every 14 year old that can face the consequences of his actions. I felt it was going the right way. She asked whether she could be thereand I said, “Yes, but could we discuss whether that would be the best thing to do?”.. I explained that Will had done all this of his own volition and asked how she would feel about leaving him to have this meeting to prove himself - he could be a much stronger person because of it. I explained that his key worker would be there and asked if she would like to consider it and get back to me in the afternoon. Will’s mum then said “No, I don’t need to think about it. I trust you and I jumped in because that was my mother’s instinct.” So, when she realised that is wasn't going to be confrontational and that it had been at his behest in the first place, she could see the sense in Will continuing on his own.
I’d offered to give Yvonne a lift to the face-to-face meeting but she decided to come on her own. For the face to face meeting I was joined by a co-mediator, who had been supervising my mediation work on this case to date. The face to face meeting was hugely emotional. For Will and Yvonne, seeing each other was so powerful that they both dissolved into tears, before very few words had been said. Throughout the face to face there was very little alluded to in terms of the mediation to date or to the offence. What the face to face actually did for Will was allow him to cry, and allow him to release a lot of pent up emotion. . For Yvonne, the meeting, allowed her to humanise the offender and to say to herself “This has happened to me. Shit does happen, but I can't let it get me down for the rest of my life. I've got to move forward and I've got to feel that I've contributed in some way in helping him not go down that life of crime.”
**“I've got to move forward and I've got to feel that I've contributed in some way in helping him not go down that life of crime. “
Yvonne told Will how brave he'd been, how strong he was and how she felt for his mum. She said she really believed in his resolve not to commit crimes again, because he had now seen how the impact of such a small action had been enormous. The ramifications of it had been just endless in reality and Yvonne wasn't going to recover in a financial sense for a long time. But she said was recovering from her hate and her disappointment in young people in general, and she felt that her involvement was going to help put him back on the right tracks. So Yvonne offered him all her best wishes and luck for the future, and gave her assurance that she believed he had good in him and he wasn't going to commit further offences.
Will cried a lot. I offered him time out, but he said no,he wanted to stay. I asked him why he was crying and he just said it was because he was so sorry. He wasn't mature enough to say “because I'm facing this woman whose house I've burnt down” but “sorry” said it all..
When the tears subsided, Yvonne asked questions that showed her interest in his life, asking what he liked and what he looked forward to when he left custody. He talked about his rugby team, and how he might have lost his place in that team. He was able to talk a bit and answer questions and back off from the absolute emotion. He talked about his release and going back to school, knowing that it would be hard because people would know where he'd been. His mum had said they would have a late Christmas dinner when he came out. I drew the mediation to a close because everyone had said what they had to say, we'd had the emotion and we knew we'd be labouring the point otherwise. There was no need for an agreement because they were not making promises to each other. I offered them the opportunity to shake hands, I believe hugely in human touch, and they did shake hands. and they did.
I suggested that Will might like to spend a few minutes with his key worker and I'd see him in a few minutes when I'd debriefed Yvonne. As Will came round and passed her on her side of the table she said “Can I give you a hug?”. They hugged and Will left the room with his key worker.
I asked Yvonne if she was OK about going home, and it turned out her partner, Howard, had brought her across and he was going to take her home. I asked Yvonne if she wanted me to speak to Howard and explain the emotion she'd just gone through, she said no, it was fine she'd speak to him herself. My co-mediator asked Yvonne if there was any thing she wanted clarity on or anything she didn't want included in our closing report, but she was fine with it. I suggested that I would give her a quick ring in a month’s time to see if she was ok.
Then we went to see Will. We were full of praise of him, and I promised that I'd tell his mum how the meeting went. We thought he was an enormously brave young man and that he'd got a lot of guts. It took an extra special person to meet and face that kind of thing. We asked him if he felt that it would have gone that way. He said no, he hadn't expected to cry, and we suggested to him that his grief was not just about meeting Yvonne, but was also about of where he was. (We were giving him validation for his crying). We asked him if there was anything he hadn't said and he said, no he was OK with that. We said by all means talk to his mumabout it next time he had the opportunity. I said I’d give him a quick call in a month, just before his release, to see he was OK.
I went to see Wills mum and told her all about it. I told her how brave he'd been and how proud she could be of him. She cried. 2 days later I received a card from his mum saying that she was sure that the meeting had made a big difference to Will. Inside was a letter she hoped I might pass to Yvonne. This said “thank you for seeing my son, I'm sure that having met him you'll realise he's not the bad lad you thought he might have been in the first place”. The letter also said “As his mum I can say that what ever he said to you he believes in and that he does have a loving family to come home to and that we thank you for expressing your thoughts to him as it can’t have been easy for you”.
**“As his mum I can say that what ever he said to you he believes in and that he does have a loving family to come home to and that we thank you for expressing your thoughts to him as it can’t have been easy for you.”
The letter also said that she was desperately sorry for Yvonne’s loss and gave her assurances to support Will in his resolve to change his behaviour. The letter wished Yvonne and her family well.
My task was now to phone Yvonne, tell her that I had the letter, and ask if she would like to receive it. I gave her an overview of the letter before she agreed to it. I was concerned in case the letter could be read as a request or a demand for Yvonne to forgive Will.. I didn't want to drag things on and there was no need for Yvonne to accept a letter which I explained could otherwise just lie on file. I didn't want her to feel she had to have another visit from me if it wasn't necessary. The tone of the letter was that mum was being a mum, saying Will wasn't a bad lad etc. She was praising the victim for being prepared to see that side of him. As it happened, following my precis of the letter, Yvonne was very happy for me just to send it to her. I then said ‘ If you’ve got any questions just give me a call about it.”
I wrote a letter to Will’s mum saying I’d sent the letter after checking that the Yvonne wanted to receive it. I thanked Will’s mum for her comments and her card and said that I wished them well for when Will was released.
It was a privilege to be part of this process; which had involved indirect mediation, reparation and then direct mediation. It had started off with such anger and hurt from the victim and with a resistance to accepting responsibility on the part of the offender to the offender taking on a lot of responsibility for the emotional impact of his crime and his own future.
· The success was to focus on the emotional content and the tangible issues that a young boy could relate to.
· Without mediation the victim-awareness work that would have been undertaken with this young offender would be unlikely to have had the same effect on his likelihood of re-offending.
· The mediation work saved other criminal justice staff (Youth Offending Team workers and Probation) much time.
· The need to keep parents of young offender informed is paramount. Their attendance at face-to-face restorative meetings is not.
· This service operates the principle that mediation is not held at a time when it might be seen to be being engaged in by offenders because they might get a lesser sentence or early release from custody. Contact can usefully occur pre-sentence but not mediating until after the sentence was passed worked well for us in this case.
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