Elizabeth Clemants | June 4, 2014
Fifteen years ago I mediated a case between a 13-year-old girl and her mother. The 13 year old wanted visitation with her younger brother, and with the help of her foster mother, started a mediation case with the court. The girl had been removed from her mother’s home when it came out that she was being sexually abused by the mother’s boyfriend. After being removed from the home, the mother refused to let her daughter see or talk to her little brother who had remained in the home. The mother was upset and insisted that the daughter had “seduced her boyfriend”. She was 8 years old when the abuse started.
In the mediation, I responded to this information with a very un-mediator like move, which was to definitively announce my opinion: “Eight year old girls do not seduce grown men. What you are referring to here is called child sexual abuse.” The daughter seemed to feel validated and supported by my pronouncement and the mother looked down without another word about it. We proceeded with the mediation, and worked out an agreement between the two for the brother to visit his sister. This case ended and I never heard of or saw them again. But I have never forgotten that case.
That case has continued through all these years to turn over in my mind. Should I have come out so strongly with an opinion like that? And what is the role of a seemingly-objective opinion given by the mediator? What can a mediator do to challenge minimization, denial, and deflection from a party – without compromising their neutrality? Is it permissible in conflict resolution to expect insight – not just set the stage for the possibility, but to ask for it directly?
For the past year and a half I have been developing a process to address cases with adult victims of child sexual abuse. Derived from models of family therapy and rooted in Restorative Justice circle practices, the goal of the process is to restore balance to the family system as a whole, while also addressing the need for consequences to the perpetrators. These consequences could range from listening and taking in the impact of the abuse on each individual, to concrete restitution or removal from the system. The group as a whole is empowered to decide how to proceed forward in a way that is unique to their family.
Today I took the next step toward testing out these ideas and mediated another child sexual abuse case. Due to the sensitive nature of the process, my “test” employed actors to play the family roles in this child abuse case – based on the facts from that original case 15 years ago. The process is highly structured to ensure safety, and to prevent further victimization during the session. The facilitator ensures that everyone speaks solely for themselves and about their own experiences and empowers them to distinguish what happened from the story they made up about it. During the test I worked to try to hold the perpetrator both accountable for his behavior, while listening with compassion as he struggled to take in the impact of what he had done, and the extent of the damage it had caused.
The feedback from the day indicated that the participants, both the perpetrators and the victims, found the process to be highly effective, and reported feeling more hopeful than when they came. Although there was still work to be done in reconciling the family, the path forward was more clear, and they each felt lighter — having had the chance to communicate directly regarding the impact of the abuse. They also reported being amazed at the complexity of the feelings they each had, as they got a glimpse of the impact the abuse had had on the family system.
The current name for the project is Hidden Water: Center for Healing and Justice. I look forward to continuing this work, as the prevalence of families suffering from the devastation of this type of abuse on their dynamic – even after decades – is astonishing. I am grateful to my collaborator, Cat Greenstreet, who has worked with me in developing this idea and I am looking forward to next steps in bringing this process forward. Directing resources toward and focusing on these family systems in a new way is long overdue.
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