Sunday 20 April 2014

The simple matter of saying sorry: Language skills and restorative conferencing

I recall some years ago reading a newspaper column by Australian social psychologist Hugh McKay, about what matters when righting wrongs in relationships. What stayed with me from this column was the importance for the wronged party of being heard in order for the healing and forgiveness process to begin.
In recent years, this principle of assisting victims (and indeed perpetrators) to feel heard has been reflected in the move towards Restorative Justice Conferencing for young offenders who plead guilty in court to an alleged offence. The move away from traditional adversarial and punitive approaches to justice administration is pleasing. Although punishment has good face validity and broad appeal to the readers of tabloid media, its record in actually turning around problem behaviour is chequered at best.
In Australia, all states and territories have enshrined approaches to the processing of young offenders that embed three core principles:

  • adolescents are not “miniature adults” and should therefore be treated in accordance with their developmental needs;
  • wherever possible, it is desirable to divert young people away from formal convictions, whether community-based or custodial, and accordingly, 
  • detention is an option of last resort.

It is notable too, that the principles of restorative conferencing are also finding their way into schools, both primary and secondary, in an effort to equip young people with the skills required to negotiate conflict and interpersonal harm in prosocial and respectful ways. This is particularly important to young people whose families are unable, for a variety of reasons to model and teach these skills.
Restorative conferencing sits well alongside the above principles. It is a process whereby the young offender comes face-to-face with his /her victim and others who have been affected by the “tear in the social fabric” created by their wrong-doing, in an effort to ensure that all parties can tell their story, express their pain, hear and understand the perspectives of others, and offer and receive an apology. 
Before having a closer look at the verbal demands of restorative justice conferencing, however, let’s have a look at what we know about young people who wind up in the justice system. Overwhelming, they are from low socio-economic status (SES) families, often single-parent households characterised by inter-generational problems such as un/under-employment, unstable housing, mental health problems, learning difficulties, and erratic and coercive parenting styles. A very high proportion of young people in the justice system (around 40%) have also passed through the child protection system, due to maltreatment (abuse and/or neglect) of various forms. Behaviour difficulties and school exclusion are common in their educational histories, as are patterns of academic under-achievement. None of these factors bodes well for well-developed verbal skills. Put several of them together, and it’s reasonable to expect that expressive and receptive vocabulary, narrative skills, and ability to deal with figurative language (e.g. idioms, metaphors, analogies) will be compromised, as will the ability to read and respond to emotional cues.  
Research from Australia, the UK, and the USA has indeed clearly identified young offenders as a group whose language skills will fall below expected levels, based on age and IQ. Whether we refer to these young people has having language disorders, impairments, handicaps, or simply “problems” is academic in this context. What matters is that around 50% of them perform in a clinical range on a wide variety of expressive and receptive language tasks, though have rarely been identified as having anything other than “learning problems” and/or “behaviour problems”. Language problems, though pervasive, are invisible, and when undiagnosed in young offenders, tend to masquerade as behaviours such as rudeness, disinterest, and poor motivation.
What then, does this evidence mean for restorative justice conferencing?
Though we lack hard data with which to answer this question, it is the subject of speculation in this 2013 paper by Hennessey Hayes (Griffith University) and me. In this paper, we argue that because restorative conferencing is fundamentally a conversational process, the evidence on language difficulties needs to be closely considered with respect to conference planning and convening. It is usual in a restorative conference for the young person to be asked to listen to and understand the victim’s account of how the offence affected them, and to use social cognition skills to process a range of subtle emotions, such as apprehension, doubt, fear, resentment, and skepticism. In real time, the young person must also formulate their own ideas, thoughts, and experiences into sentences and narratives that are sufficiently detailed to be judged as genuine and enable the young person to display authenticity in the eyes of victims.
Of course, in the hands of a skilled facilitator, it is to be hoped that sufficient scaffolding is provided to ensure that communication success is promoted and the conversation that ensues is one that contributes to healing for victims and new insights for offenders. However, the lack of research evidence to date that specifically takes account of the verbal requirements of restorative conferencing means that we currently lack standard triaging approaches. We also do not know to what extent victim satisfaction with the conference process is influenced by the young person’s verbal skills. I have written further about these concerns here.
Because young people in the justice system embody the notion of developmental vulnerability, every effort needs to be made to foster the development of prosocial skills and offer opportunities to be part of the mainstream. Punitive approaches that promote social alienation and limit opportunities for skill development do not service the needs of young offenders, nor of the communities of which they are part.
Restorative approaches promote respect and healing, but are fundamentally verbal in their transaction, and so pose important questions that cannot be readily answered at the present time.  There is an important role for speech-language pathology here - in conducting and collaborating on research to develop clinical tools that justice and education colleagues can employ to refine the conference preparation and convening process.
Saying sorry is of course no simple matter, as it requires a flexible and responsive verbal and social cognition toolkit. However, current evidence indicates that we should assume that one in two young offenders will struggle with many of the receptive and/or expressive language demands of these important, and high-stakes restorative conversations. 

(c) Pamela Snow 2014

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