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We met Ishan (name changed), a 14-year-old, in talking circles at the observation home*. During our first one-on-one conversation with Ishan, he told us that a case had been registered against him for touching a girl on her thigh. He was apprehensive of his family’s anger and how he would ever face them.
A talking circle is a format for structured dialogue where each participant speaks in turn. A talking piece – any symbolic object, is passed around and indicates whose turn it is to speak. Circles can be used to get to know one-another, to build relationships and to address harm. In the observation home, we begin talking circles with a set of games and child-friendly mindfulness. We often create space for children to share memories from their childhood, a way to connect and bond with each other. Circles also allow for deep conversation and reflection, and we’ve held circles with children on the themes of empathy, anger and apology. We engage with children outside the circle as well.
Gradually, over four months, Ishan told us more about what he had done. Each time he admitted to a wrongful action, we told him we appreciated him for speaking the truth and posed questions to help him reflect on the impact of his actions. Ishan would often speak in terms of dramatized versions of romance and love. Without shaming him, we discussed deeper thinking patterns and the underlying socialization. We contacted his family and began speaking with them. They were angry at Ishan even though they weren’t entirely sure of what he had done.
After multiple conversations with Ishan and his family, we planned a circle for all of them while Ishan was still institutionalized. With permission from the Juvenile Justice Board, we arranged for a room in the Board premises where Ishan, his parents and two siblings could be brought together. While waiting for Ishan to be brought there, Ishan’s younger sister gathered mango leaves from the court compound and made a bag of leaves, something we used as a talking piece in the circle initiated for his family.
During the circle, Ishan acknowledged what he had done in front of his family. He took ownership of his actions without shifting blame and without minimizing his actions. Ishan’s family asked questions and he addressed each of them. His parents responded with how they felt and how they had been impacted since he had been in custody. They expressed their shock, anger, disappointment and shame. Ishan listened without offering a defence.
In the midst of being angry and strongly condemning Ishan’s actions, his father said that one mistake ought not to define Ishan for the rest of his life. He said that children often make mistakes, and while he wants to teach him what he did was wrong, he won’t abandon his child and won’t stop loving him. Ishan’s mother and sister spoke about how hard it was for them to be far from him. Together, Ishan and his family came up with a plan for Ishan’s future, his commitments towards repairing the harm caused to his family and ensuring that he would not commit a criminal wrong again. Ishan actively participated in this plan. Everyone present at the circle agreed to the plan.
As we closed the circle by doing a final go-around on what we appreciated about Ishan, he reached out for the talking piece and, for the first time, acknowledged that he used to smoke and had promised himself that he wouldn’t ever again. The safe space enabled him to acknowledge this, something he hadn’t ever thought of telling his parents.
When Ishan was released on bail, we held another circle of understanding for him and his family. Ishan spoke about how he had been impacted by being sent to the institution. Together, Ishan and his parents reiterated the plan for Ishan’s future, which included realistic ways in which his family would support him and how he would be accountable for his actions.
Even though the juvenile legal system aspires to be more child friendly, through a heavy reliance on institutions, it separates young adults from the support systems which are crucial to prevent them from committing harm again. As a result, it strains relationships. Whereas, restorative processes help bring the child back into the fold of crucial support systems like their family and community, and in rebuilding relationships with them. Evidence shows that individuals who have close support networks have a much lesser likelihood of re-offending.
The legal system deters people from acknowledging the harm they’ve done because of the fear of strong repercussions. Restorative processes, on the other hand, enable people to admit to what they’ve done and take ownership of their actions. As it happened in Ishan’s circle, restorative processes send out the strong message that the wrongdoer’s actions are wrong –but they aren’t ‘bad’ people who have no scope for reform. Evidence shows that once people are labelled as ‘offenders’ or ‘criminals’, they begin acting in consonance with the labels and are much more likely to engage in criminal activity. By avoiding the rampant shaming associated with the legal system, restorative processes can help promote a healthy sense of identity and help individuals stay away from crime.
Restorative processes aren’t a ‘soft’ or an ‘easy way out’ since admitting to one’s actions and committing to and consistently following through an accountability plan is difficult. More importantly, it is more meaningful in the long term for all those affected by the crime. While the existing system isolates, labels and shames – all of which become factors for contributing to crime; restorative processes allow for acknowledgment, strengthening relationships, developing a healthy sense of identity and ensuring accountability.
Help us bring restorative processes to more children like Ishan who have caused harm and now want to make amends. Support our “True Justice Heals” campaign, donate now.
*An observation home is an institution where children are sent while criminal trial is pending against them.
Written by – Arti Mohan
Arti is a lawyer and restorative justice program officer at CSJ, who works with children in conflict with law to initiate restorative rehabilitation processes.
Picture Courtesy – Deborah Patel, Lead Social Worker, CSJ