Over the past six years, Kimberly and Jason have undergone counseling, separated, made amends, separated again and come back together again. After their first separation, Kimberly changed dramatically from the demure wife she once was. “Suddenly you’re not under a thumb anymore,” she says. “I got very loud.”
Loud meant Kimberly drew hard lines in her marriage: Jason could come home, but he could only sleep on the couch. Kimberly, meanwhile, began taking classes designed to help domestic-violence survivors heal from the abuse. And in 2011, she started telling her story to people she never thought would listen: men who’d abused their partners.
Through her classes, Kimberly learned of and was eventually asked to speak on a panel for Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue (DVSD), a Portland nonprofit with a mission of allowing survivors to “speak to domestic violence offenders honestly” about their experiences. DVSD hosts Survivor Impact Panels (SIP) through two Portland-area counties. Survivors speak to a crowd of offenders at least 26 weeks into court-ordered therapy, discussing how domestic violence affected their lives. (They don’t know the offenders in the audience.) The men listen, then ask questions.
DVSD was founded in 2000 by Carrie Outhier Banks, a former domestic-violence-shelter worker with a Ph.D. in conflict analysis. The organization applies restorative justice to situations of intimate-partner violence—an idea that came to her after years hearing the women in the shelters wonder if they were at fault for their abuse. “You just keeping hearing over and over ,‘I wish I could understand,’” she says.
Restorative justice—a term popularized by criminologists in the 1990s— is a victim-centered, dialogue-based practice that attempts to repair the harm caused by crimes. It can be run by the criminal-justice system or outside organizations, and is often used in property crimes—broken fences, stolen goods. But recently, it’s trickled into other, bigger arenas. In 2013, The New York Times reported on a murder case in which the parents of a young woman who was killed by her boyfriend used restorative-justice tactics to weigh in on sentencing, in conjunction with the boyfriend and the prosecutor.
In the context of partner violence, though, the concept is still a controversial one. Banks recalls the day she first proposed her idea at a national domestic-violence conference in 2000: Why not bring together a survivor and an offender, neither of whom knows the other, and let them have a dialogue?
The idea wasn’t a popular one. “The criticism at the time was survivors aren’t strong enough,” Banks says. “[People said,] ‘How dare you? You’re going to re-victimize them.’”
“I was told to leave the conference,” she adds. “I was stunned.”
Banks wasn’t the first to apply restorative justice to domestic abuse—and she’s also not the first to come under fire for it. When the criminologist John Braithwaite co-wrote a paper on the idea 20 years ago, he says, it was “extremely controversial.”