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Just care: Restorative justice approaches to working with children in public care.

May 9, 2010

Restorative approaches are essentially about making and maintaining relationships, based on respect rather than power;  restorative justice is applying those principles to the response to wrongdoing.  In England and Wales, for lack of a better system, there has been a tendency in children’s homes to call the police for relatively minor incidents, and Hopkins spells out the damaging effects of criminalizing young people in this way.  (She might have added that there has been concern about excessive use of physical restraint.)  She traces the origins of restorative justice, and its adoption by schools.  Conflicts are dealt with by asking those affected to tell their own story, and work out how to make things right. 

Five restorative themes are identified:  respect for individual perspectives, mutual understanding,  focus on how to repair harm for all concerned, appreciating individual needs, and accountability.  These are achieved by team and community building, interpersonal conflict management, mediation and restorative conferencing.  They are approached with a restorative mindset, and Hopkins spells out the risks of conventional punitive behaviour management systems based on sanctions and the use of force. 

In place of asking Whose fault was it? is the fact-finding What happened? and then How did each person experience it?  Instead of punishing the culprit, he or she is held accountable;  then everyone is involved in putting it right, and the power to do this is shared, not imposed.

Six chapters follow, taking us step by step through these applications of the principles, labelled by the number of dots on dice (though I wondered whether the stages had been expanded to make sure that there were six of them). 

Firstly there is the restorative enquiry, comparable to Marshall Rosenberg’s (1999) ‘Observing without evaluating’.  Hopkins does not favour a ‘script’ of questions, but suggests various useful phrases (and words to avoid, such as the unhelpful ‘Why did you do it?’).

Secondly, restorative dialogue, ‘sorting things out together’:  it is restorative to say ‘I need ,,,’ followed by a noun, and a request – not ‘I need you to …’.  From her experience Hopkins recommends training the staff, who in turn can train the pupils;  this is more likely to convert the whole school to restorative practices. 

Thirdly, the same five questions can be asked in small restorative meetings, for which a restorative framework and numerous practical details are suggested.  There is an apparent contradiction here:  Hopkins says that the facilitator should not suggest what people’s needs are (p. 120), but in Figure 5.8 does seem to show a facilitator translating demands into needs.  Larger and more formal meetings are called ‘conferencing’, which can be carried out by a member of staff already experienced in restorative practices, or from another agency.  Plenty of practical tips are given, from agreeing the wording of the notice on the door to providing refreshments at the end to that everyone can ‘practise what it is like being back on speaking terms … over a cup of tea and biscuits’ (p. 133).  

Much of the above implies that someone has done something wrong, but the approach can be used in other ways:  daily circles for staff and residents, problem-solving circles, circles for repairing harm or for celebration (of an event or an individual’s achievement).  Practical examples are given of this kind of activity.

The last two chapters are practical in a different way:  they are about working in partnership with other agencies, and implementation and sustainability.  Examples are given in an English context, but could be adapted to other systems.  Hopkins warns against criminal justice agencies attempting restorative practices with insufficient training (p. 164 n.23), and policymakers who misunderstand restorative practices by ignoring the process and focusing on ‘reparative’ tasks such as working in public in conspicuous clothing, which pretends to be restorative but is really punitive (p. 167). 

To make the restorative approach sustainable, you need a few people with vision and enthusiasm who will be the ‘sparks’ who start the ‘fire’ (a somewhat two-edged metaphor!)  An example is Hertfordshire, the first English county to train all residential care staff where researchers have found a long list of benefits including a 39 per cent reduction in police call-outs.  An action plan for implementation is outlined, so that the seeds can grow into a garden (a better analogy!)  The book ends with several appendices with practical checklists, action plans, and record-keeping forms.

Many people still assume that discipline is about controlling behaviour with power.  Those who campaign for children’s rights and the reduction of the use of physical restraint and police intervention, need to show staff what they can do instead.  This book claims to be the first to apply restorative methods to the residential care of young people, and shows, in a practical way, how an approach based on respect can handle conflict and secure co-operation.


Rosenberg, M (1999)  Nonviolent communication: a language of compassion.  Del Mar CA:  PuddleDancer Press. 


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