Vince Mercer 2 articles;

A journey considering the application of Restorative Practice in Cases of Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB).

Stories…… ‘Life consists of retellings’ Bruner 1986

Many of the best accounts of human endeavour are encapsulated in narrative accounts of journeys; beginning with the first tentative steps, often testing the ground, maybe with a vague sense of direction and purpose, often initially alone but as  progress is made with the support and company of others, enabling joint reflection and hopefully a communal experience and maybe…conclusion and wisdom. 

Such accounts can be cliché ridden and maybe a little cavalier with factual accuracy and doubts cast upon the purity of motive and actions of the main characters.  This is such a story. Written not by an academic, or a researcher, but by a practitioner experienced in the field of both Harmful sexual Behaviour and Restorative Justice, whose work over the past two decades has been to consider and reflect upon the appropriate and sensitive application of Restorative Practice to cases of Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB).

 To tell this story I’ve adopted a simply chronological narrative from where we were, to where we went, to what we saw, experienced and learnt; and finally to where we might go in the future….


The Background to the AIM Project

Concerns and strengths around RJ and HSB

AIM Restorative Practice experience

AIM Restorative Practice tools

Wider practice experience

Where is AIM going from here?

Background to the AIM Project. (

The AIM Project in Greater Manchester, Great Britain was established in 1999/2000 as part of the radical reinvention of the juvenile criminal justice system which came about following the election of the ‘New Labour’ government under Prime Minister Tony Blair. This approach had a number of related themes or work streams, one  of which was addressing sexual offending and another was the introduction of Restorative Justice into the workings of the youth criminal justice system.

The AIM project was created to provide a model of practice to effectively address the concerns around child and adolescent ‘Harmful Sexual Behaviour’ (HSB). The term currently most widely used to describe sexual violence committed by children and young people (under the age of 18 years).

 The focus of the project was to provide examples of policy and procedure that required a multi disciplinary and ‘joined up’ approach to the task and to give models of response and practice tools, based upon good quality research and proven effectiveness, to Social Workers, Youth Offending Team workers and therapists  in the field.

As such the AIM Project (whose title in full is ‘Assess, Intervene and Move on’) is primarily offender/abuser focussed. However in keeping with the message that this work demands an inter disciplinary approach and following the direction of most practice research, it became clear that the project could not consider the actions of the offender/abuser in isolation, without consideration of the impact and consequences for the specific victim, the immediate family and the wider community. 

Indeed the very term Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) begins with the term ‘Harmful’ which invites us to consider what is the nature of that harm,  who has been effected and what response/redress is appropriate to address the harm caused?

 These are all good restorative questions.

At the time, in the UK at least, the introduction of restorative justice was confined to the youth criminal justice system and mostly focused upon low end/ less serious crime.  Of the 80+ RJ projects established nationally as part of the implementation of the 1997 Crime and Disorder Act, only a small handful focussed upon Restorative Justice with serious and persistent young offenders.   

 I managed one of these, namely the Greater Manchester Family Group Meetings Project.

Self evidently there are good reasons why the Home Office would choose to restrict initial RJ practice to the youth criminal justice system and to focus upon less complex/sensitive property type offences. 

RJ practice was in its infancy, at the time there were no external sets of  standards to benchmark effective practice against, no national body to oversee the quality of training or practice and it must be said little real confidence that RJ was an approach that would prove durable and resilient to the many cynical voices that heard at the time.

In a  previous  publication marking the Fribourg University 2017 Conference, Carl Staffer wrote a piece entitled ‘ Search of a justice which satisfies; the evolving field of Restorative Justice’(2018).

 Carl describes three critical transitions for RJ;  ‘Defining its identity, monitoring its best practice, and sustaining its adaptability’.

 This account is an example of that transition in reality.

In the UK the story of the greater use of restorative approaches to HSB is in part the story of growing maturity of RJ practice, the increased confidence of practitioners, the creation of practice standards, and the recognition by the system that ‘accommodation’ with restorative approaches was not an option but a requirement and the growing level of demand from victims for an approach which places their needs and interests central. 

In 2001 a case occurred that set us on our path.

 A Police Officer reported a case of adolescent HSB which involved the sexual assault of two younger children by a teenage ‘babysitter’. The Officer wanted to refer the case to a restorative justice process but had been told not to do so by her manager. 

‘RJ doesn’t do sex cases…’  was the response of the manager. In frustration the Officer rang our office to ask for advice of how she might proceed.   I could understand the concerns of the manager, which in summary were around the sensitivity of sexual offences, the potential for victim re-victimisation, and lack of proven practice experience in the field to provide stories of success and reassurance. But it set in motion the joint endeavour with the AIM Project; rather than reject the notion of a restorative approach in HSB cases, instead ask the more useful question ‘What would we need to have in place to deliver safe and appropriate restorative work in cases of HSB?’.

In practice no formal restorative meeting was convened in that particular case; but I subsequently heard from the Police Officer that shortly after conviction, the mothers of the two young victims, crossed the street where they lived, knocked on the door of the young man who had assaulted their children and said ‘ we all need to talk about what happened… and face the future…’.  Whilst that manager saw little potential for a restorative meeting, clearly those at the heart of that harm saw something different. This is a useful lesson for practice and research. If those at the heart of a harm see the potential and take the chance to act upon it… shouldn’t we, the ‘professionals’ open ourselves to the possibility too?

The case for and against restorative practice in cases of HSB.

In exploring the application of a restorative process to a sexually harmful situation we were cautious to explore what work others had undertaken in the field. In reality we found very little direct practice evidence but some research and academic consideration of the possibilties.  Often summarising a case for and against the approach, an example below is largely drawn from Daly, K and Curtis- Fawley, S (2004)

Potential difficulties from a Victim Perspective

Victim safety – as an informal process as opposed to a more formal criminal justice process ‘RJ’ applied in inappropriate cases may put victims at risk of continued abuse; it may permit power imbalances to go unchecked and reinforce abusive behaviour.

Manipulation of the process by the offender – offenders may use the informal ‘RJ’ process to diminish or transfer their own guilt, trivialise the abuse or shift blame to the victim.

Pressure on victims – some victims may not be able to effectively advocate on their own behalf and this may be particularly true if the victim is a child or young person. A process such as ‘RJ’ which is based upon group consensus building has the potential to minimize or overshadow a victim’s interests. As a result a victim may be pressurised to accept certain outcomes, such as an apology, even if they feel it is inappropriate or insincere. In short victims experience  may merely become a means of attempting to rehabilitate the offender

Mixed loyalties – friends and family may ‘support’ victims but may also have divided loyalties especially in cases of sibling and intra-familial abuse and in this situation there could be no guarantee that victims interests would not be sacrificed or at best only paid lip service to.

It seemed to the AIM Project that underpinning these concerns were a number of unspoken presumptions and stereotypes that needed exposure and examination. The first relates to the ‘informality’ of the process opening it up to abuse and hijacking by narrow self interests. 

 Let us by contrast consider the  formal criminal justice system .This has specific codes, rules, roles and ‘safeguards’ that in theory recognise  and respect the sensitivity of the victim in a case of sexual harm. Yet in reality the numbers of allegations proceeding to the formal justice system is incredibly small and their experience is rarely positive. 

The ‘formal justice’gap.

Francesco Marsh and Nadia Wagner (2015) suggest that drawing upon Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office for National Statistics data in England and Wales  there are 85,000 cases of rape and 475,000 cases of sexual assault each year which is the equivalent of 2.5% of the female population experiencing sexual assault each year. Yet despite the high volume of sexual offences there are comparatively few cases of convictions being secured. Thus conviction rates for rape for example decreased from 32% in 1977 to 24% in 1985 and dropping to 5.6% in 2005 (Marsh/Wagner 2015 from Kelly et al.2005). This represents one of the lowest conviction for sexual assaults in Europe and it over a period which was marked by much greater security over forensic evidence through better collection of samples and advances in DNA analysis which would have been presumed to have reversed this lamentable performance. Thus in formal criminal justice terms the likelihood is that very few criminal justice convictions are secured..

McAlinden  (2008) notes that the failings of the formal criminal justice system thus far with respect to these type of offences means there is considerable scope for exploring alternative forms of justice and their potential for improving outcomes for victims, offenders, families and communities affected by sexual offence’.

 Moreover the experience of victims ‘processed’ through the formal CJS (Criminal Justice System) is hardly positive.  Shapland, Willmore and Duff (1995) demonstrated that the typical victim of HSB proceeding through a formal CJS which process is likely to experience secondary victimisation which has been compared to another form of abuse. Those at the Fribourg conference  (Feb 2019) may remember the dvd that I showed of Jo Nodding recounting her experience in the Crown Court Hearing of the rape case where the Judge, without reference to Jo, described her life as ‘having been ruined by the offence’. A ‘casual’ comment which was massively offensive and damaging to Jo and subsequently singled out as one of the primary motivations to participate in a restorative process.

Secondly, the position that formal Criminal Justice System (CJS)  is more secure in resisting manipulation, flies in the face of an adversarial system which is more concerned with outcome and result rather than justice from the perspective of the victim. Thus the prevalence of plea bargaining, the undermining of the testimony of victim/witnesses is a very powerful manipulation, not directly by the offender but those law officers more concerned with the overriding needs of the system. Thus victim blaming, excessive preoccupation  with victim’s lifestyles/ sexual history all occur with the ‘safe’ confines of the court room. 

Madsen and Pali note ‘The system is by definition concerned with the offence committed and the person who committed the offence, and not with the damage done to the woman. The woman suddenly becomes a witness to the crime, not the target of the crime. Once her testimony has been given, the system takes over and she has no more say and no power to influence the outcome of the case. In fact, her credibility is often questioned to such an extent that she feels she is the suspect and not the victim. The crime is regarded as a violation of the law and the state, not a violation of her ( Madsen and Pali 2011)

It seems then that by comparison with the formal CJS, a restorative approach has the potential to offer far greater victim security and respect; returning the concept of harm back to the key participants effected and not allowing the appropriation of the offence by the state as Nils Christie described in 1977.

Arguments positively in favour of restorative processes tend to promote issues around;

Victim voice and participation – victims have the opportunity to voice their story in their own words and for their story to be heard. They can be empowered by ‘confronting/facing’ their abuser. Kathhleen Daly talks of victims wanting Voice, Validation and Vindication. Leuven  University conference 2015.

Wagner and Marsh (2015) brought the voice of survivors of sexual assault into the debate around the potential of restorative approaches. In a web based survey of 40 survivors of sexual violence 70% agreed with the opportunity for victims of sexual assault to be able to choose a direct restorative approach. However none of these survivors had the opportunity to participate in a restorative approach, primarily as they had not been offered it.

 Moreover their story is not refracted or distorted through the second hand interpretation of a lawyer or barrister who defines the extent and nature of the offending behaviour in terms of what can be proved most easily. The description of the behaviour is highly codified and stylised to enable problem free processes, the consequences of which are observed by Lacy (1998) that real experiences are silenced. 

Restorative processes allows the possibility to view the behaviour through the real experience of the participants; the narrative is their narrative, not reframed by the constraints of the criminal justice system. Hudson (2002)  notes “ In ‘RJ’ proceedings the abuser cannot ignore her, as is possible in the conventional court; her story will not be retracted through legal language but will be told in her words, using forms of speech with which she always speaks to him, so he cannot claim not to understand. She will be the centre of her story…” 

Gay Becker, an American Anthropologist, published accounts of  how when faced with considerable trauma, people organise their accounts of disruption and chaos into linear accounts of recovery of control and progression. Becker concluded that narrative is the primary expressive form for achieving this recovery,  ‘Through stories people organize, display and work through their experiences… narratives are performative and thus empowering. They represent action and thus agency. Experience is re shaped in the narrative process’ . In short ‘life consists of retellings’. And the restorative process offers the best opportunity to facilitate the telling, reframing of and listening to peoples stories and the stories of others.

Communication and flexible environment – the process can be tailored to the child/adolescent victims needs and capacities because it is a flexible and less formal system, it can be less threatening and more able to respond to the individual needs of victims than the formal criminal justice system. Moreover  safe restorative practice recognises and neutralises power imbalances which frequently underpin gendered violence. Whilst some may not be confident of restorative practice to be robust enough to ‘protect’ the victim; restorative processes  work towards victims and supporters ‘protecting’ themselves through thorough preparation, sensitive assessment and high practice standards. McAlinden observes ‘Restorative Justice processes routinely work towards removing the (power) imbalance by focusing upon the empowerment of the victim’ (2008).

Relationship repair – if this is deemed to be safe and applicable, the process can address the abuse between those who want to continue a relationship in a safer and altered form. It can create opportunities for the relationship to be repaired/ reconstructed differently if this is what the victim truly wants and it can be done in a way which does not promote opportunities for further harm.

Benefits from the offenders perspective;

The restorative preparatory process offers a reflective opportunity – for the abuser to consider the consequences and impact of their behaviour in the widest sense both for themselves and for others.

A Restorative process provides opportunity to express remorse – in a way which may or may not lead to some form of reconciliation and reconstruction of a relationship if the victim chooses.

It can relieve the victim of possible guilt and self blame – with the abuser publicly ‘owning’ their abusive behaviour moreover restorative processes inherently facilitate the acknowledge of shame, which in the cases of HSB, can be a seriously debilitating factors in terms of blocking the full admission and acceptance of responsibility.

 In many cases the restorative work runs alongside the rehabilitative  process – and assists the effective delivery of interventions to reduce future risk of recidivism. One instance of this involves the establishment of  a supportive network – both physically and emotionally, that will support the offender through a treatment/ intervention program.

Factors that support desistence from offending include the creation of ‘social anchoring’; the necessity to build social support networks around offenders to reinforce the strengths and positive influences that counter pro criminogenic factors.  Others have stressed the importance of identity and narrative change as part of the process of self rehabilitation. The restorative approach enables this shift in identity to be explored and enabled both in an individual and communal context.

In giving an account of the AIM Project practice experience I will highlight and develop a number of these themes.

AIM Project practice experience;

Before beginning work on a small ‘demonstration’ case load of restorative approaches to child and adolescent HSB we undertook two preparatory studies. The first involved a brief survey of international practice in this field.

In the UK we found virtually no practice, In effect at a national RJ conference held in Winchester the Minister of Justice addressed the opening of  Conference by outlining the limits of RJ, stating that it was not felt to be appropriate to use RJ in cases of gendered violence, that is sexual and domestic violence..

We had rather more success sourcing practice examples from overseas. Daly (2004)noted that “at present there are only two jurisdictions in the world, South Australia and New Zealand, which routinely use ‘RJ’ in youth sexual assault cases. In New Zealand conferences are used in court diversion and for pre-sentencing advice”.

However the greatest volume of practice seems to have occurred in the State of South Australia. Between 1994 and 1998 the South Australian Conferencing service, which offers Family Group Conferencing (FGC) as a diversionary process to prosecution, delivered a total of 92 FGC’s on adolescent sex offending. They have a number of pre-conditions to undertake the work;

  • A guilty plea by the offender
  • Support and counselling for the victim

In addition they observed the following factors around the cases;

  • The majority of cases there was a prior relationship between victim and offender, often in an inter-family or step-family relationship
  • Very few were cases involving multiple victims
  • Most victims were younger than the offender
  • Many victims were ashamed or embarrassed by focus on the offence and may show related distressing behaviours which generates more anger and hostility towards the offender by the parents of the victim
  • Most of the offenders had no previous offending history
  • The multiple roles occupied by adults in the conference, e.g. parent/grandparent of both victim and offender causes complexity but offers the opportunity to articulate this conflict and avoid being forced to reject one child to protect another
  • The FGC is often the first time the family have been able to discuss what has happened and consider its impact
  • Conferences need to be mindful of the positive elements of the offender and without reducing responsibility for his actions allow a balanced picture of the offender to be drawn
  • Engagement in a ‘counselling’ or intervention package for the offender often assists the participation of the offender in the process. Indeed Daly notes ‘The timing of the conference may be determined, in part, by how far the offender is along the therapeutic process .Unlike conferences for other offences, those for sexual assault have a heightened degree of symbolism in that mark a stage in an ongoing therapeutic process’. (Daly,K 2002).

Reflecting on conferencing they note ‘ Conferences tend to be more intense for participants (than other offences) because the effects of the offence have been usually more severe for the victim and his/her family; and the disclosure of the offence has usually has consequences for the offending youth and his family prior to the conference….The indications for us are that family conferences are useful in dealing with sexual offences where there is a past, and potentially future relationship between the young offender and the victim and that the process does achieve resolution for the victim and appropriate outcomes for the offender’. Doig, M and Wallace, B, (1999)

We were keen to know if this picture was typical of the characteristics of child and adolescent HSB closer to home in the UK so we accessed a local study by the Greater Manchester Youth Justice Trust.

The Greater Manchester Youth Justice Trust produced a study over the period July 2001 until October 2003 on 75 young people in Greater Manchester who had undergone an AIM Assessment for harmful sexual behaviour. An AIM assessment is usually completed on a multi- disciplinary basis in Greater Manchester when a child or young person has displayed  harmful sexual behaviour. The focus of the assessment is the offender (Supplementary Report, Greater Manchester Sample of adolescents who have sexually harmed’ H Griffin, Greater Manchester Youth Justice Trust, 2003).

 The study identified;

  • 109 direct victims of sexual harm and two further cases of possession of indecent material where no direct victim could be identified. 
  • 48 of the cases had one single identified victim, 19 cases two victims and only six cases had three or more victims. 
  • In 55 cases there was a male abuser and female victim, in 19 cases there was male on male abuse, there were two cases of female abuser, female victim and a single case of female abuser, male victim, (total of 77 incidents as in four cases there were victims of both gender).
  • Overwhelmingly the abuser will be male and the victim female (in 72 %of cases) but with a significant number of instances of male on male abuse. Ages of victims were recorded with a range from one to 71 years (with six cases not recorded). However in total there were six adult victims with the highest number of child/young person victims in the 12 to14 age group (27 cases). 
  • The study then compared age of abuser with that of victim,child abusers were defined as young people who sexually harm others four or more years younger than themselves, and others were defined as peer aggressors unless the victim was an adult. In total 43 % involved child abuse, 43% were peer aggressors and in only 4% were they cases involving adult victims, (in 7% of cases the information was not known).
  • In terms of relationship between the person who sexually harmed and victim 79% of young people knew their victim, with 31% actually related (including extended and step family) and 48 not related but known. In only 19 % of cases the young person who committed the HSB did not know their victim.

The core characteristics of each study were remarkable similar, most victims of child/adolescent HSB were peers or younger children, and most noticeable was the high degree of previous relational context and especially the degree of inter familial offending.

It therefore appeared to us from the beginning of our work that the most appropriate restorative model/vehicle for us to develop in cases of sexual abuse was that of Family Group Conferencing ‘FGC’, which crucially invited involvement of the wider family and saw that involvement as being instrumental to the offender being able to make a full and sincere admission of responsibility to the audience who needed to hear it most, including the victim of the offence and their family. Whilst we also acknowledged at that early stage, we should not preclude a role for victim/offender mediation or the value of indirect meetings if that suited the needs/interests of the participants. 

In recognition that disclosure of such an offence often has devastating effects on the family; uninvolved family members may find themselves invited to or expected to take sides, to condemn the behaviour in a way that drives a fault line across family cohesion. Similarly, family members may find themselves in conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable positions as mother/father, brother/sister and uncle/aunt to both the victim and offender. As such, they may be faced with the impossible choice of rejecting one child in order to affirm love and compassion for another child.

We ran a small demonstration caseload  based upon referral received directly from local Youth Offending Teams. In practice this meant that the primary source of referral arose from an offender perspective. We sought to counter balance this by building links with local victim support agencies and with Victim Liaison Officers in the Probation Service. We employed a multi methodology approach using both mediation practice and restorative Family Group Meetings. The restorative approach being determined by the needs of the participants and the characteristics of the case. This most of the intra familial cases resulted in a Family Group Meeting, a variation on the original New Zealand Family Group Conference model.  A full account of the details of the AIM restorative practice is contained in chapter 17 ‘Restorative justice; Can it work with young people who sexually abuse’ in Calder 2007.

Practice observations drawn from our experience

It would be impossible to detail in full the range of learning and insight we have gathered over the past few years but below is an attempt to suggest a few areas which restorative Practitioners would need to consider before beginning to advance into the field of HSB;

  • The need to employ a specialist Restorative/HSB Assessment framework to ensure issues of safety and appropriateness are addressed. For example, the offenders attitude to the offence and its aftermath is central and critical to the process; there is great danger in attempting to use the meeting to force issues of remorse, accountability and shame on behalf of the offender. The cost to be paid here is potential re-victimisation of the victim. However hearing andothers hearing, a genuine admission of responsibility and expression of remorse is a very powerful vindication and affirmation for the victim. Again this might have influence upon the timing issue since the abuser initial attitudes may well be altered by engagement in an intervention programme. This is reflected in both the 2011 Home Office Best Practice Guidance and section 3.1 of the Restorative Justice Council’s Practitioner Competency Framework (RJC 2015 pages 19/20)
  •  The need to have the Restorative assessment built upon specialist Offender Assessments addressing crimogenic issues such as risk of re-offending
  •  The need to consider timing and appropriateness from a balanced perspective which privileges the interests and needs of the victim.It might be that the criminal justice system via a referral order sees an ideal opportunity early in the process but the victim or the family may not be ready to engage in the process. Whilst many decisions need to be made shortly after disclosure, and the planning element of the FGC might facilitate family engagement in this, the raw feelings and shock after the event can make effective dialogue difficult to achieve.  Similarly, if substantial time has elapsed since the offence, it may be that the victim and/or family’s attitude has hardened to make an unbridgeable chasm and communication is unthinkable. Invitations to support have consolidated into condemnation and the only conceivable reaction is one of exile for the abuser
  • A need to work to established practice standards which are recognised by the wider Restorative community
  • A need to have an understanding of the general context of child and adolescent HSB and identify and work with its particular characteristics and features
  • A flexibility around models of deliver and a willingness to put process in harness for participants, not the other way around. Although our primary model was a Family Group Conference we did not rule out alternative methodologies if the case characteristics suggested a different approach
  • An ability to review process and adapt/amend to the particular needs of HSB. For example in most of our ‘other’ restorative meetings we will always included a section on ‘what happened’ and a general agreement on ‘facts’. This is rarely appropriate in RA/HSB meetings where the focus should shift towards how people have been affected and what can be done about it
  • If the offence is an interfamilial one, to employ methods which enable the engagement of the family in the process and other an opportunity for family dialogue and planning if necessary. Consider and include the impact upon siblings; Increasingly work with sexual offenders attempts to locate effective practice in the social ecology of the offender, recognising the value and importance of family work in consolidatingresilience. In a recent survey of practitioners in the field(Hackett, S, 2005)there was a strong consensus on the need to work with parents and families in seeking to manage sexually abusive behaviour. With 85% of the whole sample ‘agreeingthat interventions need to be focussed on the young person’s living environment as much as individual treatment’.

 It was self evidently important to develop the sensitive relationship between restorative  approaches and the therapeutic interventions available to the offender/victim. This requires a clear understanding of the professional roles and boundaries of the Restorative worker and how this can assist and complement the ongoing therapeutic work. It also required a clear understanding of when these roles would occasionally be under tension or in conflict.

We determined right from the start that we wanted to document our practice learning and make that available to the wider restorative community through the publication of ‘Practice Guidance’, the Restorative Assessment Framework and the creation of a practitioner training programme.  Our focus was less on ‘formal’ research methodology as our audience was fellow restorative practitioners who we knew would be increasingly facing a rising demand for sensitive and appropriate restorative responses to the growing number of sexual violence cases.

The first of these practitioner tools to be published was the Restorative assessment framework in 2007. This document has since been revised three times to take into account the growing body of practice knowledge and experience in the field. It is currently undergoing its fourth revision and should be available with accompanying Practice Guidance from the AIM Project in early summer 2019 (AIM Project 2019).

AIM Restorative Assessment Framework;

 Due to the contentious nature of restorative work in HSB cases it seemed prudent to the AIM Project that some form of case screening and case suitability was employed to identify those cases where the greatest risk to the victim could be identified. As we noted in the 2011 DAPHNE Funded Practice Guidance, published as part of the wider DAPHNE study on ‘Developing integrated responses to sexual violence: An interdisciplinary research project on the potential of restorative justice’ Daphne III – JUST/2011/DAP/AG/3350, coordinated by the Leuven Institute of Criminology, University of Leuven (Belgium) between March 2013 and February 2015.

‘The issue of determining case suitability is a somewhat problematic and contentious issue from a RJ perspective since it has the potential to take choice and control from those at the centre of the conflict and place them instead in the hands of those responsible for the delivery of the process, the RJ practitioner, manager or other professional specialist. It represents a fundamental dilemma. How do we empower those affected by the harm to make choices and decisions for themselves yet ensure that we deliver safe, sensitive and appropriate practice? Clearly, this is an especially prominent concern when dealing with sensitive and complex RJ case work.’

However our concern as a pioneering project in this field was to minimise the potential for causing or exacerbating any further harm and moreover our own national practice standards required a risk led assessment process in approaching cases deemed to be ‘Sensitive and Complex’. In the English and Welsh national practice standards, all sexual cases are deemed to be ‘Sensitive and Complex’.

As the years have progressed however we see this document less as a means of restricting access to restorative work but much more as a framework to enable restorative workers to systemically identify the sensitivities and complexities of a potential case and shape their preparation and engagement accordingly. 

The AIM model is based upon two levels of assessment;

Initially an offender specific assessment which focuses primarily upon the crimogenic risk factors in relation to the offender, such as assessment would be the AIM2 model which is shortly to be replaced by the new AIM3 framework. This explores issues and factors that are largely pertinent to the offender and his/her family. It does include some items that are of restorative interest, levels of acceptance of responsibility for example, but it not wide enough to be able to explore specific restorative questions. Consequently the AIM Restorative HSB Assessment Framework is layered on top of the offender assessment to meet that need.

This follows the pathway of the AIM framework in addressing issues in relation to offender, victim, parents/carers (of both offender and victim) and siblings (of both offender and victim). Additionally it focuses upon the identification of strength and capacity in addition to concern and deficit. The major difference being whilst AIM2 is constructed on a sound evidential research base and is able to use a numerical score to ‘weight’ this evidence, no such evidential/research base as yet exists in the Restorative/HSB field so adoption of a numerical score system would seem inappropriate. Instead it relies upon a scaled estimation with supporting narratives/evidence.

It is designed to inform and assist in preparation and identify areas that both the Restorative worker and the participants might usefully consider and reflect upon; as such it should help structured and accountable decision making in conjunction and partnership with potential participants. It is not prescriptive and definitive, but a starting point to consider the strengths and weaknesses that can be identified, employed or addressed.

The AIM Restorative Assessment tool is in effect the specialist initial assessment tool referred to in the Home Office Guidance (2011) since it seeks to explore those issues which are a threat to a safe and effective meeting as well as identifying those elements of strength which lend themselves to the potential of a safe and positive meeting. This tool is currently the most widely used approach in the UK, is being translated into Norwegian for use in the adoption of the wider AIM framework their and has most recently been amended/adapted for use in a therapeutic case environment outside of the criminal justice system to enable restorative work to be undertaken as part of family reunification after cases of HSB. 

Complimenting the Restorative Assessment Framework the AIM  Project has developed extensive Practice Guidance to assist restorative workers to consider how safe and effective restorative approaches to HSB might mean adaptation and amendments to their current process/practice. Additionally the AIM project has delivered a significant number of training packages for practitioners  across the UK, in Norway, Denmark and the European Restorative Forum Summer school  in 2017 in Italy. 

Aim was invited to be the UK representative on the Developing integrated responses to sexual violence: An interdisciplinary research project on the potential of restorative justice’ Daphne III – JUST/2011/DAP/AG/3350, coordinated by the Leuven Institute of Criminology, University of Leuven (Belgium) between March 2013 and February 2015.This enabled the project to bring its practice experience to a wider audience but also participate in the largest yet mapping survey of restorative practice in cases of HSB.

The wider practice experience of restorative work in cases of HSB.

The DAPHNE study previously referenced, undertook the largest mapping exercise of projects internationally concerned with delivery  of restorative work in cases of sexual violence. A total of 74 projects responded to a detailed questionnaire across a wide geographical distribution of Europe representing 61% of replies, North America  26%  and the balance representing Australasia and Africa. In terms of types of restorative methodology employed  a small majority favoured mediation (52%)  whilst 42% employed variations on Restorative Conferencing. In terms of linking of the restorative work to therapeutic support for either victims or offenders 32% operated alongside therapeutic support. Overall 42% dealt with adult offenders only, 24 % with juveniles only. 

They worked across a wide range of sexual assaults with 92% including rape cases.  Most identified intra familial HSB as the most common scenario for abuse and 715 of projects addressed this type of harm. Nearly half identified some form relational context has been established or maintained ‘via communication technology’. Yet overall most case studies illustrating HSB revolve around direct physical abuse. We have yet to gather any significant number of detailed accounts of restorative approaches to harm facilitated by new technology. Yet in the UK as in many jurisdictions that type of sexual harm contributes to a significant proportion of the rising number of HSB cases. There is an account from 2015 from the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry in Canada where female Dentistry students filed complaints under the University’s Sexual Harassment Policy regarding male colleagues posting offensive material about them on a Facebook site. The resulting restorative process was complex and ran for over 5 months using a combination of circle, conferences and workshops. Its sensitivity and complexity was added to be the considerable media and public interest.

Returning to the findings of the DAPNE study, a significant number of projects (62%)  had been operating for 5 years or more.  Nearly half (46%) dealt with cases outside of the formal criminal justice system and for those within the constraints of the formal criminal justice system 76% worked post sentence. Therefore the restorative approach would have little if any influence upon diversionary practice.

The AIM model employs a suitability criteria and a formal risk assessment process and 63% and 68% of international projects did the same. In terms of requiring some degree of admission of responsibility by the offender 95% of projects felt this was necessary. Virtually all projects used extensive preparation with potential participants and about 44% felt this could be achieved in 3-6 months.

A reassuring 62% of Restorative practitioners delivering the process had undertaken specific training on sexual violence and nearly 80% were professional mediators/facilitators .

So whilst there is variety of practice of restorative approaches to HSB internationally we can at least start to build something of a common template;

  • They work both within and external to the Criminal Justice system
  • They work with both juveniles and adults
  • They work with a range of sexual harm including rape
  • Most will work with ‘contact’ offences but new media and social media harm will be coming forward increasingly
  • Some work as part of a therapeutic response
  • Most are professional mediators/facilitators
  • They use both mediation and conferencing
  • Most employ case screening and a formal assessment process
  • Most have had specific training on sexual harm as part of their preparation for the process

So we can create something of a model for development of existing services taking this work forward. It would seem that the issues of concern relating to victim safety and offender risk can be mitigated by the considered and careful application of good quality restorative work. This includes well trained and experienced restorative staff, with a clear understanding of role and inter disciplinary context. Working to well established practice standards with additional training on the particularities of sexual harm. They will need to amend and adapt existing restorative practices to the circumstances of the sexual context. 

This means being more aware of the consequence and impact of the harm in a relational context and in very many cases this will mean a familial context. They will need to have an understanding how the restorative process can assist/facilitate/ the meeting of the therapeutic needs of victims, offenders and family. This will need a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of admission of responsibility and denial. It will require consideration of issues of shame, blame and identity. 

It will require a process that can manage/respond to initial doubt/hostility from a number of directions but by holding itself accountable to practice standards and the views of the participants and demonstrate its capability it will be able to create stories of success and reassurance. 

Where is the AIM Project hoping to go from here?

We remain committed to our model of assessment led practice, not to preclude cases and screen out the ‘difficult ones’ but to enable restorative practitioners to have a thoughtful and considered approach to identifying strengths and weaknesses that will inform the direction of the preparation that we undertake with a case of Harmful Sexual Behaviour. The AIM Project remains committed to delivering the tools and training to restorative workers to enable them to progress their practice, in a reflective and informed manner on the basis of what has been collectively learned over the past years.

 The rising number of cases of HSB is experienced internationally. The influence of new media and social networking is instrumental in terms of providing new and pan national means of accessing and harming victims sexually. Yet at the same time it has enabled the power of victim led/focussed voices such as the ‘Me too’ movement as well as the wider sharing of stories of victims who want better means of holding those who harm to account.

The new revision of the AIM Restorative Practice framework, (Assessment and Guidance) will be reflective of this work. From July the Assessment Framework and the Practice Guidance will be combined into a single publication. Moreover we are increasingly aware of the interest from those in the therapeutic community about the use of restorative approaches to facilitate family cohesion and reunification in cases of HSB. In the UK, the Restore Project in Bristol used a variation of the AIM framework to use restorative approaches to address intra familial/sibling HSB. We are moving more towards applications of restorative work outside of the formal criminal justice arena and hence our adoption of the term Restorative Practice rather than Restorative Justice.

 The DAPHNE Mapping survey gave some indication of the volume of work on HSB that happens outside of the justice system. Again accounts like the Dalhousie University (2015) demonstrates how restorative approaches can be linked to anti harassment/harm policies that are increasing becoming common as the scale of intra student sexually harmful behaviour becomes apparent. The Student Room undertook a national consultation on students experience of sexual violence in universities across the UK and found that 42% of all students and recent graduates had experience sexual assault (4500 students from 153 different institutions).Tellingly only 2% of those experiencing sexual violence felt both able to report it to their university and were then satisfied with the reporting process. 

There is a depressing similarity with the ‘justice gap’ in terms of confidence with existing structures referred to earlier.

No doubt as we experience further profound cultural shifts in our experience and understanding of the many forms of sexual harm we will need to embrace ‘non traditional’ and more directly accountable means of addressing that harm.  In this context the tentative and exploratory work already undertaken in the field of restorative work and Harmful Sexual Behaviour becomes more significant and valuable.

Becker,Gay.(1999),Disrupted Lives; University of California Press.

Bruner, E. (1986) Experience and its Expressions.In ‘The anthropology of experience’ University of Illinois Press

Christie N (1977) Conflict as Property, Tidsskrift for Rettsvitenskap, 61, pp 113-132

‘Report from the Restorative Justice Process. Faculty of Dentistry’May 2015 Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry Canada

Daly, K and Curtis,S –Fawley  (2004), ‘Restorative Justice for victims of sexual assault’ paper prepared for K. Heimerand C. Kruttschmitt (eds) Gender and Crime; Patterns of Victimization and Offending. New York University Press 2004

Francesco Marsh and Nadia Wagner  (2015)  Restorative Justice in Cases of sexual violence; exploring the views of the public and survivors,The Probation Journal, Vol62 (4)  Sage

 Shapland, Willmore and Duff (1995) Victims in the Criminal Justice System,Aldershot;Gower

Lacy ,N. (1998)Unspeakable subjects,Impossible rights;Sexuality,Integrity and Criminal Law; Canadian Jnl of Law and Jurisprudence, 11;1,47-68

Hudson ,B.(2002) Restorative Justice and Gendered Violence. British Journal of Criminology,42.3

Daly,K. (2002),Restorative Justice and Family Violence;  ed H Strang and J Braithwaite Cambridge University Press 2002

Developing integrated responses to sexual violence: An interdisciplinary research project on the potential of restorative justice’ Daphne III – JUST/2011/DAP/AG/3350, coordinated by the Leuven Institute of Criminology, University of Leuven (Belgium) between March 2013 and February 2015.

Doig M, and Wallace B, (1999), Family Conference Team Paper presented at the Restoration for victims of crime conference Melbourne. 

Griffin, H. 2003, Supplementary Report, Greater Manchester Sample of adolescents who have sexually harmed’ Greater Manchester Youth Justice Trust,

Home Office 2011;Best Practice Guidance for Restorative Practitioners. 

McAlinden,A.M. (2008) ‘Are there limits to restorative justice?’ in The handbook of Restorative Justice, ed Sullivan,D. Tifft,L. Routledge International 2008

Mercer,V , Henniker,J.  (2007) Restorative Justice, can it work with young people who sexually abuse? in ‘Working with children and young people who sexually abuse; taking the field forward’ RHP London

Pali,.B Madsen,K S, (2011), Dangersous Liasons? A feminist and Restorative Approach to Sexual AssaultTemida , pp 49-

 Restorative Justice Council 2015, Practitioner Competency Framework

Restorative Practice In Harmful Sexual Behaviour  Assessment and Guidance ; available from AIM  summer 2019. (

Carl Staffer, (2018) ‘ Search of a justice which satisfies; the evolving field of Restorative Justice’in ‘Mettre l’humain au centre du droit penal:les apports de la justice restaurative’Schulthess 

 Student Room Survey;

The AIM Project Practice Guidance on the use of Restorative Practice in cases of Harmful Sexual Behaviour

AIM Project this summer launched its new updated models and guidance for practitioners, which include AIM3 adolescent model; the AIM Under 12s model; the AIM Adolescent Intervention Guidance; the  joint AIM and NSPCC Technology Assisted Harmful Sexual Behaviour Guidance . Spring 2020 will see the launch of the AIM Restorative Practice and  Harmful Sexual Behaviour Guidance. This article provides an introduction to the AIM Restorative Practice and Harmful Sexual Behaviours (HSB) Guidance and some insight as to why this revised guidance is considered very timely.

In 1997 the Crime and Disorder Act, a major piece of youth criminal justice legislation, laid the foundation for the youth justice system we have today. Arguably one of the most radical parts of that new system  was the systemic move toward the use of restorative approaches with adolescents who offended. However, whilst Restorative Justice (RJ) was widely used across the youth Criminal Justice System (CJS), in effect it was not felt to be appropriate in cases of HSB. The reasons for this reflected the anxiety around the complexity and sensitivity of these types of cases and perhaps a natural caution to test this approach out on less contentious and more straightforward  property related crimes.

 As confidence in the efficacy of restorative work grew so too did the understanding that in many ways restorative work is often most effective and applicable in those cases which, under today’s RJ practice standards, are defined as ‘Sensitive and Complex’.

In 2002, The AIM Project also began to address the question of whether or not restorative practice could be applied to HSB cases. Over a period of 10 years, I, as the Restorative Practice lead, ran a small case load to explore the applicability of restorative approaches to adolescent HSB and outline what might be considered safe, sensitive and appropriate practice. 

This  initial casework led the way for those early practitioners who also felt that Restorative work was appropriate for some HSB cases. The AIM Project used this case work experience to inform and develop practice approaches and tools which would, supported by appropriate training, enable safe, sensitive and effective restorative practice with the first editions of the AIM RJ/HSB Practitioners Guidance and the AIM Restorative Assessment framework being published in 2007.

Now, 12 years later, the restorative approach with HSB remains just as relevant and necessary, particularly as there has been   a consolidation of restorative approaches across both the youth and adult CJS and the embedding of restorative approaches in schools, work places, higher education and more therapeutic settings.

 Moreover, the rise of the use of restorative approaches should be seen in a context of a broader dissatisfaction with the continued failures of the formal CJS to offer a wider and more applicable response to victims of sexual violence.   An example of the failure of the formal CJS is evidenced by the recent figures released by the Home Office which show  that whilst the number of rapes reported to the Police in 2018  stood at 57,600 an increase of  11%, over 2017, the number of rape suspects charged decreased to 2,822 a fall of 23% over the  same period. The reasons for this widening ‘Justice gap’ are many and complex; but the overall effect on victims is quite simple. At a time of increased numbers of victims coming forward, the formal CJS is increasingly unable to deliver satisfactory outcomes to them.

The other factor which has led to the rise of restorative approaches is the major change within the field of youth/child HSB of the  recognition that effective responses must be framed in  the wider ‘ecological’ systems that surround the abuser/offender and that the concept of ‘Harm’ in HSB necessitates not only consideration of the young person themselves, but also a consideration of the interests and needs of the victim and the wider familial experience in relation to that harm. Over the past decade it is no longer acceptable to professionals responding to HSB to be able to claim to be solely/primarily focused upon the intervention with, or support to, a single individual, be it either the abuser/offender or the victim.

Furthermore, if is recognised harm has occurred, that in turn leads to an obligation to address that harm and consider how it might be repaired.

The new AIM Restorative Practice and HSB Guidance (2020)  recognises the changed circumstances since the early AIM case work experience. We have widened the fields and scope of the assessment framework beyond those that would mainly be applicable to a criminal justice context. We did this through adopting and amending the practice experience of the Restore Project in Bristol who themselves had used the original AIM framework as a guide to underpinning safe restorative practice with children and young people who had sexually harmed in an intra familial context, but not necessarily proceeded down the CJS route. 

We have adopted a language of ‘harm’ rather than ‘offence’ to reflect this wider concept/ context and to move away from the term Restorative Justice, which implies a judicial focus towards a more inclusive term ‘Restorative Practice’ (RP).

In the past the AIM Practice Guidance and the Assessment framework were separate documents but from 2020 these have been brought together into one single publication to enable practitioners to access a single source publication to assist them to deliver safe and applicable Restorative Practice in HSB cases.

 Finally, we include a significant section upon the use of Restorative Practice in cases of Sibling HSB and in assisting a safe and managed process of family re-unification.

The 2020 AIM  Restorative  Practice and  HSB  Guidance remains  the single most comprehensive source of practice orientated information for those already delivering this approach in HSB and for those starting to recognise that restorative practice could significantly enhance their service delivery.

As with all AIM Publications it is supported by a number of appropriate AIM training events relating to both generic and specific professional settings.  

The AIM RP/HSB Practice Guidance will be launched in London on 2nd April 2020. To book for this event and/or the accompanying two day training visit the National AIM week item on the AIM Training Programme section of the website.

Vincent Mercer Restorative Practice Co-ordinator The AIM Project