At first it was shock, followed by waves of anger and disappointment.
For years, the parents of an advisory committee for a Victoria school were raising funds for their children’s extra curricular activities — a task that isn’t easy since many parents are already strapped for cash.
So when the committee discovered that the treasurer of the group had stolen almost $9,000 in two years, it came as a massive blow for all parents involved.
“It took us quite a while to realize that her daily budget and daily tallying were not quite matching up. We were wondering what was going on here,” said Tracy, a member of the committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“It had a huge impact on us. We cried and cried and cried.”
According to Tracy, the woman was eventually confronted by the president of the advisory committee about the missing funds, which she kept blaming on other parents. The woman had a melt down, apologized and confessed she had been stealing money, but wouldn’t reveal exactly how much had been taken, forcing parents to spend hours wading through the accounting mess.
The news was especially hard for the president, who had taken the woman under her wing since she was going through a tough time. Parents were pleased to see the woman taking responsibility and thought she had managed to get her life on track.
“There was a lot of angry parents wanting to get her kids taken away from her, send her to jail,” said Tracy. “How could she have sat across the table from me month after month, and directly look me in the eye and lie each time? Money kept going missing so we put different procedures in place. We were duped and that was hard to take.”
For Tracy, going through the court process wouldn’t have done any good for anyone involved, so the committee decided to go to Restorative Justice (RJ) Victoria instead.
Beginning in 2002, RJ is a non-profit organization that addresses crime and conflict in the community through victim-offender mediation. The process is meant to create just outcomes by repairing the harm caused by the crime as opposed to going through the courts and addressing the law.
The organization receives between 70 to 80 referrals per year from police and Crown prosecutors for criminal offences that occur in Victoria, Esquimalt and Oak Bay. The severity of the offences ranges from minor thefts and mischief to sexual assaults and assault causing bodily harm.
The process is entirely voluntary, with offenders having to accept responsibility for their role and the harm they’ve caused. Of the 139 offenders who went through the process in August 2014, 19 (14 per cent) reoffended in some capacity (eight with the same offence that placed them in the RJ program and 11 with a different one.) In 2015, police queried the 120 offenders that hadn’t reoffended (in the previous study) and found eight of them had reoffended in some capacity.
“About half start out thinking they just don’t want a criminal record, but then there’s a flip and they actually become remorseful,” said Jessica Rourke, executive director of RJ Victoria, adding most offenders are so nervous about meeting the victim that they can’t sleep the night before.
“You really see a transformation in them coming through the process. When they get to the dialogue, they actually want to sit down and talk about it in a way they never thought about before. Often they don’t think about the ripple effects of their crime so it’s a big eye opener for them.”
Depending on the seriousness of the crime, it takes several months to a year to prepare the victim and offender for the facilitated meeting that typically takes two to five hours. The meeting is often filled with emotion, noted Rourke, but participants leave with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and a step closer towards healing.
John, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, wound up in the RJ process after getting into a fight at a Victoria night club. The police were called to investigate the assault, but referred the matter to RJ instead of laying charges.
John spent two to three months preparing for the meeting, but the victim opted not to participate in the process. Nonetheless, the 23-year-old still learned a lot about himself during several meetings with RJ facilitators.
“I was living it out every day and thinking about what I did,” said John. “It really makes you reflect on who you are as a person. It had a massive impact on me.”
Once Tracy and two other parents sat down with the woman who stole thousands of dollars from the school, she saw the value in being able to talk about the pain the theft caused. Tracy describes the meeting as intense and emotional, but felt the woman needed to know about the damage she had done.
“It felt good, it felt empowering. I was able to speak with her and be really clear with how I was feeling and I was able to listen to what she had to say,” said Tracy, noting commitments were also made about how to pay the money back, which could take seven years.
“If I had to approach her on my own….I would have gotten away with myself, I would have gotten angry. Going through RJ and having those people there really made it a positive experience.”