Community Issues

Restorative justice program changes how community advocate deals with wrongdoing

February 15, 2012
Connie McGonigal.

By Amy Robertson

Connie McGonigal, a family and community advocate, no longer believes that retribution is the only solution to wrongdoing.

Since completing SFU Continuing Studies' Restorative Justice Certificate in December 2010, McGonigal believes that restoration, not punishment, can be the best answer—and her clients are reaping the benefits.

McGonigal is a longtime employee of The Caring Place, a Salvation Army-run social services organization that offers an emergency shelter, a transitional housing program, and a community meal program to residents of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows (both in the Vancouver area). She builds relationships and cares for people who come to the organization for help—including families in distress, people at risk of homelessness, and troubled youth.

“When we think about justice, we think about punishment—but really, it doesn’t need to be like that. It can be an honourable process,” she said. “Punishment forces change. Restorative justice provides opportunities for change through relationship.”

McGonigal took the restorative justice program at the recommendation of a colleague, realizing that her goal at work was, ultimately, to restore people who were on the margins of society—the Caring Place’s tagline is “Where Healing Begins.”

The online program gave McGonigal the tools and understanding to facilitate that healing, and changed how she deals with her clients. Rather than looking at the conflict as it happens, she said, “I’m looking for ways to look beyond the situation at hand. Maybe someone’s mom died that day and they went off the deep end. We don’t know.”

In the past, people who were caught being disruptive or doing drugs at The Caring Place were automatically barred for a minimum of 24 hours. Now, McGonigal realizes that barring people from the premises only limits their access to help. A committee now meets to discuss barring—and offenders are invited to join the meeting.

Dormitory for the transitional housing program
at The Caring Place.

“It’s a much more restorative process,” McGonigal said. “They take ownership. They have a part in the decision.”

McGonigal also uses healing circles to deal with conflict among the residents of The Caring Place.

One young man was able to avoid expulsion from the transitional housing program thanks to the restoration he and others experienced in a healing circle with McGonigal. He went on to do very well, she said.

Her vision and passion is to continue to restore dignity and help the broken heal—to make clients of The Caring Place feel like they matter.

“I just really believe I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

Browse more photos of Connie McGonical and The Caring Place on Flickr.

SFU Continuing Studies program offers different approach to transforming conflict

SFU Continuing Studies’ Restorative Justice Certificate is calling attention to the need for community and justice workers to think differently about dealing with conflict and offending behaviour in our communities.

Students in the program learn to take a community-minded approach to conflict by facilitating healing and restoration rather than focusing on punishment.

Dr. Brenda Morrison, a professor in SFU’s School of Criminology, was heavily involved in developing the program. As the director of the university’s Centre for Restorative Justice, she is a strong advocate for restorative justice as a means to strengthen communities where a crime has taken place.

Messages on a shattered storefront
after the Vancouver riots.
Photo by Graham Ballantyne.

Morrison points to the 2011 Stanley Cup riots as an example of a situation that could be transformed by restorative justice.

“We need to get serious about next steps in restoring the pride, dignity, and heart of Vancouver,” she said. “The courts will hold offenders accountable to the state. Restorative justice offers direct accountability to business owners, victims, and Vancouver as a whole.”

Dr. Joao Salm, who teaches in the Restorative Justice Certificate and in SFU’s School of Criminology, explained that criminal justice tends to be formal and legally-based, while restorative justice tends to be value- and relationship-based. Criminal justice focuses on prosecuting and convicting offenders, while restorative justice takes victims and offenders through a process of reparation and transformation.

“Restorative justice is trying to restore what has been broken, which is the trust between people,” he said.

Restorative justice program serving the global community

SFU Continuing Studies originally developed the program for officers and staff of The Salvation Army, Canada’s largest non-governmental social services provider, using resources from an SFU endowment fund. The certificate became available to the public for the first time in January 2010.

Susan Burgess, who directs the program at SFU Continuing Studies, believed the program would have appeal beyond The Salvation Army community—and she was right. Interest has come from as far away as India and Australia, and from teachers and administrators in the K-12 school system, First Nations communities, police, youth and justice workers, and mediation providers.

“People are hungry to learn better ways to resolve conflict and build stronger communities,” Burgess said. “The interest in the program has been overwhelming.”