How one woman* found justice without the police, a lawyer or violence.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
Restorative justice is most often found lingering at the end of news reports. Usually it’s mentioned in the final couple of paragraphs - something like “the victim declined an offer to engage in restorative justice”, or “Family holds restorative justice meeting with [murderer/attacker] of [family member]”.
Less often, reports will mention the judge took the defendant's engagement in restorative justice into account when deciding the sentence.
But rarely are we treated to any exploration of the process itself, apart from the occasional mention in the dregs of talkback radio when it’s used as a byword for New Zealand’s supposedly soft, ineffective justice system.
When I wanted to talk to someone, I didn’t know who to call—why would I? In New Zealand, one in four females and one in eight males have encountered a form of sexual assault; up until that point I hadn’t encountered anyone who had experienced it. But now, I was that one in four. I never fully appreciated how hard it would be to find the information I needed when I had to try and deal with what happened.
I called Victim Support and spoke to a very nice, very worried man. “I’m sorry, I’ll stop you there,” he stuttered. “Did you say sexual assault? Would you rather speak to a woman?” I was fine, and he stopped me again on my rambling.
“Where are you?” In a room at work. “No, which city?” Wellington. “Well you need to call HELP, they deal with this thing down there.” His final words as I hung up seemed odd — “Good luck”.
After it took place, it didn’t occur to me to do anything except to text him “Don’t ever speak to me again, seriously what were you thinking?”, but on seeing a girlfriend’s reaction when I shared my experience with her, I realised there may have been other ways to react. She was shocked, angry and upset — more than I had been in the two weeks since it had happened.
I didn’t know there was anything I could do, let alone that there were places I could seek help.
So I made the phone call, and was connected with Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation. The woman I spoke to initially was fabulous, but unavailable for the following two to three weeks, as she was supporting another survivor (a term I can’t get used to) in court.
This hit home — would I go to court? What were my options? Was it a crime? I was overwhelmed by things I never considered I would need to, well, consider.
I was lucky. I am lucky. I have amazing friends who have supported me through this. I’ve had amazing flatmates who have shared their stories. One had been through a court process, and one realised she could have done something about similar incidents that she experienced—these experiences have become too common, but our conversations about them are only just starting.
Two of my friends discovered what happened to me in a drunken breakdown of mine, and I had to stop them going to beat him up. “I’m going to kick his fucking face in,” one of them told me.
I knew that was not how I wanted justice. I wanted to be in a room and tell him exactly how his actions had changed me, I wanted to witness him realising that he had destroyed seven months of my life and six years of friendship.
We had a history. I mean, we have a history. What happened doesn’t stop that history existing, it just doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. There was a short time when it meant everything. I’m not sure if people knew about it, but that’s really not the point of my experience. In writing this I wanted to say you may have a history, you may not. You may read a sign, which may or may not be there.
But a person, drunk or sober, asleep in your bed because they trust you and believe in the friendship you hold, is not grounds for any sexual advances on your part without expressed permission. Everyone should be told, just as I told him, no one really wants to wake up to someone else’s hands down their pants when they haven’t been invited there.
My social worker at HELP was phenomenal. We sat, I rambled, spilled about what had happened, and she talked through the avenues available to me. All I knew going in was that I didn’t want my family to know, and that I didn’t want to go to court. Plus, there was him to think about. While he’d obviously done the wrong thing, what was I to gain in destroying his life?
I didn’t know anything about restorative justice until she laid it out for me. It’s a process to resolve a crime in which the victim and offender come face-to-face in a conference. The victim can express how the offending has affected them, while holding the offender accountable for their actions. HELP Wellington doesn’t provide this service, so Project Restore was contracted in to facilitate the meeting. Project Restore is one of four Restorative Justice providers who facilitate meetings of this nature throughout New Zealand, but the other three only provide the service to court-referred cases.
Project Restore accepts referrals directly, but also accepts referrals from survivor agencies, health professionals, counsellors and therapists, ACC registered providers, and any other professional or social services providers, including the police. With only a small pool of funding, Project Restore is not as widely publicised as they would like to be. A facilitator at Project Restore explains this: “we would have disappointed survivors, which we don't want to have”, but this is looking to change in the future. The Law Commission’s findings and recommendations in The Justice Response to Victims of Sexual Violence, if put into place by the Government, should help to boost funding, giving Project Restore more capacity to help survivors without going through a court process.
Some friends felt that going to the police and the courts was the best way for justice, for me to be legally protected. But was this seemingly long, drawn-out process really what I wanted, as a sexual assault survivor? For me, not at all.
From the incident to the meeting, the process took seven months. It affected my work, my relationships with my family and friends, and my health. On the day I received the draft letter about to be sent to him, a Wednesday, I drank so much at a work event I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning. Still drunk, I called my manager, crying, saying I wouldn’t be in — I was hungover for the following three days. That was my rock bottom. I decided then that I would stop wallowing in self-pity and drinking so much, and do more for my case. I re-worked the letter, it was sent, and he agreed to take part.
The whole Restorative Justice process is voluntary. Both of us could have decided to leave the process at any point, or he could have said he didn’t want to be involved from the beginning. The letter inviting him to the meeting signalled that an offender support person would be in touch with him in the next week. Some time later I was told that he had immediately contacted his support person on receiving the letter, expressing he wished to be involved. To put it bluntly, he knew he’d fucked up.
This isn’t always a realistic picture—holding the offender to account and having them willing to participate can be a hard, if not impossible, task. Not every offender will be as open to participate in this process as mine, and I will be forever grateful for his willingness.
The meeting itself was empowering. We held it in a building I was unlikely to ever step foot in again, with HELP and Project Restore organising everything. When I walked into the room, he was already there — and he sat there, trying to string two words together. His support person sat alongside, encouraging him to speak. I stepped out of the room to allow him time to regain his composure. Watching him sit there, terrified and speechless, made me feel vindicated. This entire weight had been lifted for me, and I powered through the rest of the meeting.
I read through a list of ways his actions had affected me, and he answered questions I had, including why he had done it. I stopped him as he tried to say it was because “we had a history”. Everyone in the room looked shocked when I told him to stop, and I was asked why I had done that by the mediator — “because I don’t accept that as a valid reason”. We settled on the outcomes of the meeting, certain terms he has to follow for as long as — well, actually I don’t know how long. It’s protection for both of us. He’d taken away our friendship and trust, but I gained my sense of self back by confronting him.
It has now been over two years since that meeting took place. Since then I’ve seen him once or twice. The terms of our agreement are simple — he has to avoid me at all costs. Should he see me in the street, he must cross the road and he should avoid interacting with any of my family. He has to tell me, through a friend, if he’s going out of town for a long period of time, if he changes jobs, or moves cities. The latter of those has now happened, and for the first time in almost three years, I feel completely relaxed in my own city.
But all of this doesn’t mean I don’t miss our friendship. Our history was very complicated, and I miss having him as someone in my life. A certain time on a digital clock will always have me think of him, which leads to thinking about it. I sometimes think about reaching out, telling him I’ve forgiven him, and that I’d like us to be friends again. I don’t know if either of those things are actually true, probably just wishful thinking. And while this isn’t something I want over his head forever, it can’t be changed or forgotten — it’s just always going to be there.
*The writer wishes to remain anonymous.
If you have had similar experiences and are looking for help, you can contact:
Wellington HELP on 04 499 7532
Auckland HELP on 09-623 1700
Nelson SASH on 03 548 2407
Victim Support on 0800 842 846
Or email Project Restore.