By Laura Opont, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)
Healing Circles are a restorative practice used in the Truancy Court Program (TCP). Restorative practices have existed for decades and courts started incorporating them in the 1970s to facilitate mediation between victims and their offenders. Restorative practices have spread throughout North America and Europe and have roots in indigenous cultures. Healing Circles have been adopted form the practices of various indigenous groups. Healing Circles both foster a sense of community and assist individuals in expressing themselves and their emotions.
In the TCP, we use Healing Circles for young students who are having trouble getting to school. The concept is akin to client-centered lawyering by creating an environment where students feel comfortable expressing any issues in their lives that may be contributing to their excessive absences. During the circle, an object is passed around from person to person that serves as a “talking piece.” When a student is holding the talking piece, that student is the only one allowed to talk, and all attention is on them. This may sound intimidating, but no child is forced to speak if they don’t feel like it. We truly try to make the environment as friendly as possible, so students feel comfortable speaking in front of their peers. The underlying issues interfering with attendance that are uncovered in the circle may range from something as small as not setting an alarm clock on time to abusing drugs or alcohol. I believe that when children are encouraged to be honest and speak for themselves, knowing that they will not be judged or punished for their honesty, they are very forthcoming about how they feel.
At Furley Elementary School, I like that we incorporate child-friendly games that educate the students and that they enjoy. Some of the games we play are complicated, and even the adults struggle to master them. But you can truly see the happiness and pride on a child’s face when the child initially starts to do well in a game they had been struggling with earlier. The point of these games is not only to learn the rules, but also to show children that there is joy in learning and coming to school to tackle problems head-on.
I love that Healing Circles provide a new approach to lawyering and legal work. We are not just lecturing the students and telling them what they need to do. Rather, we are actually getting them to talk to us about problems for which we can help them find solutions. I think it is especially important with children to be creative and fun to get them to discuss their problems. If they feel closed in, judged, or trapped, they will not want to talk to us, and we will not be able to help. I hope the legal community continues to evolve to implement more creative practices such as the Healing Circle, where clients can truly have a space to feel heard.