Rachael Emerson, former Youth Aid officer from Takapuna, New Zealand, discusses the role of the victim in youth justice.
The victim of a crime committed by a young person is involved more in the Justice process than a victim of a crime committed by an adult. In New Zealand the victim's role becomes one of attending a Family Group Conference (FGC), where they express their feelings in regard to the actual event and as to what they would like to see happen to the young person as a consequence of his/her actions. They may wish to see an apology and reparation. The victim's role does not always run smoothly. There are many problems that occur within the system. In my account of the victim's role, I outline these problems and discuss both positive and negative aspects.
In 1989 a new act emerged here, "The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989". Along with the Act came changes in the way we would approach offending by our young people. Also with this Act came the Family Group Conference (FGC) process. One of the principles of the Act is that any measures for dealing with offending by children or young persons should have due regard to the interests of any victims of that offending. FGC's are a way of ensuring that this happens, as victims of the offence or alleged offence are entitled to attend and take part in the discussions. As part of a FGC plan, the child or young person may be required to pay reparation to the victim.
Changes in the process
The Mason review recommended that the victim be consulted as to date, time and place of the FGC. I have had many problems with victims not being consulted about time and venue. Often they simply receive a letter from the Children and Young Persons Service inviting them to a FGC on a given date, time and venue, without being consulted as to these factors. The FGC may also be held at the offender's residence, which I consider to be unfair play as this may drive the victim away from attending the FGC. A FGC should be held on common ground for all. The Mason review also brought about changes to allow a victim and/or supporters or their representative to attend the FGC, adding that this should not be limited to one person. I have had difficulties with this when Youth Justice Co-ordinators discourage the attendance of supporters for the victim. There is also a requirement that the explanatory material be prepared and issued to all victims explaining the purposes and format of a FGC, their rights, the role of the victim Support Groups and the assistance which can be offered by such groups. This is not being offered to many victims.
Is it working?
Victims, if they so request, and supporters or representatives, are to be reimbursed by Children and Young Persons Service for travel expenses and any other expenses reasonably incurred in attending a FGC. This, to my knowledge, does not very often occur. In a 1992/93 survey by the Justice Department, it was found that no consensus about how well the provision which entitles victims to attend FGCs is working. About one half of the respondents to the questionnaire were critical of the way it is working, five respondents said that it worked well, and a few said that it varied. On the positive side, it was said that the provision provides victims with an opportunity to express their views; they can benefit from meeting the offender; they feel empowered; there had been positive feedback from those who had attended. There are also critical comments. Victims can become intimidated by the other people at the conference and the balance favours the offender in many ways. Victims can feel re-victimised and need support and information.
In my experience, victims can be blamed by the offender's family for the offence taking place. In a case of an unlawful taking of an unlocked motor vehicle, the family of the offender have suggested that this is an open invitation, and what young person would pass up the chance of attempting to take the vehicle? In another example where the vehicle taken was involved in an accident, the family blamed the victim for the accident as the vehicle did not hold a current roadworthy certificate, although one of the charges was dangerous driving.
Assault victims are often accused of inciting, provoking the offender. In a recent case the victim mouthed something out his window at a passing motorist. The offender took offence to this and proceeded to follow the vehicle, force it off the road and set upon the victim by dragging him from his vehicle and beating him unconscious on the side of the road. In the eyes of the offender's family he should not have been arrested as he had been provoked and that was a good enough reason for his actions.
Rewards for the victim
However, the experience can be very positive for the victim. In the perfect Family Group Conference, the offender and his/her family are very remorseful and warm toward the victim. The victims are made to feel very welcome and are the centre of the FGC in the offender's and family's eyes. The offence is discussed, the victim has the opportunity to express how they feel and what they wish as an outcome. The offender makes an apology and talks of the offence. The victim feels empowered and comes away with a feeling of peace. In other regions, Victim Support persons are available to offer support and information and also attend the FGC. The Co-ordinators need to give the victim space at a FGC and encourage an environment where the victim will feel comfortable in speaking and expressing their feelings.
” Te Rangarahi, New Zealand Youth Justice Newsletter