A Mediator’s Dilemma: Free Will


It’s one of the privileges as a mediator to be able to walk with people in “thin” places. When I use the word “thin,” I am referring to a sacred space that is frightening for some, full of unknowns, and also bursting with promise. When a relationship is in danger of being broken, or a conflict is so distracting people can’t work or find peace, a mediator can help guide individuals by bringing structure to conversations, facilitating dialogue, and empowering participants.

I am naturally drawn to conflict where the stakes are high and healing has the potential to bring transformation to relationships. When I first learned about restorative justice in 2004, I knew I would work in this field. I watched an Oprah episode where a victim and offender were brought together in order to try and understand the effects of violent crime from both sides. I became interested in the concept of justice as “repair” instead of justice as “punishment,” because our family had been rocked by a senseless offense the prior year.

My sister-in-law and mother-in-law were in a car accident that was caused by an irresponsible young male driver who t-boned them on a two-lane mountain road. My mother-in-law’s extensive injuries led to a massive stroke at an age when she was just beginning to enjoy travel and retirement. She never recovered and was paralyzed for the rest of her life. She lived her last fifteen years in a nursing home.

Neither the driver nor his family ever reached out to ours, despite the fact that his family and my sister-in-law’s family shared the same faith and many friends. I often wondered if the young man felt remorse or guilt over his reckless driving.

I became fixated with the idea of contacting this man’s family to see if the accident had changed their lives like it did ours. My in-laws, who had their hands full and showed no interest in a conversation of this kind, asked me not to. So, I tried to move on.

Resorative Justice FoundationsA few months later, I saw the Oprah episode with the victim and offender, and I knew restorative justice was a life-changing process, an innovative way to look at crime. Restorative practices focus on a victim’s harms and needs, address obligations a crime creates, and involves all stakeholders using a collaborative process. Mediation through a restorative justice lens encourages outcomes that uphold healing, reparation, and responsibility for all affected. One of the hallmarks of the restorative process is bringing victims and offenders together with a mediator trained in this field, in order to put right wrongs and harms. It appealed to me particularly due to my firsthand experience of how one person’s error in judgment had upended so many lives.

Interestingly enough, a few months later, I was asked to participate in a training event sponsored through The University of Texas’s Institute of Restorative Justice. After 75 hours of intense instruction, I was certified to perform victim offender mediations at the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center in Dallas. I was eager to make a difference. The role plays we had learned in the training instruction weren’t real life, and I wondered how a conversation between a victim and offender could bring healing and perhaps forgiveness to peoples’ lives.

One of my earliest mediations involved a male homeowner and a thirteen-year-old boy who had damaged the interior of the man’s home. Juvenile offenders are required to have an adult advocate present during mediations. Prior to the mediation, the homeowner had gotten estimates for all the damage. The price tag was $35,000! The thirteen-year-old put holes in the dry wall throughout the house, chipped granite countertops in the kitchen, and ruined most of the carpet. The house was empty because the homeowner had recently moved to Oklahoma. His home had just been renovated and was in pristine condition in order to sell.

It felt like a sacred mission to be able to create an opportunity for this young man to repair the harm he had created through his actions when he vandalized the house. I hoped dialogue would restore the sense of security and peace that was stolen from the homeowner, and I prayed the offender would be respectful throughout our time together. In this case, both parents were present and visibly upset.

I read the required opening statement explaining the mediation process before either the victim or offender spoke. During the next stage of mediation, each side is encouraged to share their story. The offender chose to listen first, which gave the homeowner the opportunity to talk about how he had moved his family to Oklahoma, came back on the weekends to supervise the renovations to his home, and the difficulties involved traveling without his family.

His words and narrative were heartfelt and moving. He had pictures of the damage to each room and detailed explanations of estimates relating to each repair. He proved that what the offender had done cost him money and hardship for his whole family.

As the homeowner spoke, the young offender didn’t make eye contact. He looked down at the table the entire time. When the homeowner was finished, he was noticeably exhausted. I gently asked the offender if he could share his story. He spoke so softly I could barely hear him. He continued to look at the ground as he recounted the day he destroyed the house.

It was a staff development day at school, so he got out early. His parents were working, he had nothing to do, and he was “bored.” So he broke into the house and decided to see how strong he was. Would a hammer go through a wall, could he bust up granite, and pull carpet off the floor? His mom was crying, and the homeowner seemed to get angrier with each sentence spoken. I don’t think any of us expected this to be the reason for the juvenile’s destruction.

When he was finished, I called for a break to allow everyone to step back from the emotionally charged atmosphere. When we came back together, I gave both the victim and offender the opportunity to speak directly to each other. The homeowner was a kind man, and he asked the offender if he had thought about what effect his actions would have on all those involved. The boy shook his head no. The homeowner said he had an eleven-year-old son, and he knew the trouble kids could get into without thinking things through. The offender never looked up and remained silent. I decided to let the silence play out for a bit.

Secretly, I was praying the offender would connect in some way with the homeowner. Eye contact, remorse, or an apology would have been great! When this didn’t happen, I asked if there was anything left unsaid. I really wanted the young man to offer more in the way of an explanation or regret. In my opinion, it was due, but the only sound was a wall of silence. Neither parent offered condolences for their son’s behavior.

I had no choice but to move forward. Next, papers were signed and the parents ushered their son across the hall to meet with a judge to formalize the agreement to pay for the damages. The mom continued to cry and said she didn’t know how they could afford to pay the homeowner what they owed him.

The homeowner lingered. It was apparent he had something else to say. He shared with me he was empathetic toward the juvenile. He was raising kids and knew mistakes made at such a young age can haunt kids for the rest of their lives. Then he said something that shocked me. He said on his drive to the courthouse he thought through the different outcomes he might experience with mediation. The result he was hoping for was that the juvenile would apologize, and then he would greatly reduce payment for damages.

Since the boy never looked at him, showed no concern, and had no “good” reason for doing what he did, he felt he was being fair by just showing up and giving the young man a chance to defend his actions. There was no connection, correction, or forgiveness. The homeowner got in his car and drove back to Oklahoma. This mediation experience left me discouraged and dejected. It felt to me like a lost opportunity to bring hope and healing

That mediation is one of those moments I will never forget. I sat with people who met together in a space that would bring healing to many; instead, they missed the opportunity. I think of the resentment of the homeowner, the disappointment of the parents, and the seeming disinterest of the juvenile. I wondered what the long-term damage would be. Would this young man be able to overcome his poor decisions, or would this error in judgment define him for the rest of his life? I wondered if his parents would ever trust him again. I wondered if I could have done more to nudge the boy toward an apology, or would I have only made it worse, since he didn’t seem to care enough to offer one.

I enter mediations with low expectations and high hopes. People have free will, and I can’t guess what they will do or say. The very best I can do is to be responsible for my own anxiety, appear calm, and help people consider their options. As I’ve already indicated, I care deeply how my mediations go, and I am disappointed when all parties aren’t satisfied with the results. Still, it’s an honor for me to be present in a “thin” space with people, a space where great things can happen or opportunities for healing can be lost.