Honoring the Global Indigenous Roots of Restorative Justice: Potential Restorative Approaches for Child Welfare 

Restorative justice, although recently popularized in Western approaches to criminal justice reform, particularly in response to mass incarceration, has deep roots in indigenous peacemaking. Global indigenous communities have a long-standing history of living in alignment with what we now refer to as restorative justice, a few examples of which include circle sentencing and family clan councils. 

At The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), we recognize that U.S. child welfare systems have a history of harming indigenous communities, and we work to lift up indigenous communities and their efforts. We continue our own journey to center the indigenous practices around restorative justice that warrant deeper examination, both as tools to improve outcomes for children, youth and families and as an ethos from which these Western child welfare systems could learn. Below, we also offer suggestions for how such approaches could be better integrated into child welfare system reform efforts.

One of the most straightforward ways to describe restorative justice is as an alternative to retributive justice, which governs our current punitive justice system. Our current system, often responding to harm done in relationships or crimes, asks three questions: (1) What law was broken?, (2) Who broke it?, and (3) What punishment is warranted? Restorative justice asks different questions, focusing on strengthening relationships between individuals and ties to one another in their communities. It asks us: Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected? How do the parties together address needs and repair harm?

Restorative justice in the Westernized sense often indicates the implementation of tools used to resolve conflict, but indigenous peacemaking is inseparable from the restorative healing practices that are lived every day in connection with oneself, one’s community, and nature according to tribal traditions and lifeways. 

At the nexus of restorative justice and child welfare lives a relationship that empowers young people, their families, and their communities to lean on each other to heal from adverse experiences in an environment where they support one another and thrive together. There are many restorative approaches that could be specifically applied to child welfare systems, ranging from formal approaches, like restorative conferencing, to less formal approaches, like asking effective questions that cause youth to reflect on how their behavior has affected others. 

With respect to its indigenous origins, restorative justice has the potential to be further integrated into the child welfare system. In 2017, the National Indian Child Welfare Association produced the Native Children’s Policy Agenda, which lays out policy priorities in tribal communities. A key aspect of this agenda is the call to integrate restorative practices from Tribal restorative justice into the child welfare system. One of the restorative practices already widely known in child welfare is Family Group Conferencing. Family Group Conferencing was originally developed from New Zealand’s 1989 legislation pushed by the Maori shifting focus from funneling young people through the court system to keeping them with their families and communities. Concepts from the model of Family Group Conferencing, like Family Team Meetings, have since spread and are integral to good child welfare practice. Family teaming practices do not always follow the model from restorative practices, and there is much work to be done in many systems to better partner and share decision making with children, families, and their support systems. 

Talking circles is another approach rooted in restorative practices, which embodies hozhooji naat’aanii, a Navajo phrase meaning “something more like ‘people talking together to re-form relationships with each other and the universe.’” Youth circles underscore youth’s interconnectedness with and responsibility for their community. In a paper exploring the use of restorative justice in residential placements in Northern Ireland, psychologist and advocate Dr. William McCarney observes that talking circles in residential care centers can help youth “develop prosocial skills and attitudes” and “a sense of community and civic spirit, empathy, and … a sense of belonging and connectedness.” E Makua Ana Youth Circles in Hawai’i, which supports youth transitioning out of foster care, emphasizes the ability of youth to use their participation in the circle to not only recognize their own individual strengths but also those of one’s family, community, and social service workers as supports in their transition period. 

At CSSP, we’re committed to ensuring that youth and their families receive the help and support they need to keep them in their community and out of these intervening public systems. Our Youth Thrive initiative focuses on building youth protective factors and promoting their well-being, ensuring that all youth have access to opportunities they need to advocate for themselves, to dream and realize those dreams, and to be recognized as more than mistakes they have made. Restorative practices are a critical strategy for ensuring that all of these goals are met.