15 Years Later: Former Foster Youth Look Back on the Power of Restorative Justice

by Jamie Lee Evans

No photo description available.

Photo LtR: Kate Teague, Ray Bussolari (FYM Curation Director), Kayla Gordon, and Jamie Lee Evans (wearing a face mask because of the Oakland fires in 2019, pre-Covid)

It’s been about 15 years since I first tested out the practice of restorative justice (RJ). RJ, while still second fiddle to that other supposed justice system in the US, is far more popular now than it was then. The days of volunteer RJ facilitators working in borrowed spaces – in my case a women’s martial arts dojo in Oakland, California – are mostly gone, replaced with county-funded programs, and dedicated non-profits. What hasn’t changed is the focus on restoring justice through community members coming together, sitting in circles, talking about harm, impact, and forgiveness.

I first met Kayla when she was a feisty teenager. Smart and intense, empowered and sassy –  the kind of youth I connect with the most. We were part of a foster youth advocacy organization: I was a staff member in my late 30s, she was a 15 year old advocate, and we had foster care in common. Kayla signed up for a multi-day digital storytelling workshop that I was managing. She was living in Bay Area group homes, grinding away at her teen years until she could emancipate. She was an easy talker with a story to tell and could command and charm a room. She also had a deep and booming voice and, at times, a quick-flaring temper.

Our digital storytelling workshops were meant to have two goals: empower foster youth to tell their stories and create tools for youth trainers to teach social workers. While most acts of telling hard truths can be difficult, these workshops could be really demanding and even painful. The organizers attempted to mitigate the harshness with connection, community and support. Every night we held group dinners in youth-chosen restaurants, had pool time in our better than average hotel and offered other fun activities and lots of time, and staff available for, connection and debriefing. 

In order for Kayla to participate in this overnight workshop, there were conditions set up by her group home: Kayla was required to be within eyesight of an adult staff member at all times. Also, her sleeping room needed to be connected to a staff member’s room, in this case mine. Having confidence that I was the coolest of the cool who respected young people immensely, I thought this would not be a problem for Kayla at all.

Yeah, I made some assumptions about my likability. I smiled. I made jokes. I worked hard to earn her trust, but no matter what I did, Kayla was just not feeling me.  She did not like it when I joined her at the pool or hot tub in the evenings. She did not like it when she couldn’t join other youth at the mall without me (even when I would stay a couple stores behind her), and she really didn’t like that her room was connected to mine. Kayla felt more and more frustrated with my presence – even feeling victimized, and that I was putting her under surveillance. 

During our workshop days, Kayla kicked ass and her digital story turned out beautiful. She wrote and narrated her script. She placed photos and edited the transitions of her piece. Her story talked about how painful it felt to be repeatedly labelled as a criminal. She named the destruction that racism played in her life. She vulnerably discussed how much it hurt for her, early on, to not be seen as a sweet and innocent child. Kayla’s story was honest, raw and powerful and it made you love her. While Kayla and I didn’t have the close connection I was hoping for during the workshop, I felt good about the way it all ended.

After the workshop, we all went back to our other lives. In my case, I caught a plane to support a youth-led social worker training in Hawai’i. In Kayla’s case, she went back to her group home, where again, some of her things had been stolen while she was gone.

The night before I left, I received a call from a check cashing service letting me know that a young man had come into their shop and tried to cash a check from me for $500. The check casher, not a great con, was denied, but not before he had given up his actual driver’s license. When I requested it, they faxed me a copy.

I didn’t know this young man but a staff member suggested that I look at his MySpace account (remember, it was 2005), and see who his friends were. A quick check and there it was: Kayla. 

After a number of phone calls, including with her mentor Kate, Kayla admitted that she had taken the check. I asked her if she would be willing to attend a restorative justice circle and at first she said “No, call the cops.” I did not believe that jail restored anything, and I believed that this would have been tried as a felony offense because of the value of the check. No good would come of that.

I thought of how many conferences that Kayla and I both attended every year and I imagined what it would be like to see her from across the room if she were convicted of stealing from me. I would forever be “victim,” and she would be reduced to that youth who robbed me. I liked Kayla. I wanted resolution not punishment. I also didn’t want Kayla to miss out on opportunities to influence/improve the child welfare system and I didn’t want Kayla to miss out on positive connections with adults and peers. I didn’t want to draw a line between her people and my people. Fuck that noise. I didn’t want any of that.

I told Kayla “I don’t believe in the criminal justice system,” and she seemed shocked. She was also angry. “Just call the cops. No, I don’t want to sit in a circle with you. No, I don’t want to talk about what I did and how you feel. I did it. I’ll just go to jail.” 

I asked again. “I would really like to resolve this together. There is another way. Will you please be part of making this right with me?”

After one more conversation with Kate, Kayla finally agreed to a restorative process and our circle was set up. There was a lot of prep work first, we had to: find facilitators, a meeting space, support people; get time off work, arrange transportation, and talk to supervisors and group home workers among other things. But the police would never be called and no lawyers would need to be consulted – this would all be done in community. 

Our restorative process included three circles and over 10 hours in total. We started our first circle with each of us talking about a time we had taken something that wasn’t ours. And we also all shared a time when we experienced having something taken from us. Kayla talked about her own experience of being robbed on the regular in her group homes. Everyone in the circle nodded, heard her, some of us understood. Kayla experienced injustice in her daily life and it was a lot to ask her to be accountable to one negative act when so many had harmed her and were never held accountable. Kayla had a lot to be angry about, and she was.

Kayla was late to nearly all of the meetings. For most of the circles, she was defensive and hostile, especially to me. In the eighth hour, I ran out of generosity and Kayla’s attitude finally wore me down. For the first time in the circle, I got angry and I guess I yelled. I think I said something like “Who do you think I am? How dare you imagine me to be someone who would have an extra $500 that wouldn’t hurt me! I don’t have that kind of money. We come from the same place! And I worked hard to make you feel comfortable at the workshop and you made me afraid, worried about people knowing my address and that my house would be robbed when I was out of town. You made me worry about my 80 year old landlord who would be there without me.”  Kayla knew about my trip to Hawaii – I was worried that the young man who didn’t get any money from my blank check would rob my house instead while I was gone.

After my burst of anger, something in the air changed. Kayla listened to my fear and hurt and her tone changed. She expressed true remorse for what had happened and she apologized.

What happened after then was quick. We agreed that she would pay my cancelled check-related expenses, totalling about $100. She would pay it to Kate over the course of a few months. Kate would then give it to me (I later turned it back to Kayla for college a year later). We also agreed that Kayla and I would present two presentations about our experience, which we did about a year later, at a mental health conference focused on children and youth and another event. At both of those events, Kayla was appreciated for her bravery and she and I grew closer.

I started this process because I never wanted to meet Kayla’s eyes at conference with distrust or fear or anger. And that wish came true. Actually, it was even better than that. When I would see Kayla, my heart would soften, I would smile and remember the process we had been through together and I felt stronger and grateful. I thought of Kayla’s growth and how much I respected her. I thought about how honest we had gotten with each other and what a gift that was.

Over a decade later, I was beyond proud to be invited to Kayla’s college graduation. And since I moved to New Zealand, Kayla and I find ourselves checking in and catching up even now. I enjoy following her life on social media and I look forward to seeing her at my wedding in 2022.

I already believed in restorative justice before I went through it, but being part of a circle solidified for me that it is a powerful process that works. The criminal “justice” system would have just got us stuck in roles – victim and offender – and some of the important facts of the situation would still not be known to us. For example, Kayla took my blank checks through access to my adjoining room. But what didn’t come out until the circles was that, in order to get to the checks, she had to feel around past a wad of $1,000 in cash. She didn’t take my money. She didn’t want money. She was angry and upset and she just wanted to upset me.

That’s the part of the story that always sticks out to me. It’s a precious reminder about how communication looks like in children and youth impacted by trauma – i.e., disappointment is not communicated through a cool, articulate verbal exchange – but expressed through acting out. 

I’m a former foster youth but I never spent a day in a group home, so Kayla and I were not the same. Also, in Kayla’s life, her stuff was regularly rifled through and stolen at group homes, but no restorative circles were ever held by her group homes. Through our circle, I could acknowledge her losses. I could tell her that I saw her. That I was sorry she was so frustrated and felt untrusted by me during the workshop. And through our rounds of sharing in the circle, Kayla was able to see me too.

The world has been turned upside down and delayed by COVID-19, including Foster Youth Museum’s work. I am proud to begin our public work again by sharing this article now and an interview following that was facilitated and produced by FYM advisory board member Angel Lee Woolsey. 

May all losses be restored. May we grow deeper and wiser in connection together.