Above: Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center staff
Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center settles conflicts peacefully and brings people together
By Analiese Kreutzer
When four members of a high school softball team went for a joyride after winning their regional championship game, their excitement took a dark turn. They used their bats to smash 10 mailboxes in a nearby neighborhood. The case was referred to the Piedmont Dispute Resolution Center (PDRC) for restorative justice.
“Restorative justice is a very visceral face-to-face meeting between the offenders and the victims,” said Lawrie Parker, PDRC’s executive director. “We believe crime is a tear in the fabric of the community, so offenders should be involved in repairing that harm.”
PDRC is committed to the idea that conflicts can be resolved by the people who are most affected. In addition to restorative justice, PDRC offers mediation services and mediation and conflict resolution training to help settle conflicts peacefully.
Restorative justice looks at wrongdoing, the impact it has on the people involved, and what needs to happen to make things right. The meeting allows the victims to tell the offender how the crime has impacted them and to participate in how reparations are made. It encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions. Trained, certified, neutral restorative justice facilitators, many with legal backgrounds, provide a safe, confidential environment for all the participants.
In the case of the smashed mailboxes, PDRC mediators met individually with each girl and her parents and reached out to each of the residents whose mailboxes were damaged. Restorative justice is always voluntary for victims, and five of the residents agreed to participate. Of the five that did not participate, two wrote letters for the mediators to share during the restorative justice conference.
At the conference, the girls spoke first. Two expressed remorse, but the other two did not think what they did was a big deal since it was just mailboxes. The mediators asked the parents of the two girls who did not seem to understand the impact of what they had done to read the letters sent by the residents. One of the letters was from a senior citizen with disabilities who said she had no one to help her put up a new mailbox and that she now had to drive to the post office to pick up her mail.
The victims in attendance spoke about their disappointment and shock at the girls’ actions. One, a young mother, said that before she moved into the neighborhood, she had been a victim of domestic violence. She said that when she saw that her mailbox and the flowers that she and her children had planted had been smashed, she thought her abuser had found them. “You didn’t just smash my mailbox,” she said. “You took away my sense of security. You took away my sense of community. You robbed me of my joy.”
Hearing the individual stories of their victims had a profound impact on all the girls. Everyone agreed that the offenders would each write letters of apology and replace the damaged mailboxes. The neighbors and the girls also agreed to get together and plant new flowers around the young mother’s mailbox.
“Restorative justice is all filtered through love and support,” said Parker. “This program says to offenders what you did was wrong. As a community, we are not excusing it or condoning it, but you are a member of this community, and we care about you. We care about the decisions you make. And to the victim, we’re saying we’re sorry that this happened. We hope that by being in this circle, you’ll feel good again about living in Fauquier County.”
Restorative justice participants feel a greater satisfaction with the process than participants in the traditional justice system, and restitution is more likely to be honored.
Mediating Better Outcomes
Another large part of PDRC’s work is conducting mediation to resolve differences between parties in conflict. Some cases are court-ordered, but PDRC also makes its services available to the general public for a modest fee on a sliding scale based on income. Cases that benefit from mediation might be landlord-tenant disputes; parent and teen difficulties; workplace disagreements; or child custody, visitation, and child and spousal support.
In mediation, a trained, neutral mediator clarifies the issues and helps the parties analyze the information, communicate fairly, generate creative solutions, and reach an agreement which is acceptable to both parties. Mediation allows all participants to be heard, to understand each other, and to improve their relationship.
Like most organizations, PDRC switched to virtual meetings because of the COVID-19 crisis. “It was hard at first because face-to-face meetings are one of the hallmarks of mediation and restorative justice,” said Parker. “Now, we give people an option to meet by phone, Zoom or in the office.”
Facilitating Better Community-Law Enforcement Relations
A few years ago, PDRC began working with the Warrenton Police Department and the African American community to strengthen their relationship. PDRC held listening sessions, and the result was a commitment by both groups to get together more often—both formally and informally—to continue to keep the lines of communication open.
PDRC led a full-day conflict resolution training session so both groups could learn to work together to help resolve issues peacefully. Another initiative was to hold the Coming Together as One Community Family Fun Day, sponsored by PDRC, the Warrenton Police Department, the First Baptist Church of Warrenton, and the local Department of Juvenile Justice. The event brought the whole community together in the spirit of diversity and unity. Held annually for three years, the event grew larger each year. In 2019, it drew more than 300 people. It had to be canceled this year, but PDRC looks forward to holding it again in 2021 and continuing to build this important partnership.
Participants Sought for Peacebuilding Conversations
As part of its Community Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) program, PDRC is forming small groups of six to eight people from diverse backgrounds to come together to learn about each other and express their unique perspectives on specific topics. Facilitated by a specially trained PDRC staff member or volunteer, these conversations give people an opportunity to be heard and to listen to others. Anyone interested in participating or in forming a peacebuilding conversation group can contact CJP coordinators Aaron Addison or Lisa Barkema at 540-347-6650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mediation services offered
While some of its cases are court-ordered, PDRC offers its services to the general public for fees determined on a sliding scale.
Workplace, commercial, residential real estate issues
Youth and schools
Peer mediation/conflict resolution, peacebuilding
Homeowners associations, neighborhood, community policing disagreements
Families and Individuals
Divorce and separation, custody/visitation, child and spousal support, co-parenting, parent/teen, landlord/tenant, elder care, co-parenting
Interested in becoming a mediator? PDRC offers training and mentoring for mediator candidates
Benefits of mediation
More cost efficient than legal proceedings
The parties involved maintain control over decisions, rather than having a judge make a ruling
The parties can control the amount of information that becomes part of the public record
Mediation, as opposed to going to court, will increase the possibility of maintaining a civil relationship between the two parties after resolution