Contact between victims and offenders in forensic mental health settings: An exploratory study

Author | van Denderen, M., Verstegen, N., de Vogel, V., & Feringa, L. (2020), International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 73, 101630

Overview

Some offenders cannot be held fully accountable due to their psychopathology, they are sentenced to mandatory treatment and there is growing interest in bringing the offender and their victim together to meet the needs of both. There is extensive research surrounding victim-offender contact in prisons, highlighting that use of restorative justice practice decreases anger in victims, their need for revenge and Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among victims. However, research is lacking on contact between victims and offenders within forensic psychiatric hospitals, with few experiences within these contexts and insufficient knowledge about the circumstances under which this contact could be beneficial. In order to fill this gap in knowledge, an exploratory study explored experiences within four Dutch forensic psychiatric hospitals to gain further insight into the procedure and decision making in restorative justice victim offender contact within these settings. Between May 2017-August 2018, 35 social workers were interviewed regarding 57 cases and 55 male offenders who committed sever sexual and violent offences to establish circumstances under which contact is suitable, they were asked to report one case which did report in contact and one which did not. During treatment, it is possible for victim offender contact under guidance of a mediator or social worker if both parties agree to this. Results demonstrate prohibiting contact is appropriate where there are restraining orders or the treatment team judge that contact would cause further harm. Where contact was not achieved, this was still beneficial by incorporating restorative approaches into treatment, although no type of offence or psychopathology were obvious exclusion for victim offender contact. Furthermore, offenders problem awareness, stable psychiatric condition and ability to keep agreements were important factors enabling victim offender contact as this allowed for offenders to have awareness of the suffering caused and gave the victim insight to their background and mental illness.  Offenders poor understanding of harm could lead to non-sincere statements which could result in further victimization. Factors can be accounted for in practice by careful preparation and balancing expectations of both parties. Timing is also important as a stable disorder, allowing realistic expectations are encouraging for contact, along with facilitators who are familiar with mentally disordered offenders. Overall, psychopathology is not necessarily a decisive factor for victim offender contact.

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Resource themes: 
Mental health
Resource categories: 
Policy and research