When her daughter was targeted by local youths, Eileen knew that a face to face meeting was the only way to make them understand the hurt they were causing.
"I have a thirty-four-year-old daughter with learning difficulties. Emma’s never been labelled with a specific type of disability, she’s just very immature in some ways, and needs 24 hour support. She’s a very chatty, friendly girl who loves socialising. She’s got a wonderful sense of humour and likes a good laugh – she can be really great to be with.
The hurt caused
"The trouble started about three years ago, when some of the local kids started to torment Emma. It wasn’t all of them – some of them were lovely with her – but there were a couple in the group who were causing problems. It started with name-calling and Emma would come in crying. She just wanted to go outside and socialise with the kids and the local mums.
"At first, both myself and some of the staff who supported Emma encouraged her not to go and talk to these people. But about two years ago, it started escalating. The kids started to get into the office block behind Emma’s house, and they threw snowballs at her windows, and then stones and water bombs.
"Emma would shout and cry, but that only encouraged them."
"Emma’s mad about music – she loves it – and she’d play her music and dance around the bedroom. But then she started saying, ‘Mum, those kids are copying me,’ and they were over in the office block mimicking her. They were also pulling their pants down and showing their bums, and sticking two fingers up, and it was really upsetting her. Emma would shout and cry, but that only encouraged them, because they thought it was funny.
"The local bobby came round and tried talking to some of the parents, but they became defensive about their kids so it didn’t really help. Things eventually got very bad, and we were hardly on speaking terms with some of Emma’s neighbours.
"Last year, two young girls and a young man, all in their mid-teens, knocked on Emma’s door. Up until that point, I didn’t really know what was going on. The staff who were looking after Emma would file a report each time there was an incident, but I wasn’t shown any of them. Emma opened the door, because she thought it was some of the nice kids coming to say hello. When she opened the door, they screamed at her, swearing and using really nasty words, and then ran off.
"Emma was really upset, and went chasing after them. The carer who was with Emma brought her inside and calmed her down, but then the same kids started knocking on the window, and shouting horrible things. At one point, they screamed, ‘Go and die, you f***ing spastic!’. Emma was angry and distraught.
"Emma’s helpers went out and told the group that they would call the police if they didn’t stop. By now, the kids were kicking a football at Emma’s front door, and it was crashing into the glass. Emma was so upset that she went upstairs and broke some of her CDs in half. Then she started to cut her arms.
"I was sent a copy of the report. I was in tears."
"For the first time, I was sent a copy of the report which was filed by Emma’s carers. I was in tears – Emma had self-harmed in the past, but I had no idea that she was doing it again because of what this one group of kids were doing to her.
"After that incident, I wrote to the chief superintendent of Stockport and a few days later, there was a phone-in on the local radio about children being bullied. I called them and told them about Emma’s situation. Lots of people phoned in to offer support, and then a few days later a journalist contacted me. He was from BBC Look North West, and they came round and filmed Emma and me at her house.
"Shortly after the programme aired we had a big meeting with the local police, social services, housing – everyone was involved. I already knew about restorative justice from the media, and during that meeting I said that I wanted to meet the kids who’d been responsible.
"The police had already tried to find out who these kids were, but with no luck. When one of Emma’s neighbours approached me and said, ‘I know who it is,’ I told the police to go and talk to her. It took months, but eventually they found out who was involved.
"I’d already suggested to Emma that we could sit down with the people who’d been upsetting her and tell them exactly how bad they’d made her feel. Emma didn’t feel that she had the courage to do that, although I tried to reassure her. Then social services stepped in and said that Emma shouldn’t take part in restorative justice – they used the term ‘safeguarding’ – so that was the end of that.
"If they realised the hurt and anguish they were causing they'd stop thinking it was so funny."
"I decided that I definitely wanted to go ahead with the meeting, even without Emma. I knew that the young man wouldn’t be there, as he was in care and had recently been moved out of the area, but the two girls would. I wanted to let these young people know how upset they had made Emma, and me. In the report, Emma’s carers had written that the kids were laughing – they thought it was really funny. I felt that if they realised the hurt and the anger and the anguish they were causing, maybe they’d stop thinking it was so funny.
"One of the girls was living with her grandmother, and the other was with a foster mother. I knew they were only 15-year-old girls, but I was still nervous about meeting them. When I walked in the room I got a huge surprise – the foster mother of one of the girls had done respite care for Emma years before. She was very supportive of her foster daughter, but also very understanding about the harm they had caused Emma.
"The grandmother of the other girl actually left the room during the meeting. She told me later that she felt her granddaughter needed to face up to what she’d done by herself. Both girls were very polite – there was no anger, or shouting – and they seemed genuinely sorry for what they’d done. They both wrote a letter of apology to Emma.
"It took me a day to get over my nerves after the meeting, but I was pleased I’d done it. It made me feel better, and I felt I’d got through to those girls. Until you meet people, you have images of them in your head. When you come face to face with them, you see them in a different light. I was able to reassure Emma that they weren’t horrible people, and I think it helped her too.
"I was hoping that Emma could gain some friendship – it would have been great if she and the girls could have met for coffee one day, and had a proper chat. Unfortunately, our story appeared in the Manchester Evening News, and in the headline, they used the word ‘yobs’. This really upset the foster mother of one of the girls, and although I tried to reassure her that it wasn’t a word I’d used, she didn’t want to have any further contact. It was such a shame, because the conference had gone such a long way to repairing our relationship.
"Emma’s doing well now, and there hasn’t been any trouble since. The police have worked hard with the local kids, and a new skate park has been opened to give them something to do. I still think Emma would have benefitted from going through restorative justice herself. She was nervous, which isn’t surprising – even now she feels scared when she sees a group of kids. But I feel she would have been able to do it with the right support. It would certainly have been nice to explore the option a bit more.
"I think restorative justice is a great idea, and everyone should have the chance to go through it if they need to. It gives you closure. People are never the way you imagine them to be, and it really is worthwhile looking them in the eye and telling them the hurt and the upset they’ve caused you.
"People with learning difficulties can benefit from restorative justice."
"I always say to Emma, ‘Talk – tell me about how you’re feeling.’ People with learning difficulties can benefit from restorative justice. They need proper support and to know exactly what to expect, and it might take them longer to understand and accept what’s said, but I feel it can help."
The RJC would like to thank Eileen and Emma for sharing their story with us.
© Restorative Justice Council 2015 – do not reproduce without permission.
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