For Immediate Release
Cyndy Carrington Miller, Public Relations Consultant
410-770-9410, 443-521-2330 (cell)
July 15, 2015
Community Conferencing Success
Earns Increased Program Funding For Mid-Shore Pro Bono
At a time when organizations are struggling just to maintain current levels of support for activities, one of Mid-Shore Pro Bono’s programs, Community Conferencing, has earned increased funding in the new fiscal year, thanks to its success in keeping young offenders out of the juvenile justice system.
For ten years, Mid-Shore Pro Bono has been connecting low-income individuals and families who need civil legal services with volunteer attorneys and community resources. In response to the needs of Mid-Shore residents, it has expanded its scope of services over the years to include programs tailored to address specific issues and reduce the burden on the courts.
In 2012, it introduced Community Conferencing, which now is supported by funding from the Department of Family Administration at the Administrative Office of the Courts and from the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. A social justice process that brings victims and offenders together to reach agreements, Community Conferencing at Mid-Shore Pro Bono has found many of its success stories in the role it plays diverting youth offenders from the juvenile justice system, while still holding them accountable for their actions.
Alicia Myers, Community Conferencing Project Coordinator, feels lucky to be part of a process that is so simple, yet so powerful. “It’s a beautiful thing to witness the release of the protective barriers we erect,” she said, describing the results of a conference held for an incident between two teenage girls.
With one openly angry and the other feigning indifference, they faced each other across the circle of chairs, flanked by their mothers. Myers led them through a discussion of what had happened and how everyone had been affected, but it was 40 minutes before the two girls could look at each other.
“When they did make eye contact,” said Myers, “the ‘shift’ happened—the moment when people can look past the anxiety and hurt and have a real, deep interaction.” Body language relaxed, the atmosphere calmed and, by the end of the conference, the girls were talking about ways they could build and maintain their friendship.
Referrals to Community Conferencing often come from the school system or Department of Juvenile Services (DJS). One case referred to Mid-Shore Pro Bono, involving a violent fight among five 17-year-old boys, had Myers particularly apprehensive going into it due to the level of anger present.
Families can choose whether or not to participate and in this case, only four of the families agreed. Supportive family members and friends may attend, as well as individuals from community agencies who may be able to add to the discussion or solution. There were twelve participants in this conference, including Myers and a DJS case worker who had fostered trusting relationships with the families.
During the discussion, the parents were able to talk to each boy about personal choices, accountability and consequences. The boys were candid and honest about the fight, acknowledging they should have handled the dispute differently and understanding that someone could have been seriously hurt. They discovered they had family connections they never knew were there, and all participants ended up comfortable with the boys being allowed to return to school.
“This case reminded me to trust the process,” said Myers. “The majority of people crave resolution to conflict, and we can see how we’re connected if we take the time to look deeper than the anger and pride surrounding an incident.”
An important facet of Community Conferencing is allowing the victim an opportunity to make the offender understand the effect his or her action has had on the individual. Myers described one case referred by DJS in which two boys had caused significant damage to a neighbor’s property.
Not all conferences are easy to arrange, and she considered sending this one back to DJS when problems arose. Scheduling was difficult. One parent was unwilling to be in the same room with another. Parties were upset when the estimate for damages was greater than expected. Eventually, she was able to work out a conference date with all willing to attend.
The victim was able to express to the boys and their families how violated he felt after the incident. He always had felt safe in his neighborhood and now felt uncomfortable in his own home, worried about the safety of his daughter.
The boys talked about what they were thinking at the time and were able to reflect not only on how they affected their neighbor, but also how poor choices can have difficult and expensive consequences. In the end, the victim was satisfied with the mutual agreement that each boy would have to work to pay for the damages.
“Without Community Conferencing,” said Myers, “neither the victim nor the offenders would have resolved this matter to anyone’s satisfaction. The neighborhood and all involved are beneficiaries of this impactful and holistic process.”
Mid-Shore Pro Bono Executive Director Sandy Brown is enthusiastic about the program’s future and expressed her appreciation for the support shown by the funding increase. “We are proud to be able to offer this project as one of our services,” she said. “Its effects resonate throughout the community as people learn there are better ways than courtrooms or violence for resolving disputes.”
For more information or to make a donation, call Mid-Shore Pro Bono at 410-690-8128 or visit www.midshoreprobono.org.
Photo Caption [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]:
Conferencing.jpg: A Community Conference, as in this reenactment led by Alicia Myers, back left, takes place with participants seated in a circle, allowing victims and offenders an opportunity to face each other and share how an incident occurred and its effects, reaching agreement on restitution.
Copyright © 2015 by Mid-Shore Pro Bono, Inc. Permission is granted to use any photos within this Press Release only for publication and not for sale or resale. All other rights reserved.