Tennessee Voices for Victims wants victims of crime in Tennessee to know about a very innovative program designed to help victims process their victimization in a very unique way. The Department of Corrections has created a “victim centered” program based on similar programs across the Nation, which allows a victim to meet face to face with their incarcerated offender. Tennessee Voices for Victim is proud to be a part of this program. Valerie Craig, Sheryl DeMott (TVFV Board Member) and Verna Wyatt are TDOC trained facilitators. Verna recently participated in one completed victim offender dialogue that we would like to highlight in a four part blog. In this four part blog, you will hear about the process from a completed dialogue with a victim AND his offender. Not every victim would want to do this—-but many do.
PART I – What is victim/offender dialogue?
When you are a victim of crime, your life is totally destroyed. The victim is left to muster up every ounce of determination to climb up over a mountain of fear, anger, grief, loss, financial hardships, to create a new normal for their life. It is an incredibly difficult process for the victim, “and the suffering is intensified by the fact that all the heartache and loss is totally senseless – the suffering is only happening because of the selfish impulses of the offender. Victims are left to sort through raging emotions. They replay the crime in their mind over and over. They have a compelling need to understand “why” the crime happened to them, “why” their life had to change, what they could have done to change the outcome. They wonder how any human being could deliberately cause such harm to another. The questions are maddening. Most victims also have a burning anger/hatred for the offender. They want the offender to fully understand the stark reality of the pain they have caused- to know just “how” they have changed the victim’s life, and “how” the suffering is ONLY because of the offender. There are some victims who want the opportunity to face the offender in person. They want to ask the questions that only the offender may know, and they want to speak directly to the very one responsible for their pain.
With the victim’s need for restoration in mind, the Tennessee Department of Correction has created a program similar to programs in other parts of the country. It allows a victim to meet face to face with their incarcerated offender with the objective of helping them process their grief and pain. It is a special victim/offender dialogue program that can be ONLY be initiated at the request of the victim. TDOC has a few specially trained facilitators in West, Middle, and East Tennessee for this program, and Valerie Craig and Verna Wyatt from TVFV, and Sheryl DeMott (TVFV Board Member), are approved facilitators for this very important program. The process begins with a victim request, and TDOC then determines if the inmate meets TDOC criteria for a dialogue. If the offender is eligible, a pair of TDOC trained facilitators are assigned to the case. They visit the inmate to ask about their willingness to participate in the process. The inmate is informed the process is “victim driven and focused.” They are told the meeting is for the victim to ask questions about the crime, or about the offender, as well as for the victim to tell the offender how the crime has hurt them. The inmate is under no obligation to participate, and they are told they will not receive any special considerations for participating. If they choose to participate, the offender can stop the process at any time without any consequences. The offender is told that although the meeting is for the victim’s healing journey, that in many other victim/offender meetings that have been completed, offenders have reported a personal emotional benefit from participating in the dialogue. If the offender agrees to meet the victim, the facilitators begin meeting separately with the victim AND the offender for several meetings, preparing them for the eventual face to face. The victim tells the facilitators everything they want to say to the offender. They list the questions they have for the offender, they share the anger they want to express, the words they want to use. The facilitators then take those things back to the offender for their response. This begins a back and forth between victim and offender to minimize the chance of surprises for the victim OR the offender on the day of the actual dialogue. Through this process, the victims and offender have an opportunity to think through the dialogue before it occurs. The offender will hear about the hard examples of pain and hatred the victim has for them. They will hear the specific questions from the victim, and the offender will give the facilitators the answers to take back to the victim. The victim will hear all of the responses of the offender. This process takes several months, and it is vital for preparing the victim and the offender for the eventual one time face to face meeting.
While this kind of meeting is not for the majority of people who have experienced victimization, we know that there are victims who benefit from this kind of process. We also know that there are offenders who are not accountable for their crime, never will be accountable for their crime, but even a dialogue with this kind of inmate can have a beneficial impact for both parties. We’ve seen it. The beauty of this process is that it is totally victim focused. Both parties are prepared in advance for the meeting. The victim knows what to expect. There is something very powerful about saying your pain out loud to the one who caused the pain. It doesn’t change the facts of the victimization, but it often changes both the victim AND offender in a way that is liberating. In the next blog, we will share about the victim offender dialogue that I had the honor to conduct in April 2015, from the victim’s perspective.
Written by: Verna Wyatt, Co-Founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims