LAWRENCE — In cases of sexual violence, the path to restorative justice can focus on meeting the needs of the survivor and holding the offender accountable without punitive measures. How restorative justice practices shape survivors’ experiences is the topic of a National Science Foundation-funded research project by a University of Kansas student.
Abigail Barefoot, doctoral student in women, gender & sexuality studies, received $17,479 from the NSF Law & Science Program to study participants’ experiences with restorative justice practices. Akiko Takeyama, associate professor of women, gender & sexuality studies and Barefoot’s adviser, will supervise the research.
“Some scholars and practitioners argue that restorative justice is ‘survivor-centered,’ and I am integrating what that means,” Barefoot said. “How do survivors’ conceptions of justice, accountability and narratives of sexual violence intersect? How are they challenged by facilitators and offenders’ conceptions? Who decides what justice is and who does it ultimately benefit? Understanding these tensions can help better understand what survivors’ needs are and how to intervene in cases of sexual violence.”
Barefoot will conduct research at a grassroots community-based restorative justice program in California for intimate partner violence and sexual violence. The services are available to anyone who wants their perpetrator held accountable for their actions but does not want to involve the criminal legal system. Both the survivor and offender must agree to participate in this process. The offender works with a facilitator to develop an accountability plan, which can include include steps like participating in Alcoholics Anonymous, attending therapy or writing an apology letter.
To develop this project, with funding from KU’s Research Excellence Initiative and Office of Graduate Studies, Barefoot conducted four months of preliminary observation in the program and in-depth interviews with facilitators, survivors and offenders. She found that different groups in this program — survivors, facilitators and perpetrators — had different ideas about who the program serves and how well it serves them.
“I am very excited about Abby’s fieldwork,” Takeyama said. “Her empirical research and grounded theorization of the interrelation between social (particularly gender) inequality and sexual violence will make a great contribution to better understanding the perspectives of minority subjects in such current movements as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.”
Barefoot will study how the facilitators conceptualize and practice restorative justice with survivors and offenders. She will also explore what survivors and offenders think of restorative justice programs and how those views line up with the vision that facilitators have. In addition, she will look at the structural limitations of restorative justice programs.
Barefoot’s work will also branch out to other restorative justice programs in the area surrounding the organization to further study when and why participants see restorative justice as successfully addressing their needs versus when it produces further injustice. Barefoot will also present her work at conferences for academics and activists and share her findings through opinion pieces.
Since Barefoot’s plan was developed prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus in the United States in 2020, she may need to modify her plan to accommodate tight restrictions on travel and in-person events.
“Right now, everything is a bit up in the air with COVID-19,” Barefoot said. “While I hope to be at my field site as soon as it safe to do so, I’ve been taking steps to prep for virtual research until travel restrictions are lifted. The organization I’m working with has also pivoted to online formats to do some of their work. So I will hopefully be conducting interviews online and attend online group meetings until I can be there in person. Still, some aspects of my research are on hold until I can get back in the field.”
Barefoot worked with the Institute for Policy & Social Research to prepare the proposal, and IPSR will manage the award.