Why Victims Face the Criminals Who Hurt Them

Some crime victims find their only real healing comes from a face-to-face meeting with the criminals who hurt them. Can research into this counterintuitive process help more victims regain control of their lives?
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Some crime victims find their only real healing comes from a face-to-face meeting with the criminals who hurt them. Can research into this counterintuitive process help more victims regain control of their lives?

Diana Owen knows the standard crime-victim revenge fantasy, the one in which you confront, even hurt or kill, the criminal who preyed on you. A sly grin crosses her face as the self-proclaimed "badass" jokes about what she would do to the man who molested her when she was 10: "Put me in an alley with him, you know what I mean?"

The paranoia that tortured Owen for a dozen years after the crime was hardly a joke. From adolescence through her troubled teens and into young adulthood, the scenarios changed, but the anxiety and fear were constants. "I would think about what if he tried to kill me in my sleep, if he stabbed me or something like that," Owen says. "I would practice holding my breath so that he would think I was dead."

In the months before she worked up the courage to tell her mom what happened, Owen lay awake, night after night, imagining her molester as a threat to her whole family. "I would just sit there and go over and over and over again in my head, you know, 'He's gonna come get me. How am I gonna convince him not to kill my parents? How am I going to escape the trunk of his car? How am I going to escape the garage?'"

Years later, the memory haunted her romantic life: "I still, in my brain, had the idea that if you really love me, you wouldn't want to do that to me." Standard psychological therapy offered little comfort.

Only one remedy made a marked difference. At age 21, Owen marched into a Texas prison, sat down with her molester and told him — face to face, bluntly and sometimes profanely, in a lengthy meeting — how his crime harmed her and what he must do to make amends. "Kids are supposed to be nurtured and protected," she chides the offender, Michael Money, during the meeting, which was videotaped. "They're not supposed to be used for your sexual fantasies. ... That's pretty sick, you know, to take that away from them like that."

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The one-time prison meeting did not magically cure Diana Owen. Eight years later, and nearly 20 years after the crime, she's still working on one of her most persistent problems, sleeplessness. But she says the meeting accomplished something deeper, more profound: It transformed her life by deflating the blind anger that gripped her and kept her from starting to heal. "It definitely satisfied something in me," she says. In fact, the Austin, Texas, waitress has worked as a volunteer since the meeting, helping other crime victims find peace as she did — by going straight to the source of their pain.

In arranging and conducting her meeting, Owen had help from a tiny state program that hundreds of other victims — most of whom suffered crimes more heinous than molestation — have also used since its creation 17 years ago. Known by the awkward name of Victim-Offender Mediation/Dialogue, the program is used extensively worldwide in lesser conflicts, often involving juvenile offenders, as a core part of a movement called restorative justice.

But it's one thing to sit a kid down with the homeowner whose windows he broke to make apologies and work out a restitution plan. It's quite another to expect the victim of a rape — or the parent, spouse or child of a murder victim — to heal by talking to the criminal who brought pain to them. But Texas' victim-offender dialogue program does indeed expect that result, and, if more than a decade of research is to be believed, the program delivers.

Now that half the states in the U.S. have followed Texas' lead in one form or another, enough experience and evidence exist to take stock of a technique that astounds believers and repels skeptics — both those who stick with the conventional revenge fantasy and those who are offended by the idea of a civil conversation, even a forgiving hug, between a violent criminal and his victim. That the program started and persisted in a tough-on-crime state like Texas teaches volumes about how criminal justice policies take shape. Even more intriguing, however, is the question at the root of the entire process: Why do certain victims experience great relief by coming face to face with the criminals who victimized them?

At first, Owen wasn't sure what happened to her even constituted a crime. Besides, she doubted anyone would believe her; she was just 10 years old. Several months after the fact, she finally told her mother about the sleepover at her best friend's house. During the night, Michael Money, her friend's stepfather, invited her out of bed to watch a video. Sitting on a couch under a blanket that he placed over both of them, he fondled her and made her touch his penis before she called a halt and returned alone to bed.

Owen's mother immediately took her to the police to repeat the story. Money denied it and continued to deny it until Diana demanded a meeting with him years later. But in due course, Money pled no contest to indecency with a child. He was sentenced to probation and counseling and remained a resident at the scene of the crime, just a block from Owen's home in Abilene, Texas.

In 1995, Michael Money was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Kate Hayes Luke/Wonderful Machine)

In 1995, Michael Money was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Kate Hayes Luke/Wonderful Machine)

Owen's paranoid nightmares and daydreams kicked into high gear, fueling anger and resentment for years, even after Money moved to the Dallas area. In 1995, he was found guilty of a more serious crime — the rape of another young girl — and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. For Owen, he was out of sight but definitely not out of mind. Finally, at age 17, she decided her angst was not normal. "I wanted," she says, "to deliver all my anger to the right person."

An acquaintance who had worked at a prison told her about the victim-offender dialogue program. Owen tried to enroll but was told she had to wait until she was 18. In fact, the delay would be longer, with Owen and Money sitting on the program's bloated waiting list and then undergoing a lengthy preparation process that included months of separate meetings with a mediator who shuttled between the two. Finally, nearly five years after Owen first sought it, she had her face-to-face session with the molester.

Owen's experience is typical. Even in the state with the first and largest government-run dialogue program, many crime victims learn about it only by chance. And even after they seek help, the program moves at its own semi-glacial pace. But at least it exists in Texas, thanks to a persistent and imaginative victim — and a hardy band of state officials who cared enough to help her.

In 1991, in the same town and year that Michael Money illegally groped a pre-teenage Diana Owen, Cathy Phillips started demanding that prison officials let her meet with the man who murdered her daughter. She wanted to ask questions, and chief among them was one only the killer could answer: How long did it take her daughter to die?

Prison officials didn't know what to make of the request. Eventually, as she pressed for a meeting, Phillips found Raven Kazen, then the sole statewide victim-services provider in Texas. "At first I was just flabbergasted," Kazen says. "I just didn't know what to say." But Kazen eventually managed to knock down barriers and set up a face-to-face meeting led by a mediator hired from out of state. There was almost no preparation of either Phillips or the killer for the encounter.

While helping Phillips, Kazen boned up on fledgling attempts around the country to expand this kind of mediation between victims and criminals from minor crimes to violent ones. Over the next two years, Kazen managed to have her department merged into the giant Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She also obtained enough funding to grow the operation well beyond its previous size — which included, precisely, Kazen and a phone. "I just hustled the money, you know?" says Kazen, who retired in 2008.

The willing target of the hustle was Ellen Halbert, the first crime victim on the state's powerful Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas prisons. Kazen says Halbert agreed to ask the prison system's director to transfer $240,000 into Kazen's budget. Halbert, who since has served as the director of victim services for Travis County, recalls the diplomatic skills needed to navigate those early days in the victims-rights struggle. "I never asked for anything ridiculous," she says. "And I was a team member."

The team came through for Kazen, not just with money but also with bureaucratic mandates that required balky prison wardens to cooperate. With her new budget, Kazen took the prescient step of hiring David Doerfler, a former prison guard turned Lutheran minister. He set about learning how to conduct victim-offender mediations, which began in Texas in March 1995.

Until then, leading restorative-justice researcher Mark Umbreit says, it was "absolutely taboo" for a prison system to let victims meet the perpetrators of severe violence. It had happened, but rarely and only on an ad hoc basis. Even now, when victims learn the service is available, most recoil. "It still sounds very strange," says Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota.

Back then, it sounded even stranger. To many, the protection of victims meant meting out longer prison sentences to criminals. So there was — and still is — natural tension between traditional victims' advocates and the restorative-justice movement, which posits that victims aren't guaranteed justice from a conventional approach that asks only who violated the law and what their punishment should be. Restorative justice looks instead to see who was harmed and what it would take to heal them — even if the healing includes reconciling with offenders.

Starting in the 1970s, restorative-justice programs in the U.S. and other countries addressed mostly property crimes and other relatively minor offenses. Thanks to the experiment launched by Kazen and Doerfler — and to bold or desperate victims like Diana Owen — Texas tried to find out whether the method could help victims at what Umbreit and his University of Texas research partner, Marilyn Armour, call "the extremes of the human condition."

Give the range of horrors human beings can inflict on one another, Michael Money's molestation of Diana Owen probably can't be defined as extreme. But there's no doubting the pain it caused her. In a videotape of her meeting with Money, Owen, then 21, slumps in her chair at a table in the prison chaplain's office, her head on her hand and a disgusted look on her face, as Money mechanically reads his opening statement. "Total bullshit," Owen says now as she watches a scene she's viewed numerous times. "You can see how impressed I am." When Money asks for Owen's forgiveness, she retorts, "You'll get my forgiveness if you never do it again." We'll only know if Money passed that test, she adds, once he's dead.

Money's approach is contrite. He says the right things, telling Owen he wanted to see "with my own eyes how I hurt you." But on-screen, Owen is in no mood to make peace. She is not there to get over it. She is there to tell Money how she will never make a good wife "because of you." "Think about that," she says over and over, as she recounts the many ways Money inflicted harm on her and his other victim. "I'd like to be the kind of person who'd say, 'Oh, I forgive you,'" Owen tells him, her voice sweet and high. Then it turns rough again: "But that's not honest. ... I don't forgive you."

As Money hangs his head, knotting a handkerchief and looking blankly through his thick-framed prison glasses, his young victim lashes out at "sick fucks like you" who ruin girls' lives. At times wiping away tears, Owen makes Money cry when she informs him that after fumbling in her attempts to have a normal sex life, she got pregnant at 19 and aborted the child.

Back in the Austin conference room where we're watching excerpts from the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Owen chokes up, calling the abortion "the worst thing that ever happened to me." Tall and slim, dressed much more elegantly than the 21-year-old on camera, she says she emerged from that prison meeting long ago with a weight lifted from her — but with resentment intact. As the victim-services handlers who accompanied her for my interview cringe or chuckle nervously, Owen reacts to a comment about Money's personal growth since the mediation: "As far as his own personal salvation, it's not my fuckin' business, you know? Whatever."

Clearly this is not textbook, peace-and-love restorative justice. But just as clearly, the officials now in charge of Texas' victim services provided access to Diana to make a point: They're not a bunch of peaceniks, and their service is, no matter what, victim-centered. The director of the victim-services office, Angie McCown, says that crime, especially violent crime, strips a victim of the sense that she controls her own life. Victim-offender mediation aims to provide the antidote. "The whole idea," she says, "is for that person to get back in that room and say, 'I'm in control now. And here's what your actions did.'"

Umbreit, the Minnesota researcher, argues that raw anger is a natural first reaction to crime, but eventually it should yield to something else. Some victims gravitate to dialogue as that "something else." "They realized after seven, eight years, sometimes longer," Umbreit says, "the toxicity of the anger that was within them was killin' 'em."

On a sweltering day in a slightly sketchy neighborhood on Austin's east side, David Doerfler, now 61, ducks out of his cubbyhole of an office to tend to a dying man and grieving family down the hall. After leaving the state's victim-services office in 2001, Doerfler traded one sort of pain for another; he's now a hospice chaplain, but he quickly corrects me when I suggest he might have found a more cheerful line of work this time around. "I would call it inspiring. I really mean that," he says. "Just like in dialogue, we work at that fine line between life and death, and the realness that you experience there — all the facades go aside."

Click here to read a review of "Parallel Justice for Victims of Crimes" by author Susan Herman.

Click here to read a review of "Parallel Justice for Victims of Crimes" by author Susan Herman.

Accompanying me to Doerfler's office is Mark Odom, a veteran of the state's victim-services office and, like many on staff, a former parole officer. It's clear the two burly Texans — Odom, 54 and graying, is clad in the requisite cowboy boots; Doerfler gives off the smiling fuzzy charm of a blissed-out Jimmy Buffett at his day job — share more than years of work as they hug hello.

Once Doerfler returns from the sad family down the hall, he instantly steps into his role as the dialogue program's Yoda, steering the conversation to the question at the heart of what he created: why victims get anything positive from meeting the criminals who victimized them. "It's not explainable, other than somehow we open ourselves to our wounds in order to heal," Doerfler says. "And that dichotomy is about as ridiculous as you can find on the face of this Earth. But that's what we do as human beings, and that's what victims and offenders, I believe, need."

The opportunity to explore that paradox drove Doerfler to create an elaborate process to prepare victims and offenders to meet. Strict rules designed to protect and serve victims governed it then and now: Victims start the highly confidential process without any outside pressure to sign up. Inmates cannot be forced to participate, but before they can, they must admit their guilt and acknowledge that their cooperation will not earn them early release. Both parties also have to agree to behave respectfully. Then, through multiple meetings with the mediator, stretching over months or even years, the participants dive deeply into the roiling emotions and questions that can freeze victims' lives in obsessive confusion or anger.

Although the program is not formally limited to violent crime, victims of violence have gravitated to it. About 60 percent of the mediations undertaken so far have concerned violent death, including murders, among them a handful of death row cases, and drunken-driving homicides and manslaughters. Also high on the list: rapes. The vast majority of the offenders are men, and more than eight out of 10 victims are women.

Rather than let participants wing it, mediators slow them down and focus them on what's hidden. Near the surface, victims simply want more knowledge of the crime and the criminal than the traditional legal process offers. "The No. 1 question is always, 'Why?'" longtime mediator Dan Guerra says. "'Why did this happen to me?' Or 'Why did you do this to my family member?'" Adds Kazen, his former boss: "What you don't know will drive you crazy."

Viewed from the outside, the information sought is often prosaic: a victim's last words; a detailed chronology of what led to the crime; how the offender lived his life before and after the crime. "They're asking specific questions," Odom says, "but what they're really looking for is to feel better, to gain control, to let that person know that they're stronger than maybe they thought they were."

McCown, Kazen's replacement as director of victim services, says victims seek to regain control not just over their lives, but over their narratives — the stories of their lives. "You're constantly trying to make sense of the story," she says. "That's why somebody who's been traumatized will tell the story over and over and over again. Because they're filling in blanks as they go."

Beneath that layer lies something even the experts and researchers refer to as magic. Here's how Armour, the University of Texas researcher, explains it: "You've got two people who come together, who are joined at a primordial level — literally primordial, because in the case of somebody where their child was murdered, you may have the mother who gave birth to that child with the man who took life away from that child." That intimacy — as strange and terrible as it is in cases of murder or sexual assault — can make the dialogue far more meaningful to both participants than any counseling they ever get. They sit face to face, seeing one another's humanity perhaps for the first time.

When a victim comes to understand why a crime occurred and moves beyond cartoonish images of the perpetrator as merely crazy or vicious or drugged, it can be the mother of all empathy experiences. "I think the potential in that is huge for healing," Armour says, "and I think it's because of who these people are to each other." Victims need their offender, Doerfler adds, if for no other reason than "they're using them to get to some pain that they couldn't possibly do by themselves because it was too horrible."

Closure is a dirty word to the victim-offender dialogue community because victims never truly walk away from their pain. But if their lives are stuck in repetitive cycles of unresolved questions, learning the details of a crime or the reality of a criminal can unstick them. Sometimes victims go further still, into the unsettling, sensitive terrain of forgiveness.

When Linda White's 26-year-old daughter, Cathy O'Daniel, was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1986 by two escapees from a juvenile lockup, she joined the support and advocacy group Parents of Murdered Children but became disenchanted, she says, because of the bitterness and anger she found there. Too often, she believes, the victims' rights movement indulges such feelings, rather than trying to foster healing. "They want to be the voice for their loved one," she says. "And that voice says, 'This person has got to pay and pay and pay.'"

White spent years studying and teaching death education and grief counseling. Eventually, she found the restorative-justice movement and volunteered as a mediator in Texas' victim-offender dialogue program.

While studying the program's effects as part of her doctoral dissertation, White took the plunge herself, undertaking a mediation in 2001 with one of her daughter's killers, Gary Brown. Because she allowed a documentary team to film it, the encounter serves as a rare public glimpse into the normally confidential process. In the session, White learns of her daughter's final moments. Rather than the stark terror and frenzy White had imagined, she learned from Brown that Cathy's last words were, "I forgive you, and I know that God will forgive you, too."

During the tearful session, White forgave Brown, whom she saw as a warped product of a dead-end upbringing. She emphatically did not excuse his actions but recognized his remorse. That, White says, is not a soft-on-criminals response: "It's about accountability, true accountability. You sit here and look at me and talk to me." Forgiveness, she says, isn't just a feel-good gesture to a killer. "Being able to let go of that bitterness is a gift you give yourself," she says. To this day, however, White says her husband cannot watch the video of her mediation — especially the part where White poses arm in arm with Brown for a photo — because it will make him angry all over again.

Inmates clad in white tend the grounds in the hot sun outside the Goree Unit, a medium-security prison in Huntsville, the hub of Texas' massive prison system and the home of its busy execution chamber. Inside, the visiting area is super-cooled, unlike the non-air conditioned cellblocks and steamy laundry room where Michael Money works. Seven years have passed since Money sat down to talk — rather, listen — to Diana Owen.

Now 51, his close-cropped hair gone gray, Money speaks with the country twang of his West Texas upbringing. He boasts of an incident-free prison record, touts his born-again beliefs (yes, he knows that it strikes many as a convenient conversion), and is proud of his role as an in-house evangelist for the dialogue program. When other inmates learn of it from him, he says, they excitedly try to sign up. But they quickly hit a wall. Only victims may start the process. No one — not the inmate, not the program itself — can contact a victim to suggest it. Before the mediation, Money received no counseling in prison. (Since then, he's been through the prison's sex-offender treatment program.) And until he started training for the mediation, he had not admitted his crimes to anyone. The mediation experience, he says, changed him for the better. Although much of what he says about his crime and his victim sounds scripted — as if he's just mouthing buzzwords, often using identical language no matter how often he addresses a particular subject — a glimmer of genuine shame and enlightenment shows when he says he appreciates Owen's reasons for refusing to forgive him. "Because of the hurt and pain that I put her through," he says. "Nobody else put her through that. I did this."

Money hopes to be released on parole in June 2011, four years before his sentence ends, but, he says, "If I gotta do it all, I'll do it all." In the meantime, he continues to fulfill a promise he made to Owen at their 2003 meeting: He writes a letter once a year to "Baby Diana," her unborn child. Money says he calculates how old the child would be each year and alters a basic message to suit her aging persona. "'Don't blame your mom for what happened,'" he says he writes. "'I'm the cause of it all. Your mom did nothing wrong.'" Money's handwritten notes disappear into a file in Austin. They're there, should Owen ever choose to ask for them.

In the late 1990s, Umbreit led a team of researchers who studied Texas' groundbreaking victim-offender mediation program and a similar effort in Ohio. That study added to a substantial body of research around the world that has documented the positive effects of victim-offender mediation and dialogue. As in other research, Umbreit's team found uniform and intensely positive responses in both victims and offenders in cases involving severe violence. Moreover, administrators and researchers say, the worst result of mediation and dialogue they can imagine is disappointment, should the process not produce the powerful relief a victim hoped for. There have been no disasters — no freakouts by inmates or victims — in all the years the mediation-and-dialogue process has been used.

But a small footprint limits its impact. Though Texas' dialogue program remains the largest of its type, it's still tiny: three dedicated staff members, a $200,000 budget that's a barely measurable blip in the state's multibillion-dollar prison complex and, most significant, a caseload of only 35 or so completed mediations a year. Since mediations began in 1995, the state has conducted just shy of 300 face-to-face sessions — outpaced by the 370 executions Texas has performed in the same period.

Why so few cases? Victims initially clamored for the service, but over the life of the program about 1,000 victims who started it never finished. The reasons are varied: changes of heart, frustration over long waits, occasionally a judgment by a mediator that a victim wasn't ready. Rarely have uncooperative inmates been to blame, officials say.

Logistical hurdles also limit the number of Texas mediation-dialogue cases. The painstaking preparation through which the program protects victims is time-consuming. In its early years, the dialogue program failed to keep pace with demand, the waiting list exceeding 300 at times. Several years ago, to the consternation of some purists, the program reduced preparation from a year or more to, on average, three to six months, and now the waiting list rarely exceeds 40 cases.

Still, the program remains obscure. Local victim-services agencies are required by statute to inform crime victims of the service. But it's just one item on a long list of such notifications, and the program doesn't advertise or do much else to encourage more business — because, in fact, it can't handle it. With a higher profile, McCown believes, "people would come out of the woodwork," and she's a realist about getting a bigger budget in times of budget cuts.

So the program remains in an awkward equilibrium: It just keeps up with the cases that find their way to its doorstep. That state of affairs disappoints one of the first survivors to go through a state-run mediation, Gilda Muskwinsky, the head of a Houston chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. "I get real put out with the state of Texas because they don't promote it," she says.

Victim-offender dialogue plays an even smaller role on the national scene. It got a burst of federal grant funding from the Clinton Justice Department but fell out of favor during the Bush years, longtime victims' advocate Anne Seymour says.

Perhaps the most significant barrier to growth is a natural one: lack of interest. Carolyn Hardin, who heads another Houston chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, puts it this way: "I don't know of anyone in my group that's ready to mediate with their killer." Umbreit acknowledges that Hardin's sentiment predominates. "The majority of victims of violence — homicide or other severely violent offenses — don't want to do it," he says, "and wouldn't."

And that's OK, he and other proponents of victim-offender mediation say. The point is to make the service available to those who want it, and on that score, he cites progress. Although half the states in the U.S. still don't offer a program like Texas', he says the growth of the practice over the past 15 years shows it's clearly entering the mainstream. Lisa Rea, a restorative-justice policy advocate and consultant based in California, bristles when I bait her with suggestions the movement remains on the fringe. More jurisdictions must be pressed to provide access to these kinds of services and to support them with public awareness campaigns, she says. "If you don't know about it," Rea says, "I don't know how you can choose it."

If all the public knows of such programs, however, is that they allow victims to meet their predators, then perhaps the programs will remain hostage to conventional wisdom (why would victims want such a meeting?) and tough-on-crime politics (the "hug-a-thug" image that Texas labored to avoid). The University of Texas' Armour sees those obstacles as a reason for more research showing that dialogue works — and why. She hopes others join her in grappling with the dynamic between two people in a mediation, what she calls the "quantum leap, if you will, into that mysterious something that happens."

Michael Money stepped into prison in 1995 and will remain there until 2015 if his parole hearing later this year goes the way of his first four. "I would like to make parole and show them that I can stay out," he says, "that I can abide by the rules and the laws out there, just like I have in here." He wants to show the parole board he's a changed man and that he's genuinely remorseful about his crimes.

Diana Owen couldn't care less. "I don't want another little girl to be molested by him," she says. "I do not give a shit what he thinks or how he feels." No longer stuck on what Money did to her, Owen stays focused instead on building a life that was on hold for too long.

She started that project the day she met with Money. Slow and wobbly at first, the pace of the rebuilding has picked up lately. She's happier about her love life now. After a series of men who were wrong for her and breakups caused by her sexual hang-ups, Owen recently ended a relationship amicably, simply because it didn't work out. That, she says, is progress.

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