Abstract: How Do Victim-Offender Dialogue (VOD) Participants Transform through the VOD Process? a Narrative Analysis of One VOD Dyad (Society for Social Work and Research 28th Annual Conference - Recentering & Democratizing Knowledge: The Next 30 Years of Social Work Science)

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How Do Victim-Offender Dialogue (VOD) Participants Transform through the VOD Process? a Narrative Analysis of One VOD Dyad

Friday, January 12, 2024
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Danielle Littman, A.M., LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Utah
Miriam Valdovinos, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver
Shannon Sliva, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose:

As of Spring 2021, 1.8 million people were incarcerated in the United States (Vera Institute of Justice, 2022). In the past few years, incarceration rates in the United States have decreased – in part, due to increasing public support for reducing prison populations based on exorbitant costs, high rates of recidivism, and the COVID-19 pandemic (Austin & Favelo, 2004; Marcum, 2020; Sundt, 2011). Recognizing the limitations – and harm – of incarceration as a crime desistance approach, social workers have taken a lead role in advancing restorative justice practices – opportunities to build relationships between those who harm, and are harmed, en route to healing and repair. One such practice is victim-offender dialogue (VOD) the guided process of bringing together ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ to discuss the impacts of the crime and pursue healing. Yet, little work has explored the dyadic experiences of the individuals who engage in VOD processes in their own words. Recognizing the need for research which centers participants’ experiences of the VOD process, our study considers: How do participants (those who harm, and are harmed) transform through participation in the VOD process? What are the mechanisms of transformation?


We used narrative analytic methods (Reissman, 1993) to explore how one dyad involved in VOD process – an individual who engaged in a crime (‘offender’), and a mother and daughter impacted by this crime (‘victims’) – narrate their transformation over the course of the process. The ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ parties each engaged in three 1.5-hour audio-recorded and transcribed interviews (before, two weeks after, and six months after the dialogue).


We found that, for the participating dyad, engaging in the VOD process cracked open the humanity of the other. Engaging in the VOD process allowed the offender to step into his own humanity - ‘letting it in’ and allowing for humanity where resistance to reciprocity once lived. For the victims, participating in the VOD process afforded a new understanding of the offender’s humanity – they went from seeing him as a monster to seeing him as a person. These journeys of transformation for all involved were underscored by the mechanisms of religion and forgiveness.

Implications and Conclusions:

Our findings echo – and expand – prior work on the “paradox of forgiveness” in RJ processes (Armour & Umbreit, 2018; Karp, 2018) - that the more forgiveness stays in the background, the more likely victims are to feel safe enough to travel on the path of forgiveness. We suggest the need for future research which seeks to understand the nuanced role of religion in VOD processes. Recognizing the power of facilitated dialogue in contributing to individual, dyadic, and community healing, we call for practitioners and policymakers to expand opportunities for those impacted by crimes to engage in VOD processes. Methodologically, future work should further explore how the narrative analysis methodology may be applied to dialogic and narrative processes across the justice system, including and extending beyond VOD.