Can Restorative Justice Help Child Sexual Abuse Survivors Heal?

As a certified court mediator with two social work degrees, Elizabeth Clemants was determined to help community members work through their issues. Typically, court mediators help people address issues in a way that hopefully leads to dispute settlements. However, Clemants would often unearth child sexual abuse allegations during mediations.

In one case, Clemants found herself sitting across from a 9-year-old who'd been removed from her mother's home because of sexual abuse. In the mediation room, the mom accused her 9-year-old of seducing her boyfriend, Clemants says. Telling this story, Clemants recalls her tone when she spoke to the mother. "The mom needed to be educated, and I shamed her," Clemants says, adding that this kind of deflection isn't unusual among non-offending parents.

Soon after, Clemants stopped taking child sexual abuse cases. Instead, she founded an entire organization, Hidden Water, that uses restorative justice to heal families. Restorative justice works outside of the traditional legal system to engage survivors, family members, those who've been harmed in processes that help encourage healing and repair. Hidden Water operates from the premise that when a child is sexually abused, the entire family system is harmed—including child sexual abuse survivors, perpetrators, non-offending parents, and family members. "The thing restorative justice taught me is you can't put two people together in their unconscious pain and expect them to act any differently than they act when you're not there," Clemants says. "You actually have to help them heal." Well + Good sat down with Clemants to hear about what led her to Hidden Water, how restorative justice works, and what gives her hope for the future.

Well + Good: In the Hidden Water modality, you group people into healing circles by their role in the family system where the child sexual abuse occurred. This means victims are in circles with victims; perpetrators are in a healing circle with perpetrators, non-offending parents are with non-offending parents, and so on. What is the philosophy behind this approach?

Clemants: You have to take responsibility for the impact you had, whether that's the sexual abuse or the denial you did as a non-offending parent. You have to take responsibility and feel remorse. Remorse is: "I'll sit here every day for the rest of my life holding space for how I harmed you if you need me to. I'm going to feel this pain with you, and I'm not going to move away from it." And people can't do this alone. It's really hard to do. They need the [healing] circle to support that happening. Everyone needs to learn to walk this path, but they can't do it alone.

So, family members do work in their specific healing circles. Do they ever come together in a healing circle as a family unit?

After they've done their own work, we can put them together in a circle called a Conflict Circle, where we talk about the abuse that happened in your family. But it's a supported conversation—for every one family member, there's also a keeper. The non-offending parent has another non-offending parent [outside the family system] with them. The harming brother has another person who has harmed. The person who was harmed has another person who harmed with them. It slows down the conversation and supports it in a different way than if it was just the family.

Do people who balk at the idea of offenders being involved in Hidden Water?

Absolutely. For me, there are people who have harmed children sexually, and then there are our people who have harmed children sexually and are ready to do the work to take responsibility. And to me, those are different people. We want to honor them, and they will do more for the healing of people who have been harmed than anyone in Hidden Water. The healing power of watching someone take responsibility for that abuse when all you've ever known is someone denying, deflecting, and minimizing is the most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life. It's so moving.

What can be gained from viewing child sexual abuse from a systems perspective?

The healing is happening in a way it would never happen otherwise. To me, you get harmed as a child, you struggle, and then when you tell people [what happened], a whole second wave of harm is going to happen, which is people in your family will minimize, deny, tell you to get over it. This second wave of harm lasts much longer. How can you heal from child sexual abuse if your family keeps reharming you over and over again?

What have you learned from your work that you wish people knew?

The biggest lesson for me is that you can heal from anything, but you can't do it alone.

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

If you or someone you know is a survivor, please seek help from the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or

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