Community Outcry Sways City of Evanston to Reverse Planned Restorative Justice Cut, But More Is Needed.

I first met Arica Barton, the head of the Evanston Police Department’s Youth Services Restorative Justice program, in 2011. I was researching alternatives to punishment for youth offenders for a section in my book on bullying, and my dear friend Meagan Novara introduced me to Arica, knowing that I would be fascinated by the concept and practice of restorative justice.

In 2007, Arica Barton and Susan Treischmann started the Restorative Justice Program at the Evanston Police Department (EPD) as part of the Youth Services Division. RJ is a diversion program that helps youth offenders take accountability for their actions, understand the impact of their actions on others, and repair the damage to victims and the community. It is a much more effective alternative to incarcerating and punishing young people who are already often marginalized by society.

Arica has been with the EPD for thirteen years. When she started, there were three Youth Advocates, three Victim Advocates, and a Director of Social Services at EPD, all working in full time positions.

Meagan Novara became the city’s very first restorative justice volunteer in 2007, and she was one of the driving forces behind bringing Sharing Circles (a form of RJ) into Evanston’s schools several years later. In 2008, Meagan and I became fast friends, because our oldest children were students at the same preschool.

Meagan was a vital source of support to me in 2011 as I balanced writing a research-based book with raising three little kids, and she was always quick to offer helpful ideas. I had no idea that her suggestion of “looking into restorative justice” would set me on a path to become so connected with the movement. I’m so grateful that Meagan introduced me to Arica, who I now count as a friend and a colleague.

With Meagan and Arica working together, EPD Youth Services piloted the Sharing Circle program at Evanston’s Washington Elementary School in 2011. The Sharing Circle program gained steam and spread to all of the elementary schools at District 65.

In a recent interview, Arica described the program to me. “Through 2015, the EPD did the training of all school volunteers, and then I trained the RJ Coordinator who was hired by District 65, and she now oversees the training. Still, the District often calls me in to specific schools when a conflict is higher than the level of a Sharing Circle. I meet with families, school social workers, and students to use peace circles to resolve conflict. In some cases, it is an alternative to arresting a student.”

In October of 2017, Arica received the unexpected, distressing news that the City of Evanston was planning to eliminate her position at the EPD, as well as the positions of three full-time Victim Advocates, effective December 31st. Evanston’s City manager, Wally Bobkiewicz, proposed the cuts to deal with Evanston’s serious $6 million budget shortfall.

The City proposed moving the positions out of the EPD and into the Department of Health and Human Services, in addition to cutting the positions to part-time, and removing benefits. The City Council will vote on the budget on November 20th.

On October 13th, I sat down with Arica to discuss her concern and dismay at learning that her position and those of the Victim Advocates were being cut by the City of Evanston.

Arica explained that, “Because the push in the City (Evanston) has been to reduce juvenile arrests, to reduce violence among juveniles, and to improve police and community relations. I was shocked. I am the one person left in the entire City of Evanston that handles youth diversion.”

She continued, “RJ has grown by leaps and bounds since 2007, and I would hate to see the hub of where it began go away. It speaks volumes about our police department in the city that they would implement an alternative to criminal justice within the criminal justice system. Our current Chief of Police, Richard Eddington, has been very supportive.”

I asked Arica what the effects of the proposed cuts might be on the people who use these services.

She said, “Currently, everyone working in these positions is highly qualified, with masters degrees in counseling or social work, and we all have extensive experience in working with traumatized victims. If the positions are lowered to part-time jobs without benefits, the candidates that seek to apply will be less qualified (no masters degrees, etc).”

There are issues of confidentiality if Arica and the Victim Advocates are removed from EPD. “One thing we do is go through police reports daily and pull out reports involving youth that are mostly non-criminal,” Arica told me, “and we follow up with youth who need intervention, domestic disturbance, substance abuse, missing persons, psychiatric services. In 2016, of our own initiative, we contacted over 1,000 of these families to offer counseling even before a police detective questioned them, and this might not be possible if everything is moved to Health and Human Services (HHS), because police reports for juveniles are confidential, and HHS would not have access to police reports.”

As soon as the planned cuts were announced, citizens of Evanston became involved in petitioning the City to keep Arica’s position. Meagan Novara sent a long, impassioned letter to her many contacts through the RJ volunteer program. Arica reached out to all of the volunteers she had trained in RJ over the years. I was one of many people who have completed RJ training at the EPD under Arica. My initial training with Arica was what spurred me to develop RJ training programs for schools outside of our local district.

On October 16th, Evanston resident Nina Kavin, who runs a social action-oriented Facebook page called Dear Evanston, wrote a detailed, well-researched post about the situation. It was the catalyst that triggered an enormous response from the community.

Community members overwhelmingly voiced their support for Arica, urging City Council members to vote against removing her position at the November 20th meeting. The swell of support was unexpected and very influential, proving the power of having a voice at a time when many people are feeling powerless.

By Friday the 20th of Oct, Arica received a meeting request by the Assistant City Manager, Erica Storlie, and Lawrence Hemmingway, Director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services.

“They said they have a place for me in their department. They were very gracious and kind. Essentially, they said they will propose to the City Council on November 20th that I continue to do exactly what I am doing, but it will fall under the Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services instead of under the EPD. Best of all, I’d keep office space at EPD and also have space at the Civic Center of Evanston.”

The news encouraged and heartened Arica. Still, it wasn’t a done deal.

“Just because Parks and Rec want me, it might not matter if the nine voting members of the city council don’t agree,” she said. “So, in one last push, I sent a letter to my ninety-four RJ volunteers, providing an update, explaining that this is the proposal, but it isn’t done.”

An hour later, Arica received an official letter from City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz with wonderful news. “It said I’m being removed from the proposed budget cuts, that it won’t come to a vote on November 20th. It’s a done deal; Youth Services and Restorative Justice in Evanston are completely safe. I start my new position December 25th.”

I met with Arica again on November 17th to discuss the recent developments.

“I’m excited, because I think that keeping my hat at EPD while also expanding to the City could open to a larger community base for all kinds of RJ work. Maybe we could do more community trainings and take more steps toward making Evanston a Restorative City.

Arica remains concerned about maintaining the confidentiality of her clients and their police reports, especially juvenile police reports. These cannot be shared with others in the City. “There will be some tweaking to do,” she said.

Arica is grateful for the support of the community, but there is more work to do on behalf of the most vulnerable citizens of Evanston — the victims of crime.

On November 20th, the City Council is voting on the proposed cut of the entire Victim Advocate department at the EPD. All three full-time victim advocate positions are being eliminated. One of the three workers accepted a severance package, but the other two – Ariel Jackson and Kelli Nelson — are hoping the community will speak out and sway the City Council to preserve their jobs.

Ariel Jackson and Kelli Nelson provide invaluable support to the victims of crimes in Evanston. They work 50-100 cases every month and their work is irreplaceable. Arica has turned her focus toward speaking out on behalf of Ariel and Kelli.

“They are vital to the City. They work with a group of individuals in our city who suffer under the worst kinds of crimes- domestic violence, sexual assaults, suicides, homicides – all the most taboo of subjects, the kinds of traumatic crimes that represent the most terrible side of people.”

What is being proposed is that on Dec 31st, the two advocates lose their jobs, and the two full-time positions will be converted to part-time jobs under Health and Human Services at Civic Center. The worry, again, is that with the hours going down and the benefits being cut, the people who will seek the positions won’t have the master level experience needed to effectively support and counsel victims.

“Why would the City choose to re-victimize our victims by pulling away services that are so vital, all for a matter of a couple hundred dollars? Why not keep the two current advocates, who already have so many relationships in town? They should do what they did with me – keep the two full-time positions, alter the details, and move forward,” Arica urged.

The vote is on Monday, November 20th. Evanston residents, contact your alderman, contact the city manager, make your case tomorrow for Ariel Jackson and Kelli Nelson, so that the most vulnerable members of our community continue to receive the support they need.

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Carrie Goldman writes Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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