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Using Talking Circles and the ITC to Help Families: An Interview with Judge Craig Condie

July 14, 2022

Craig Condie, a Magistrate Judge working in Alaska, is bringing transformative ideas to his court system. Blending the “talking circle,” a conflict resolution strategy used by Indigenous communities, with our “science and kindness” approach to substance use, he is helping families find a path forward that keeps children safe while supporting the recovery of the parent. Read our interview below to learn what this looks like, how the ITC can provide a framework for mediation, and to see the moving ways this approach has helped families.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So can you describe for folks what it is you do?

My position is as a Magistrate Judge for the State of Alaska Court System in Palmer. I also have a Master Appointment to Family Court and Probate Court.

Can you describe the initiative that you’re bringing to your system?

I’m using “talking circles” to address deep concerns about children of parents who have substance abuse issues. The goal is to help the family, as well as extended family and any close friends, come up with a plan that ensures the child is physically and emotionally safe—but also promote the parent’s path of recovery and their relationship with the child.

For where we’re applying the whole talking circle concept, it’s usually concerned family members—often grandparents, sometimes an aunt or uncle, occasionally an older sibling—who have made a court filing and brought this to us. So the circle involves the parent, the concerned family member, sometimes partners, and then me and Jessica, our social worker at the Palmer court.

In the circle, we go around three times. The first time, we do a brief introduction, and people say their relationship to the child and what their main concerns are. The second time, everyone says what they have to say—for this round, people can talk as long as they want, getting their perspective out there. And then the third time we go around, folks can share anything else they need to say after having heard what others said. Then we shift to forming a plan based on that increased understanding we’ve hopefully accomplished.

“The goal is to help the family come up with a plan that ensures the child is physically and emotionally safe—but also promote the parent’s path of recovery and their relationship with the child.”

How have you implemented the talking circles so far?

I first heard about this from my colleague, Magistrate Judge Kim Sweet. She, prior to working for the state, had been Chief Judge with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. And they had done talking circles in the context of the Tribal Courts.

After I talked to her and developed an idea of how I wanted to do this, when I saw a family that was an appropriate match for doing a talking circle, I offered it as an option. I’ve done that on two different occasions, and they’ve agreed to do this.

We did our first talking circle February of 2020. I’m very pleased with how it worked out—we came to an agreement. We had another one about a week later, I scheduled another one for April, then the world as we know it ended. So we’ve only done the two.

But now we’re hoping that we’ll be able to be more consistently in-person and expand this out. Jessica and I did the Invitation to Change training in March, and we’ve been very motivated since then. We’ve been plugging away to get this going.

So how does the talking circle fit into the Court process?

So the families I’ve done this with had filed for Family Court. We always want the talking circle to be an option at that point, and I always encourage people to try to mediate and work things out differently if they can. So we’ll keep offering it in that context.

But I feel like there are a lot of families who could really benefit from this, where they might not file something—and I think there’s also a real benefit in having the families really take this hard look at the circumstances and decide together, as a circle, whether a court filing is necessary.

And if they do decide to do a court filing, rather than it being a scary, stressful process, they can agree on what the terms are. And then the court can facilitate and make orders where necessary to keep that arrangement in place.

How did you come across the Invitation to Change Approach, and start incorporating it into this work?

When I first heard of the concept of the talking circles—and I loved the concept, on its own—but I had this idea of, hey, if we’re approaching it with this different perspective already, maybe we could shift the whole narrative of how we approach this. We can do something to give parents a little more flexibility on finding their path to recovery—once we’ve ensured that the child’s safe.

So I went to the bookstore and looked at the addiction recovery section, and there was Beyond Addiction. And I mean, it was like peanut butter and chocolate. The two ideas [ITC and the talking circle] just support and complement each other perfectly: they’re both coming from a place of compassion, a respect for everyone—there wasn’t anything that seemed inconsistent.

And so that gave me a lot of confidence that the talking circle idea would work, and also I just loved the way the Invitation to Change—at that point I knew it as Beyond Addiction—supported what I saw the potential of talking circles to be.

“The premise for this idea is that these families want to do the right thing, and they’re capable if they’re given the right tools.”

How would you summarize the ways that you’re thinking about the Invitation to Change Approach and potentially bringing it into the talking circles?

So there’s really three ways the ITC supports this work. One is that it provides a research background that shows a compassionate approach can be effective. Second is that it identifies key concepts that can help a family understand the situation better. And then third, it provides guidance for the facilitator on what needs to be included in a successful plan.

So the concepts that I really identified as being helpful—the biggest one was ambivalence. The biggest problem we’d face in this sort of situation was that people don’t understand that you can truly love your child, and also just truly love using drugs or alcohol at the same time. And so introducing that concept right after a parent has really expressed that, in an honest and sincere and sometimes heartbreaking way, can shift someone’s perspective in a huge way.

Then the concepts of One Size Doesn’t Fit All, that Behaviors Make Sense, and thinking about how to change a learned behavior—we can share that with the participants in the circle, and it can help them understand what’s going on better and help us come up with a better plan.

I think the extended family come into it confused and frustrated, and fearful for the child’s safety, and they don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t even know how to have this conversation. And so the premise for this idea is that these families want to do the right thing, and they’re capable if they’re given the right tools.

I’m curious to hear more about how you balance the child welfare aspect and the compassionate approach to the parent who’s struggling with substance use.

Because I imagine that is something that comes into tension, right? Because you want to respect the reality of someone’s struggle with substance use, that it isn’t linear – but without endangering a child, another person who you are trying to protect from this struggle.

This is where Jessica Clarkson has been invaluable, because she as the social worker has done this work for a number of years in child safety, especially for young children.

The most helpful insight she brought in is the importance of rhythms and routine. Especially if a child has been through some difficult experiences. We emphasize that any plan we come up with has to have that stability: the parents have to be able to provide rhythms and routine if the child is going to reside in their household.

If the parents aren’t at the point where they’re really able to do that—yet—maybe the kids need to be somewhere else. But we still need a certain rhythm and routine for the contact with the parents, and we need to make sure that it’s safe, not stressful, and doesn’t trigger the child.

For a “grownup” to be ambivalent is difficult enough, but for a child to try and carry all those big feelings and their little mind can be absolutely overwhelming. We don’t want parents to feel like we’re saying, “We’re making you feel super guilty about this.” But we also need them to understand what this is like for the child, even though that’s uncomfortable. Because the successful plan is going to depend on us being realistic about how the child experiences it—alongside with how it works for the parents.

“What I love about the Invitation to Change is that a lot of thought has gone into how somebody who isn’t a therapist can explain these concepts in simple, plain language that anyone can understand.”

I would be curious to hear any details you can share about these cases, if you’re able to!

I’ll need to keep that in somewhat general terms, because they’re confidential. But one of the cases really illustrated the potential this idea has.

There was a parent who was very reluctant about engaging in a certain form of treatment. We had an honest conversation: we’re not going to force anyone to do anything, but are you going to be able to provide stability without getting this treatment?

The parent acknowledged: “You know what? Probably not. I really hate that type of treatment, but okay, I’ll do it.” And they reported that they had started back up doing that kind of treatment shortly after the circle—and that they still hated it, but they were doing it because it was necessary.

And I just, that got me all choked up, even now thinking about it. I hope that eventually they love treatment or don’t have to do it too long—it’s terrible for people to suffer—but the fact that they have the motivation to stick with it because they were that committed to the child, that was amazing to me.

And the child’s guardian, who brought the case to me, has now been much more supportive of the parent spending time with the child. And so the parent was seeing the child more, and I think that was helping.

And now, thinking back on that, without the talking circle concept that case probably would have gone to trial. The parties involved would have been put under oath and shared all sorts of negative things about each other. We would have taken giant steps backwards from working together. And if we had decided that the child needed to be in a different home from the parent, I think it’s extremely unlikely that the parent would have stuck with treatment. And I also think it’s very unlikely that the guardian would have given them more time with the child.

And so I think we would have accomplished our main objective of these hearings, which was to keep the child safe, but it would have come at the cost of the parent’s path to recovery and the parent’s relationship with the child. And instead we accomplished the safety for the child—that’s the most important—but we were also able to make some significant strides toward the parent’s path to recovery and the improved relationship with the child. And that’s such a huge difference.

That’s really amazing. And it’s also very tragic, because a lot of people might be experiencing this ambivalence: “I want to change for my child, but I also can’t quite give up this substance use behavior that gives me comfort.” But they might not have the language to say that.

It sounds like with your facilitation, you’re kind of giving people the language that allows them to express what’s really going on – especially in a tense situation where it’s even harder for people to hear each other without that explicit framework.

Yes. And one thing you learn as a lawyer and practicing—more so as a judge—is that people best understand information through stories. You can talk about philosophies and the principles and concepts all day long, but it’s the story that’s going to stay with them. And so I think what makes the circle so effective is that people tell their story—and they don’t have to label them appropriately. They just tell the story, and then as the facilitator, we can apply the appropriate labels.

And what I love about the Invitation to Change is that a lot of thought has gone into how somebody who isn’t a therapist can explain these concepts in simple, plain language that anyone can understand. And so by providing that explanation right after they’ve heard the story, it lays the groundwork for that concept, and so they can really understand.

That’s very powerful. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak.

Thank you. And I’m hoping that perhaps somebody might look at this and have ideas or be interested. And I’m sure Kim and I are not the only judges in the world trying to do this sort of thing, I’d love to hear about other courts or ideas working toward the same goals.

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