Get a Rock and Talk

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

By Robert C. Koehler

The thing is, he’d won his case. He got custody of his daughter.

This is the limit of conventional justice: “victory,” which of course means defeat for the other person, in this case, the mother of his daughter. Why not celebrate? His lawyer was satisfied. I mean, come on, you won, man!

But Bill Heenan, a Chicago fireman, had the nagging feeling that his daughter was also one of the losers in the decision. The case had been dragging through Parentage and Child Support Court, one of the busiest in the Cook County Circuit Court system, for a year. The court hears child-custody and other child-related cases in which the parents were never married, a situation that may cover nearly half the kids in Chicago.

“The court system is the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bill told me. “You sit there, you don’t say a word. The lawyer does all the talking. Then you go out in the hallway and the lawyer explains what the judge said.”

Though Bill and his daughter’s mother were not married, they lived near each other in Chicago and he saw his daughter, Alyssa, every day. When she was 10, Andrea, the mother, was offered a temporary job in Hawaii. While she was there with Alyssa, she was offered a permanent position and decided to take it. Suddenly Bill, who was paying child support, was without contact with his daughter, unless he flew to Hawaii on a regular basis, something he could hardly afford. Bill’s father, who loved his granddaughter deeply, was also devastated. Bill’s friends said, “Get a lawyer!”

So Bill and Andrea fought the case out in court, and ultimately Judge Martha Mills decided in his favor. Legally speaking, the mom couldn’t make the case that Hawaii, where she had no support system, was a better place to raise Alyssa than Chicago, where the youngster had a large support network in place. But at a human level, the judge also felt uncomfortable with the ruling. She could see that its impact was devastating and that it would probably be contested. “I knew an appeal would take a long time and rip the family apart,” she said.

So she called Bill to the stand and offered him another option. This is the wonder: Judge Mills saw beyond the current system. She was a passionate advocate of a process called restorative justice — justice based on healing and transforming, not victory and punishment. There are no external decision-makers, just interested parties, who, unlike in court, have a chance to talk and be heard. A restorative justice movement has been welling in the Chicago area for years. People sit in a circle as equals; they speak when they hold the talking piece and otherwise listen. A circle keeper helps maintain the integrity of the circle. It must be a safe container, because people will speak from the deepest reaches of their hearts.

She asked Bill if he’d be interested in exploring a way to work things out. His lawyer stood at the bench with him.

“Lawyers — they just complicate a whole lot of stuff,” Bill said. “If you’d seen the look on my lawyer’s face. He spoke up: ‘My client’s not interested.’ I said, ‘I am interested.’ My lawyer got pissed and walked into the hallway.”

He was being offered a chance to work out the parenting complexities of this matter, which the ruling hadn’t touched. Alyssa actually loved Hawaii and was prospering there. While he couldn’t bear losing her, he knew that winning her back at the cost of tearing her away from her mother and friends would be disastrous. But he had his victory. “I could have walked away,” he said, “and suffered the long-lasting effects.”

He decided, instead, that he hadn’t really won anything — except perhaps the opportunity he had in this moment, precious beyond all reckoning, to save his family.

At the time, Judge Mills was new in Parentage and Child Support Court. She’s now the supervising judge, and she and other judges have referred more than 45 cases to circle keepers Elizabeth Vastine and Peter Newman since 2008. Bill Heenan’s case was the first — indeed, it may be the first child-custody case in the country to move beyond the legal process to . . . the healing process.

“What makes the process magical is that it’s voluntary,” Peter said.

Elizabeth and Peter are both lawyers, and have been part of Chicago’s restorative justice community for years, among those who are quietly weaving a radically ancient, remarkably effective, social healing process into the city’s legal and educational systems. As I’ve written about circles in the past: “The idea was to build trust and develop an honest communication with one another as we sat together — in all our wariness, egoism and self-doubt — in a sort of vibrant equality.”

One of the rituals of the circle is the talking piece — any object one can hold in one’s hands. Often the talking piece is a rock. Whoever holds it can talk without interruption, while the others listen — such a rarity, especially in a child-custody case! “This prevented it from turning into a bicker fest,” Bill said.

The circle was held shortly after Christmas. Elizabeth and Peter were the keepers. The participants were Bill, Andrea, Alyssa and the young girl’s two grandfathers. It lasted about eight hours, far longer than most subsequent circles (the average length is two hours), but it ended with an agreement between Bill and Andrea. “I got more accomplished in eight hours than a year in court,” he said.

Alyssa herself was the key player. At one point, according to Bill, she said, “I love both of my parents. I can’t make a decision. I don’t know what to do.”

“Everyone ,” he said, “was crying.”

Bill agreed that it was best for Alyssa to remain in Hawaii. Because he was paying child support, he couldn’t afford multiple yearly airfares to bring her to Chicago, so he and Andrea devised a plan to share that cost without overburdening either of them. By the end of the day, an agreement was printed out and signed. “Not legal language,” said Elizabeth, “but their language. Their spirit and their language and their content.”

A few days later, Bill called her. “He had just dropped his daughter off at the airport — it was the best visit they’d had in ages. He wanted to send pictures to Judge Mills of Alyssa on a fire truck.”

And four years later, Bill is still overflowing with gratitude for the circle that saved his relationship with his daughter and allowed her to prosper. She’s an A-student in Hawaii; in Chicago, she’d been struggling. Dad’s heart bursts with joy. It’s not about custody. “It’s all about her,” he said.

This process, by the way, is not only free to the participants but to the court system as well. It’s unfunded. It happens because Peter and Elizabeth, in partnership with DePaul Law School, where the two teach restorative justice, are committed to the process.

In the early 20th century, Mary Parker-Follett, a visionary business-management consultant, wrote an essay called “Constructive Conflict.” She explained that there are three primary ways of dealing with conflict. One is domination, a process that leaves a winner and a loser. The second, also very familiar, is compromise; everyone gives in, no one gets what they want. The third is what she called integration, or transformation, where both sides acknowledge what they need and create a new structure that satisfies everyone.

Since conflict is inevitable, maybe, she suggests, we should figure out how to use it intelligently. “All polishing is done by friction,” she wrote. “The music of the violin we get by friction.”

Elizabeth, reflecting on the case four years later, said of Bill: “He knew in his heart this was the best thing. He called Judge Mills a genius and a saint. He told other firemen: ‘Just get a rock and talk!’”

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.