Restorative and transformative justice in the works for domestic, sexual violence survivors


The Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence is prioritizing a restorative and transformative justice project to help survivors who are looking to heal outside of the criminal justice system.

Commission director Susan Marks presented to Blaine City Council during its May 8 meeting on the commission’s work over the past year, much of which has centered around its restorative and transformative justice pilot program. The program is still being developed but could start as soon as 2024.

Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham founded the commission in 1998 with the goal of taking a systematic approach to improve support for survivors and reduce sexual and domestic violence offenses throughout Whatcom County. The commission’s work over the years has included compiling data, conducting case reviews, providing education and creating partnerships between organizations. 

The commission is made up of over 30 members, including therapists, nonprofits, healthcare providers, public school representatives, child protection services, and people working in different areas of the legal system. Blaine police chief Donnell Tanksley serves on the commission.

Restorative justice is centered around the healing of the person who experienced domestic or sexual violence, Marks explained to councilmembers, providing examples of direct interaction with an offender, a system to which they reported or a person to whom they reported. Transformative justice is an approach to responding to violence without creating more harm.

“Our goal is to support the healing and safety of the survivor,” Marks said.

The commission conducted a survey last year that received about 40 responses from survivors before it started planning the restorative and transformative justice project.

“We really wanted to root this process in hearing what people’s experiences are locally, how have people supported them when they’ve reached out for help and what additional options they want,” Marks said after the meeting.

The commission is also continuing its focus on helping survivor defendants, who committed a crime in a domestic violence relationship such as defending themselves, retaliating, driving a getaway car or selling stolen goods. Marks said the commission will help community advocates develop tools and training to better support defendants with safety planning and help defense attorneys with expert witnesses. The Blaine Police Department has a training planned on survivor defendants later this fall, she said. 

The commission is also working on procedural justice to ensure survivors feel like they have been heard and treated fairly in the criminal justice system.

“When people go through the system, what is often more important to them than what happens to their case is how they perceive their response,” Marks said. “So are they being treated with dignity and respect? Do they feel like they have a voice? Do they feel like the system is trustworthy and is there transparency?”

According to the commission’s latest data from 2021, Whatcom County law enforcement agencies received 3,180 domestic violence calls and 44 percent of those resulted in an arrest. In 2021, Blaine Police Department had 56 domestic violence offenses and 78 domestic violence calls that didn’t lead to an arrest.

Marks said domestic violence incidents in Whatcom County have decreased to pre-pandemic numbers, but survivors’ needs are greater and require more time with advocates.

“That increase during Covid has not decreased,” Marks said. “While the numbers have gone back down, the time we are spending on each case is a lot greater.”

North Whatcom County residents can be negatively impacted being farther away from services, such as the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) office in downtown Bellingham, Marks said. She added most services already offer translators but the commission is working to improve language access.

Tanksley said Blaine Police Department looks at domestic and sexual violence in all communities, such as workplace, schools and faith-based organizations.

While the survey to help the commission plan its restorative and transformative justice project has closed, Marks said the commission is always open to receiving input.

For more information on the Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, visit

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic or sexual violence, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) 24-hour hotline is available at 360/715-1563 or 877/715-1563.


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