It is perhaps a little over ten years since I first encountered Family Group Conferencing (FGC) and have recently wondered how this New Zealand inspired method of finding solutions in children’s social care has fared. My involvement in restorative approaches and a recent holiday in New Zealand prompted me to write this short article re-visiting FGC and posing the question of how well the idea and ideals behind FGC have taken root in the UK generally and in England in particular.Family group conferences were introduced in New Zealand in 1989. Despite the absence of specific reference to restorative justice in the debates introducing them, their underlying philosophy incorporates key features of restorative justice. New Zealand was to move further forward in the implementation of restorative justice processes for adult offenders and provided a model for other countries wishing to move towards more restorative approaches to consider family group conferences as a useful strategy.
Family group conferences are made up of the young person who has committed the offence, members of his or her family and whoever the family invites, the victim(s) or their representative, a support person for the victim(s), a representative of the police, and the mediator or manager of the process. (The manager of the process is called a youth justice coordinator and is an employee of the Department of Social Welfare.) Sometimes a social worker and/or a lawyer is present.
Aims and objectives
The main goal of a conference is to formulate a plan about how best to deal with the offending. There are three principal components to this process:
* ascertaining whether or not the young person admits the offence - conferences only proceed if the young person does so or if the offence has been proved in the Youth Court;
* sharing information among all the parties at the conference about the nature of the offence, the effects of the offence on the victims, the reasons for the offending, any prior offending by the young person, and so on;
* deciding the outcome or recommendation.
The family group conference is a meeting between those entitled to attend, in a relatively informal setting. The room is usually arranged with comfortable chairs in a circle. When all are present, the meeting may open with a prayer or a blessing, depending on the customs of those involved. The youth justice coordinator then welcomes the participants, introduces each of them, and describes the purposes of the meeting.
What happens next can vary, but usually the police representative then reads out the summary of the offence. The young person is asked if he or she agrees that this is what happened and any variation is noted. If he or she does not agree, the meeting progresses no further and the police may consider referring the case to the Youth Court for a hearing.
Assuming the young person agrees, the victim, or a spokesperson for the victim, is then usually asked to describe what the events meant for them. Next, a general discussion of the offence and the circumstances underlying it occurs. There can be a lot of emotion expressed at this point. It is at this point too that the young person and his or her family may express their remorse for what has happened and make an apology to the victim, although more often this occurs later on (and sometimes it does not happen at all).
Once everybody has discussed what the offending has meant and options for making good the damage, the professionals and the victim leave the family and the young person to meet privately to discuss what plans and recommendation they wish to make to repair the damage and to prevent reoffending. The private family time can take as little as half an hour or much longer.
When the family are ready, the others return and the meeting is reconvened. This is the point at which the young person and the family apologise to the victim. A spokesperson for the family outlines what they propose and all discuss the proposal. Once there is agreement among all present, the details are formally recorded and the conference concludes, with the sharing of food.
Professionals are expected to play a low-key role in the family group conference.
- The youth justice coordinator ensures that everyone understands the tasks that need to be done, that all relevant issues are discussed and that the venting of emotion is managed as constructively as possible.
- The role of the police is usually limited to describing the offence, and possibly the impact of it on the victim. The police may also voice their concerns if the proposals of the family seem inadequate or excessive.
- The youth advocate’s main role is to advise on legal issues and to protect the young person’s rights; they may also express an opinion about the proposed penalties if these seem excessive.
- The social worker, if present, will normally only provide background information on the young person and participate in supporting the plans of the family and the young person for the future.
Practice can, however, vary considerably. Conferences are intended to be flexible and responsive to young people, families and victims. All these values can be breached at times, especially when professionals do not understand or accept their roles.
Provided that the plans and decisions have been agreed by all those attending the family group conference and, for court-referred cases, are accepted by the Youth Court judge, they are binding on all those involved. The plans are meant to take into account the views of the victims, the need to make the young person accountable for his or her offending, and any measures that may prevent future reoffending by enhancing the well-being of the offender or strengthening the family.
How FGC developed
The system of FGC took shape in New Zealand following a time of intense debate in the 1980s regarding the way that the state intervenes in matters of child welfare. In England a number of local authorities in particular are offering FGC as a means of providing solutions to a number of issues facing children and their families. In Hull for example these are some of the issues that families meet to talk through:
* problems caused by divorce or separation,
* getting back in touch with a child in care,
* worries about a child’s safety,
* helping a child fit back into their family after time away,
* helping an adult look after a child - such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother or sister,
* worries about a child not going to school,
* helping a parent with physical or mental disability.
Research shows that there has been a significant increase both in the number of referrals to FGC services, and the number and size of FGC projects over the last few years and particularly the last 12 months, in part as a result of the Public Law Outline (PLO).
In England 69% of local authorities now have some form of FGC project (in-house or commissioned) or are in the process of setting one up (FRG audit, 20091). In Wales 18 out of 22 authorities have an FGC service. This compares favourably with the results of research conducted by Louise Brown who found that in 2002 38% of localities in the UK had some form of FGC service (Brown, 20022). Within England there is significant regional variation from 100% in the East of England to 50% in the North East.
22 FGC projects provided data specifically on child welfare referrals made in 2007/8 and 2008/9. This reveals a 33% rise in child welfare FGCs referrals over the last year.
The size of FGC services is growing, with 60% of projects in England in 2008/9 carrying out 50 or more FGCs a year, compared to 30% four years ago (Family Rights Group, 2005 survey 3).
FGC projects felt that the PLO has had an impact upon their service. In total 45 FGC projects responded to this question. 12 said it had no impact, whilst 33 said that the PLO has had an impact, including 16 who thought the impact had been significant. Reasons varied, highlighting the lack of uniformity.
Restorative Justice in New Zealand: Family Group Conferences as a Case Study. Morris, A. and Maxwell, G. http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v1n1/morris.html
Family Group Conferences: Principles and Practice Guidance 2002, Barnardo’s, Family Rights Group, NCH
Family Rights Group (October 2009) Audit of FGC Services (Unpublished data)
Brown L (2002) A Survey of Family Group Conference Use across the UK (University of Bath)
Family Rights Group (2005) Survey of FGC Services (Unpublished)