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The Family Group Conference — 10 Years On
Mike Doolan, Children, Young Persons and Their Families Agency, New Zealand

Posted 1999-08-07

I am Mike Doolan, Chief Social Worker for the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Agency in New Zealand. I have responsibility for the professional leadership of that Agency. As someone who has followed the professional development of statutory child protection services over nearly 40 years, I am now privileged to lead statutory social work practice in New Zealand toward the end of a century of development of this sector.

Today, I want to outline the implementation of the Family Group Conference process in New Zealand and to cover the key issues which have challenged — and continue to challenge — our work in this area.

First, a word about the Agency I represent. The Children Young Persons and their Families Agency is the statutory agency of government that works for the protection, well-being and best management of children and young persons. Our role is defined by the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act (1989), various Adoption Acts and the Guardianship Act 1968. Our work is guided, too, by adherence to the principles of The Treaty of Waitangi, our country’s founding document which requires that the partnership between the Crown and the indigenous people, Maori, is reflected in every aspect of our work.

The work of the Agency is two-fold. We have a clear mandate to deliver statutory social work services. We also fund a range of community organisations which deliver programmes and services in a variety of settings and a range of different ways.

The direct services we deliver are:

• prevention services - in particular public awareness service

• social work services

• Family Group Conference services, both for care and protection and youth offending, and

• adoption services.

These services are complemented by a range of contracted services for children in ‘at risk’ and ‘high risk’ families. Among the client group are individuals and families with complex personal and social needs, for which there are rarely simple solutions. Members of the client group have often sustained serious harm, are at serious risk, and may also present a risk to others.

The Agency’s mission statement sums up our purpose well:

Safe children, strong families, stronger communities.

We will become a stand-alone government department later this year — to be known as the Department of Child, Youth and Whanau Services. This transition to departmental status signals the intention of government to focus more intense attention on the provision of services to children and families and to link provision of services by statutory social workers more closely to those offered by non-government agencies. There is clearly a determination on the part of our government and of our Agency to place increasing importance on early childhood interventions and in maximising parental involvement to improve the life outcomes of children.

It is almost exactly ten years since the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act was passed in November 1989. It was — and remains - world pioneering legislation that has subsequently drawn the interest of many other countries. It has been copied and adapted in Australia, the United Kingdom, Asia, South Africa and Canada.

In New Zealand it has been lauded, and reviled. It has been hard work, not just for the professionals with the responsibility of putting its Objects and Principles into practice, but for families too. It has been hard work because there was nowhere to look for guidance, because ten years ago the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act was family focussed legislation without precedent anywhere else in the world.

In the late 1980s, my own particular focus was on the concept of family-decision making with particular emphasis on the youth justice provisions of the Act. My 1988 paper "from Welfare to Justice" urged: "that legislation be framed that gives whanau/family real status in the decision-making process of the judicial system." The principles of restorative justice were also emphasised as vital to the new legislation, and in achieving healthy outcomes for both offenders and victims.

While interest groups continued to lobby for the case conference approach the Department of Social Welfare continued to work toward a single process for all families. In 1988 the Department recommended a statutory Family Group Conference which officials could attend with other invited experts and workers.

The recommendation was accepted.

The legislative framework that emerged with the passing of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 is one of partnership between the State and family groups. This framework seeks to:

• institute effective care and protection practices by working with families

• increase and improve community and Maori participation in delivery of care and protection services by working with the traditional family structures of the indigenous people

• provide culturally appropriate services

• reduce the number of children in State care

• reduce involvement with the Courts.

The foundation stone of the Act — the Family Group Conference - is a process common to both care and protection and youth justice work. It was born of the customary rights, values and practices of the indigenous people of New Zealand.

In the New Zealand judicial system there is a division of function between, on one hand, the Family Court, which deals with care and protection matters involving children and young persons under the age of 17 and, on the other hand, the Youth Court which deals with offending by young persons between 14 and 17 years of age. However, only a small number of matters proceed to Court intervention. The Act emphasises that Court proceedings, both civil and criminal, are a last resort and encourages community- based solutions whereby families, extended families, sub tribes, tribes and family groups take prime responsibility for their own children and young persons. Neither Court can make a decision on the disposition of a case unless a Family Group Conference has been held.

We are an Agency that is now very familiar with the Family Group Conference process. Last year our Agency received 24,000 notifications of abuse and neglect. Of these 18,000 required follow-up and 1,300 were referred for Care and Protection Family Group Conferences. A further 630 notifications resulted in urgent Court action followed by a Family Group Conference.

In addition, 6,700 Family Group Conferences were convened to consider matters of youth offending. 3,700 of these were directed by the Youth Court and 3,000 were referrals from the police.

The Family Group Conference is the legal process that is central to the Act. I want to stress that it is a legal construct - not a social work process - entitlements, processes and obligations are clearly spelt out and this is what makes the Family Group Conference process in New Zealand unique.

This family group perspective holds that:

(a) the family (in its various forms) is the social unit most suited to the needs of children and young people, providing a suitable environment for their growth, upbringing and development.

(b) children and young people need the sense of continuity, identity and stability than can only be provided within their immediate or wider family group. The perspective holds that only in extreme situations should the family be disrupted by removal of children. In such cases, the interests and welfare of the child or young person are the deciding factor.

(c) when children or young people must be removed from their family, alternative care should meet the entire range of their needs (physical, emotional, social, cultural, racial, spiritual and legal). In the first instance, this should be looked for within the wider family group, hapu, iwi.

The family group perspective means that Social Workers, as agents of the State, work in partnership with families and family groups in providing safe and nurturing environments for their children.

The importance of the family group perspective is also reflected in the persons who are defined as entitled to attend and in the processes and procedures for convening the conference.

The decision making process is governed by the Objects and Principles of the Act. They are the lynch pin of the legislation, providing the context for all procedures and giving comprehensive guidance to those using the Act. The Objects and general Principles apply to both the care and protection and youth justice provisions.

Under the Act new statutory officials - Care and Protection Co-ordinators and Youth Justice Co-ordinators - were introduced. Their primary role is convening and facilitating the Family Group Conference. The Act specifies that they have must have the personality, training and experience necessary for them to carry out their role.

I want to talk now about some of the successes of the New Zealand legislation and some of the challenges.

First, we have reason to celebrate.

10 years of practice under the new legislation has achieved remarkable results.

• There have been significant reductions in the number of children and young persons in care, and in institutions as a response to their offending behaviour.

• There has been a large reduction in court appearances by young people.

• Victims are involved in key processes that enable them to achieve justice for themselves.

• Family groups have taken prime responsibility for their own children and young people, rather than seeing that responsibility rest with the State.

• Youth offending as a proportion of total crime has not increased, despite the decreased use of Courts.

Let me give you a real example. In Wellington, our capital city, our Agency’s youth justice co-ordinator works with Youth Aid, community service providers and families to identify problems and moves fast to rectify them. It is largely preventative work and their success has been marked. In 1996 there were 554 Family Group Conferences held in Wellington to address youth offending. In 1998 there were 215. A couple of years ago the Wellington Youth Justice co-ordinator had 25-plus Family Group Conferences on his agenda at any given time. Now four or five is the norm.

The most significant factor, however, is that this drop represents a drop in serious charges.

Ten years on we can say that the Family Group Conference model is working — for most of the young people who offend. As our first Principal Youth Court Judge Mick Brown commented before his retirement:

"With the involvement of family and wider family we recognise the strength of inter-dependencies, attachments which evoke personal obligation to others within a community of concern. These attachments are not perceived as isolated relationships of convenience but as matters of profound group obligation.

It is absurd to expect all families, simply by a stroke of the legislative pen, to suddenly become mature decision makers. What amazes me is how often family groups, with input from Police and victims, are achieving creative and constructive outcomes."

Some of the latest - as yet unpublished — research, ‘Understanding Re-Offending’, has been conducted by Gabrielle Maxwell and her colleagues for the Social Policy Agency in New Zealand. In 1990-91 Maxwell & Morris collected data on 195 young offenders referred to a Family Group Conference. They observed and recorded what happened at the Family Group Conference, collected data from police, coordinators and social workers’ files and interviewed family members, young people, police officers, coordinators and social work staff who were involved in the Family Group Conferences.

In 1994 Maxwell et al re-examined reconviction data on 161 on these young offenders. The results showed that more than a third of the young people had not been reconvicted at all, and 14% had been re-convicted only once. Just over one quarter had been reconvicted within one year and just over a quarter had persistently re-offended.

You may be wondering how successful the Family Group Conference process can be in dealing with care and protection concerns. You are not alone. There remain today, significant numbers of people who feel uneasy about the Family Group Conference process in relation to protecting children. There are experts who feel that they could do better. There are people who would hold it up as an example of the Government relinquishing responsibility. There are Judges who would rather have the ability to direct outcomes without recourse to the Family Group Conference. There are talk-back hosts who know better than any of us how to deal with anything and everything in society today.

I would reply that, although the experts will always have their place where the welfare of children is at issue, and although the State has ultimate responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of our children, no one has the special knowledge and interest which the family can bring to deliberations. Even when there is terrible conflict within a family, the Family Group Conference provides the forum, and the facilitation, which allows these matters to be discussed and resolved with a minimum of hurt and ill-feeling.

For severely dysfunctional families the presence of other entitled persons and the right of veto held by referrers and co-ordinators provides a safety net within which practical and manageable decisions can be made. It is essential however that the process is managed so that the different roles in decision making are preserved. In situations where this doesn’t happen there is a risk that the child’s rights get lost in adult needs. This is the most frequent criticism of the Family Group Conference voiced by people who wish to see a return to the professional decision-making model. The safeguard against this risk lies in proper management of the conference stages and absolute clarity from participants who have decision-making rights.

So what have we learned and what continues to challenge us today? One thing we have learnt is that it is vital that the Family Group Conference process is supported in legislation. I am aware of the anxieties held by practitioners — maybe by some of you here today — who see legally ordered conferences as a barrier to success, as family lose the right to choose the type of process they want. I take the view that, unless the Family Group Conference is a legally mandated process, it is susceptible to the changing views of changing policy makers and has the potential to become a weak shadow of its intended self. Issues of privacy and confidentiality become huge barriers, big enough to sabotage a social worker’s best efforts, unless the legislation deals with entitlements and empowers the involvement of the family group. If extended family are not to be involved or even consulted in matters concerning their child or young person, the required protective monitoring networks, which need to be built around the child, cannot be put in place.

Secondly, the strength, and therefore the success of the Family Group Conference does depend largely on the quality, experience, skills and values of the Family Group Conference co-ordinator. Academic processes rather than real processes can result in people talking past one another, not accomplishing much — even with much goodwill. My Agency has struggled with finding the best framework to manage coordinators and to allow their role to grow to its best advantage. Presently situated in local site offices, supervised by local Area Managers, it is now proposed that coordinators be managed and supported centrally, in a line separate from the service delivery hierarchy. Whatever the preferred structure, it must support coordinators to do their job well, in an unbiased way, focusing on being the guardians of the Objects and Principles of the Act.

Another issue we have had to address has been the overly wide separation of care and protection and youth justice matters. Although never intended to develop in this way, the two jurisdictions have become overly separate and the children and young people have been treated in a segmented, partial way by one or more parts of our Agency. Having recognised this we have taken steps to address this with our staff. Children and young people need to be treated as holistic beings if all aspects of their behaviour is to be comprehensively addressed.

Finally, in New Zealand, ten years on, our social workers are moving from practice based on best intentions to practice based on solid research and best practice. We aim to have a well- educated work force using validated tools to support clinical judgement and measuring outcomes both at the macro and micro level. At the macro level we are fast developing outcome measurement tools to evaluate the outcomes of Agency intervention. At the micro level the tools we are developing will lead to more reliable case worker decision making. Our current risk estimation tool is soon to be joined by a whole range of other tools to help us more clearly identify needs and risks.

In conclusion I would like to say, since 1989, New Zealand has been applying a new means of achieving the care and protection of, and dealing with offending by, children and young persons. A legal construct - the Family Group Conference - gives a central role to the child’s extended family, asking that they work with the State to ensure their child’s care and protection needs are met and that their child is held accountable for their offending.

We continue to be excited by the legislation and by the Family Group Conference process. Despite the challenges, we believe it is a just, open, respectful and empowering piece of legislation. We look forward to developments over the next 10 years and beyond.

Thank you for your attention.