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Mainstreaming Family Group Conferencing: Building and Sustaining Partnerships
Joan Pennell, North Carolina State University

Posted 1999-08-07

A concern [is] a strong inward sense that some action should be taken to meet a certain situation. . . . In [bringing it before a wider sympathetic assembly], a concern secures the support of a group large enough and wise enough to carry it out.

— Howard H. Brinton, 1964, p. 103


The search for alternatives to conventional forms of criminal justice has yielded a rich array of frameworks, known today by such terms as restorative justice, transformative justice, and peacemaking criminology (Galaway & Hudson, 1996; Sullivan, Tifft, & Cordella, 1998). Although these paradigms may appear idealistic in their aspirations (Harris, 1998), they have been connected with specific practices for their realization. Among their current practices is a model referred to as family group conferencing. As true of so many alternative approaches, family group conferencing has emerged out of traditional practices, faith-based initiatives, and emancipatory social movements (Braithwaite, 1996; Daly & Immarigeon, 1998; Villa-Vicencio, 1999).

Indigenous people in New Zealand advocated for alternatives to Eurocentric, expert driven models (Ministerial Advisory Committee, 1988) and were joined by proponents of child welfare and youth justice reform (Hassall, 1996). Together they emphasized family responsibility for their young people, children’s rights, recognition of culture, and state-community partnerships to support families. Out of these discussions, the government of New Zealand legislated the model of family group conferencing in 1989. The act entitles the extended family to make plans with regard to their young relatives and to receive support from public agencies and community groups in carrying out these plans.

As is the case with other alternative approaches that are adopted by mainstream institutions, family group conferencing faces significant pushes away from its core principles and processes and pulls toward systemic goals of maintaining control, meeting regulations, containing costs, and avoiding litigation (Merkel-Holguin, 1998; Schorr, 1997). Co-optation appears all the more likely as family group conferencing is exported from its country of origin to other national and cultural settings (Whittaker, 1999).

In this presentation, I consider the difficulties in mainstreaming family group conferencing and then propose a partnership approach for respecting the integrity of its philosophy and practice. Based upon my work with family group conferencing in Canada and the United States, I emphasize the building and sustaining of partnerships across all phases from initiating the model to implementing it through to its evaluation. My understanding of this partnership approach is guided by the notion of ‘concern.’ Drawing upon my own heritage, I define ‘concern’ in the manner articulated by the Society of Friends (Quaker) but whose expression I have seen in many committed groups. As in the epigraph, concern is seen as coming from a "strong inward sense that some action should be taken to meet a certain situation" (Brinton, 1964, p. 103). This right guidance to act (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1995) may begin with an individual or individuals prepared to hear the concern (Hutchinson, 1961/1966); they then convince others to join in carrying out this responsibility. How the concern is to be acted upon becomes clearer as the group enlarges. Within this greater assembly, the wisdom and strength to resolve the concern emerges. Utilizing this Quaker experiential framework, I conclude with reflections on how the concept of ‘concern’ can offer a simplifying starting point for alternative approaches to criminal justice.

Family Group Conferencing

First, I will begin by briefly overviewing the model of family group conferencing (FGC) as it has been used in child welfare and domestic violence. The model that I will present is primarily based on the New Zealand approach in child welfare but reflects its adaption to address family violence in the Newfoundland & Labrador Project (Canada). I should note that from the outset there was not one model of FGC because the requirements of addressing child protection and youth crime differed: the former is about maltreatment within the family while the latter usually involves a victim from outside the household. Since its promulgation in New Zealand, FGC has been used to address a range of concerns beyond child protection and youth crime: these include school suspensions, juvenile deliquency, adult crime, reintegration of offenders, and neighborhood conflicts (Hudson, Morris, Maxwell, & Galaway, 1996; Pennell & Burford, in press-a). As the model has spread into new areas of concern and other national settings, various hybrids have evolved (Merkel-Holguin, Winterfeld, Harper, Coburn, & Fluke, 1997; Nixon, 1998; O’Connell, 1998).

In situations of family violence, FGC is about building partnerships within and around families to protect child and adult family members and advance their well-being (Pennell & Burford, 1994). This means that protective authorities adopt a posture of working with families, that the involved agencies and community groups collaborate around particular family issues, and that the family and their relatives and other close supports cooperatively develop a plan for resolving the concerns. Before the plan goes into effect, the mandated authorities must approve it. This allows for a safety check of the plan and ensures that the public agencies provide necessary resources for its implementation. Once the approval is granted, the various partners work together in carrying out the plan and reconvene as necessary to review developments and plan further action steps.

The FGC process is designed to create a forum in which protective service families can have a meaningful voice over their affairs (Pennell & Burford, 1995). Thus, emphasis is given to preparing family group members and professionals, weighting conference participation toward the family, respecting the culture of the family, and ensuring timely approval and implementation of plans (Burford & Pennell, 1996; Connolly & McKenzie, 1999; Gunderson, 1998). Over a three- to four-week period, a FGC coordinator works with the family to organize their conference: identifying who is ‘family group,’ strategizing on how to keep the process safe, and making practical arrangements for holding the conference. Likewise the service providers require preparation around how to take part in the conference in a respectful and helpful manner. The invitations are purposely skewed toward family group members to reflect the many sides of the family and to ensure that family far outnumber the professionals. If necessary, the services of a translator are secured so that the conference can be held in the language of the family group.

The structure of the conference places the family group at the center of planning. The opening emphasizes the family’s culture, possibly through a prayer, a statement from a senior family member, or simply seating themselves in a circle. After the FGC coordinator reviews the process and introductions are completed, the group turns to the concerns to be addressed. Rather than placing the onus on survivors to disclose their maltreatment, the involved protective authorities such as child welfare, correctional services, and police report on what has happened and what issues need to be addressed in the plan. So that the family group has sufficient knowledge for planning, other information providers may present on relevant topics such as substance abuse and domestic violence as well as the services available.

Once the family group is clear about the areas of concern from the perspective of the service providers and aware the relevant resources, all of the professionals including the conference coordinator leave the room. This private time provides the opportunity for the family group to develop their sense of concern and to formulate their own plan for resolving the concerns. Notably, the Newfoundland and Labrador study (Pennell & Burford, 1995) found that the main way in which family groups reached their decisions was through consensus — a process of building a common understanding and reaching a collectively agreed upon plan (Barber, 1984). On completing this task, the family group invites the coordinator back into the room to review the plan and to ensure that it includes clear steps and a system of monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the plan. Then the involved mandated authorities are asked to approve the plan, preferably at the conclusion of the conference or shortly thereafter.

While the plan is being carried out, the protective services remain responsible for monitoring the safety of family members. With the plan in place, though, the family group and involved community organizations work with the authorities to protect and assist family members. If the plan become unfeasible or unhelpful or the family’s situation changes dramatically, a FGC can be reconvened.

Fairly comprehensive evaluations of the FGC process have been carried out. They show that conferencing can be carried out without violence, that family groups usually come up with plans, and that the authorities typically approve their plans (Paterson & Harvey, 1991). Far less is known about the outcomes of child welfare FGCs (Robertson, 1996). The limited studies available, nevertheless, suggest that conferencing reduces child maltreatment (Marsh & Crow, 1998) and domestic violence (Pennell & Burford, in press-b), decreases the disproportionate number of children of color in care (Crampton, 1998), and promotes the well-being of children and other family members (Burford & Pennell, 1998).

Mainstreaming the Model

In the early 1990s when Gale Burford and I sought to initiate a trial demonstration of the model in Canada, however, little research on the process of conferencing was available. At the time we frequently heard questions about whether the model could work: Will families show up at conferences? If they attend, will they break out into fights? Aren’t our families too ‘dysfunctional’ to make sound decisions? Won’t the perpetrators manipulate the conference? And will the plans endanger the survivors? Behind these questions was a profound ambivalence about letting go of control, that could only be resolved through seeing how conferencing actually worked.

Today, in setting up the North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project or in speaking about the model with others across the United States, I hear the same questions repeated. The difference, now, is that the questioners are aware that family group conferencing is considered by many a ‘best practice.’ Sometimes the objections are reframed as ‘That might work elsewhere, but our families have too many drug problems or they don’t have any family and friends.’ Increasingly, however, I am hearing questions not about the families but about systems: Will our agency let us spend the time needed for preparations? Since families usually want to meet in evenings and week-ends, can we get compensation for taking part in conferences? How much confidential information can be shared at a conference, especially on addictions? Won’t defense lawyers block their clients from taking part? Is there sufficient time before a court hearing to hold a conference? Will a FGC duplicate other services? Underlying these questions are fears of more work and more conflicts among professionals, but also a fear that agency policies and structures will undermine FGC initiatives.

A prime example is the initial response by Child Welfare workers to my using the language of concerns. In speaking of the areas to address in a plan, I employ the term concerns rather than risks, problems, or harms. The main message that I wish to convey is a commitment to taking action, a message that, in my view, can be lost through starting with terms that highlight individual vulnerabilities, deficiencies, or injuries. Usually, Child Welfare workers welcome beginning with a strengths and solutions-focused approach (Saleebey, 1997); at the same time they identify how the language of concern can contravene their agency mandate.

By US law, Child Welfare workers are expected to protect children from ‘substantial risk’ of abuse, neglect, or dependency (lack of care). The term concern, as they rightly identify, encompasses far more than the officially required minimum levels of care and protection. A view that family groups share: because of their holistic perspective on their relatives, family groups include in plans expected items such as addictions treatment but also less expected items such as funding for family outings (Pennell & Burford, 1995). For their part, the Child Welfare workers recognize that plans such as outings help to strengthen family bonds, but they also are aware that keeping a case open in order to fund such an activity could be viewed as widening the child protection net and could jeopardize the state review of their agency.

At this juncture in the discussion, I will observe that Child Welfare is not the only responsible party at a FGC. The point of the FGC is to safeguard family members through building partnerships. Contributors to implementing the plans include protective services but also relatives, community groups, and other public agencies. As soon as they look at their role within a partnership framework, Child Welfare workers, I find, are able to create solutions for surmounting systemic hurdles. For instance, once a family has progressed to the extent that children no longer are assessed as at substantial risk, the Child Welfare workers agreed that a case can be re-coded to a voluntary category; in this manner, Child Welfare can collaborate with the family group and other organizations in completing the steps on a full range of concerns.

The question remains, though, for how many families can they use this solution. Keeping cases open on a voluntary basis increases agency expenditures and relies on the willingness of families to persevere with their plans. In my experience, the funding issue poses the greater challenge. The outcome study of the Newfoundland & Labrador Project found that families felt betrayed when Child Welfare closed their cases once the crises were over but before all plans resolving concerns were completed (Pennell & Burford, 1998). To my mind, the solution is not to restrict FGCs to officially mandated areas. Such a strategy would contravene the FGC philosophy of families having a say over their affairs and would limit the potential of conferencing to safeguard children and other family members in the long run. Instead I propose strengthening the capacity of the model through drawing upon its essence — partnership building to resolve concerns.

Building Partnerships

Too often, I have found that agencies view FGC as another ‘tool in their tool kit,’ that is an addition to what they are already doing. Such a view leads to assuming that a few workers can be quickly trained to facilitate conferencing. This assumption disregards the core principles of FGC, that is enhancing family responsibility, advancing children’s rights, respecting cultural diversity, and building state-community partnerships. All of these principles require a re-thinking of the roles of agencies and a reshaping of how they work with families, community groups, and other services.

On the basis of my work in Canada, the United States, and England, I recommend the following partnership-building steps for initiating and sustaining FGC:

• Involving Diverse Groups in Planning for the Program

    Gather a group of concerned individuals to serve as planners. Ensure that a range of perspectives are included among the planning group for the program. This allows for looking at FGC from the perspectives of different family members (e.g., women, children, grandparents), cultural groups, and service providers.

• Formulating a Guiding Philosophy

    Early in the planning set forth a guiding statement of philosophy or framework for the program. This process serves to make conscious the concern that is guiding the planning group as they set forth their assumptions about and objectives for FGC and identify the model’s core processes. With this agreement in place, the group is then better able to develop program policies and procedures and evaluative criteria in line with their philosophy.

• Offering Inclusive Training

    Invite representatives from a wide range of organizations and groups to take part in the training. This builds a community-wide knowledge of the model and support for its enactment.

• Adapting Policy

    Examine how state and agency policies and procedures may or may not support FGC. Work out adaptations as needed for sustaining this model.

• Establishing Advisory Committees

    A statewide advisory committee with representation from different groups can provide on-going oversight to the program and foster a broad set of connections and resourcing for the program. Local advisory committees serve the same function at the community or county level.

• Developing a Local Plan

    Work out with the planning group and/or local advisory committee, a plan for ensuring local ownership of the program, collaboration by key stakeholders, and adequate resourcing of conferencing.

• Securing Local Coordinators

    Coordinators who are attuned to the local culture and committed to resolving families’ issues are able to work in a respectful and effective manner with the different family members.

• Utilizing Community Panels

    These serve to provide the coordinators with clinical and cultural advice on how to organize the conferences for specific families.

• Evaluating the Program

    Guided by the statement of philosophy, an implementation evaluation can identify if core processes are being carried out. The outcome evaluation can assess the extent to which the program objectives were realized. All of this information can be used by advisory committees, staff, and others to reflect upon and reconfigure the program as needed.

Starting with Concern

The series of recommended steps is a way of acting collaboratively upon a concern to safeguard children and other family members. This process for mainstreaming an FGC program is congruent with the principles for conferencing and, thus, can better offer a sustaining milieu for family groups likewise resolving concerns. Both processes emphasize diversity in participants, preparation for taking part, dialogue to reach an agreement on concerns and means for resolving them, cooperative enactment of a collectively owned plan of action, and reshaping the actions on the basis of reflective evaluation.

Once a group reaches a shared sense of responsibility to resolve a specific issue, or what Friends refer to as a "concern," they have a richness of insights for developing a plan and greater strength for achieving a resolution. As the Quaker Thomas Kelly (1941/ 1984) experienced, the guidance of a concern serves to simplify the work at hand: it focuses the groups’ strength rather than dissipating their energy across numerous endeavors. By coming together around one program or around one family, the partners can undertake a responsibility that is within their reach.

The search for alternatives to criminal justice has led to conceptualizing frameworks of restoration, transformation, and peacemaking. These are positive paradigms and often daunting ones in their ambitions. Perhaps starting with a concern among friends may offer some simplicity in a complex world.

Note: I wish to acknowledge the guidance of my father, Dr. T. Noel Stern, on the meaning of ‘concern’ within the Society of Friends, and the learning on the model that I have received from speaking and working with many committed groups across the United States and Canada and in England.

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