Restoring Community

Family group decision making (FGDM), also known as family groupconferencing (FGC), is proving to be a beneficial restorative practiceto help reintegrate prison inmates back into society. This article byDeni Thurman-Eyer and Laura Mirsky addresses restorative FGDM/FGCprograms in prisons in Adams County, Pennsylvania, USA, and in Hungary.

Family group decision making (FGDM), known in New Zealand, the UK andEurope as family group conferencing or FGC, is proving to be abeneficial restorative practice to help reintegrate prison inmates backinto society. This article addresses restorative FGDM/FGC programs inprisons in Adams County, Pennsylvania, USA, and in Hungary.

Beginning in New Zealand in 1989 in the youth justice and child welfaresystems, FGDM/FGC operates according to the premise that the directinvolvement of a family group works better to solve a family’s issuesthan the efforts of professionals alone to solve those issues for people. A key ingredient of an FGDM meeting is “Family Alone Time,”when the family group is left alone, without professionals in the room,to devise plans to solve their own issues. These plans are thenevaluated by professionals for legal and safety concerns.

Community Service Foundation, a model program of the IIRP, providesFGDM conferences for youth and families in Pennsylvania. (Please see for links to articles about FGDM/FGC.)

It Takes a Village, a private service provider based in Harrisburg,Pennsylvania, provides FGDM for youth and families. Agency programmanager Dewaine Finkenbinder began using FGDM with adjudicatedprisoners in Adams County in 2003. Adams was the first county in thenation to utilize a cross-system approach involving both the departmentof children and youth services and justice agencies, said Finkenbinder.

In FGDMs at Adams County Prison, family members meet with theprisoner and prison officials. Prison officials have an opportunity torelate the inmate’s positive behaviors and accomplishments during hisor her incarceration, enabling the family to focus on achievementsrather than the behavior leading to imprisonment. Finkenbinder saidthat this strength-based approach is proving transformational in AdamsCounty’s criminal justice system.

Finkenbinder discussed FGDM’s impact for a family when thebreadwinner goes to prison: FGDM meetings provide a structure fordeveloping a support system to keep the household going. A children andyouth (C&Y) caseworker approached Finkenbinder when a mother ofthree children was about to be re-arrested for driving whileintoxicated and was facing 45 days in prison and 45 days’ probation.Anticipating the family’s needs during the mother’s incarceration, anFGDM meeting was held to bring the extended family together to work outa plan, which C&Y accepted. The plan provided a way for thechildren to stay with family members rather than be dispersed todifferent foster families. After the mother was released from prison,an adult probation officer found her drinking – a violation ofprobation. Since a plan was already in place as a result of the FGDMconference whereby family members would care for the children, theprobation officer needed only to make a call to redeploy that plan. Thefamily was able to prevent a crisis.

The FGDM process also supports the needs of inmates entering the workrelease/reentry phase of their incarceration, allowing them to spendpart of their assigned work release time in their homes, so they canpay bills, make meals and otherwise keep their households going.Concluded Finkenbinder: “This is a practice, not a program. This is theway we do business in Adams County.”

Community Service Foundation (CSF) and the IIRP have introduced FGDM toprison populations in Hungary, led by Vidia Negrea, director of CSFHungary. (Negrea’s first work with CSF Hungary was a two-yeardemonstration project with delinquent and at-risk youth [View here].She has since provided restorative practices training to thousands ofprosecutors, judges, lawyers, probation officers, teachers andadministrators throughout Hungary, using IIRP videos and othermaterials translated into Hungarian, as well as interactive exercises.)

In 2008, supported by the Hungarian Ministry of Justice, Negrea trained20 prison probation officers (POs) in FGDM, i.e., how to develop a planwith inmates and their extended family for reentry into society.

Negrea said that there was some resistance to the training among thePOs, who were used to a more authoritative stance. Of the 20 officersin the initial training, five were ready to try FGDM. Those five arecontinuing to spread the message of the success of FGDM and build theirown network, showing key colleagues how to succeed with the practiceand spreading FGDM throughout the prison system.

During the initial project 17 FGDMs were held and 16 plans werecompleted, including concrete postrelease strategies, with familymembers agreeing to take responsibility. The FGDMs improvedrelationships and increased communication among family members, betweenfamily and professionals and among professionals themselves.

Negrea has since trained 50 more POs in FGDM — at least two POs in eachcounty in Hungary. About half the POs in Hungary are using FGDMs forinmates leaving prison. The referring PO works with a PO who’s beentrained in FGDM and who facilitates the FGDM.

Most POs are very impressed with how well the process is working withfamilies, said Negrea. Before they used the process, they doubted thatfamilies would be able to deal with their issues. Before FGDM, inmateswere too fed up with the system to make use of the services availableto them. FGDM helped them view the professionals as human beings whomight actually be able to help them. Also, since the families come upwith the plans themselves, they are more motivated to follow throughwith them.

The first prison FGDM in Hungary was held April 2008 with a38-year-old man with substance abuse issues who was being releasedafter five years in prison. (His fiancée had been killed when he wasdriving under the influence, and he was sentenced for vehicularhomicide.)

Negrea and a newly trained PO co-facilitated the FGDM, which wentextremely well. “It was very emotional,” said Negrea. The man’s familywas happy to attend, as they had not been allowed to see him since hehad been incarcerated. His mother, sister and brother-in-law came, asdid four of his childhood friends. Professionals attending included thenewly trained PO, the inmate’s new PO for home supervision, a prisoncounselor and Negrea.

The POs had these concerns regarding the inmate: How is his familygoing to support him? What will be done about his unresolved issues?How will he avoid further crime and drug use? How will he earn money?

The FGDM began with a “go-around” (where each person in a circle isable to weigh in on a topic, uninterrupted). The group addressed thequestion: What has happened in the last five years (since the inmatehad been in prison)? The group covered both high and low points;everyone related what had been easy or hard for them. The inmate’ssister said it had been hard for her to face people in her village andat work because everybody knew that her brother had killed someone whohad lived there. The counselor shared how hard the inmate had been onhimself, blaming himself for what had happened. She also said that hehad been easy to work with, and that he had been kind and helpful toothers.

Hearing this, the inmate’s mother began to cry. She said she knewthat her son wasn’t a bad person or a “criminal,” and hearing thecounselor confirm this gave her renewed hope and trust in him.

The professionals provided information for the family about availableservices: help for the inmate to find work, get drug treatment andtherapy, for example.

His sister asked about services for herself for the trauma she’dbeen through regarding problems in her workplace. The family agreed togo to therapy together.

Before leaving the room so the family group could have their “FamilyAlone Time,” the professionals suggested a main discussion topic forthe family: rebuilding connections. Since the meeting was in prison,they watched through a one-way window.

After coming up with a plan — a long one including psychologicalservices — the family presented it to the professionals. The inmate’sfriends said they would find a job for him by the time he left prison,adding that their attitude toward him had changed because of the nicethings his counselor had said about him.

The family had also decided to write a letter of apology to thevictim’s family, and his sister took responsibility to deliver it inperson.

The new PO was very satisfied with the plan. The old PO gave all theinmate’s data to the new one for the future. It was a very goodtransition from one to the other, said Negrea. Everyone who attendedthe conference gave it the highest possible rating.

In May 2009 Negrea held a meeting with about a dozen inmates who wereabout to be released from prison to tell them about FGDM, facilitatingtwo go-arounds. In the first go-around she asked: “What are yourthoughts and feelings about being released?” Some answers included:“I’ll finally be free.” “I won’t have to share a cell or a toilet.” “Ican be with my children.”

The second go-around question was: “Who was most affected by yourimprisonment?” In their answers, said Negrea, the inmates showed thatthis was the first time they weren’t thinking of themselves as victims,but rather about how their wives, children and parents had suffered dueto their imprisonment. Said one inmate, “My boy is six; he was one whenI left. He’s in a bigger jail than I am. I know he’s scared,” and hebegan to cry. Realizing that he needed to restore his relationship withhis son and be a good father, he volunteered to participate in an FGDM.

Concluded Negrea: “For me, all these FGDMs have been learningopportunities showing the huge impact such meetings can have on afamily. Many of the families felt united again. At a minimum theyrealized that they could build a network to support them in solvingtheir conflicts.”