Restoring Community
By Laura Mirsky

Part one in this series can be read at:
Part two in this series can be read at:

This is the third and final part in a series about family group conferencing (FGC), a restorative process that empowers families to make decisions, usually made for them by outside officials, concerning the care and support of their children and other family members. FGC began in New Zealand and has spread throughout the world. The key features of the New Zealand FGC model, where it is built into child welfare law, are preparation, information giving, private family time, agreeing on the plan and monitoring and review. In North America there is a growing use of the term Family Group Decision Making (FGDM). Part one of this series mainly emphasized FGC in child welfare and contained a brief explanation and history of FGC. In addition to other child welfare FGC programs, parts two and three address FGCs in adult mental health, youth justice and school applications, as well as FGC theory and philosophy.

Northern Ireland, specifically Tyrone and Armagh counties, is the site of a unique project in that it encompasses both child welfare family group conferences (FGC) and restorative school group conferences. The latter is using conferences in schools based on the Real Justice model (an IIRP program: Both the FGC and school conferencing projects are partnerships between two statutory agencies—the Southern Education and Library Board and the Southern Health and Social Services Board—and Diamond House, a project of Barnardos, an NGO. Barnardos is the largest children’s charity in the UK, servicing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the Republic of Ireland. It provides family support, foster placements and FGC and works with children with disabilities, teen mothers, young people who are abused and in domestic violence cases. The Barnardos website is

The FGC and school conferencing pilot projects began in April 2000 and ended in March 2003. Funding from a combination of education and children’s sources has now been obtained to support the projects for three more years. Outcomes of the pilots have generally been positive. In a recent independent evaluation of the work, all the young people who took part in the conferences stated that they would recommend FGC or school conferencing to another young person in a similar situation.

Child welfare FGCs are referred through social services. Marie Gribben, scheme leader of FGC for County Tyrone, said that social services staff members know to refer to FGCs because they received awareness training at the beginning of the project, which has been repeated annually. Child welfare cases referred to FGCs include those where parents are under stress and having difficulty coping with their children. FGCs engage the extended family to help provide a safety net for the child, said Gribben. In three FGCs involving parental death, the extended family offered placements to the children. FGCs have also redirected children being considered for foster care to family placement. Children already in state care have gone back to live with their parents with the support of extended family, or have been placed with extended family or into a shared-care arrangement between foster parents or residential units and extended family members. In the latter cases, a child may remain in state care and spend weekends or other times with extended family. All these arrangements enable family to be more involved in a child’s life, said Gribben.

The project employs the New Zealand model, with special attention paid to ensuring that the voice of the child is heard, said Gribben. When the FGC project began, the emphasis initially was on engaging the extended family and the child was not the focus. Now, three contacts are made with the child prior to the FGC to learn about her anxieties, needs, dreams and what she would like to happen at the conference and to determine how best to help her share this information. Children of all ages attend the conference and the facilitator supports them at the meeting. “Children have been very vocal and clear about what they want to say,” said Gribben. Children say where they want to live and the reasons why. A child might tell his parents: “I don’t want you to be upset, but I think I’m picking aunt or uncle over you.” Children often express gratitude to people for coming to a conference about them. “It’s fun to hear from them directly,” said Gribben, “and very powerful.”

One reason FGC works well in Ireland, said Gribben, is because it mirrors ancient Irish culture. For centuries, Ireland was governed by the Brehon Laws, which allowed that decisions about orphaned children, widows, people with disabilities or those who had committed crimes were to be made by kin (extended family) or clan (a wider group). There are still very strong family links in Ireland, said Gribben, especially in rural areas. County Tyrone, the project locale, is a rural area. But, she said, even in Northern Ireland’s cities, everyone comes from a rural background, two generations back or less.

Gribben noted that FGCs had begun to change the culture of social work in her area. “While 52 conferences have been held, we are becoming continually aware of the ‘systemic impact’ of even introducing the idea of conferencing to families and young people,” she said, adding, “Engagement has in itself led to change and the harnessing of support from family and friends, removing the need for a conference. We are beginning to record these incidents now.” She cited the case of a 13-year-old boy who was sole caregiver for his chronically ill mother and his younger sister. The mother was too proud to ask for help from anyone and the boy was so over-burdened that he attempted suicide. The mother received information and a pamphlet on FGCs explaining the way extended family can help with family problems and took it upon herself to set up a support network within her extended family. A formal FGC never took place.

Gribben said that Diamond House was exploring the use of FGC with domestic violence, which has been an issue in a number of child welfare cases. She said they were influenced in this area by the work of Joan Pennell and Gale Burford, co-directors of the FGDM Project in Newfoundland, Labrador and New Brunswick, Canada in the 1990s. This project used an adaptation of New Zealand FGC to reduce domestic violence and by Hampshire County, England’s DOVE domestic violence project, directed by Sharon Inglis. (The DOVE Project will be covered in an upcoming IIRP eForum article focusing exclusively on FGC in Hampshire County.) Gribben also said that Diamond House was examining the use of FGCs with teen mothers, harnessing family support to help them care for their children.

The Diamond House school group conferencing project is coordinated by Cathy McCann, who is an education welfare officer, a school vice principal and a school conference facilitator. Conferencing involves young people taking responsibility for and restoring the harm caused by their actions, said McCann. She said that they were inspired to use the Real Justice model after learning about it at a conference in April, 2000, from IIRP president Ted Wachtel and Terry O’Connell, director of Real Justice Australia, an IIRP program.

First, said McCann, they raised awareness about the pilot in their area. To date, nine schools have put themselves forward to participate. Presentations about the program are delivered to the schools’ entire staffs. “Everyone has to understand the process for it to benefit the kids,” said McCann. Referrals to the program come from education welfare officers (school social workers), other school personnel, non-school social workers and youth diversion officers (police officers who work with youth). “We have a good partnership with all the agencies,” said McCann. Most referrals are for behavioral issues: volatile conduct, bullying, being disrespectful to teachers, verbal assault and truancy. From September 2000 through April 2003, the conferencing program had 69 inquiries, 55 paper referrals, 27 conferences and 16 review conferences. Both Protestant and Catholic students are involved in the project, making it a cross-community endeavor, said McCann.

After a referral has been made, the young person is asked who he or she wants to attend the conference. Because the kids choose whom to invite, they take better ownership of the process, said McCann. Most choose their mother or father and sometimes extended family members and friends. Although McCann makes it clear that it’s preferable for both parents to attend the conference, usually only one parent does, often because the other has to work. Kids are asked if they want their friends to attend, but most choose not to invite them. Friends attending can be a positive element, though, said McCann, adding, “When a peer says, ‘Would you wise up?’ it’s better than adults saying it.” Depending on the case, others may attend, as well, including teachers, school administrators, social workers and youth diversion officers. “We want to deal with things holistically,” said McCann, adding, “It’s important that everyone understands what’s going on.”

McCann does pre-conference preparation, visiting students so that they understand the process and feel comfortable enough to participate and not “just say what they think we want to hear. The child needs to build trust in me,” she said. Conferences are held at school during the school day. The first year, they were held after school, but that wasn’t convenient for the teachers, said McCann.

In the conference, people are invited to sit in a circle, with the offender and the victim on either side of McCann and their supporters beside them, and are asked restorative questions: who was affected and how, how they feel about it, how to repair the harm. In that way, the students get to understand that their actions have an effect on people other than themselves, said McCann. There are no freeloaders at the meeting, she said, adding, “If a child can bear his soul, everyone else can too.” Toward the end of the conference, everyone comes up with a plan for how to prevent wrongdoing in the future and the child has to approve it. Future support for the child from professionals and parents is ensured at the conference. “If a kid is not getting support at home in some way, they’re not going to improve,” she said.

McCann told a story of a 16-year-old boy who had verbally threatened a teacher, been suspended from school several times and was about to be expelled unless he agreed to attend a conference. He had been an offered one once before and had declined. He asked McCann if he really had to have a conference. The process is voluntary, so she told him: You have a choice, but it’s limited—you can either have a conference or be expelled. He chose the conference because he wanted to take his exams.

McCann discovered that the boy found it difficult to talk and that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get the right words out in the conference. She told him to write down the questions and answers so he wouldn’t forget them. He was prepared to say that he was sorry, that he felt guilty, that he never would have really hurt his teacher. At the meeting, the boy never needed to refer to his paper with the questions. He was articulate and made eye contact. He was back in school in two days. Two months later, he’s still doing fine. Afterwards, the boy’s school principal said that he couldn’t believe he was the same person. Said McCann: “He needed to hear: ‘You can do it,’ rather than ‘We don’t want you here.’” Another 12-year-old had also been suspended several times. In the conference he heard his father say—for the first time—that he was proud of him. At the end of the conference when the boy was asked what had surprised him about the meeting, he said, “That my daddy could be proud of me.” This is very powerful stuff, said McCann.

The stumbling block to people accepting the idea of conferencing in schools has been the fact that it’s a real change from what they’re used to, said McCann. Now, she said, kids are being maintained within the school system because of the support systems developed in conferences, instead of being expelled. Said McCann: “When you give young people a chance to speak that’s enough to empower them to take responsibility for their actions.” The whole process has to be acknowledged, McCann said, adding, “If I meet with them several times, sometimes they don’t need the conference.” Barnardos is hoping to engage with 70 families and do 25 FGCs and 25 school conferences in Northern Ireland in the coming year.

In the Republic of Ireland, the FGC and restorative justice conferencing models are being combined in restorative justice initiatives for young offenders. The information below was obtained from a conversation with Kieran O’Dwyer, Head of Research for An Garda S'ochan√جø¬Ω (Ireland’s National Police Service), at the Garda Research Unit, Garda S'ochan√جø¬Ω College, Templemore, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland. This article also cites a paper addressing an overview of results from evaluations of 83 cases, which O’Dwyer presented at the Second Conference of the European Forum for Victim-Offender Mediation and Restorative Justice, in Oostende, Belgium, October 2002.

A juvenile diversion program has been in operation in Ireland since 1963 without statutory backing, said O’Dwyer. The Children Act 2001 has since provided support for restorative justice interventions, including a police referral provision, which was brought into effect in May 2002. Under the Act, all young offenders who admit responsibility for their criminal behavior must be considered for diversion “unless the interests of society require otherwise.”

Ireland’s youth justice diversion program was inspired by New Zealand youth justice FGCs, but unlike New Zealand’s program, it is entirely voluntary. O’Dwyer considers the voluntary aspect, for both offender and victim, to be critical, as “it helps ensure that the event itself and any agreement it produces are not seen as punishment.” It also helps ensure “positive engagement with the process and commitment to any agreement.” The program operates differently from the New Zealand model in other ways, said O’Dwyer. It is closer to the Thames Valley (UK) restorative conferencing program, he said, but unlike that program, is used only with young people, not adults. (For a research summary about the Thames Valley Police Initiative in Restorative Conferencing, go to:

The restorative interventions used in diversion are commonly referred to as either restorative cautions or family conferences. To avoid confusion, said O’Dwyer, the term “restorative police event” is often used. (A police caution is the formal disposal of a criminal case without the involvement of prosecutors or the courts.) A restorative caution includes discussion of the offender’s criminal behavior. After the formal caution “finger-wagging” is done, said O’Dwyer, a conference is a chance to bring people together to focus on a specific occurrence, with an emphasis on drawing up an action plan. In this context, said O’Dwyer, FGC is “not terribly different from restorative conferencing.”

In the family conference, the young person is made accountable for his actions, the victim can attend and tell his story, the young person can apologize for the harm he has done and possibly arrange to make reparations, including financial compensation, and an action plan is prepared to prevent a recurrence of offending behavior. Conferences are recommended and facilitated by juvenile liaison officers (JLOs), Gardai (police officers) specially trained to work with young people. JLOs are “the gatekeepers to the Garda system of restorative justice,” said O’Dwyer. They are “not like the real police,” he said, adding, “They’re almost never in uniform and can go into places where others can’t go.” All JLOs are trained in restorative justice. A different JLO facilitates the conference from the one who is supervising the case, to provide distance and protect against the danger that the JLO would try to implement his or her own agenda at the conference.

As in FGC, the conference begins with preparation. “Preparation is everything,” said O’Dwyer. The facilitating JLO visits the family of the youth offender and that of the victim. This is something that needs to be looked at carefully, said O’Dwyer, adding, “We don’t want JLOs making deals” between victims and offenders before the conference about reparation amounts or directing the process too much in other ways, e.g., recommending anger management for offenders. ‘This is not the way it should work,” said O’Dwyer.

Conferences are held in community centers, hotels, sometimes at schools if they’re involved—somewhere everyone feels safe. Conferences used to be held in police stations, said O’Dwyer, but they’re moving away from that now. Conferences are often held in the evening. One advantage to having police as facilitators is that they’re on duty at night, said O’Dwyer. If the victim is young, it’s possible that he or she might not attend the conference, only his or her parents. If either the victim or the offender is under 18 years of age, parents are required by law to be involved. Participation of a large extended family is rare. Usually only a few people from the family attend, said O’Dwyer.

Ground rules are agreed upon at the beginning of the conference, including a requirement to listen to each other respectfully, an assurance that everyone will have a chance to speak and that the proceedings will be confidential. The Real Justice script is used. A conference begins with the facilitator asking the offender: What happened? What were you thinking about at the time? What have you thought about since the incident? Who do you think has been affected by your actions? How have they been affected? Who was affected? The victim is asked: What was your reaction at the time of the incident? How do you feel about what happened? What has been the hardest thing for you? How did your family and friends react when they heard about the incident? The victim’s parents and supporters, and the offender’s parents and supporters are asked similar questions and the offender is asked if he or she has anything else to add. Private family time, as used in the New Zealand model, when the family is left alone to make its own decisions regarding an action plan, is offered, said O’Dwyer, but most people don’t take it.

The key elements of the conference, said O’Dwyer, are an apology from the offender to the victim and a promise not to repeat the offense. The offender must show true remorse, he said. Most action plans tend not be too complicated or ambitious. Reparations, including “onerous duties and obligations” are not usually a feature of action plans, but often service to the victim is included. Plans may involve joining a club, taking part in a special police project, staying in school, going for counseling or paying reparations to the victim. There are rarely over two elements in any plan, said O’Dwyer.

Some very serious offenses have been dealt with successfully in a restorative way, said O’Dwyer. At first, JLOs tried to stay away from conferencing the harder cases but now they are deliberately choosing those cases to conference—such as those involving grievous assault—and some of those conferences are really dramatic and emotional. “At the beginning of the first conference I was a skeptic,” said O’Dwyer, but now he sees conferences as “the most natural way to deal with the harm caused.” In conferences, people see that others have their best interests at heart, he said.

“The restorative justice philosophy fits well with the Garda commitment to giving young offenders a second chance under the Juvenile Diversion Program,” said O’Dwyer. He feels that a significant start was made when restorative justice was introduced on a pilot basis before the enactment of the Children Act, and hopes that the Act will present opportunities to mainstream the restorative approach. O’Dwyer would like to see the process tried to its full potential and envisions much wider implications, including implementation with adults as well as young people.

Olmsted County, Minnesota, USA has been the in the forefront of Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) initiatives. FGDM is part of Minnesota’s Alternative Response program. The Alternative Response program is a strength-based and community-oriented approach to addressing child maltreatment reports that do not meet statutory requirements for a mandated investigative approach, which ensures that children are safe, avoids negative labels for parents, sets aside the issue of fault, works in partnership with parents, identifies families’ needs, provides services and resources matched to those needs and builds on parents’ and communities’ strengths and resources.

The Olmsted County FGDM project began in 1996. Suzanne Lohrbach is supervisor of Child Protection Services (CPS), Olmsted County Community Services. Lohrbach said that in designing its FGDM program, Olmsted CPS was influenced by the UK Department of Health publication: “Child Protection and Child Abuse: Messages from Research, 1995,” which advocated partnerships between social workers and families as well as collaboration among professionals, as opposed to the traditional, paternalistic approach where professionals talk only to each other and exclude families. Lohrbach said that they look at FGDM as a partnership and at “how to connect that with a family centered practice.”

Minnesota has 300-plus facilitators trained in FGDM, which is the preferred process in child welfare cases in Olmsted County, said Lohrbach. “Families are told: ‘This is what we do,’ ” she said. If a family objects to the process, a more traditional approach is taken, but it’s much more piecemeal and takes longer. Olmsted CPS has performed satisfaction surveys in which an overwhelming majority of respondents, both families and service providers, found FGDM to be useful and helpful.

FGDM is used in many situations in Olmsted: in early intervention cases, in alternative response safety plans, with juvenile sex offenders, in transition from treatment to foster care, in adolescent independence plans and in TANIFF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) cases to decide plans for families when public assistance runs out. Lohrbach’s ultimate vision is of “open community referrals” whereby anyone—related to child welfare or not—may develop an FGDM plan for the care of an elderly relative, a terminally ill parent, a child or others.

Several different FGDM models are used in Olmsted County, including the New Zealand FGC model, which incorporates private family time, and the Family Unity Meeting (FUM) model, which does not include private family time but stresses devoting time to exploring the family’s strengths and concerns. The decision about which model to use is fleshed out during conference preparation, sometimes based on whether there are enough family members to use private family time, said Lohrbach.

As FUM was the first model introduced in Olmsted, facilitators are accustomed to incorporating strengths and concerns in their meetings, said Lohrbach, but she wondered about the process’s “cultural relevance.” She asked: “Who is it for—the family or the facilitator? Is it designed just to keep a comfortable, positive atmosphere?” She thought that the strengths and concerns segment might cause meetings to lose focus. On the other hand, Lohrbach had concerns about the presentation of facts portion—or information-giving time—in the New Zealand FGC model, asking: “What is that? It could be interpretation, values, what social workers bring with them to the meeting.”

The primary model in use in Minnesota is an FGC hybrid, which both explores strengths and concerns and employs private family time. Lohrbach said that they were trying to return to a “purer” FGC model, one closer to the original model developed in New Zealand. She commented: “It’s okay to do different things but you have to be careful not to blur the models.” Looking at a pure model is important for research purposes, to ensure that the data is meaningful. “The accountability model, the circle process, all these are fine,” she said, but in order to institute good process and practice, you have to know what it is, to be able demonstrate its effectiveness. “If you can’t do that,” she said, “it dies.” Finally, said Lohrbach, “All these new models worry me. I’m not sure we have to keep reinventing the wheel. I hope we never see a Minnesota model of FGDM. We want to have international relevance.”

Lohrbach said she thought it was critical that FGDM be mainstream practice. But, she said, “It can’t be used for everything.” Preparation is essential to determine if there is a decision to be made, and if the social worker or the probation officer is willing to share power with the family. FGDM won’t work if they are not. Because it’s our usual practice at Olmsted CPS, she said, these objections are rare in child welfare.

Progress has been slower in juvenile probation, said Lohrbach, adding, “there is no real conferencing being done around youth justice.” Real Justice practice has been murky and blurred, she said, and there are several different [restorative justice] models used in Minnesota in the context of youth justice—from victim offender mediation to circles and restorative conferences. There had been similar confusion in the child welfare area. In 1997, the Minnesota legislature inserted language into the child welfare law about relative (kinship) care agreements and conferences calling for training in mediation skills. Lohrbach said that she and her colleagues succeeded in changing the language to specify FGDM instead. Lohrbach said that she would like to bring youth justice into her unit. “The intent of Ted [Wachtel, of the IIRP] and Lisa [Merkel-Holguin, of American Humane] is to bring the youth justice and child welfare groups together, to untangle the blur that’s happened here,” she said.

A parallel justice process is in use in family court, said Lohrbach. Families are now ordered to what is called a Family Case Planning Conference when it has been determined through screening that there is a legal interest in child protection. Cases are brought to a Family Case Planning Conference prior to filing a petition for custody or supervision. The process is completely family-involved, non-exclusionary and non-adversarial: public defenders, lawyers, social service providers and families attend. A guardian ad litem may represent a child. The purpose is to develop the next step for the child. Better than half of these meetings have referred to an FGDM to flesh out a plan, said Lohrbach.

The Etobicoke Family Group Conferencing Project, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, serves the Toronto metropolitan area. Jeanette Schmid is Coordinator of the program, based at the George Hull Centre for Children and Families. Their website is Schmid joined the FGC project in 1998. The program initially focused exclusively on cases referred from child welfare, but since 2002 it has also incorporated children’s mental health cases. Every FGC, whether for child welfare or child’s mental health concerns, now has two supervisors from two agencies: one from Children’s Aid and one from Children’s Mental Health. The George Hull Centre for Children and Families, the Etobicoke Children’s Centre, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke) and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke) collaborated on the FGC project, which was funded by the Children’s Aid Foundation.

To read a report, “Program Design: The Family Group Conferencing Project Etobicoke” go to:

The project has held 70 FGCs, some repeat, since April 1998. A majority of the children in these conferences returned to kinship care, although not necessarily to the care of their parents. The result was “higher than expected, and borne out by other results obtained internationally” said Schmid. The results were also better than those in cases where FGC was not used, she said. However, said Schmid, it’s important not to define success in FGC as family preservation. More significant is that “the secrecy is ended around certain issues,” and that the extended family is given an opportunity to play a role in ensuring a child’s safety.

Feedback about the program indicates that families appreciate having a voice and that FGC makes families feel closer and more comfortable asking each other for help. Also, said Schmid, FGCs change the way professionals perceive and are perceived by families. Through FGCs, professionals learn that there really are strengths in families and families feel that professionals better understand their issues.

“It takes hard work to increase the pool of referring social workers,” said Schmid, but those who do refer to FGCs find that the process is a respectful way of dealing with people and tend to refer to FGCs again. Agency workers’ heavy case and paperwork loads have affected FGC referrals because of the inaccurate perception that FGCs take more time than conventional processes, said Schmid. Also, deaths that have occurred under Children’s Aid supervision (unrelated to FGC), have made workers afraid refer to FGCs because of the perception—again inaccurate—that sharing power is a risk.

The Etobicoke project uses the New Zealand FGC model with minor adaptations, said Schmid. Preparation is critical. With over 150 different ethnic, cultural and language groups, Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world, said Schmid. The conference is held in a neutral venue and begins by welcoming everyone with any ritual the family chooses—prayers, songs, Bible readings, animistic libations or tributes to the deceased. After a go-round of introductions, the family shares their hopes for the day and sets guidelines and safety plans for the meeting. Next, professionals present brief reports about the child’s situation and address “bottom line” issues, such as the family’s history of substance abuse and permanence time limits set by the province: one year in government or foster care is permitted for a child under age six, two years for a child over six. There follows a concise discussion of the family’s strengths and concerns. “We don’t brainstorm strengths and concerns like in the California model,” said Schmid. Sometimes, as in the New Zealand model, neutral experts on particular topics, such as grief counselors, are invited to share expertise and answer questions. Halfway through the conference is often the time for a meal break.

The second part, private family time, when the family comes up with a plan for the child, is “sacrosanct,” said Schmid. ‘The only direction I give,” she said, “is to write on their flip chart: Who, What, When, Where, How.” The professionals, including researchers, stay outside the room during private family time. “If family members come out and tell us things aren’t going well, we will work with them and get them to go back inside,” said Schmid.

When the family is ready, it presents the plan to the professionals, who then ask questions. In the past, families felt they were losing control of the process during this part of the meeting, said Schmid, adding, “Workers were doing too much to flesh out the plan.” Now, she said, if necessary, the professionals ask for more detail on the plans, sending the family back into private time. Then the issue of “next steps” is addressed. One third of families ask for a follow-up conference. In a final go-round, all participants say whether or not the process has been useful to them. Schmid delivers a copy of the plan to everyone—families and professionals—within 10 days.

It’s up to children whether or not they attend the conference. For the most part, children of all ages do attend. “With the child present, people stay on the subject at hand—the child,” said Schmid. For children, the conference breaks the secrecy about what’s been happening to them. Although it can be distressing for children to hear about abuse and family problems, it’s also reassuring to hear people talking about plans for their safety and to know that people care about them. Children age four and up are asked what they want the adults to know. The child’s support person, a non-professional chosen by the child to aid him or her throughout the FGC process, can help elicit this information. The conference can be the first time some extended family members meet the child and this in itself can be a very emotional experience. On balance, said Schmid, it’s better for the child to be there.

There has been no move as yet to incorporate FGC into law in Ontario. Schmid hopes that FGC will soon be officially recognized and financially supported. At the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, an important partner in FGC practice, social workers are now asked as a matter of course whether they’ve thought about using FGC in each case, and if not, why not. Schmid would like to see this as general practice in all child agencies. She believes, however, that FGCs should always be voluntary: “Neither families nor professionals should be coerced.” Still, she thinks that the decision about whether to hold an FGC should not be left only to the parents, but to the family network as a whole.

North Carolina, USA has been a center for FGC work. Joan Pennell is professor and director at North Carolina State University Social Work Program and principal investigator of the North Carolina Family-Centered Meetings Project. She and Gale Burford were co-directors of the FGDM Project in Newfoundland, Labrador and New Brunswick, Canada, in the 1990s, which used an adaptation of New Zealand FGC to reduce domestic violence.

In fall, 1998 Pennell began a four-year child welfare project, training families and introducing FGC to North Carolina. Her article about mainstreaming FGC can be read at:

“We began by involving communities,” said Pennell. The project kick-off included social services professionals, police, foster parents and others. Community liaisons were chosen to help plan the training and tailor it to each area. Local advisory groups were set up to involve interested people, such as domestic violence counselors and pastors, who were really important, especially in the beginning, said Pennell. Coordinators varied by community, she said, but they were never the same people as those carrying the cases. A statewide advisory committee was formed, including state and county representatives from the Department of Social Services, police, the courts and domestic violence and disabilities agencies, which “gave richness to the discussion,” said Pennell.

From the start, there was general enthusiasm for the FGC model, although concerns were voiced: Are families articulate enough to express themselves? Will they come? How will social service workers deal with coordinator training? Over time, project managers learned that additional training was needed for social workers, regarding which families to refer to FGCs, how to present family history in a way that families can use it constructively, what to do when children come to conferences or how to handle a conference out of state. The group situations of FGCs can be intimidating for social workers, who are mostly accustomed to one-on-one interactions, said Pennell. Extra by-request training is still on-going. Project evaluation also found a need to monitor plans devised at FGCs or to convene follow-up conferences.

FGCs are in use in North Carolina in two types of child welfare cases: those on the “assessment track,” involving need, neglect or dependency—(80 percent of cases), and those on the “forensic track,” involving abuse and the legal system—the “deep end” cases. Ironically, said Pennell, while professionals are often afraid to make referrals to FGCs from the forensic track, they end up doing it anyway because they don’t know what else to do.

Ideally, FGC creates a safe and healthy context for children and families via three pathways: family leadership, community partnerships and cultural safety. The FGC model should include an independent coordinator, thorough preparation, clear information for families, family private time, a clear process for final plans and a way to integrate plans into “work as usual,” AKA mainstream practice. The last is frequently the toughest piece, said Pennell. Too often, the FGC-devised plan “sits in the file next to the social services plan and the two are never put together,” she said. This problem speaks to a need for sustaining partnerships that make the process work: with the courts, community services and cultural groups. “The family leads the process,” said Pennell, “but it should not be dumped on its own to do it alone.”

Another issue important to Pennell is “cultural safety,” a New Zealand term meaning that a context must be created in which it is safe for the family to express its own social values. Social service workers must be able to relate to different cultures. In North Carolina, for example, meetings often open with prayer or gospel songs.

FGC practice guidance developed for North Carolina based on the New Zealand model has been accepted by the state. North Carolina is now undertaking child welfare reform, looking at an alternative response system similar to that in Minnesota, said Pennell. She is also planning to use FGC in domestic violence cases, via the Safety Conference model, which is in the planning stages.

In California, USA, family group conferencing is widespread. Paul Sivak is a professor of social work at California State University, Stanislaus County, California and coordinator of the Child Welfare Training project. He provides training and support to agencies developing family group conferencing. He is also on advisory committees to the National Center on FGDM of the American Humane Association.

Out of 58 counties in California, 30 are “playing with family conferencing, with different levels of commitment,” said Sivak. In training, Sivak said that he emphasizes “the fundamental values that underpin the various models of family conferencing,” including the two “sacred” elements of “intense pre-meeting work” and private family time, both of which “must be adhered to absolutely.” Any other structure is good, he said, so he trains people in “what works best for them.” Models he uses include everything from FGC, which, he said, employs a “facilitated meeting with a short period of information-sharing,” all the way to a longer facilitated meeting, stressing strengths and concerns.

Sivak is leaning toward the FGC model. “Social services people are reasserting themselves” via strengths and concerns, said Sivak, adding, “Many families who have gone through the family conferencing process didn’t have a real family conferencing experience.” All models can be “just as dangerous, unless we shift the value base and build in self-reflection devices,” he said. In Stanislaus County, a pool of 15 – 20 facilitators meets once a month to process their experiences with family conferencing and share successes and failures “with an eye toward going back to the value base,” namely, that the family directs development of the plan for the child and that a partnership grows between social workers and families. Solano County, California is setting up a group, which will include county child welfare workers and community NGOs, to address family conferencing. The 25 “committed folks of the California practitioners’ round-table” meet every three months in various locations around the state to talk out issues related to family group conferencing.

Sivak would like to see the families themselves included in these groups. Groups of families have been meeting on their own to share their experiences with family group conferences and with Child Protective Services. There have also been similar meetings that include both families and social service providers. During the first joint meetings, the professionals were “incredibly defensive” because they’d never perceived themselves as equals of families, said Sivak. “The family-only meetings were very loud and full of laughter,” he said. The last two joint family and professional meetings were also full of laughter but it took community building to get to that point, said Sivak. Family group conferencing must be seen as a long-term community builder, he said.

Ideally, Sivak envisions a grassroots effort to “organize families and get them interested in the political struggle to integrate this new practice.” To that end, he is implementing a long-term “participatory research” project with families. “Our research is based on tools generated by families,” he said, adding, “Families tell us what we should measure and what questions to ask.” Through facilitated focus groups, Sivak has found that families are interested in the change of the nature of relationships inside the family and “the quality of well-being.” Research questions that families would ask include “does the family network really feel that they share responsibility for the child?” and “would you rather handle problems as a group or as an individual?”

Family members, not social workers or professional researchers, are now conducting the research interviews, although not necessarily within their own families. The process may be more time consuming, said Sivak but the end result is “data that’s more rich and more reliable.” Families, “totally uncoaxed” realize that research can be a tool for social change, not just a measurement, and that documentation is power. The non-dominance-based partnership of family conferencing evokes a power that touches a natural part of us, he said. “Restorative practices and family conferencing have the same goal,” said Sivak: rebuilding community and returning healing and decision-making power to people.

Sivak believes that family conferencing must always be voluntary. The California practitioners group is lobbying to short-circuit a move by the state that would require family group conferencing. He would rather see government departments obliged to educate providers about the practice so that they would be prepared, rather than required, to provide it. Said Sivak, “The argument that the ends justify the means is always wrong.”

Vermont, USA has long been the location of many FGC and restorative justice programs. Gale Burford is professor and Director of the State Child Welfare Training Partnership at the University of Vermont Department of Social Work. As previously mentioned, he and Joan Pennell were co-directors of the Family Group Decision Making Project in Newfoundland, Labrador and New Brunswick, Canada, in the 1990s.

Burford has several projects in proposal stage. He is planning an FGC demonstration project in 2003 to bring adult corrections and child welfare personnel together to examine how families overlap with one another in both agencies. But Burford is concerned that “new language” may be needed for the project because “the term family group conferencing sets off so many fusillades. People hear the word conferencing and they think it’s recklessly putting victims where perpetrators will be able to control them.” He thinks it might be safer to talk about “community-based empowerment.”

Burford is definitely an FGC enthusiast. “It contains everything I believe about how we get to lasting solutions,” he said, adding, “Everything tells us that the way to get the best results is to engage the person and members of their family and FGC is one of the only models around that satisfies the criteria.” But, he said, “It creates so much fear and opposition.”

Asked the reasons for the fear and opposition, Burford said that his “harshest theory” posits a “deep, enduring mistrust of groups getting out of control, which can be traced right back to the McCarthy era. People doing this kind of thing were thought to be communists or socialists.” (Joseph McCarthy was a United States senator in the 1950s who spearheaded a relentless anti-Communist crusade.) Also, said Burford, FGC practices threaten professionals, positions and power and child welfare professionals are afraid they will be blamed if something goes wrong. “And they do get blamed,” said Burford. He cited the “gut-wrenching and sickening” case of Victoria Climbie, a little African girl who was tortured and killed in the UK In the aftermath, he said: “People were falling all over themselves with procedures, instead of working with people. A mountain of new procedures was developed, which simply created more ways for families to be excluded.”

There’s a pattern in the US, said Burford: Professionals give lip service to the notions of self-help and mutual aid, but then don’t refer to conferences. It’s the same thing in Sweden and the UK, he said. He cited a Swedish study that interviewed professional people, all of whom thought conferencing was a great idea but “within 18 months less than one-half or one-third had referred families” to the practice. Burford also discussed a Vermont FGC project of several years ago that he regards as an implementation failure. “Families loved it, coordinators loved it,” he said, but the government and NGO partnerships which had made it possible came undone. They dissolved the project despite the report confirming that families loved it. The problem, said Burford, is that there’s no legislation to back up such programs, so they can’t last. “Pockets of real enthusiasm are keeping them alive in different places, but once they diminish they start to lose steam.” In North America, he said, “where everything is so fickle with financing, if we don’t enshrine it in law, it’s gone.”

Burford reported on results of the on-line FGC survey he and Paul Nixon ran via the American Humane Association’s website. Over 200 responses were received, addressing how projects started, what obstacles people encountered and what had made the projects possible. “It was the same all over,” he said, “Practice is under threat of financial whims.” He contrasted this situation with that in New Zealand, where families have a right to the FGC process. On the other hand, wondered Burford, if government-sponsored programs dilute or corrupt practice, “are we better off skating along the margins?” He referred to an FGC training video produced by one the state governments in the US that showed a social worker inappropriately influencing the conference by sternly advising a family: “Your job is to decide which one of you takes this child home.” Added Burford, “Ted [Wachtel] has the right idea: develop strong national connections and build organizations to keep things going without politicians’ support. That’s hugely democratic.”

Asked how to help FGC programs endure, Burford said, “We have to move on a lot of fronts at once,” on the local and legislative levels and through education. As an example of success on the grassroots, local front, Burford cited the 1990s FGC domestic violence project in Newfoundland and Labrador: “We ran 10 conferences among 1600 people with 12 to 18 people in each. That’s not very many conferences before you have the entire community involved. That’s a revolution!”

As for legislation, Burford said that FGC practice and philosophy ought to be enshrined in law in “minimalist language,” e.g.: the family has the right be at all meetings where their situation is discussed; the state has the obligation to ensure support for families in getting to the meetings; there must be the opportunity to caucus without undue professional influence; support must be provided to carry out the family’s plan.

One of the biggest challenges to FGC is funding the plan, said Burford. But blocks to funding among various agencies and organizations usually “turn out to be things they’ve invented themselves.” Said Burford, “If we can go into an organization and get people together, we can figure it out.”

Concerning education, Burford said, “We have to get our feet into professional training programs and transform the brains of professionals. They’re the ones who are giving us the most trouble.” Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists need to understand that FGC won’t harm vulnerable people, he said, and that FGC is the best way to honor people’s rights and consider the well-being of the community.

Burford concluded: “We must seize the ball soon while we have agreement on the left and the right or we will miss the opportunity.” In the US for the past decade, he said, an unlikely combination of people on the far-right and moderate-left has come to agree on certain principles. The right is saying to the left: “We are happy to hear that you no longer need to throw billions of dollars at welfare.” The left is saying to the right: “We’re glad you’re in favor of empowerment and community.” FGC appeals to a wide spectrum, said Burford, both “the family values crowd on the right and the empowerment people on the left.”

Author’s note: I want to thank the fascinating and dedicated people who kindly agreed to an interview with me during the past several months regarding family group conferencing. Everyone one I spoke with—from Finland to Australia—was excited about the power of the process and their enthusiasm was infectious. And although each person might not have agreed on all the finer points of language and methodology, all shared the underlying conviction that people and their families and friends are best equipped to make decisions about each other’s care and support. This belief is deeply democratic and it includes everyone: small children, the elderly, those who have been categorized as delinquent or mentally ill. I was profoundly moved by stories of how people’s lives were changed by the process. And I was encouraged to hear that practitioners and proponents of all the approaches are realizing that they are working toward the same goal: building a global alliance for family empowerment and restoring community in a disconnected world.

The Restorative Practices eForum will continue to feature FGC programs in the future. An article to be published soon will discuss FGC programs in child welfare, domestic violence, education and youth justice in Hampshire County, UK.

By Laura Mirsky
To me, what will make the biggest difference to the largest number of people is applying basic restorative principles to what we do every day.
— Paul Schnell

Paul Schnell has been a police officer for ten years, most recently in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. Schnell is a pioneer in the use of conferencing for serious offenses and is now actively promoting the use of informal restorative practices in many areas of policing. Recently, he was named St. Paul Police Officer of the Year. Schnell was interviewed by journalist Laura Mirsky at IIRP’s Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices in August 2002.

Q: How did you first become involved with restorative practices?

A: I started out as a school liaison officer. I worked with kids who were placed in an alternative setting because they were not functioning in the mainstream school community. I was a new cop who thought that because I was given a gun, a badge and a shiny set of handcuffs, I could use my authority to address inappropriate or unlawful behavior and I would immediately get their attention. That didn’t work with these kids. In fact, I arrested a lot of kids—a ton of them. I arrested many of these kids over and over again.

I became familiar with restorative practices about eight years ago when I heard about Terry O’Connell’s experience in Australia. [Editor’s note: Terry O’Connell is the director of Real Justice Australia, an IIRP program, and a former police officer. For more information about Real Justice go to:] After learning about that, I began to think that maybe restorative practices would be more effective than the manner in which I was trying to address those problems. The way I was operating wasn’t working and something else needed to be done. I had the support of the department and there was an opportunity to participate in some training.

Ted Wachtel [president of the International Institute of Restorative Practices] had made inroads with Terry and organized some training in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and folks from Australia who had a lot of experience with conferencing came. I was fortunate to have participated in that training. It was a great experience. When I came back, I actively sought places where I could use my discretion as a school liaison officer to resolve problems that might otherwise be referred to court. It became clear that this was the right way to go.

Q: How do you use restorative practices in the St. Paul Police Department?

A: At first, I thought the only way we could use restorative practices was through formal processes like conferencing and those sorts of things, but I have found other applications in policing as well.

Q: Do you have an example of an informal use of restorative practices?

A: The simple reality is that most of the time when a police officer comes to take a report from you, for instance if somebody breaks into your car and steals your golf clubs, the likelihood of catching the person who committed that crime is probably small. Often, the experience of that is far more than just the loss of their golf clubs. To me, that’s what’s interesting. By using very simple restorative language, you can begin to help people better deal with and understand that experience.

Q: What kind of language would you use in a case like that?

A: Usually, when a cop asks you questions about a loss or a theft, he only asks you for the basics: who, what, when, where, your name, your address and those sorts of things. Never is that victim likely to be asked any other questions beyond that. One of the things that I have been trying to routinely ask people who make a compliant, or report having been the victim of a crime, is one simple question, “What has this has been like for you?” or “What’s been the hardest thing for you?”

Often, they won’t talk about the fact that they were expensive golf clubs. Instead, they’ll talk about the fact that they can’t believe somebody would violate what was theirs, that they thought they lived in a safer neighborhood and that at least one of their neighbors would have seen something because they live in a community that watches out for each other. You really begin to understand the depth of how people are impacted—what it’s really about.

Q: How do people react to being asked questions like that by a police officer?

A: New officers that I am training ask me why I always ask that question. I tell them that, most of the time, people like being asked that question because it really begins to draw out their experience of that crime in a very different way. When it seems that we’re probably not going to catch the perpetrator, and the victim is not going to be able to confront that person, it’s a way for me to ask a very simple question that might help them put their experience into some context. But I don’t think people expect it from police.

For instance, in the golf club example, the person might ask, “Am I safe in my own neighborhood? Were these people targeting me? Were they watching me?” Those are natural questions. In most cases, people are extremely safe. The likelihood that someone had targeted them for their golf clubs is miniscule. It provides an opportunity to talk and teach them about crime prevention in a very different way by using their experience.

Q: How does it help you to talk about crime prevention?

If we hope formal restorative processes will ever be wholly embraced by police and by criminal justice on a broader level, that’s going to be easier to accept and implement if police use informal restorative practices when responding to the needs of someone in their community.

A: Frequently, the crime prevention discussion people have with police consists of being told, “The way you avoid being a victim is by taking your expensive golf clubs in the house.” However, if I come to you and I say, “Tell me what this has been like for you,” they say, “I’m wondering if I was targeted.” I tell them that the evidence that the police have, and those who commit these crimes tell us, that they don’t target—they walk around and look for opportunities. Then I tell them that one thing that they can do is talk to people in their neighborhood and encourage them to minimize the opportunity for theft by securing their property. What I’ve done is empowered them, as opposed to saying, “If you want to avoid being a victim, lock-up your stuff.” It’s a fundamentally different experience. That’s what I think we can give people.

Q: Are new police officers trained in restorative practices?

A: I’m a field training officer and one of my responsibilities is to work with new officers that are joining our department. It’s critical that I model what I think is essential to policing. If we hope formal restorative processes will ever be wholly embraced by police and by criminal justice on a broader level, that’s going to be easier to accept and implement if police use informal restorative practices when responding to the needs of someone in their community. When that happens in a restorative manner, the formal processes will be much easier to integrate.

Q: How have the new officers responded to this idea?

A: With some surprise. It certainly generates a lot of discussion about what’s important about policing. That’s what my job is as a field training officer—to ensure that they are doing things properly, safely and that they’re responding to the needs of the people in the community. This is a way that we can do that. It falls outside of the formal training that officers are receiving, but certainly it is something that I hope is helpful. Based on the responses officers receive from complainants and victims, I think it is.

Q: How have offenders responded to the use of restorative practices?

One of the best things about my policing experience has been the opportunity to be involved in restorative processes where offenders have come to a realization about how their behavior has harmed others.

A: I have had absolutely incredible experiences with both formal and informal processes and offenders. One of the best things about my policing experience has been the opportunity to be involved in restorative processes where offenders have come to a realization about how their behavior has harmed others.

Q: Can you tell me about a specific case?

A: This is something that police deal with every day. There was a particular family who had two young kids that were wreaking havoc on their neighborhood. In the course of a 60-day period, we had about 40 calls for service in that area—all related to the same two kids. By everyone’s estimation, they were seen as no good, as bad to the core. They believed that the only way the problem was going to stop was when someone got seriously hurt.

We didn’t have a crime as such, but we had lots of little quality-of-life problems—noise, property damage, things destroyed and broken windows. We couldn’t necessarily pin it on these kids, but people knew that these kids were involved. People were frustrated.

We tried to talk to the two young boys who were involved in this. We did the traditional police lecture thing and that didn’t work. We talked to their parents and did the traditional lecture with them—“You need to maintain better control,” et cetera. Ultimately, when nothing else was working, I took the opportunity to run a conference—a restorative process that people in the neighborhood, this family and the boys were invited to take part in.

The conference was heavy with emotion. Everyone was very upset about all the things that were going on. Everyone wanted things to be different, from the two boys, to their parents, to all of the neighbors. What happened during that process was absolutely astounding. The discussion didn’t center on how bad the boys were. It didn’t center on the fact that windows were broken, people’s plants were destroyed or that young kids weren’t able to sleep because of the loud music at night. The discussion was about reaching agreement on the rules they wanted. It was about what kind of neighborhood they wanted. These kids and their parents were invited to be a part of that for the first time.

In the following six months, we had one police call. That was the result of one of the boys needing a mental health placement. It had nothing to do with anything that affected the neighborhood. During the conference process, the kids spoke, the parents spoke and the neighbors spoke. They all decided what they wanted their neighborhood to look like and how they were going to treat one another. In doing that, the problems were resolved. That’s a great way to police. What we had done 40 times in those past 60 days didn’t work, but we spent two hours one night engaging the people who were affected by the boys’ behavior and we had a totally different outcome.

Q: Does the police administration support restorative practices?

A: Clearly, there has been support. Has it been institutionalized? No. Do they encourage the continuation of these types of practices? Absolutely. Police organizations across the board are encouraged to be problem-solving organizations. Problem-solving policing, which is closely linked to community policing, has been actively encouraged in most U.S. police agencies.

Q: Have you used conferencing for more serious offenses?

A: After being involved in around 500 different conferencing processes, I decided that numbers didn’t matter anymore. It was about the experience. I had been involved in conferences for extremely minor offenses to cases involving death or sexual assault of children.

One case I was involved in was with a guy who was in prison for having sexually abused a child, who was then 12 years old, over a six-year period. He was a friend of the girl’s family. He was in prison. I was contacted by the family because there were a lot of things happening in the neighborhood stemming from his conviction.

The offender’s family was being sought out and targeted by the victim’s family. His wife and children were being stigmatized. Ultimately, it lead to a conference that was held at the prison with the parents of the victim, the offender and his then ex-wife (they had divorced after he went to prison) to talk about the whole experience. It was absolutely and undeniably excruciating for everyone involved, including myself. But they all talked about it later as having been a phenomenal experience. Did it change anything that had happened? No. Did it help them develop a better understanding of what the experience was like for everyone? Yes. It was incredible. For me, it was an honor to be allowed to be a part of some terribly painful stuff.

Q: Did the victimization of the offender’s family stop after the conference?

A: It stopped immediately. This is because one of the things the court process didn’t address became very clear in the conference process. The court process locked him up and punished him, but the conference process was an opportunity to face him, ask him questions and address the betrayal. The formal court process couldn’t be expected to do that, but the conference process did.

I hope that we apply restorative practices not only in working with the communities that we serve, but also in how we relate to one another as cops and in how we relate to our organizations.

Q: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of restorative practices in policing?

A: One of my dreams is: if you have a complaint about the manner in which you were treated by a police officer, it could be addressed restoratively. I think it would make great sense for that complaint to be brought directly to the officer. That way, the officer can focus on what the issues were, what the harm may have been and, if possible, try to resolve that harm. Sometimes it may not be as simple as the officer having done something wrong. Sometimes it may just be the manner in which the officer had to do his job under those particular circumstances, which may not have been very nice. It would provide an opportunity for us to better relate to people.

Policing is a great profession. It allows you to see the very best and the very worst of people. I hope that we apply restorative practices not only in working with the communities that we serve, but also in how we relate to one another as cops and in how we relate to our organizations. When we begin to make those types of real connections, I believe it’s ultimately going to make a huge difference in our practice.

To me, what will make the biggest difference to the largest number of people is applying basic restorative principles to what we do every day.

By Laura Mirsky

Part one in this series can be read at:
Part three in this series can be read at:


This is part two in a series about family group conferencing (FGC), a restorative process that empowers families to make decisions, usually made for them by outside officials, concerning the care and support of their children. Part one of this series mainly emphasized FGC in child welfare and contained a brief explanation and history of FGC. In addition to other child welfare FGC programs, parts two and three will address FGCs in adult mental health, youth justice, domestic violence and school applications, as well as FGC theory and philosophy.

Private family time is essential in taking the decision-making process out of the hands of professionals and governments, and putting it back in the hands of those people who are directly affected.

FGC began in New Zealand and has spread throughout the world. The key features of the New Zealand FGC model, where it is built into child welfare law, are preparation, information giving, private family time, agreeing on the plan and monitoring and review. The critical criterion for including an FGC program in this series is the use of private family time. Private family time indicates a crucial paradigm shift fully in tune with the International Institute for Restorative Practices's (IIRP's) definition of restorative practices and its goal of building a global alliance for family empowerment. During private family time, after hearing information about the case, the family is left alone to arrive at its own plan to address the concerns at hand. This component of FGC is essential in taking the decision-making process out of the hands of professionals and governments, and putting it back in the hands of those people who are directly affected.

FGC programs are in progress in the Nordic nations of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The Nordic FGC Project, coordinated by Tarja Heino, of STAKES (National Research and Development Center for Welfare and Health), Finland has helped implement and conduct evaluations of FGC in those countries, funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers. To view the STAKES website about FGC in the Nordic countries go to: [link broken]

Each Nordic country has approached FGC in a slightly different manner, but in each one the state has been active in importing, developing, exploring and implementing the practice. This series covers programs in Finland and Sweden. Information in this article about the Finnish program is drawn from Heino's paper: The Focus on Children in Family Group Conferences: Results from the Finnish project on the FGC method, 1997-2000, which she presented at the Family Rights Group Conference, in Manchester, UK, October, 2002, as well as from a conversation with STAKES FGC researcher and coordinator Sarianna Reinikainen.

A meeting at a Finland FGC seminar: (from left to right) Project Coordinator Tarja Heino from STAKES, Eeva-Liisa Tamski, Sirkku Mehtola and Maija Pietiläinen (all three from a local project in Mikkeli), Monika Possauner, Juha-Pekka Vuorio and Liisa Korhonen (all three from a local project in Helsinki)

The Finnish FGC pilot ran from 1997 through 2000, funded and implemented by STAKES, with help from 26 participating municipalities and five local NGOs. The project developed a Finnish FGC model, a handbook and other training materials. FGCs continue, sponsored by STAKES, in 50 out of 448 municipalities in Finland. FGC is used chiefly in the most difficult child protection situations, where a decision must be made about a child's living arrangements.

The Finnish FGC model is exceptionally child-centered. In child protection cases, the FGC process begins when the social worker holds a meeting to introduce the possibility of an FGC to the client, which is defined as the entire family, including children, even small children. Said Heino: "We know from … studies among children who have experienced family violence that the children know about the violence between parents and it has an impact on them—and that being well informed helps them to overcome these experiences."

If the family agrees to hold an FGC, each member, children included, signs a written agreement. If a child of 15 or older does not agree to the FGC, it does not occur. The coordinator asks professionals involved in the case to write their views of the situation, instructing them to focus on the children's issues. The family receives the reports before the conference so that there are no surprises at the meeting. The coordinator finds someone from the child's network—preferably not a professional—to be his or her advocate. In Helsinki there is an extensive coordinator bank from which to draw. Two coordinators are used for each FGC—one for the children and one for the adults. Reinikainen said that this is especially effective when trying to reach people important to the child. A child's perspective is different from an adult's, she emphasized. Children's coordinators meet with children, as young as possible without parents present, to obtain their point of view.

“The child is there to help participants remember who is the focus of the process.”
-Tarja Heino

Five to 20 people from the family network attend each FGC. The child is always present at the conference, even if he or she is very young. She may wander in and out or play if she gets bored, eat if she's hungry, sleep if she's tired. "The child is there to help participants remember who is the focus of the process," said Heino. In the first part of the conference, the professionals read their reports about the child (which the family has already seen). The coordinator helps the professionals refrain from discussing the parents and stay focused on the children. The professionals then take questions from the family network. Children, with help from their advocates, are given an equal opportunity to ask questions. Next, the family network has its private meeting. The professionals wait outside, available if needed. If a child has chosen a professional as his or her advocate, the coordinator tries to find someone else to substitute in that function. Families have trouble being honest with professionals around and say things they think the professionals want to hear, said Reinikainen. The family has a concrete set of issues to discuss in their private meeting and, focusing on the child's needs, develops a plan to address those issues. The plan must be clear about who does what and when.

The family network then reconvenes with the professionals, telling them what kind of support they might need to fulfill the plan. The child must be able to understand what has been agreed upon for his or her protection. The professionals need to agree to accept the plan as in the child's best interest. A follow-up meeting is arranged, to be held in three months' time or sooner, to ensure that the family network is upholding the plan.

Reinikainen believes that FGC should be part of basic social work studies, as well as part of Finnish law.

People in Finland are very interested in FGC, said Reinikainen, and the practice has spread to many types of situations. Good results have been obtained with young teens that are acting out and behaving obstinately or skipping school. On Åland Island in West Finland, an FGC project involving parents who couldn't agree on custody and visitation issues worked very well. Still, said Reinikainen, FGC is not in use everywhere, because some social service providers are afraid of giving up responsibility to the family network. Reinikainen believes that FGC should be part of basic social work studies, as well as part of Finnish law. These things have not happened yet, but Reinikainen believes and hopes they will happen in the future. "This [FGC] project is very alive," she said.

FGC began in Sweden in 1995 with several local projects, said Mats Erkers, FGC Project Leader of the Botkyrka Municipality, south of Stockholm. Six months later, he said, the national Swedish FGC project began. The practice got a boost following the legendary 1996 "grandma revolt," when grandmothers took to the streets to protest the state placing their grandchildren in foster care and prohibiting contact. This made for lots of debate, said Erkers, and eventually to a change in laws governing child welfare.

FGC got a boost following the legendary 1996 “grandma revolt,” when grandmothers took to the streets to protest the state placing their grandchildren in foster care and prohibiting contact.

In May 2000, Botkyrka's FGC unit arranged the First Nordic FGC Conference, with about 200 participants from Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, which strengthened the network between different Nordic groups of FGC practitioners. The network developed the Nordic FGC project, led by Tarja Heino of STAKES, Finland. Erkers is responsible for the Swedish FGC unit of this project. Eva Nyberg of the Department of Social Work, Stockholm University, is in charge of research and development for this unit.FGC is in practice in 40 out of 240 communities in Sweden. FGCs are voluntary in Sweden, not mandatory, as they are in New Zealand. However, if a child can't stay with his or her parents, social workers are required to investigate whether he or she can be placed with an extended family member or other close person, and the parent does not have the right to prevent such a placement. Parents can choose whether or not to participate in an FGC, but social workers can always involve the extended family, even without the parents' permission.

The FGC project in Botkyrka is separate and distinct from those in the rest of Sweden, said Erkers. "In my area, we made our own project from the beginning and it is now a permanent organization," he said, adding, "We are the most successful area in Scandinavia because we have been working with FGC for many years and have built it into the system. It's not a project anymore, it's ordinary work." In Botkyrka, said Erkers: "We learned from New Zealand and have full-time coordinators who only do FGC." In other parts of Sweden, he said, professional coordinators are not used, only laypersons.

“We are the most successful area in Scandinavia because we have been working with FGC for many years and have built it into the system. It’s not a project anymore, it’s ordinary work.”
-Mats Erkers

In Botkyrka, when a social worker believes a child is at risk or if a child is in a placement situation outside the home, parents may choose an FGC as an alternative way to plan for the child's future. FGCs are also used in other situations, e.g., with children having difficulties in school or adults with drug or alcohol problems. For the most part, however, FGCs are reserved for children at high risk. Time and resources determine priorities: In preparation for FGCs, coordinators in Botkyrka must sometimes travel 1,000 miles to meet with extended family members and funds must also sometimes be provided for these family members to attend.After the family makes the plan, they reconvene with the professionals, who review the plan with respect to safety concerns. Most Botkyrka FGC plans place the child with a family member. Usually, the child stays with a parent and receives support from the extended family. Sometimes the child moves from the mother to the father. There is almost always at least one follow-up meeting to make sure that the plan is working. "It's good to have the opportunity to change things," said Erkers. There is security in knowing that a follow-up meeting will be held, making it possible for a family to take risks.

Erkers believes that FGC has changed the values of child welfare workers in Sweden. FGCs compel social workers to be clear about their own rules—e.g., why a child is at risk—and to translate their expertise to ordinary people, providing clear information about what kinds of services are available. Social workers used to think it was good to place children outside the home. Now they generally believe that such placements cut children off from their roots. "Now all social workers in Sweden know they have to help children and families be together," said Erkers.

The struggle between different social work perspectives continues, however. Some professionals still don't want to give too much power to the extended family because they're afraid the family doesn't know what's best for the child, said Erkers. He believes that private family time is an essential part of transferring power from professionals to families. "Without private family time, it's not FGC," he said. During private family time, families must think for themselves. "Families are used to social workers making suggestions about their lives," he said, "but it's not good for people when they don't have to think about their own future." Said Erkers: "FGC helps family members keep the focus on the child's future, not on the past, and gives families the resources to help them come together in respectful ways."

Essex County, UK is the site of a unique program using FGC in the area of adult mental health. The North Essex Mental Health Partnership Trust (NEMHPT), a combined trust of health and social care, in partnership with Essex County Council Social Services, developed an FGC pilot study for mental health service users (i.e. patients or clients) not restricted to families with children. This is a new and unusual application for FGC. Information in this article is from the NEMHPT and Essex County Council Social Services publication: Supporting People Together: FGC in Mental Health Services, Research Finds and Practice Developments, by Linda Flynn, service manager, mental health, NEMHPT, Chelmsford, N. Essex; Julia Hennessy, service manager, FGC and Family Centres in Essex; Robin Mutter, researcher; and Nuala Judge, researcher, as well from as a conversation with Linda Flynn. The program's website is here.

The adult mental health FGC pilot began in 1998, when it was ascertained that a very high percentage of children in child welfare FGCs came from families with mental health difficulties, said Flynn. Supporting People Together emphasizes that FGC is not family therapy, but a planning process with a "practical emphasis designed to increase support, challenge isolation and combat discrimination against individuals … who have mental health difficulties." FGC is based on the belief that service users and their families are the people who know most about their difficulties and that service users can and have the right to make informed choices about their lives, their difficulties and their treatment. The 16 service users who took part in the pilot had been diagnosed with personality disorder, bipolar disorder/manic depression, schizophrenia, psychosis and Asperger Syndrome.

It was important that the pilot have a multi-disciplinary base, said Flynn, so a steering group of representatives from health, children's and social services; district council; carer and service user groups; voluntary organizations and the local university was enlisted to develop the project. Funding was secured and a methodology for evaluation and analysis was set. Sixteen FGCs were referred between July 2000 and May 2001, and conferences were held between October 2000 and the end of August 2001.

The University of East Anglia (UEA), based in Norwich, Norfolk, UK, gathered the pilot research, independent of statutory services. UEA's David Shemmings was project research consultant. Qualitative and quantitative data were gathered from the first 16 conferences, including questionnaires and interviews with participants and a three-month-plus follow-up with service users. Among pilot participants, 85 percent said they felt empowered by the conference and 90 percent said they were able to obtain the information and resources they needed.

Since the pilot's end, adult mental health FGCs have become a regular part of mental health service in Essex, funded by a joint commission of health and social services. In two-and-a-half years, 74 mental health FGCs have been held (as of March 2003), with extremely good outcomes, said Flynn.

In adult mental health FGCs, the service user has the final say in decisions relating to her life: whether she wishes to be referred to an FGC, who is invited, what plan is made, etc.

Changes were made to the Essex child welfare FGC model to adapt it to adult mental health. The former focuses on planning for the needs of children. The child's wishes and feelings are very important and are taken into account, but if the child is young it is adults who ultimately make the decisions. In adult mental health FGCs, the service user has the final say in decisions relating to her life: whether she wishes to be referred to an FGC, who is invited, what plan is made, etc. An FGC senior practitioner drafts a report outlining the services user's areas of need, which the service user signs, consenting to share information with conference participants, all of whom are given a copy of the report prior to the conference. Children's services FGCs can be held in times of crisis, but adult mental health FGCs are not convened when service users are acutely ill. "You can't empower people if they're psychotic or delusional and believe their family is out to get them," said Flynn, adding that it's better to wait until the service user is stable. Adult mental health FGCs involve two coordinators: a care coordinator (who oversees the service user's care) and an independent FCG coordinator.

When families get together for a mental health FGC, said Flynn, they want to know: what do the diagnoses mean? What are the effects/side effects, etc. of drugs? What are the warning signs of a mental illness emergency? What do you do/whom do you call to forestall a crisis? Through FGCs, service users and family support groups learn how to recognize warning signs of deterioration, such as when an individual stops taking medication, and what to do and whom to contact in such circumstances. FGCs improve the quality of mental health service in terms of care and planning and help service users engage and plan for themselves. Plans generally focus on concrete proposals involving who does what and when.

FGCs help service users achieve what most want: good quality care in their own homes and communities when it's timely and necessary, instead of waiting until the last moment and risking recurrent hospitalization, said Flynn. The more deterioration and crisis can be averted, the greater the likelihood of improvement, she said. Most service users who took part in the pilot had been sectioned (committed) to the hospital pre-conference. None have been sectioned since. In two years, out of the first 50 mental health FGCs in Essex, 20 people had been admitted to the hospital for mental health reasons pre-FGC. Only two had to be readmitted post-FGC.

In two years, out of the first 50 mental health FGCs in Essex, 20 people had been admitted to the hospital for mental health reasons pre-FGC. Only two had to be readmitted post-FGC.

Flynn said that FGCs work particularly well with individuals who have personality disorder, whom she described as people who can be difficult to work with and may exhibit chaotic, anti-social or self-harming behavior. FGCs are good for providing structure and setting boundaries, she said, and people with personality disorder tend to operate better when provided with a rigid structure.

There is a powerful stigma attached to mental health problems in the UK, and individuals with such problems are often considered dangerous, said Flynn. Through FGCs, both families and professionals become much better informed about mental health issues. People can sometimes do embarrassing things when they're unwell, said Flynn. She cited the case of a man with bipolar disorder living with a wife and teenage daughter. He stopped taking his medication and his wife didn't know what to do. The man turned up at his daughter's school and made disturbing gestures, then lost control at a newspaper stand, whereupon the owner called the police. The man was sectioned to the hospital, his condition stabilized. The family couldn't bear the thought of him coming home, said Flynn.

An FGC was held with the man, his extended family, neighbors and police. Everyone learned about the symptoms of bipolar disorder—what might happen during a manic episode—and the support group came up with a crisis plan. They would make sure that the man continued to take his medication. If there were any difficulty they would alert his care coordinator. Asked at the conference why he had stopped taking his medication, the man said he had a problem with side effects, but that no one would ever listen to him about it. In the conference, the professionals listened and the man's medication was changed, making a big difference to him. And because his family, friends and neighbors now understood that his illness had a biological basis—that the man was not a "nut " or a "raving mad-man," he was no longer stigmatized. His daughters' friends, who had been afraid to come to her house, began to visit regularly. Since the FGC, the man hasn't had a manic episode, said Flynn.

The most disturbed people tend not to engage, so "we can't reach them," said Flynn. FGCs give disturbed individuals a way to engage on their own terms. There is often much secrecy concerning mental illness, along with a reluctance to obtain help by both service users and their families because of fear, guilt and/or shame. FGCs help service users break through these feelings, which can prevent them from asking for help from family members. Post-FGC, one service user said: "It certainly allowed me to open up more and admit that I needed their support, whereas before I was tending to hide my feelings." FGCs are particularly effective in combating social isolation. Participants contacted up to after 12 months post-FGC reported that the enhanced regular contact initiated by families' plans produced qualitative improvement in service users' relationships with family and friends.

FGCs significantly increase the effectiveness of the support network both by decreasing feelings of fear and shame and by coordinating and integrating how networks, service users and professionals work together. FGCs effectively draw family and friends into the support network and add new members to the network. The collective nature of meeting as a group dispels misunderstandings. After an FGC, one family member said: "Since [service user] has become ill it's been me liaising with them [other family and friends]. … The story can get a bit distorted from what it actually is. … [But] with everyone in the room, nobody could go away not understanding what was going on."

“The beauty of FGC is that it’s so simple. It’s all about treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself.”
-Linda Flynn

FGCs are empowering, putting service-users and support groups in a position of influence over the process. A family member expressed how families sometimes feel excluded from the treatment process: "Officials don't like family getting involved. I think we mess things up for them; and all their good work goes to pot when we go in and say, 'No, that's not right … ' I'm sure the hospital didn't like us, 'cause there was always one of us on the phone saying, 'What's going on? … We don't think this is right.' … And a lot of them are quite patronizing, you know … It's, 'Sorry, but you're not professional, you don't understand.' … When you live with [service user], you do understand what [service user]'s going through, but suddenly you are being told, 'No, I'm sorry, you don't understand.'" FGC redresses the problem of alienation between family members and professionals by drawing the two groups together in a coordinated complementary support system.

The toughest barrier to break down was the medical model, said Flynn—the one that says, "We'll tell you what's wrong and what to do about it." But now, she said, there are a lot more people on-board with FGCs, and mental health legislation in the UK is all pointing to involving families, along the themes of empowerment and inclusion. Said Flynn: "The beauty of FGC is that it's so simple. It's all about treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself." She said that everyone she talks to tells the same story: "Somewhere in my family is a significant mental health issue." National statistics in the UK indicate that one person in four has a mental health problem at some point in their lives. But, Flynn concluded, "If we carry on with stigmatizing, we'll never get anywhere."

An FGC child welfare program is thriving in San Diego County, California, USA. Elizabeth Quinnett, Acting Chief in Children's Services, Health and Human Services Agency, County of San Diego, and training consultant on FGC with the Academy for Professional Excellence, San Diego, helped to develop the program. In San Diego, FGC is known as Family Unity Meeting (FUM). More than 800 FUMs have been held in San Diego County since 1999. For the last two years, cases of children under age six where the parents are involved with drugs and alcohol have, by Children's Services mandate, been referred to FUMs. When the FUM program started, the area's presiding judge, the Honorable James Milliken, went to New Zealand and "came back sold on the idea of family conferencing," said Quinnett. Milliken's advocacy and high level of understanding of the process have helped the program's success. All judges in the area are aware of the practice, and others in the judicial system understand it. When they see an FUM plan attached to a child welfare report, they know what they're looking at, said Quinnett.

Family Unity Meeting staff, County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency, Children’s Services: (bottom row) Dave Roob, Rebecca Slade; (middle row) Bob Kuchta, Joaquin Zavala; (top row) Liz Quinnett, Amy Markin, Mary Sorgdrager

San Diego FUM is a hybrid of Oregon FUM and New Zealand FGC. The term FUM is used in San Diego because Quinnett and her staff were originally trained in the Oregon FUM model. At first, as in Oregon FUMs, San Diego didn't use private family time. (In San Diego it's called family alone time.) However, once they tried it they liked it so much that they've used it ever since. The name FUM was retained because it was well-known in the community.

In San Diego FUM, exploration of "strengths and concerns" in meetings is very important. Many perpetrators have a very clear idea of what's wrong with them, said Quinnett, and it's very empowering for them to hear their strengths. "A person's whole affect changes," said Quinnett, adding, "It's a powerful tool to build on and keeps the meeting focused." A break follows the strengths portion, during which participants share food together. This is very important, said Quinnett, because it further breaks down the hierarchy in the room between family and professionals and emphasizes that everyone is there out of concern for the children. Afterwards, people bring up painful history and current concerns. (In San Diego FUMs, the term "problem" is deliberately avoided because of its negative implication, replaced by "concern".)

Co-facilitators are used in San Diego FUMs. "When your buttons get pushed you can back each other up, and it helps with the flow. One person writes on the flip chart, the other facilitates," said Quinnett. There is a large bank of workers in the agency to help co-facilitate. Quinnett would like to see an FUM unit in each of the six regional offices in her area. She would also like to see FUMs in the receiving home where children who have been taken into custody are held, "when the family is in crisis—at the front end."

FUM throws the safety net a lot farther around the child than conventional child welfare practice, because it brings in so many more people, makes much better connections to resources in the community and strengthens connections within the family, said Quinnett. FUM also dramatically improves attitudes toward agency workers, because families feel respected. "We're not saying, 'I am the almighty social worker and you are the lowly bad person.' We're giving responsibility back where it belongs," she said. FUM increases placements within the family—a beneficial outcome, because "the system doesn't make a good parent," said Quinnett. She tells her staff to remember that they're just temporary in people's lives—there to get the family network set up so that when they leave the network is in place.

FUM increases placements within the family—a beneficial outcome, because “the system doesn’t make a good parent.”
-Liz Quinnett

Now, however, the $35 billion California budget deficit threatens the existence of San Diego FUM. A federal audit found that many areas needed improvement, but praised FUM, said Quinnett. But she's afraid that as workloads become heavier for social workers, they'll have to cut back to mandated services like investigating child abuse, and programs like FUM will be the first suspended. When the program began they were able to pay facilitators overtime to work evenings and weekends—the most convenient time for families to attend FUMs. Now she is afraid overtime will be cut. Quinnett hopes that FUMs can be part of every child welfare system some day. "I never fail to be amazed at what families can come up with," she said, adding, "Child abuse is not the end. Like any crisis, it's also an opportunity."

You may reach Elizabeth Quinnett at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Quinnett's plenary speech about FUM, delivered at the IIRP's 3rd International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices, can be read at:

A child welfare FGC program is ongoing in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, under the auspices of the NGO, UnitingCare Burnside and the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS). Information in this article is drawn from a conversation with the Patricia Kiely, clinical psychologist and manager of Burnside's family work program, and her paper: A Longitudinal Evaluation of Family Group Conferencing, delivered at the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies conference in Bondi Beach, Australia, 2002.

Kiely said that their Family Decision Making project began in 1996 when Burnside invited a New Zealand FGC practitioner to speak in Australia. Burnside negotiated with DoCS, which refers cases to Burnside, to obtain funding for an FGC project. DoCS liked the model because they saw it as a way to place children whose parents had problems with drugs, alcohol or violence within a wider family network, said Kiely. Ultimately, DoCS and Burnside each provided half of the funding for the project. Burnside's website is:

Outcomes of the 1996–1998 NSW FGC pilot, evaluated by Dr. Judy Cashmore, were very positive, said Kiely. A longitudinal research project that followed up with families for five years has now been completed. The project sample group, drawn from the Cumberland/Prospect area in Sydney, NSW, included a random selection of 30 of the 40 original families referred to the project: 15 who completed FGCs and 15 who were referred to the project, didn't proceed to FGCs and were referred to traditional case planning processes.

The most common risk factors in both groups were domestic violence, drug and alcohol issues and criminal activity. The most striking finding of the study, she said, was the increased percentage of extended family placements provided in the FGC group for their vulnerable children—both respite and foster care. The increased placements coincided with a decrease in smaller types of kinship supports, such as taking a child to a doctor's appointment or providing monetary aid. Giving a child a place to live is a comprehensive type of support and negates the need to provide as much other kinds of support, said Kiely.

“The professionals didn’t believe that families should make decisions, kids would be safe or families would keep their promises. But everything changed after family group conferencing was introduced.”
-Patricia Kiely

Children under age 12 were more likely to receive kinship placement than were older children. Kinship placement in the older group was more difficult to find because of these children's challenging behavior, said Kiely. Still, FGCs enabled older children to gain knowledge of what was available and retain contact with the family group. In the traditional process group, children did not want to stay with their placements and tended to lose contact with their families.

There were reductions in temporary care orders, reports to statutory services and home visits post-FGC, suggesting a reduced need because children were now living in safe conditions. An increase in longer-term wardship orders was found in the FGC group. Wardship is not always a negative, Kiely explained, citing the case of a mother with a long history of drug and alcohol problems who had been in and out of jail. At the woman's FGC, the family plan stipulated that her child be assigned a court-ordered wardship with a maternal aunt. For the length of the wardship, the family wanted to be able to build a relationship with the mother that did not focus on getting her fit for motherhood right away. A wardship can also provide security for children: Sometimes families want the statutory authority "to be the big stick," said Kiely. A family might opt for a wardship order with an aunt so that she can legally prevent parents from suddenly showing up drunk or drugged and taking their children away.

Kiely emphasized, "FGC is not welfare on the cheap," adding, "The expectation that increased family support would reduce the need for community support was not confirmed." There was an increase in services provided to families who took part in FGCs. Families who have been in the welfare system a long time often receive no services, said Kiely, whereas FGCs facilitate better assessments and targeting of services. Kiely cited the case of a physically abused four-year-old from a family with a history of severe mental illness. The child had never been assessed until preparations were made for an FGC. But due to those preparations, representatives from various resources were brought to the conference and the family could choose between them. "When representatives of services are invited to FGCs, it's surprising how quickly services are provided," said Kiely. There is normally a seven-year waiting list for public housing in Sydney. But at an FGC where the family group decided that a family member needed a house in order to care for a child, a housing department liaison made a house available. Such stories abound involving FGCs and the availability of speech pathologists, pre-school placements, etc., because at FGCs service liaisons get to know the family, see everyone working together and want to work with them.

"FGCs changed the way the department worked with families," said Kiely, adding, "It used to be a hostile environment. The professionals didn't believe that families should make decisions, kids would be safe or families would keep their promises. But everything changed after family group conferencing was introduced."

In 2000, legislation in NSW put FGC in place as an alternative dispute resolution model. Burnside will continue to provide FGCs, said Kiely. In addition, she said, Australian Aboriginal FGC practitioners affiliated with DoCS are employing a model with the same philosophical base as New Zealand FGC that fits well with the Aboriginal approach to decision-making.

Another successful FGC pilot program was launched in Hennepin County, Minnesota (which includes the city of Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs), in July 1999. Kathleen Holland, Supervisor of Hennepin County Department of Children, Family and Adult Services (CFASD) said that the program was built on a solid foundation with support from judges, public defenders, county attorneys and child welfare administrators. A dialogue occurred between all these parties to determine how they were going to give families a voice while meeting safety and protection needs. Without those "tough discussions," said Holland, the pilot would not have been successful. Holland especially noted the contributions of CFASD head Dr. David Sanders and Hennepin County Judges Robert Blaeser (a member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe), and Herbert Lefler, in supporting FGC initiatives in Hennepin County.

“Whenever life’s crises come up, we need to be able to go to family—to take care of the kids, for transportation, school and health issues."
-Kathleen Holland

The Native American council system's commitment to raising children is a good fit with FCG, as is the old-fashioned American small-town notion of a community coming together to care for its children, said Holland. The FGC pilot program aimed to reestablish connections to those traditions, both of which can be found in Hennepin County. With the integral support of the court, child welfare services and the legal system, CFASD has been able to hold more than 250 conferences in about three years and is working toward making FCG an integrative practice considered in every child welfare case. "If a case opens in our department," said Holland, "we're willing to talk to the family about the [FGC] process."

Funds for Hennepin County's FGC pilot became available through a federal Department of Human Services court improvement grant as part of a push toward family reunification. Aims of the pilot were somewhat determined by Minnesota's six-month permanence time limit for children under age eight who are in foster care, and 12-month limit for older children, said Holland. The state liked the idea of FGC as a mechanism to encourage reunification. FGCs shorten the timeline in many child welfare cases by eliminating the trial process, which Holland called: "emotionally damaging and expensive." In contrast, FGCs are respectful, improve communication between family members and create a circle of support among families and between families and professionals.

The success rate of plans devised in FGCs is high, said Holland. All plans are reviewed by social service workers, and, if appropriate, by a tribal council, according to the terms of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. If the plan doesn't meet safety and child welfare standards, specific recommendations are made so that the family can address the matter again. The social service worker who refers a case to FGC continues with the case and sees to the implementation of the plan.

Holland named the elements she considers essential to FGC. They must be voluntary. "People must come with the desire to sit down together and solve the problem, not blame each other," she said. Facilitation must be neutral; "People must know that the facilitator has no investment in the outcome." There must be "enough of a support system to redefine the sphere of support." Holland cited the example of a woman who wouldn't let the department involve any family members in her FGC, but invited 26 service providers. "That's not a family," said Holland, adding, "Whenever life's crises come up, we need to be able to go to family—to take care of the kids, for transportation, school and health issues." Holland said that CFASD has been very effective in bringing fathers into the mix. Often, she said, there are multiple fathers in a family, and all attend the conference. Also, in an FGC, it is important to consider not just the family's problems, but it's strengths. In addition, it is essential to focus exclusively on the needs of the child—to suspend adult issues for the time being and think through the eyes of the child. "This is about kids staying connected to their families," said Holland. By extension, it's about creating a more solid base for our society.

FGC is adaptable to many cultures. Families are asked to share their values and rituals at conferences said Holland. Hennepin County has a diverse pool of community providers to co-facilitate FGCs for non-English speaking families and those of varied ethnic backgrounds. Conferences are held at community sites to provide a neutral setting and encourage community involvement.

One struggle involves determining how to run FGCs effectively when domestic violence is a factor, said Holland. CFASD is partnering with domestic abuse agencies and relying on their expertise. CFASD is also working with 14 community agencies to resolve other types of problems. A new FGC project, "Youth in Transition," has been launched to help children move from the child welfare and foster care system to independence, and another project is in development to help youth in the juvenile justice system transition back into the community. Holland hopes that FCG will someday be used to resolve all sorts of community processes, including helping seniors plan for future needs. The Hennepin County FGC website is:

“Families need to be listened to … The safety net is in the wider family. They’ve got the expertise and knowledge that we’ll never have."
-Joe Cullen

A new Children Act passed in the Republic of Ireland in 2001. "Based on the premise that detention should be used only as a last resort and should only be considered after a range of community-based measures have been exhausted, the Act provides for family group conferences and other new provisions to deal with unruly children or those children with special needs," reads a web-page by Ireland's North Western Health Board (NWHB). NWHB Family Group Conference Manager Joe Cullen, who has worked in the foster care field for 22 years, said he thinks that the new law was a long time coming. In 1995, he proposed an FGC pilot, but was unable to raise funding or arouse interest in the idea. Then Frank Fahey, a junior government minister for children, went on a fact-finding mission to New Zealand, met Mike Doolan, and learned about FGC. Impressed with the way the FGC handed decision-making to families and with the number of Maori children it had discharged from state care, Fahey initiated an FGC pilot with the East Coast Area Health Board and John O’Riordan in the greater Dublin area in 1999. The pilot involved families in decision-making and asked how to prevent children from coming into the care system, said Cullen.

Since January 2001, the NWHB has held 25-plus New Zealand model FGCs in the Donegal area in northwest Ireland, which have had "some wonderful outcomes," said Cullen, adding, "This is the model that works." Via FGCs, 14 children were discharged from the care system to the extended family network and six children were prevented from being received into care. "All the situations held," said Cullen. The families came together and were handed the authority to make their own plans, which were presented to the health boards. The boards were delighted with the outcomes.

However, Cullen said he was worried about the health boards' ability to work with plans that families devise. There is a financial crisis with the health boards in Ireland, which don't have a system of payment for extended families. "The preventative stuff always gets cut," he said. Yet, said Cullen: "We can do [FGCs] at very little cost financially." He said they've "been looking at money for kinship placement, doing it informally," adding, "Social workers have to be creative in trying to put things in place."

Unfortunately, a panel recommended that the same stringent standards apply to relative foster care as apply to stranger foster care. This is "the straw that breaks the camel's back," said Cullen. He cited cases where FGCs placed children with relatives; an assessment of those relatives took place months later, after the children had bonded; the relatives failed the assessment and the children were taken away. Different standards should be available for relative foster-carers, said Cullen.

Pressure on social workers is unbelievable now, said Cullen. New statutory requirements make it increasingly difficult for them to do their work; all they can do is respond to crisis after crisis. Social workers signed up to do FGCs to work in partnership with families, he said, but when social workers are pulled from the partnerships by statutory requirements, it becomes difficult for families to hold up their end. But with the social workers that are committed to FGCs, the results are absolutely wonderful. "This keeps us all plugging away," said Cullen.

Complicating matters further, a new model—Family Welfare Conferencing (FWC)—was introduced with the Children Act 2001, which is far from Fahey's initial vision, as it incorporates significant changes from the New Zealand FGC model, said Cullen. FWCs are not about intervention. Their purpose is to bring families together to consider special care orders. FWCs can be triggered by the health board applying for a special care order for a non-offending, out-of-control child who is a risk to him or herself or others, or when a child needs to be detained. The child must be deemed unlikely to receive care or detention unless a court makes the order, and the health board must convene an FWC before making the order. In the future, if a child is charged with an offense before the court, a judge will be able to order an FWC if there are concerns about the child's care and protection because of lack of parental supervision. This part of the law hasn't been enacted yet, said Cullen. In any case, the boards don't have the resources and people aren't yet trained for it, he said. "The board will be inundated with inappropriate referrals," said Cullen, adding, "These are interesting times."

Cullen was concerned that orders for FWCs "come so far down the line in the child's life, when special care orders are required, that these children have burned all their bridges." He is also worried that "we'll get pulled into the statutory piece and won't be allowed to do FGCs" and that resources will be pulled away from FGC by FWC. Other services and projects are developing and calling themselves FWCs, not FGCs, and a national FWC health board committee has been established. Cullen is on the committee, feeding back to the board to get the message across about "what the likely outcomes will be if we go down this road," he said.

The FGC structure, with private family time and families having decision-making power, has not been written into the law pertaining to FWCs, but Cullen is lobbying for that to happen. He believes that legislators need to be educated that the initial vision was for family group conferencing and that the FGC model should be in the center of FWC. "Families need to be listened to," said Cullen, adding, "The safety net is in the wider family. They've got the expertise and knowledge that we'll never have."

FGC continues to be implemented in many nations as its uses expand to include myriad applications. This is true despite the fact that in numerous locations FGC practice is threatened by cuts in government spending. The next piece in this series, appearing soon on the Restorative Practices eForum, will explore additional locations where FGC is in use, as well as other diverse applications.

By Laura Mirsky

Gena Gerard is program manager of the Central City Neighborhoods Partnership, Restorative Justice Program (CCNP), Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A. This conferencing program is designed to address livability issues and crimes that affect the quality of life in this urban community. In operation for more than five years, the program has enabled community members to resolve 361 cases out of court. Over 300 community members have been involved as facilitators and conference participants. Gerard was interviewed by journalist Laura Mirsky in August 2002 at IIRP's Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices.

We create the space for the offender and the community members to come together.
— Gena Gerard

Q: How did community conferencing come to be used in your area?

A: The neighborhoods of central Minneapolis, which include Downtown, Loring Park, Elliot Park and Stevens Square, are members of the neighborhood partnership, the CCNP. They face chronic problems with street crimes such as prostitution and prostitution-related activity, drug dealing and possession, people buying drugs on street corners, people drinking in public, panhandling and those kinds of things. It deteriorates the neighborhoods and makes people feel unsafe. It gives the neighborhoods a bad image.

These are vital, vibrant, strong communities and people are proud of their neighborhoods. Restorative justice gives them a way to tackle some of these problems and to do it in a personal way in conjunction with the criminal justice system, which really doesn't have the resources to address these kinds of matters. They are lower level crimes and the formal justice system does not deal with them in a very effective, constructive or meaningful way.

In 1996, CCNP, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, conducted a series of studies. A couple of studies showed that there were flaws in the criminal justice system when it came to addressing livability crimes. A real backlog and scarcity of resources meant that a lot of these crimes weren't handled very effectively and in most cases resulted in dismissal, a small fine or a warning.

When I came along as a student for the third part of that research, I was asked to look at restorative justice. It was a new concept at that time and people didn't really know much about it. They said, "There's something out there called 'restorative justice' and we want you to investigate it." I did the research. I looked at various models around the country and around the world. One of those models was conferencing. We felt that conferencing at that time looked to be most promising as a process that would allow us to address community concerns, to recognize the community as victim and to give the community members a seat at the table and a voice in the process. We decided at the end of a year, after having looked at various options and having had discussions with the criminal justice system, that we would begin a pilot program in September 1997.

Q: How does community conferencing work?

A: In partnership with the criminal justice system, we have arranged referral systems that are actually pretty basic. They allow adult offenders who do not have a serious violent history to consider community conferencing as an option for resolving their crime. Usually, it's a diversion option and the person will be able to have a case dismissed from their record if they're successful in the program. In some cases, the person may be on probation for a drug offense and community conferencing is a condition of probation.

We create the space for the offender and the community members to come together, sit down and talk about the impact that their behavior is having on real people, neighborhoods, businesses, churches, children, students—you name it. This educates the person about what their behavior is doing to this neighborhood and gives those people affected a chance to do something more than just calling 911 or participating in a block patrol. They have a more proactive and personal role in the process, meeting face-to-face with offenders to talk about the impact.

CCNP Restorative Justice Program volunteers and staff who presented at IIRP’s third international conference, from left, Gena Gerard (program manager), Dee Cotten, Mike Rollin (community organizer), Mari Johnson (program assistant), Mary Turner, Rebecca Miller and Mike Stewart.

The conference process involves repairing the harm. Through consensus, community members meet with a screened offender who's willing to acknowledge what they've done and is willing to talk about how they can make amends to the community. That's a pretty creative process. From start to finish, it's guided by a team of trained facilitators. Ultimately, they come up with a plan that's documented, signed and monitored.

In most cases, community members prefer to have offenders come back to the neighborhood where they offended—even though they may not be from that neighborhood. They may be from a suburban area, they may be from a small town or maybe even further away. We have had people participate who are from other states. Interestingly enough, most of the time they choose to come back. The community members work out ways for those offenders to participate in community activities like serving the needy through programs that are located in their neighborhoods, helping out with community events and offering their skills and services to contribute something positive to the neighborhood. Sometimes those agreements also include apologies, donations or what we call personal development or enrichment—something that the participant will do for himself or herself that they feel is needed, such as counseling, GED classes, ESL classes and that kind of thing.

Q: Are there some stories you could share about community conferences?

A: One of our first participants had been caught in a sting operation for soliciting prostitution. He participated somewhat reluctantly at first. However, he told us later that when he went to court he chose the conferencing option because he wanted to talk to someone. He wanted to be heard. He wanted an opportunity to tell his story and no one in court seemed to care or have the time to hear what he had to say. When he came to the program and we conducted a pre-meeting orientation with him, as in most cases, he became more comfortable as he learned about what was involved in the process, the ground rules and that this would be respectful.

He chose the conferencing option because he wanted to talk to someone. He wanted to be heard. He wanted an opportunity to tell his story and no one in court seemed to care or have the time to hear what he had to say.

In that case, we arranged for an advocate for him. We encourage all the participants to bring a supporter or more than one person, someone that they would like to have with them to participate in the discussion, help work out the agreement and offer them moral support. He didn't feel like he had anyone he could bring, so we arranged for a community supporter or advocate to be there. That worked out well. She helped him prepare, and they attended the conference together. The conference went fairly smoothly. I think it was an eye-opening experience for him. That's typically the case. Offenders come to the program not really understanding much about what they've done, and often to the question, "Who have you affected?" will respond either, "I don't know" or "Me. I'm the one who was caught. I'm the one who went to court."

In that case, it was a real awakening for him. He was a cab driver in Minneapolis. He knew that what he was doing was having a negative effect on the community and he felt badly about that. He heard from community members about the reputation of their neighborhood, about women being approached on the street, women who felt fearful and uncomfortable walking to and from their apartments. He heard about the associated noise, traffic, litter and just the general kinds of fears and irritations people have associated with the problem of prostitution.

Afterward, as part of his agreement, he agreed to help out with a program that serves people who are living with HIV and are homebound. He was able to deliver meals. He took grocery bags with him. I think he used his cab. He was able to deliver those meals in the area where he had been caught for this offense. That was very meaningful, I'm sure, to the people who received the help. It's a tremendous volunteer program that's very strong and positive. I think it also helped him a lot because he said afterward that he had gotten so much out of it that he had decided to continue volunteering, which he did. He also served meals to the homeless at a local church in the neighborhood. He wrote a letter of apology that was then shared with community members who had participated.

Another story is about a couple of guys who were visiting the bars downtown. After leaving the bars, they were tagged for disorderly conduct because instead of using a restroom they decided to use the alley. In that case, one of the young men happened to be a barber. It was noted in the community conference that close to the intersection where this occurred is a public housing high-rise where there are people of low income who could really use some free haircuts. It was looked into and arranged that he would provide the haircuts and his friend would provide childcare during that time. It worked out really well.

It's funny because I ended up running into both of them downtown not too long after [the conference]. There was a street-fair going on. When I saw them, they recognized me and we talked briefly. They were joking that they both had a beer in their hand—and this was an open-air festival so that was OK—but they made a point of telling me they knew where the restrooms were. They pointed to the little "Biffies" [portable toilets] down the street and said, "You don't have to worry about us, we know what to do." I was amused by that.

The satisfaction rate is 99%. Whether you’re looking at responses of community members, offenders or supporters, it’s a very high rate.

It makes an impact. Even for minor crimes of that nature, when there are so many people and the problem is so entrenched, the community members that live and work in those neighborhoods face it day in and day out. So in a conference, even these young men who at first thought, "What's the big deal?" learned that this is a big deal to people who live here who don't want to see that, have their kids see that or have to clean it up.

There are other examples of community service. One man adopted a bus shelter and kept it clean. Another man offered his services as a carpenter to construct flower boxes at an intersection where he had been arrested. It was a creative solution and it beautified the area. That particular spot had been a favorite spot for drug dealers. People would loiter on that corner or sit on that little ledge. Since the flower boxes were constructed and placed on that ledge, it's deterred people from hanging out and sitting there. It was a real contribution that he made.

Q: What is the role of the community in this project?

A: Input from the community is, I think, critical to our program. Not just input but also leadership. I think the hallmark of our program is the community-directed and community-based structure of the program. The neighborhoods where we operate appoint people to serve on a board or steering committee that oversees the program and makes decisions about how the program is operated, what kinds of cases we will conference, how we run conferences and what the guidelines will be. They make policy decisions.

They also interact with the criminal justice system. So it's not necessarily staff meeting with judges and attorneys on their own, especially when problems come up or snags need to be worked out. Community members themselves come forward and are able to address the issues that affect them directly as citizens.

In community conferences, we have a primary role for the community member. Their input is direct and real in every conference that we do. They are asked by facilitators, "How are you personally affected by this type of offense? How do you feel your neighborhood is affected? How does that make you feel, and what would you like to see as an outcome?"

That's significant. More than 300 people in our neighborhoods have taken the opportunity to participate in a conference, meet face-to-face with someone, tell them exactly what the impact [of their behavior] is and then to have input as to the outcome. The offender has input too. Everyone has a say, but I think it's important that community members feel empowered to be able to take that real tangible step and directly influence the outcome of a given offense that happened in their neighborhood.

I think it testifies to the effectiveness of the program, that it’s able to accomplish something that the system simply isn’t able to accomplish on it’s own, but can in collaboration with the community.

Facilitators are community members. Some people feel called to serve their neighborhood or to be active in addressing crime by taking on that role. Maybe they feel that their way of having input is to help others come together and have this kind of discussion and resolution. There are other roles for the community as well.

Q: What are some of those roles?

A: Other community roles include offender supporters or advocates who volunteer their time to support people who would like to have some support in the conference but don't feel that they have someone in their life that they can call upon for that role. We also have some people assisting with outreach. One of our staff members is specifically responsible for conducting outreach and recruiting community members to be involved in the program. He's out there educating the public, informing local business groups, resident groups, block clubs and church groups about restorative justice and this program in particular, giving them opportunities to be involved.

The best method for involving community members we have found is by word of mouth. When community members are able to step forward, help us get the word out and speak to their friends or business partners about what a positive experience this has been for them, that's when we find the greatest success in involving additional community members. Our goal is to continually build community participation.

Community members help organize events, including the annual recognition dinner. They participate in various committees — the action committee or the policy committee. Action is oriented towards system change and policy is oriented towards the program design.

Some of them also choose to be court liaisons, a new role that we've developed to secure cases in a way that helps offenders in court understand the choice they are making. We weren't in court previously. It was up to judges and attorneys in court to explain restorative justice [options]. Although that was somewhat successful, we've actually found more success having volunteers in court on a daily basis, volunteering their time to be available to answer questions that offenders, attorneys, judges or anyone else might have. That has not only more than doubled the referral volume to the program, it's given community members another point of contact with the criminal justice system and vice versa. Now the professionals in court recognize every day that there's a legitimate place for the community, not just in the process, but physically to be in court and to have an engaged, interactive role with professionals and with the court-referred participants.

Some of those community members just love this learning opportunity. They're excited to have this kind of experience and to be directly involved. Some are law students who are getting practical, hands-on experience in the process.

Q: Has the CCNP Restorative Justice Program been successful?

A: I think the program has had a very positive effect in these neighborhoods. I'm not just saying that as the program manager. I'm saying that backed up by the facts and by the statistics that bear this out. After each conference, we conduct surveys. We ask people if they are satisfied, whether or not they feel justice has been served and whether they prefer this process to the court process and would recommend it to a friend in a similar situation. The satisfaction rate is 99%. That's consistent across roles. Whether you’re looking at responses of community members, offenders or supporters, it’s a very high rate.

The Restorative Justice Advisory Team, comprised of representatives of the seven CCNP neighborhood associations, meets regularly to discuss program direction, policy and recent developments.

More important though, I think, is that the program is able to accomplish what it set out to accomplish and to fill a need. In 1996 when we were doing the research and in 1997 when we got started, we recognized that there is a gap in accountability for these low-level offenses. The community stepped forward and said, "Let's take some of the responsibility for resolving these kinds of issues. Instead of having offenders appear in court and have their charges dismissed, pay a fine or receive a warning, let's have some real accountability. Let's make it a positive thing for everybody." I feel in every conference we conduct, we are able to make that happen. Now, the criminal justice system recognizes and appreciates that. They would like us to continue and to expand. I think that it testifies to the effectiveness of the program, that it's able to accomplish something that the system simply isn't able to accomplish on it's own, but can in collaboration with the community.

Each year offenders complete on average more than 1,000 hours of service in the neighborhoods that they've harmed. That's a real gift to these neighborhoods. They wouldn't otherwise have all of these hours of volunteer time if someone just went in and out of court. Plus, you add on the donations, apologies and the effects that you can't measure. What does it mean when some group, some hotel, some establishment or some person receives this letter saying, "I'm sorry for what I did"? Even for a small offense, or what's perceived to be a small offense, it means a lot to people. We can't exactly put our finger on the full effect.

A final benefit that we didn't expect to see, which was documented through an independent evaluation, was community-building and a sense of personal efficacy where people were finding that through this process they were meeting other people in their community, getting to know their neighbors and feeling more connected. One of the questions on our survey now is, "Do you feel more connected to your community, to this particular neighborhood?" Almost always people say, "Yes," and often comment that they appreciated the chance to get to know this businessperson, this neighbor or this church-member.

Some people have reported that, after attending a community conference, they felt it was OK to speak up when they saw crimes occurring in their neighborhood. Not just OK, it was their responsibility.

In addition, our findings show a sense of empowerment that encourages people to take action in other ways to make their communities safe. Some people have reported that, after attending a community conference, they felt it was OK to speak up when they saw crimes occurring in their neighborhood. Not just OK, it was their responsibility. If they took action, they weren't alone but supported by this system or at least by this system and community working together so that they could be part of the response to crime and really make a difference.

Also, people have reported that they decided to join their neighborhood organization, to join a block patrol in their neighborhood. One person said that even though she chose not to join a block patrol, she identified a problem area in an alley behind her building where there was a lot of suspicious activity going on. She felt motivated or inspired to contact the block patrol, who put it on their route, kept it clean and kept an eye on it. The crime went away. A final example is a couple of business owners who, although they worked across the street from each other, had never met. The conference brought them together, and afterward they decided to conduct a clean-up activity together to beautify their space as a crime prevention measure.

Q: What's your dream for the future of this program?

A: My dream for the program for restorative justice at the local level would be for the neighborhoods that are affected by crime and for the criminal justice system to continue to work in partnership with each another and to recognize the value of this alternative to the traditional system, recognize that offenders can and should be accountable. That doesn't mean harsh, punitive measures, it doesn't mean more jail space, it doesn't mean fining people and releasing them. It can mean real, positive interaction with other people and real, constructive outcomes for everybody involved. Whether the program we operate continues at a small local level or expands, I'm not sure what is in store, but I'd like to see the professional community involved in the criminal justice system continue to recognize the value of this and continue to allow these kinds of measures. Whether it's our program or other initiatives, I'd like these programs to be legitimately involved in the criminal justice system and to be integrated with the system's everyday way of doing business.

For more information about the CCNP Restorative Justice Program, including an in-depth program evaluation, visit their website at:

By Laura Mirsky

Part two in this series can be read at:
Part three in this series can be read at:

This is the first article in a series about family group conferencing (FGC), a restorative approach to problem-solving that involves the children, young persons and adults in families in making their own decisions. Originally developed in New Zealand, the family group conferencing process has taken root worldwide and is now known by several different names, including family group decision making and family unity meetings, among others. Family group conferencing began in the field of child welfare and youth justice, but is now used in mental health, education, domestic violence and other applications.

Families are more likely than professionals to find solutions which actively involve other family members, thus keeping the child within the care of the family, rather than transferring care of the child to the state.

Family group conferencing has acquired varied characteristics in the different locations where it is practiced, but certain common elements are evident, as well. In general, the philosophy underlying family group conferencing holds that families, when provided with the necessary pertinent information, are better able to devise plans to protect their own welfare than are professionals, because families know themselves — their problems, strengths and resources — better than professionals do. Young people need the sense of community, identity and stability that only the family, in its various forms, can provide, and families are more likely than professionals to find solutions which actively involve other family members, thus keeping the child within the care of the family, rather than transferring care of the child to the state. Also, when families are empowered to fix their own problems, the very process of empowerment facilitates healing.

The key features of the New Zealand FGC model are preparation, information giving, private family time, agreeing on the plan and monitoring and review. In an FGC, the family is the primary decision-maker. A wide definition of family applies, including extended family and close, concerned friends and neighbors. An independent coordinator facilitates the conference and refrains from offering preconceived ideas of the outcome. During private family time, the family, after hearing information about the case, is left alone to arrive at their own plan for the future of the child, youth or adult. The plan is evaluated by professionals with respect to safety and legal issues, and resources may be procured to help implement the plan. Professionals and family members monitor the plan's progress and often follow-up meetings are held.

A critical threshold for a family group conferencing program's inclusion in this article is the use of private family time. By taking the decision-making process out of the hands of professionals and governments and putting it back in the hands of those people who are directly affected, private family time indicates a crucial paradigm shift; one that is fully in tune with the International Institute for Restorative Practices's (IIRP's) definition of restorative practices and its goal of building a global alliance for family empowerment.

Mike Doolan, former chief social worker for the Department of Child, Youth and Family in New Zealand, helped develop FGC in New Zealand and has assisted FGC initiatives in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Israel. Doolan's report, "The Family Group Conference, 10 Years On," can be read at:

"The capacity of families to take control continues to astound us."
— Mike Doolan

New Zealand was formerly a "cosseted welfare state, too costly to maintain," where professional decision making dominated, said Doolan. New Zealand was also institutionally biased against the Maori people. A disproportionately high number of Maori children were in the care of the state, over-represented in social workers' caseloads and almost always placed with families of European descent. "The FGC process emerged because we were desperate to find alternatives to panels and courts staffed with people who seemed wealthy and racist in comparison to the people who appeared before them," said Doolan. At about the same as time as the welfare state began to break down, the Maori underwent a renaissance and wanted to take matters into their own hands.

In the Maori tradition, the community is responsible for its children and people face the community in cases of wrongdoing. Also, the smallest Maori social unit includes a person's every living relative. According to Doolan, the FGC concept of extended family derives from that tradition. In New Zealand, the law states that every member of an extended family is entitled to attend an FGC.

The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act passed in New Zealand in November 1989. Said Doolan: "The act emphasizes that court proceedings, both civil and criminal, are a last resort, and encourages community-based solutions whereby families — take prime responsibility for their own children and young persons." Under the act, no court can make a decision on the disposition of a case unless an FGC has been held. More than 10 years later, the act has seen "outstanding results," said Doolan, adding, "The capacity of families to take control continues to astound us; families can make safe decisions for young people and are experts about themselves."

Doolan stressed the importance of mandated support for FGC. In New Zealand, he said, "we have a huge advantage," because FGC is the law, "not subject to policy-makers or practitioners." In other places, he said, "social work is having difficulty coming to terms with the notion of family led decision making. In the face of a growing body of knowledge — about the effectiveness of the family group conference partnership approach to problem resolution in child welfare, it still faces official and professional opposition where there is no legal mandate for the process."

Child welfare professionals across the world are grappling with this issue as Doolan has expressed it. Lisa Merkel-Holguin is director of the National Center on Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) within Children's Services at the American Humane Association. The center "provides training and technical assistance with FGDM all over the country and functions as a catalyst for good practice," said Merkel-Holguin. The center networks people with each other through conferences, its website and its online FGDM discussion group, and disseminates information about FGDM through videos and publications, including the AHA journal, Protecting Children. Two FGDM pilots are planned for 2004, with respect to adoption and pre-childbirth issues, to "expand the marketability of FGDM within child welfare," said Merkel-Holguin.

The center also creates mechanisms to research the effectiveness of FGDM to "standardize practices that are typically marginalized in this country," said Merkel-Holguin. The February 2003 issue of Protecting Children includes an extensive collection of family group conferencing research evaluations, a majority of which suggest a high level of satisfaction with family group conferencing by conference participants, both social service workers and families. A descriptive study on the center's website, co-sponsored by the center and spearheaded by Paul Nixon in the UK and Gale Burford in the U.S, asked anyone involved in with family group conferencing practice, research or administration to complete a simple, web-based survey.

"What started as an experiment in five communities in 1995 is now a widely recognized practice embraced by over 150 communities across the nation."
— Lisa Merkel-Holguin

Family group conferencing "has grown exponentially throughout the world," said Merkel-Holguin. In the United States, she said, "What started as an experiment in five communities in 1995 is now a widely recognized practice embraced by over 150 communities across the nation." England and Wales, she said, had only four pilot projects in 1994, but by 2002 had 97 family group conferencing initiatives running or under consideration by local authorities or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But, she said, there is a difference between FGC in New Zealand, where it is a right, in the UK, where it is described as "good practice," and in the USA, where, "all too often, it's described as a 'tool' or a 'technique.' " She explained, "When practitioners view family group conferencing as a tool to be used on families and not as a process in which to engage them — they overlook the key preparation and follow-up steps that are critical to building community partnerships and increasing family involvement."

FGDM has three essential elements, said Merkel-Holguin. Quality preparation before the conference is fundamental, so that families, social workers and others invited have a clear understanding of their roles and what they're being asked to do. Private family time is key, because it turns decision making over to the family and allows them a sense of control. It is also imperative that the FGDM facilitator does not prescribe the outcome of the conference. Preparation, which takes 20–25 hours on average, is "the toughest sell," said, Merkel-Holguin, not because people don't believe it's important, but due to "a down-turned economy with already stretched budgets." Private family time, she said, "speaks not just to family empowerment but to family leadership." About the third element, Merkel-Holguin said, "Too often, we're seeing that conferences are not being used for decision making. Families are being asked to rubber-stamp an official outcome."

If these three elements are omitted, one negates the democracy-building potential of family group conferencing, said Merkel-Holguin, adding, "The work of Braithwaite [John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration, 1989] is helping us to think about FGDM within the context of the democratic process. It will be interesting to see if child welfare embraces FGDM as a democratic experiment."

Robert Tapsfield is chief executive of Family Rights Group (FRG), a registered charity established in the UK in 1974 to provide advice and support for families whose children are involved with social services. FRG was instrumental in developing FGC in England and Wales. In 1990, FRG invited a group of New Zealand FGC practitioners to the UK to speak about their experiences. FRG then implemented FGC child welfare pilots with six local authorities in England and Wales. All six cooperated with a landmark research project, Family Group Conferences in Child Welfare, by Peter Marsh and Gill Crow, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Today, FRG encourages and supports authorities and volunteer organizations in developing FGC initiatives in the UK, provides practice guidance, print and video resources and a website (, runs trainings and conferences, and lobbies nationally for greater use of family-based decision making in situations of family conflict. The FRG runs the Family Group Conference Network, which provides members with access to FGC information, training and consultation, clarifies core principles, disseminates good practice, develops models for project evaluation and publishes a tri-annual newsletter. Network membership fees support FRG's activities.

The UK Children's Act was passed in 1989. Tapsfield called it, "a unifying piece of legislation that brought together other bits of legislation for children in need" and provided that decisions be made according to a core set of principles, mandating that the state work in partnership with families. But, he said, "although the principles are sound, [the act] doesn't prescribe a mechanism that provides for the principles to be implemented." Since there is no legal mandate regarding practice, he said, professionals dominate the mechanisms and it's up to them to decide what to do.

"Given the lack of a legal mandate and financial difficulties for local authorities," said Tapsfield, FGC in the UK has been "an extremely wonderful achievement. Over 50 percent of communities in the UK are either using FGCs or considering doing so." On the other hand, he said, the decision to use FGCs is almost entirely at the discretion of local authorities. Families still do not have the right to ask for an FGC and FGCs "could disappear" in the UK. FGC survives, said Tapsfield, because of commitment in a range of voluntary and statutory organizations.

Private family time is "symbolic of the heart of FGC … it says that families are the leaders."
— Robert Tapsfield

Tapsfield said that the response of many UK social service providers to FGC has been very positive. They welcome it because it makes sense and gives them a way to use their expertise to be restorative. Providers in another group, however, have been reluctant to give up their traditional roles and their power. "Some people — on all levels — will be opposed; it doesn't matter what you do," he said. A third group of people may not understand — or may have chosen not to understand — FGC. They claim to be implementing the practice already — talking to relatives, etc. — without ever really learning about it. Researcher Peter Marsh invented the acronym "DATA" ("doing all this already") to describe them. Because most social welfare professionals have heard of FGC, they think they know what it is, and that can be dangerous, said Tapsfield. But, he said, "They don't understand that the mechanism is different from the way they're making decisions." The key element of FGC, said Tapsfield, is private family time, "not just because it works, but because it's symbolic of the heart of FGC … it says that families are the leaders."

There is increased interest in UK courts in FGC and the government has announced the publication of a "Green Paper" — a policy intention — on how to respond to children at risk of abuse or offending, which covers both child welfare and youth justice areas, said Tapsfield. FRG is lobbying the government about the Green Paper to commit to FGC as practice, because it works and because it strengthens communities and families. Tapsfield hopes for a government mandate ensuring families the right to access FGCs in situations where there are serious decisions to be made, and obliging the state to convene an FGC when it would otherwise act to permanently separate a child from its birth parents.

Joan Glode is executive director of Mi'kmaw Family and Children's Services of Nova Scotia, Canada. The agency is using FGC with children in the two First Nation (Aboriginal) tribes of Nova Scotia: the Mi'kmaw and the Maliseet. Glode, a member of the Mi'kmaw tribe, teaches an Aboriginal perspectives course at the Maritime School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Its curriculum concerns "building the past into the future." Said Glode: "We're doing the same thing with our agency."

When the agency was founded in 1985, there weren't enough First Nation social workers to staff it. "There were only two in the province of Nova Scotia," said Glode. The agency got a full mandate for its program in May 1990, along with a large group of First Nation social workers. At that point, said Glode, "we knew we should be looking at customary care [using traditional tribal methods]."

The agency's FGC initiative began, said Glode, partly as a result of her participation on a panel of the Law Commission of Canada, which examined government response to Aboriginal abuse in institutions. The panel found that the sole purpose of Canadian schools and orphanages regarding Aboriginal children had been to remove them from their culture, language and institutions. The schools had violated Aboriginal laws, by, for example, preventing mothers from passing down tribal traditions and knowledge to their daughters. For Glode, the panel's findings were an epiphany.

Glode attended the IIRP's international conference, in Toronto, Canada, August 2000. She received training in restorative practices and heard a plenary speech: "Aboriginal People and Justice Issues," by an Aboriginal judge, the Honorable Murray Sinclair, Associate Chief Judge, Manitoba. The talk traced the centuries-long, systematic destruction of Aboriginal resources, power and traditions by the Canadian government and stressed the importance of finding culturally appropriate approaches to the problems these policies had engendered.

FGC "fits with First Nation worldviews of respect, sharing resources, mutuality and interdependence, a family coming together and seeking its own solutions — the primary values in Aboriginal society."
— Joan Glode

On her return to Nova Scotia, Glode used the valuable information she had learned at the conference. A tribal chief was angry with the way Mi'kmaw Family and Children's Services had handled a child welfare case, said Glode, so the agency held its first FGC, with the family, agency workers and the chief attending. The meeting took five hours. By the end, the group had come up with a work plan for the child. Some weeks later, a second meeting was held and everything on the plan had been accomplished. After a third meeting, "that was the end of it," said Glode, "It's been going fine ever since … The family needed to be heard."

The FGC project was then in the pre-pilot stage. "We knew we needed to formalize what we were doing," said Glode. With help from D'Uma Young, a young lawyer with a degree in tribal justice, the agency began to adapt FGC and circles to child welfare and First Nation standards. Glode said that her agency uses the New Zealand FGC model. Private family time is used "if the people want it," she said, "When we finish up the formal piece, we come up with a plan. Sometimes we do it together; it depends on the level of anxiety or pain."

FGC is "so validating for us," said Glode, adding, "It fits with First Nation worldviews of respect, sharing resources, mutuality and interdependence, a family coming together and seeking its own solutions — the primary values in Aboriginal society." In times of stress, said Glode, the first language for many Mi'kmaw people is Mi'kmaw. "Translating into English is painful," she said, "FGC allows them to speak in whatever way they wish. If you give people permission to talk, they will. Things extraneous to the matter will come up — things the family needs to talk about but never has. It's important to make sure that people don't get shut out."

Glode's agency received one of five CND $25,000 grants from the Centers of Excellence in Child Welfare of Health Canada to implement an 18-month project to formalize FGC. The project, said Glode, will follow 30 child welfare scenarios over time, half using FGC, half using the "regular" approach. Glode's agency is also talking to the government of Nova Scotia about including FGC in child welfare standards. In under a year, she said, the agency will present their case to the province, which so far seems open to supporting FGC. Glode hopes that the province will amend legislation so that FGC and circles can be substituted for appearances before a family court justice. Currently, the law allows for mediation as a substitute, but, said Glode, "that doesn't work."

Rob van Pagee is CEO of Eigen-Kracht Centrale, the Netherlands, and is active in implementing FGC in that country. FGC is operating in five out of 12 provinces in the Netherlands. Van Pagee published a book, in Dutch, Eigen-Kracht FGC in the Netherlands: From Model to Implementation, the first book on FGC in the Netherlands. Eigen-Kracht recently received 22,500-euro award for Most Innovative Program in the Netherlands from the Union of Directors of Child Protection. Eigen-Kracht Centrale's website is:

We need to send a different message to society … "It’s not us who can help you, it’s you that can help you."
— Rob van Pagee

The results of traditional child welfare work are "not great," said van Pagee. Studies in the Netherlands showed that one third of child welfare cases were helped by the system, one third remained the same and one third were made worse. "If you did nothing, you'd have the same result," he said. In conventional child welfare work "you report child abuse anonymously and the case is put away in a secret file. This is the opposite of what you should do," he said, because, in perpetuating secrecy, you also perpetuate the problem.

The success of FGC in the Netherlands has been a revelation for child welfare workers, who were cynical about families and thought that it was going to be hard to get families to come to FGCs, said van Pagee. The reality, he said, is that the child welfare system has been a bigger problem for FGC than the families. "Many social workers feel they need to control safety issues," said van Pagee. When he taught FGC to second year students in social work school he faced a great deal of opposition. The problem lies in the way that society sees social workers — the image that social work sells to society. Social workers are regarded as saviors, so people become social workers to save people. We need to send a different message to society, said van Pagee: "It's not us who can help you, it's you that can help you." The beauty of the FGC model, said van Pagee, is that "I finally can do what I'm good at — facilitating, not making decisions for somebody else's life; that's not good for them or me."

FGC, said van Pagee, gives respect back where it belongs — to the families — who are willing and able to take responsibility for their problems. "It gives people energy to have a vehicle to deal with their problems," he said, adding, "It's really rare for people who are exposed to FGC not to like it." And, said van Pagee, people come in big numbers. The average number of people attending an FGC in the Netherlands is 16.7. They come, bring their children, make plans, bring their own resources, support their plans, and most of the plans they devise are accepted by referral workers as safe.

Eigen-Kracht has 60 trained FGC coordinators, drawn from the community — "citizens who like to do it" — not social workers, said van Pagee. Their task is to make sure the conference is organized the way the family wants it in terms of time and place, attendees, traditions (beginning the conference with a prayer, etc.), even type of food. The coordinator may also facilitate a person in the family — a natural leader, often an elder — to help with FGC arrangements. The coordinators should not have an interest in the conference's outcome, said van Pagee.

"The model is in place, we know it's working, now we can play with it," said van Pagee. The approach of restorative practices and FGC are so similar, he said, that he doesn't understand why people need to differentiate them. "It's just the organizations' need to define themselves and has nothing to do with the needs of individuals," he said. Conferencing turns the system upside down and puts the needs of individuals first. "If you understand that, then models aren't important anymore," he said, adding, "You can combine models and change them according to the needs of the family."

Van Pagee cited two cases where FGC and Real Justice scripted conference models were combined. In one, a 17-year-old boy had committed a crime and his family was set to have a Real Justice conference, but the victim wanted no part of it. So they had an FGC, in which 17 extended family members came up with a plan to prevent the boy from embarking on a life of crime. In another case, a father had murdered the mother of two young children and was in prison. The extended family was scheduled for an FGC to address the needs of the children, who had, in effect, lost both their parents. The two sides of the family, however, were not emotionally ready work together on the problem. Instead, a Real Justice conference was held, focusing on the feelings and thoughts around the murder, using scripted Real Justice questions. Proceeding around the circle, everybody had a chance to have his or her say. The family took a break for lunch, then came back and did an FGC about the needs of the children, which was very successful. The hard feelings the two families had for each other had been softened by the Real Justice conference, so that the FGC could work, said van Pagee.

Conferencing turns the system upside down and puts the needs of individuals first. "If you understand that, then models aren’t important anymore … You can combine models and change them according to the needs of the family."
— Rob van Pagee

Van Pagee hopes that FGC will become law in the Netherlands, where discussion about the possibility is already "on a pretty high level." He would like to see a law like New Zealand's, where citizens have the right to a conference before anybody else comes into the family. "We get the most complicated cases referred to us — the ones the social workers can't handle," he said, but "conferencing needs to be accessible to all. Why should the social workers decide which cases get referred? The same is true with Real Justice conferences. Why should police or prosecutors decide? Why shouldn't citizens have the right to decide?" These principles should apply in all situations in society where decisions need to be made, said van Pagee: elderly adults going into rest homes, in health care, domestic violence, cases of mental and physical handicaps. The key element is that the family has the first chance to deal with the problem. "That's the paradigm shift," said van Pagee. But you need vehicles to re-establish lost communities. That, he said, is why FGC and restorative conferences are important.

Karin Gunderson is a teaching associate at the Northwest Institute for Children and Families at the University of Washington School of Social Work, Seattle, Washington, USA. She manages grants, raises funds and oversees FGC studies in her state, where over 700 FGCs have been held. Gunderson collaborated on the largest long-term follow-up study of FGC published to date: "Long Term and Immediate Outcomes of Family Group Conferencing in Washington State (June 2001)." Seventy FGCs addressed the well-being of 138 children that had been in the child welfare system for over 90 days. Children who had an FGC experienced high rates of reunification or kinship placement and low rates of re-referral to Child Protective Services. These findings generally remained stable as long as two years post-conference. The paper may be read at:

Gunderson is involved in another New Zealand model-based FGC study with young people ages 11–18 in high-cost residential group care. Family members are attending conferences for all the youths, "even kids who'd burned all their bridges" with inappropriate behavior, said Gunderson. An average of six to eight family members attends the FGCs, two to three from the father's side. This is the average number of family members attending FGCs in every study done in the US, with the same distribution of members from the mother's and father's side, said Gunderson. The study will examine data 6 and 12 months after discharge from care. Interviews will be done with social workers, family members and youths to find out what worked and why. Preliminary findings suggest that, after FGCs, "the trajectory of the kids is changed," said Gunderson. Although they haven't necessarily been placed with family members, they have gone to "less restrictive placements, as opposed to juvenile justice facilities or the streets."

FGC provides resources, support, connections and improved relationships between families and professionals. Local family members may have antagonism for a child who has caused problems, but expanding the circle brings in other perspectives and knowledge about the child, for the benefit of both professionals and family members. As a result of FGCs, fewer kids are referred back into care. But, said Gunderson, FGC is not just a matter of family placement: "It's about reinvigorating family connections. Knowing who you are and where you belong are important ingredients in adult resilience."

There are only a few situations where FGCs aren't appropriate, said Gunderson, adding, "Sometimes there really is no family." FGCs are also not used in sexual abuse cases in the early stages of prosecution, because prosecutors fear that if everyone gets together in an FGC, the offender will manipulate the victim into withdrawing the charges. "Prosecutors don't want us to do to FGCs in any sex abuse cases," said Gunderson, "but we don't agree. The bottom line is, the child is the customer and we're going to do what's in the best interest of the child." If safety is a worry, the conference might be held in a firehouse or police station.

Many FGCs come about when social workers are faced with impossible dilemmas, said Gunderson, adding, "The older the child is, the more you see an impossible mess." And, she said, "every social worker has 30 of these cases." FGCs, said Gunderson, provide social workers with new thinking and new resources. For example, one family member can take the children on weekends; another can take them weekday afternoons. And, she said, relatives can ask for things that social workers can't.

FGC must "come in from the margins and be put into the hardwiring of child welfare."
— Karin Gunderson

"When a neutral person does preparation and families get together and start talking, so many unnecessary barriers become visible," said Gunderson. For example, FGC uncovered a gender bias in the system. Traditional practice understanding holds that fathers don't participate in child welfare. In FGC, however, not only do fathers come, but their fathers come, and their mothers, too. "Did we not invite the men," asked Gunderson, "or did fathers assume the process was going to make them feel worthless and so send the woman to take care of the problem?" Also, there's a widespread belief in child welfare that children in care "have no families, or that their families are dysfunctional, in jail or disgusted with their kids and won't get involved." The system reinforces this thinking and provides no help in finding relatives. But, said Gunderson, "If you think the aunt and grandmother are the child's only relatives, you've got another thing coming."

A critical problem in child welfare policy, said Gunderson, is that children placed with family members tend not to get the same level of support or resources as those placed in care outside the family. Funding streams are earmarked for foster parents, rather than kinship care. A foster family will get US $800 for three children; a relative, US $300. When a child goes to live with his grandmother, she is often single, older and poor, and she ends up having to give him up. The child then ends up back in care and stays there.

However, said Gunderson, there is now a large demographic of people reaching grandparent age in the US. Formerly, children who lived with their grandparents were mainly the poor and/or people of color and their needs were discounted, said Gunderson. Now, she said, many middle class white people are becoming caregivers to their grandchildren and demanding financial help to raise the children. But, said Gunderson, due to deeply entrenched values, the state won't give money to family caregivers, simply because the children are their relatives, even if the alternative costs much more money.

FGC must "come in from the margins and be put into the hardwiring of child welfare," and social workers must be required to name, search for and engage extended family, said Gunderson. She is working on a project to train social workers and lawyers in FGC together, so both can help clients participate in the FGC process. She also hopes to train judges in the value of FGC and to help remove legislative barriers to the involvement of extended families in child welfare. If you have supports in many places in the system, you have a much greater chance for success, she said.

Tight budgets are a concern now, however. The primary mandate in child welfare is to intervene to stop abuse and neglect, and Gunderson is afraid that will mean fewer FGC facilitators. Washington state's child welfare agency has been praised around the country for FGC, and every study recommends FGC, "yet we're losing funds for facilitators," she said. Still, child neglect cases are increasing across the country, especially chronic neglect due to substance abuse, and, as the economy declines, neglect cases increase. FGC is very effective in neglect cases, said Gunderson, especially substance abuse cases, because an extended family member can take a child while a parent gets help for substance abuse problems, but this rarely happens in foster care or adoption situations. The current US presidential administration has launched a big adoption drive, said Gunderson. But, she said, if you look for placement among relatives, it's much more organic.

Julia Hennessy is social work service manager for the Essex County Council, UK, which delivers FGCs in three areas of service: care and protection of children, young people who offend and adult mental health care planning. The Essex County Council Family Group Conference Project website is here.

The 1996 Essex Family Group Conference Project, a one year child welfare conferencing pilot program for children who were in state care, was so successful that "it is now mainstream policy," said Hennessy, adding, "The FGC process is embedded in Children's Services Practice and Policy across the county of Essex. As part of case planning in partnership with children, young people and their families, social workers consider and make a decision on using the process for family support, child protection and looked-after children, as well as prior to care proceedings applications." CPS has developed partnerships with the health and police departments. "The outcome of the partnerships has been exceptional," said Hennessy.

The New Zealand FGC model is employed. Good preparation is essential. The conference is held at a time and place convenient to as many family members and other close interested parties as possible. An independent coordinator facilitates. Private family time is used. Professionals agree to the family's plan, unless it places the child or youth at risk of significant harm. Various agencies and professionals negotiate resources. The plan is monitored and reviewed over time and review FGCs are built into the process, with dates arranged at the original FGC.

The real question professionals must ask themselves is: "Do you believe children should be with their families? And should people have a say in their own lives?"
— Julia Hennessy


FGC works because "it's about families being given good information to make decisions, children having the opportunity to have input," said Hennessy. In the past, she said, children were being put up for adoption because there was no opportunity to make other plans for them. Now, she said, families and communities are taking personal responsibility for their children. Involving the extended family in the conferences maintains a child's network, she said, and preserves its essential racial, community and family identity. Adopted children commonly become disconnected from these identities. Kinship care, a typical outcome of an FGC plan, preserves these identities.

Some health care professionals really like FGCs, said Hennessy, while some do not. "Individual power values are the hardest thing to overcome," she said, adding, "People are afraid of losing their power." But she said, the real question professionals must ask themselves is: "Do you believe children should be with their families? And should people have a say in their own lives?"

Essex County Council Child Protection Services (CPS) has seven senior practitioners and 20 independent coordinators and managers who deliver an average of 120 child welfare conferences per year in Essex County, said Hennessy. If a child is subject to care proceedings (i.e., a ward of the state), a lawyer asks for an FGC, but the case must go to court first. In the UK, said Hennessy, information on a child subject to care proceedings can't be disclosed without the court's permission.

An FGC can be accomplished in Essex County in two ways, said Hennessy. It can be voluntary when the parents retain full responsibility for the child. When an FGC is offered as an option the family must be in agreement and explanation must be given about the process. If the risk to the child is high, i.e., in cases of serious injury, sexual abuse, fractures or shaken baby, the court makes the initial care order and the local authority is the lead decision maker. These cases usually involve younger children where there's a strong possibility for adoption, said Hennessy, and the court can mandate that an FGC be held, even if the parents do not agree.

Hennessy cited the case of a family with two young children, both of whose parents had severe alcohol problems. The court determined that the children could not live with the parents and the referral came to CPS. The parents refused to attend the FGC, but the court mandated one anyway. The parents didn't attend the conference, but the rest of the family came together. "We knew there was an extended family out there," said Hennessy. The father had been married before and had older children whose information was important. In the end, both children were placed with a maternal aunt. This never would have happened without a court mandated FGC, said Hennessy.

Charles Clark is deputy chief constable of Essex County Police. He has been a police officer for 35 years and one of the lead chief police officers on youth justice issues in the UK for over 10 years. He has worked with the British Home Office on a range of policy development in relation to young people and was closely involved with the development of the Essex Family Group Conference Service.

The UK Crime and Disorder Act 1998 brought a statutory rigor to youth justice, expressing a clear and explicit aim toward prevention for the first time, said Clark. The introduction of Youth Offending Teams galvanized key players in the main statutory agencies — social services, probation, police, education and health — to work together on the prevention agenda. The Youth Justice Board of England and Wales was created to set national standards and targets and monitor performance.

The Essex police became interested in using FGC in youth justice because the model had proved successful in the child welfare arena. It was important that youth justice FGCs not be about punishment, but about changing people's behavior, said Clark. FGCs should not merely hold people to account, he said, but "set them up for a decent life in the future." However, Clark added, "When we asked for funding for the model, we not only wanted something that would feel good, but something that would give us hard-nosed results. The government held us accountable to reduce crime, too." The message, he said, is that FGCs "are not a soft option, but the toughest and most effective means of dealing with young people." It's much more difficult for youth to face up to what they've done than to simply be handed punishment, he said.

The Essex police, in conjunction with the Youth Justice Board, funded The Essex Family Group Conference, Young People Who Offend Project. The University of East Anglia provided a two-year independent evaluation of the project. Data was gathered from a small sample of 30 youth justice FGCs; the youth involved had offended at least three or four times and were at highest risk — on the verge of custodial sentences. The project's results were "spectacular," showing a "massive" reduction in reoffending rates, said Clark. Conventional youth justice approaches produce a thirty to sixty percent reoffending rate, while the project saw a reoffending rate of seven percent after two years.

FGCs "are not a soft option, but the toughest and most effective means of dealing with young people."
— Charles Clark

"I was skeptical when I first heard about the FGC process, but I was reassured and taken aback by the strength of the process," said Clark. He cited the case of a troubled young man who had burglarized residences of several elderly people. In foster care, the boy felt alienated and unloved and had fallen in with a bad crowd. Six months after the FGC, he was "very much on track," living with his aunt and uncle, attending school full time and speaking at FGC promotional events.

Private family time is an important part of the youth justice FGC model. The big issue, said Clark, is "What is the family going to do to help young people come through?" After the family comes up with a plan, it is regularly monitored to ensure that it is being followed. Families find solutions that are lasting and effective in an environment where facilitators are trained to bring people together, said Clark. Facilitators are drawn mainly from professional agencies and can include social workers, probation officers, police officers and others. The main qualification for a facilitator is his or her value system, said Clark: a genuine belief that the family is the best decision-maker.

In the youth justice FGC model, victims and their supporters attend conferences, along with youth offenders and their supporters. Of victims who participated in the project, 90 percent expressed satisfaction with the process and said they thought that FGCs should be offered to everyone in a similar situation. Clark said he was fascinated to see the interaction between victims and offenders. He expected a good deal of anger on the part of the victims, but found, instead, that most victims were very sympathetic toward the young offenders. Victims didn't condone the offenders' actions, he said, but were glad to be allowed to chastise them and tell how the offense had affected them.

It is important, said Clark, that the FGC process be marketed effectively. One way is by stressing that FGCs are much more cost-effective than conventional measures. Also, stringent evaluation is essential. The outstanding evaluation obtained from the Essex youth justice FGC project has been an effective marketing tool with government agencies. Clark said that there is now interest in youth justice FGCs within the British Home Office and the House of Lords, and among senior cabinet officials, coinciding with the government's interest in restorative justice.

Another article in this series about family group conferencing will be appearing soon on the Restorative Practices eForum.

Karin Gunderson, featured above, will be a plenary speaker at the IIRP conference, Building a Global Alliance for Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment, in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, in August 2003. For more information, go to:

By Laura Mirsky

This article is a follow-up to a presentation from “Dreaming of a New Reality,” the IIRP's Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices, August 2002. In that presentation Vidia Negrea, director of CSF Hungary, discussed her experience learning restorative practices in the USA and her plans to open a school in her country. The text of Negrea's presentation is available here.



Vidia Negrea (second from left), director of CSF Hungary, poses with staff members Laszlo Gupcsi (far left) and Erika Bognar (far right), and two students.

A new Community Service Foundation (CSF) school has just been launched in Hungary — its goal: to implement restorative practices with delinquent and at-risk youth in that country. The school, which opened January 6, 2003 in Budapest, is funded by grants from CSF and the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in the United States and the Hungarian Ministry of Children, Youth and Sports. The Hungarian Ministries of Justice and of Social and Family Affairs are also supporting the school as “a model for institutions to work with children with problems or at risk,” said Vidia Negrea, the school’s director.The CSF school represents an important turning point for Hungary. As a matter of course, delinquent youth in that country have been removed from their home environment and housed in reformatories or other special institutions, put on probation or jailed. Negrea explained: “There is no law in Hungary supporting day treatment.” She hopes that the school will give troubled youth a better chance to reintegrate into society by providing an alternative approach in their own community. A new law will take effect in June acknowledging the need for services provided by NGOs (non-government organizations), in effect encouraging entities like CSF Hungary.

Working as a psychologist at the largest, oldest boys’ reformatory in Europe, in Aszod, Hungary, Negrea saw that the methods in use there weren’t working. Research data on 500 boys showed that six months after leaving the reformatory, 75 percent had reoffended. Data analysis revealed that the boys who had most closely followed reformatory rules had reoffended sooner and more often than others.

Boys at the reformatory told Negrea that they were scared to go home, afraid of being labeled for life as “bad” and terrified of meeting the victims of their crimes and their families. To address this fear, she asked 100 students in her care to write an imaginary letter to their victims. Their heartfelt, remorseful letters had Negrea and her colleagues in tears. Some boys wrote real letters to their victims, apologizing for the harm they had done to them and their families and offering any help they might provide. This was the first time Negrea felt she came close to fulfilling people’s needs, both victims and offenders, instead of just administering punishment.


My friends and colleagues at home deserve a place where they are happy to come to work, even with the most difficult students.
- Vidia Negrea

Negrea received her first training in restorative practices when Beth Rodman and Paul McCold of the IIRP came to Hungary. She was thrilled to finally find a framework for dealing with troubled youth similar to her experience with the letter-writing project at the reformatory. She later spent a year doing hands-on training in restorative practices at CSF schools in Pennsylvania and was determined to bring the fruits of her training back to Eastern Europe.

She also appreciated the restorative work environment created for the staff, where mutual support was a workplace priority. Said Negrea: “My friends and colleagues at home deserve a place where they are happy to come to work, even with the most difficult students. Here at CSF, I realized it was possible.”

At first, Negrea wasn’t confident that she could lead such an effort. Near the end of her stay in the United States, CSF/IIRP president Ted Wachtel suggested that Negrea try being a supervisor. When she served as a substitute supervisor at two CSF schools, she gained confidence working in new settings. “It was a great opportunity to see what I had learned and how my learning would apply elsewhere,” she noted.

The key to the work, Negrea discovered, “was not about being knowledgeable about everything happening in each particular school and having all the answers, but about using the same way of working with people and being responsible and respectful with people. The structure and philosophy were the same.” Negrea realized that her work in Hungary would be based on implementing the same structure and philosophy.

When she went home to Hungary in 2001, Negrea quit her two jobs: as a psychologist at the boys’ reformatory, and at the National Institute for Family and Children, and began to try to introduce restorative practices. Some of Negrea’s colleagues told her that Hungary wasn’t ready for those methods. “It’s not America,” they said. But Negrea understood that restorative practices were “not based on American culture, but on relationships between people.”

Negrea drew on her existing relationships with people in social services — students, probation officers, teachers, administrators, police — and “made a lot of noise” about why restorative practices are important. She was then asked to do trainings for government institutions that wanted to make changes. “I used to be sent in as an expert to say why things weren’t going well,” said Negrea, adding, “They expected me to report on how to change or close the institutions.”

Instead, Negrea did two-day Introduction to Restorative Practices trainings with all the employees at several institutions, “not just teachers and counselors, but the gatekeeper, the cook, the director.” Negrea told them: “If you really want to change, you have to think about how you can work together, otherwise, they’re going to close you down.”

Negrea was struck by how quickly people understood the practices she introduced. “Very simple people can understand in hours that it’s their responsibility to change the institution,” she said. The institutions stayed open and are now using restorative circles. In one big group home, a semi-secure unit “where children are sent because nobody else can deal with them,” the staff is using circles for themselves and with the children. At first it was strange for the staff to discuss their problems with each other. They were accustomed to blaming each other and relying on a hierarchy. But now they are expressing their issues openly and the children are developing their own group “norms” — standards for behavior.

Negrea also did restorative practices presentations for prosecutors, judges, lawyers, probation officers, schoolteachers and administrators — people who will refer children to her CSF school. She used IIRP training videos and overhead projections, which had been translated into Hungarian, as well as interactive exercises.

To elucidate the social discipline window, which illustrates the concepts of TO, FOR, NOT, and WITH, she tried an exercise at one of her presentations that was originally developed in a CSF Professional Learning Group. Dividing the participants into four groups, she gave each group the same simple task to perform (drawing a flower). She then did NOT do anything and completely neglected one group (little support or control); did the entire task FOR another (high support, little control); dictated TO another group exactly what to do (high control, little support); and gave the WITH group the help they needed, but let them perform the task themselves.

By the end of the exercise, the participants had obtained a thorough, visceral understanding of the restorative paradigm. People in the neglected group felt hurt because they were being ignored. Those in the FOR group sat there and did nothing, upset that they had no input. The TO group members were angry and resentful at being told what to do. The people in the WITH group were happy and productive, having been treated restoratively: that is, with both high support and high control.

In all, the restorative practices presentations went extremely well. “I was amazed,” said Negrea, adding: “Nobody wanted to break for lunch; they wanted to keep going.” Instruction in Hungary is traditionally very intellectual and theoretical, said Negrea. The restorative practices trainings, in contrast, were dynamic and interactive, based on real practice and understanding through action and reflection.

The trainings were a revelation. One teacher said that, deep inside, she had always known about the concepts Negrea had shared, but had never had the words for them, never known how simple and obvious they could be. Said Negrea: “I wanted the authorities to realize that they needed the program.”

Negrea’s strategy has been working. At her last presentation for police, some of them realized that they had been talking on the phone about the same students for a long time without ever meeting each other. They talked about their need to start working with each other, and not just in a formal way. “Like a small but good virus, it’s spreading,” said Negrea. The idea is to disseminate restorative practices everywhere. “Children at the new school will take what they learn home with them and it will affect their families,” said Negrea.

Negrea hired Erika Bognar, a young Hungarian woman, as her first CSF staff member. Bognar had six weeks of training at the CSF school in Bethlehem. Despite initial language difficulties, she felt that she learned a great deal about restorative practices to bring back to her country, and was able to work with Negrea on plans for the opening of CSF Hungary. A third staff member, Laszlo Gupcsi, was hired more recently as a counselor and math, science and art teacher, and there are plans to hire more staff as the school expands.

It's all working. Kids are confronting each other and taking responsibility for themselves and each other.
- Vidia Negrea

The school now has four students, with more on the way. The four are ages 13 – 16, all children at risk who were expelled from school: two who had used drugs, one with a criminal record and one with truancy problems. All are doing very well at CSF Hungary. These are kids who never wanted to come to school, but now they come on time every day, even during heavy snowstorms. They help each other get up in the morning by calling each other on the phone. “It’s a tough group,” said Negrea, but she feels that the kids and the staff are making great progress together.

“We’re doing exactly the same things we did at the CSF school in Bethlehem,” said Negrea: “The same schedule, the same group structure, the same questions, the same ‘feelings poster.’ ” And it’s all working. Kids are confronting each other and taking responsibility for themselves and each other. “I thought it would be more difficult,” said Negrea. But, she said, “the tough kids feel respected, so they have no reason to be disrespectful to the staff or to each other.”

Feedback from parents has been extremely positive. Negrea delighted parents by inviting them to attend intake interviews, along with the students and caseworkers. One parent exclaimed: “You mean we are going to be in the same room with our children and their social workers?” Said Negrea: “From the beginning, they have seen restorative practices and have been part of the program. Everybody had the chance to speak up.” It’s also a new thing for parents to be called with positive news from their children’s school, a “good surprise” for them, said Negrea. One mother said that she never thought that her boy would go to school — that he never went before without being pushed.

Feedback from caseworkers has been positive, as well. Most caseworkers didn’t believe students would come to the program. Now, said Negrea, “every day we are being viewed more and more seriously.” Students are being referred to the school from group homes all over Budapest. Soon, they will have from 12 to 15 kids. Negrea wants to keep the maximum at 15 for now.

Negrea is hopeful that restorative practices will be good for Hungary. “Like every other country that was under the socialists for so many years,” she said, “somebody always decided FOR you what you had to do, or told you what TO do.” For that reason, she thinks, the notion of doing things WITH people will be especially beneficial for Hungary. (Socialism is not a bad thing in and of itself, Negrea believes, but it became an unsound system because people abused power.) “Restorative practices will be a good tool to help people develop fair relationships between people,” she said. “Hungary needs that,” she said, “and not just Hungary!”

A "feedback group," shown here, is a structured opportunity for community members to tell one another how their behavior affects them.

“Some people are waiting for a miracle,” said Negrea, “but I need to remember that it’s not all me, it’s up to them, too. The referral sources — everyone.” In the candid spirit of restorative practices, “We’ll be open for everybody,” she said, adding, “The Ministry of Justice is already planning to visit.” Ultimately, sustained by the knowledge that she has the full support of CSF and the IIRP behind her, Negrea declared: “I’m sure it’s going to work.”

The IIRP’s Benjamin Wachtel is traveling to Hungary from Pennsylvania this month to help set up the school’s computer network, train the staff and kids to use it, and instruct them in digital video and photography. He’s looking forward to the experience, even though he doesn’t speak Hungarian and the kids don’t speak much English. Negrea and her staff are teaching the kids English, a little at a time, and Wachtel will no doubt provide assistance with that, as well.

The kids at CSF Hungary are proud to be the first ones in a new program, and to finally really belong somewhere. Said Negrea: “We have kids with a lot of new dreams.” We at the IIRP have great hopes for Negrea and CSF Hungary, and we’ll keep you informed of their progress.

By Laura Mirsky

Caption Text Test Stuff For FunNancy Riestenberg is a prevention specialist with the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning (CFL), which oversees funding and programming for public schools in that state. She works with violence prevention education, restorative schools, safe and drug-free schools and coordinated school health programs. She was interviewed by journalist Laura Mirsky at IIRP's Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices in August 2002.

Q: How are restorative practices being implemented in public schools in Minnesota?

A: The whole range of restorative practices is happening in the schools: Family Group Conferencing, Restorative Group Conferencing, Circles to Repair Harm, Circles of Understanding, Victim Offender Dialogue. All of those practices are being tried to varying degrees in schools. The activity is at a relatively high level.

-Nancy Riestenberg

It's hard to keep track of it because people go to trainings and then they may do things that are difficult to see or to track. For instance, a teacher may go to a training and that may influence the way they conduct their classroom, or an administrator may go to a training and then handle discipline differently than what he or she did before. In some instances, school districts have taken a more holistic approach or a sort of institutional approach—they've actually changed some policy and decided to proactively train people. Activity is happening at all levels: at a kind of grass roots level, at a building level and in some instances at a district level.

Q: How have restorative practices changed the schools where they're being used?

A: It's hard to quantify that. I would say that they've changed the way people do their job and their attitudes toward their jobs. It's not uncommon for me to hear administrators say, "I like my job more," "I feel more confident that I'm really getting to the root of the problem," "I feel as though by doing this I make better connections between students and teachers," "I feel as though I have more connections with the students that I work with." The atmosphere in the building might feel better, more comfortable, more respectful. Others feel that their teaching has improved, that they're making connections with children, seeing children being empowered. It's always fun when a kid can ask for a talking piece and hold a circle in the corner of the playground with his friends and feel as though they have taken care of their problems themselves. When kids learn a problem-solving process and they practice it, it becomes their own; they figure out how they can do it themselves.

Sixth-grade students in a circle at Kaposia Elementary School, South St. Paul, Minn.

Q: What appeals to you about restorative practices?

A: I have always worked in the fields of prevention and education. I have dealt with social issues. One of the issues that intrigued me was bullying. There has always been a question in my mind about the school's response to this and how they might do it differently. If we suspend bullies or make them sit out from recess, how does that help them or make them change their behavior? How can you help people figure out another way of behaving so they don't hurt other people? I think a good restorative process attempts to get at that and gives people some ideas. It is also a place where people can begin to reflect on what they're doing and why they do it.

The other thing that appealed to me about restorative practices involves empathy. I spent a lot of time working in the area of child sexual abuse prevention education. One of the things that struck me is that one of the reasons why offenders do what they do – this most horrific act – is because they either don't know how to or have decided not to empathize with someone. If they were to stop for a moment and think about what this would be like, they just could not go down that road. I know that the skills of empathy can be taught. The parts of empathy can be taken apart, explored and looked at, but you can't make someone empathize with someone else. With restorative practices, you create a safe place, people are prepared, they're supported, they're there with their friends or their family and they know that they can express their feelings. Everybody is part of figuring out how to solve a problem. I think it creates an environment where empathy can happen. So you can lead them to the water and hope that they will drink in the process. In terms of prevention, that is such a key element. If we can get people to be able to empathize with each other, they're so much less likely to hurt one another. It's a place where you can both teach it and hold out the possibility of people being able to actually practice it.

Q: You did a three-year evaluation of the restorative practices in your school districts. Could you tell us about it?

A: We had money from the legislature to evaluate the implementation and results of using restorative practices in four different school districts. We had an urban kindergarten through eighth grade building, a suburban school district with three buildings, and a consolidated rural district that had three buildings and a rural high school. This was an evaluation. It was not research, so we didn't have control groups and all those sorts of things. This was really about gathering information, about telling the story of how they went about doing this and what kind of preliminary outcomes they saw. There were a number of things that emerged from this evaluation. I think one of the most important, and for some people reassuring, things that we found out is that to make change happen in a school you need to have at least two to three years. Just because somebody gets money in July they're not going to be able to implement immediately in September and then start testing it in January. Nothing happens that fast in a school. That's a very important thing for people to remember if they are going to sustain any kind of energy in trying to create change in a building or among people. It takes time. Even with people who have the heart, soul, energy, resources and desire, it still takes time.

Passing the "talking piece" at Kaposia

Another thing that we found is that it's easy to gather information about offenders, about what kind of an impact a restorative process might have had on them and whether or not they reoffended. It's a little bit harder to gather information about the impact on the person who was hurt or on the community. It doesn't show up as numbers, so you don't have it on the discipline track. "We had five victims last month and this month we only have two" –nobody keeps numbers like that. How would you define them anyway? That's kind of hard. That has to be defined by the person. Therefore, you have to use other ways of figuring out how to evaluate. You have to ask people questions and you have to go with their perceptions and feelings. That gives you a richer piece of information, but it's more qualitative than quantitative. The other thing I think we learned from this it that you really need to put the two together. You have to have numbers and you have to have the stories. You need to have both of those things together to get a clear understanding about what happened and to figure out what you can learn from that.

In one building in particular there were very strong quantitative results. It appears that with the institution of Circles to Repair Harm, along with circles used in the classroom for building community, they went from about seven incidents of violence a day to around one a day in the course of three-and-a-half years. That was a significant drop. There was also a significant drop over three years in terms of overall behavior referrals to the office. They went from somewhere in the thousands to 450, like 1600 to 450 over the course of three years. That drop was an all school effort. It was not the effort of just one person. It was the administrative team making decisions to do things differently, as well as quite a number of staff people deciding that they were going to include this community-building activity in their classroom.

That was another key thing we learned from the evaluation. If you just have a restorative intervention, that will get you someplace. If you just have classroom management skills that are cognitively based and are about problem solving rather than using power and control over kids, you will get someplace. If you get the two of them together, you will go so much farther in a quicker period of time because the whole school then becomes congruent. There are lots of classroom management approaches that are cognitively based. They're about problem solving. They're about helping individual children learn how to make amends, use conflict resolution, etc. That's been around for a long time and there's been good research on it indicating that it's very helpful, useful and that it makes the classroom a better place. But when you have the inevitable fight, which is going to happen no matter what, then what do you do? Are you going to be able to continue to carry the philosophy that you built up so nicely in the classroom into the principal's office or are you going to have to go back to suspensions and expulsions? So restorative interventions help to complete a kind of circle of support, if you will, for children within the school. The message is: we recognize that people are going to make mistakes, but that doesn't mean that you have to leave the community. We have this other way to hold you accountable and help you fix the problem that you made. That was a very interesting observation—when you put the two together, you just got further faster.

Q: Do you have any particular stories that you would like to share?

A: There's one story that I like to tell about four third-grade boys: three African-American boys and one European-American boy. This was in a suburban district, so the African-American boys were very much in the minority, about 10% of that school were kids of color. The white boy called the other three boys a racial slur. In this district that was considered a bottom-line behavior, which meant it was racial harassment and he could have been suspended for probably two or three days.

The boys were familiar with the circle process and the administrators were willing to consider a restorative response to the offense. The boys all agreed that they wanted to sit in a circle and talk about what had happened. The restorative justice planner in that school facilitated the circle. The significant thing that came out of the circle was that the three African-American boys had an opportunity to tell the boy what that slur meant. For one boy, it was the word that a white man used when he shot his uncle in the head. The second boy said, "it's the word those men in the white sheets use in the movies when they go to burn down my people's houses." The third boy said when he hears that word, "it just hurts my heart so much I just have to leave; I have to get away." I think the offending boy knew it was a powerful word, but I kind of want to believe that in third grade he didn't know just how powerful it was. He does now. He certainly knows now.

I thought the boy received a gift from those other boys. They had the courage to share that with him. What they wanted from this kid, to make amends for what he had done, was for them to be friends. So for the rest of that year, they played together on the playground. Three years later, the woman who ran that group said that they still played together. They were still friends. That's one of my favorite stories.

In another school incident, a fight broke out among about four or five boys. This fight happened, of course, in a context. It happened a couple of weeks after a boy in that school died in a tragic car accident. One boy made some disparaging remarks about the deceased–that what happened was probably his fault. Maybe he wasn't wearing his seat belt, or he was driving too fast, or he was impaired in some way. He was blaming the person who had died, in a way. Some of the friends of the boy who had died heard this and were incensed. It was very recent. Grief was still very high in everybody's mind and they jumped him. They all got into a fight.

The boys would normally have been suspended for at least three days for a fight. But, in this particular instance, they all agreed to go to the restorative justice planner in the school. They wanted to have a circle to talk about what happened. As they talked about how their behavior had affected themselves and other people, they all came to the conclusion that the person they had harmed the most was the boy who had died. To make amends for this, they all got into the restorative justice planner's car and they went to the graveyard and apologized to the gravestone. It's that kind of creativity that is so compelling for me, where you can have a connection between the true harm and the consequence. That is profound. Not only is it profound, I'm sure that it was also therapeutic for these boys. I bet it was probably healing for them. I think that it helped them to appreciate more what they had lost. That's the kind of connection we need as human beings. That's what being a human being is about. It's not about the recipe of the student conduct book. Those are some of my favorite stories.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to bring restorative practices into their school?

A: I guess the first thing that I would advise people is that if they are in a position to do it and they believe in it, they should just do it. There's a lot of autonomy amongst the adults in a school, and wherever you can find it, even if it is just with the low-level stuff, it is a good way to operate. In doing that, you can do that grassroots kind of building where people hear about things and they become intrigued. They come because of their own interest to try to find out about something. If you are a person who does have a position of power, then maybe what you want to do is try to go at the top end. I think that you just need to decide what your sphere of influence is and start there.

Another piece of advice is part of the restorative philosophy: This is a process that should be voluntary. Just let go of the idea that everybody in a school is supposed to do this and that every incident needs to be handled this way and everybody needs to be a believer and everybody needs to participate. That's a road to exhaustion. Look for people who are friends. Look for people who are compatible. Look for people who would be advocates with you. Go where the strengths are. Do that in a respectful way. That's what the philosophy calls people to do.

I think the other thing that is important in trying to do something in a school is that if you get to a position where you can do training, involve kids in the training. It makes a big difference. It gives people a different perspective on kids to see them in a different setting. They offer an enormous amount of wisdom and perspective.

Q: What do you see, hope, dream is the future of restorative practices in schools?

A: I hope that this is not a fad like a lot of other things. I'm concerned that people don't co-opt the term just to appease people, that they don't just call certain things restorative when they're not. I think a good example of that is community service. Community service is a wonderful thing. It can be an extraordinary way for kids to learn. It's a great way to teach people. It can be part of a restorative agreement where you use community service as a means to make amends. But when you tell somebody to do community service, just because it's community service doesn't mean it's restorative. You're missing those steps of coming together, talking about who was affected and then deciding together what would be some ways to repair this harm. If one of the things that they figure out is, "Oh, it would be cool if you did community service. You took time away from education, so why don't you tutor in the classroom? You're good at math." That's very different than saying, you took time away in the hallway, so now I want you to go to community service.

A celebratory moment

I hope I come to a point where I will be able to ask school people if they have policies attending to the needs of victims in their school and they will be able to answer yes. They will be able to articulate what those are. There will be things offered to kids when they have been harmed, harassed, bullied, or part of a fight–the opportunity to talk to someone, to get education, to be able to ask for a restorative process. I would hope that we could come to a time when the school is not just focused on the person who did the harm, but is equally focused on the person who was harmed. Pairing punishment with restorative processes is perhaps problematic. People do it because it satisfies both sides. Certainly, even if you suspend the child, doing the restorative process pays attention to the victim, but I hope that we would get to a place where we would not have to do the two of them together, that people would be satisfied with restorative consequence.

I hope that people make the connection between restorative interventions and the way the staff is trained to talk to kids, to manage their classroom and to try to help the kids with their behavior. I would like to see them make the connection between restorative interventions and the health curriculum they teach about problem solving and decision making. I would hope for school people to have enough time somewhere in their lives where they can stop and breathe and see the larger picture.

A video of this interview can be found here.

This page includes a summary and link to the full report on the findings of a three-year study of the Thames Valley Police restorative justice program, the first large-scale restorative justice program in the UK. The study was conducted by Carolyn Hoyle, Richard Young and Roderick Hill, researchers from the Centre for Criminological Research at Oxford University.

Papers and reports on the Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (RISE) for restorative community policing. RISE is a project of the Law Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra.

By Laura Mirsky

Len Wildman and Tom Dwyer work for the Rochester Police Department in Rochester, New York, U.S.A. Len is the manager of the Family and Victims Services section. Tom is the coordinator of that section’s Juvenile Accountability Conferencing (JAC) program. They were interviewed by reporter Laura Mirsky at IIRP’s Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices in August 2002.

Len Wildman is manager of the Family and Victims Services section, Rochester Police Department, Rochester, N.Y.
Tom Dwyer is coordinator of Juvenile Accountability Conferencing, a program of the Rochester Police Department’s Family and Victims Services section.

Q: How did you get involved in integrating conferencing into the police department?

A (Len): Before Tom came to the police department to coordinate the project, we had heard about conferencing within our department, the juvenile section. We were interested in focusing on juveniles and developing a diversion program. We knew we needed more and better diversion programs. We just didn’t know in which direction we should go. We had eliminated a few programs because our research was telling us that they weren’t effective. One of our commanding officers had heard about something called restorative practices. She really didn’t know much about it and she asked me to pursue it. I called a number of people.

One of them directed me to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I met the folks at Real Justice [an IIRP program] on the phone. After a number of conversations and some faxed material, I sat down with my supervisor and told her what I thought the program was about. It was a unique idea and I thought it would work for police officers in our department. She was convinced that it was a good thing to try. She found some money for us. We hired Real Justice to come and train 20 of our police officers and about 10 of our civilians in my section to be conference facilitators. As an experiment, we chose a junior high school. All of our junior and senior high schools have school police officers. We picked a few officers and began the process. We did about 40 conferences in a year. We thought it was very successful. We wrote a grant, won the award and were able to hire Tom to coordinate the program. This was the official beginning of our program which has now operated for three years.

Q: Do you feel that the program has worked well?

A (Len): We are asked that by our grants people and by our chief. We measure our recidivism rate by noting whether or not the juvenile enters back into the juvenile system. We don’t track them after they become adults and in New York state you become an adult when you are 16. We have had a 93% success rate thus far. Again, by our definition, this means they don’t come back into the system. I think that mirrors some of the research that has been done, so we are glad that we are on target and that helps us define this as successful. I was a little frightened in the beginning because most of the police departments with such programs were small and served communities of less than 50,000 people. And I was a little concerned about how this process would work in a large police department with a more diverse community. I would go around at conferences asking, “How big is your community?” and, “Is there somebody around who is doing this in a community of 250,000 people that is multi-ethnic and has varying backgrounds?” I didn’t meet anybody. There were a few attempts in private agencies, but I didn’t meet anybody within the police community. That is in this country (USA). I think in other countries, it is different. So it was a concern.

I don’t have that concern now. It is a bit bureaucratic. It’s a little bit more difficult because of the largeness of our organization. However, I don’t think that’s the fault of restorative practices, I just think it is the problem of trying to implement a program in a large organization.

Q: What kinds of offenses are you dealing with in this program?

A (Len): Based on the advice of a few people and my own notions about starting new programs, I tried not to make too many hard and fast rules. We said we would target juveniles, 15 and younger. We decided we would look for minor crimes, where children have minimal involvement with the police or none, but that we would not keep ourselves from felonies or other situations outside that definition if we thought they were appropriate. We also decided that we wanted to hold conferences pre-court rather then post-court, again with a few exceptions.

Also, the fire department been having difficulty with arson and juveniles. Aside from a very small percentage of children who set fires who have mental health issues, most kids set them because they are playing with matches. It’s accidental, but it’s very scary, obviously. In New York state, all fires, regardless of who sets them or what the intent is, are felonies. They don’t feel comfortable charging 9-year-olds with felonies. So they were at a loss for several years on what to do and how to manage this. I suggested to Tom to go talk to the arson investigator about using conferencing as an alternative tool. He has, in the last three months, gotten a lot of conferences from that.

Q: Tom, how would you describe your experience with this program?

A (Tom): We’ve had 140 conferences to date and I get goose bumps from the 140th one just like I did from the first one. We see that the process is really working and, in turn, there are some positive outcomes that come from conferences. It’s exciting to be a part of this and it just keeps getting better for me.

Q: Are you personally involved with each conference?

A (Tom): Yes, I go to just about all of the conferences as the coordinator. If I have facilitators that come in, I like to go through the conference afterwards with them, to debrief them and give them some feedback on their facilitating. I also get feedback from the participants. At the end of each conference, we pass out surveys to all the participants and get their feedback. We value their input as well and file each survey.

Q: Can you tell me the kind of feedback you have received?

A (Tom): It’s been exceptionally positive in just about all cases. Victims, offenders and their supporters really like this process. They feel there should be more of it and they wonder why it didn’t happen years ago. They really embrace the process. Everyone needs to sign the conference agreement at the end, so if they’re not satisfied, they need to work that through during the conference. There is a dialog that occurs. Most of our questions come from a script. However, a lot of our conferences, after all of the questions are asked in the script, it’s open to dialogue - people sharing more of their story and more about their experience with each other.

Q: Can you tell me about a particular conference that really had an affect on you or really stood out for you in some way?

A (Tom): There’s been many. There is such a dynamic about each one that is very special. It’s really difficult to find just one. (To Len) Which one should we pick?

A (Len): Tom, I don’t attend very many anymore, but I used to, and I used to facilitate them. One that Tom facilitated, and I’m sure he remembers, was after Columbine and during the school shootings that were occurring around the country. We had a 14-year-old boy who had a replica of a Beretta handgun. It was not a red-handled gun, so it looked very real. He was waving it around in front of the school and pointing it at children and passersby.

The officer that arrested him was very concerned that this kid just didn’t get it. He didn’t get the distress that he had caused all these people. The officer was more concerned about the kid understanding this than he was about the punishment. The officer called Tom and asked, “What can we do about this?” Tom suggested a conference. In the course of the conference, the child heard from teachers, passersby and other students about how his actions affected them, seeing that gun, imagining something terrible was happening in their community like they had seen on TV. Particularly, I remember one man who was on the second floor of a museum across the street who could not hear anything but could see what was happening. He was too frightened to come to the conference - still. But he wrote a letter that he asked to be read. The child began to break down and cry, feeling the impact of what he had done. To me, that was very powerful - and still is.

Q: Was his family there?

A (Tom): His mother was there and the boy’s employer came to the conference. The victim, the police officer and school officials came to express how it affected them.

Q: Has there ever been another problem with this child?

A (Tom): No. He’s done well. He found a lot of support at the conference. He realized that people weren’t out to get him, but just wanted him to know the effect of his actions on other people. That was really important for those that came, that was the most important thing.

Q (Len to Tom): Do you remember the one about the wastepaper basket?

A (Tom): Yes. This incident occurred at a middle school when a boy, on a dare, threw a wastebasket over a railing and hit a girl down below. This could have been a tragic incident.

I first heard about it through the victim’s godfather, who knew about restorative practices and knew about what the police department was doing. The victim’s family was very religious. They were seeking answers as to why this happened to their daughter. These two students had never met each other.

The conference brought all of those people together to share how they were affected by the incident and what they wanted as an outcome. One of the outcomes of the conference was that this boy, as a community service project, would go out to the schools with a police officer to tell other young people about peer pressure, about accepting a dare and the consequences of his actions. Interestingly, the young lady wanted to join him and talk about her feelings and how she was affected. That was completely voluntary and wasn’t planned going into the conference. That was from the stories and people talking about their feelings. Everyone embraced this. In fact, the offender, out of his own personal fund, brought her flowers before the conference even occurred. Those were presented to her before the conference even began. I had no idea that was going to take place. It just showed the profound effect it had on the offender, as well as the victim and their families.

Q: Tom, did you do other police work before you started this sort of facilitating, were you a police officer?

A (Tom): No. Actually, I worked in the finance area, working with police grants. I also did some volunteer work with the victim assistance unit within the Rochester Police Department, so I knew a lot of the personnel in the department. I had a lot of human services experience. The job and the philosophy behind restorative practices, it was something that was a part of who I was. I think it’s part of my belief system: forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, positive communication and people taking responsibility for their actions. I feel that is the most important thing about working in this position: that your belief system is consistent with restorative practices.

Q: Do you both feel that the work you are doing is having an impact on the community at large?

A (Tom): I know it is. I think the people make it possible and the police officers that give us the referrals. You can’t do this work alone. It’s other people identifying with the same issues as I just explained, the same personal issues. I think we have all been victimized at one point or another in our lives and this is how we would want to deal with it in our own personal situations. It’s very helpful that it is out there because most people really don’t want to go to court. I see it as a win-win situation for the police department and the community to have a process that includes all the people that are affected and gives everyone equal ability to express their emotions. It’s the kind of program I see building from the bottom up. No one really embraces the program until you really experience it and see it for yourself. Len and I both do presentations and talk about juvenile accountability, but it’s not until you participate, in some role, in the conference that you see the dynamics and sparks really happening. You see the receptivity of the community and how they rally around it. It’s a growing process. The best way to become educated about it is to take part in the process. We also bring in a lot of community members that just want to observe our conferences and they’re more than welcome to come and see any of our conferences. It’s a very open format.

One of the things that has additionally come out of conferencing and marketing is that the Rochester Police Department has contracted out with many agencies in the Rochester community. These agencies work with offenders when victims have asked that as a consequence for the crime or violation that the offenders give back to the community. So a lot of the victims and their families are asking that there be a community service project for that youth. That’s another way for the community to know more about restorative practices. In fact, we do not enter into a contract with agencies until we spend some time educating them about restorative practices. We want them to know what a conference experience was like for that young person and some of the issues that may have come out of that conference. Additionally, we share the conference agreement with the community service agency, so they know the responsibilities that the young person has in carrying out the conditions that were set up for him or her.

Some of our young offenders are working with painters, painting houses inside and out. They are working with carpenters and learning carpentry skills along with doing their community service project. The offenders really embrace some of the skills they learn along with the projects. They come to know of the resources that agency can offer them. We have an open door mission, so the kids serve food to the homeless and less fortunate. All these kids are supervised in their community service projects. It’s another form of outreach for us where the community gets involved and becomes part of the process.

A (Len): In the beginning, Tom would have to scurry around and find an agency that might do community service. We would have to explain what we were about and what kind of a community service project we wanted the youth to do. We weren’t interested in children picking up papers on the side of the road. We wanted them to get something out of it, an added value, something beyond the actual work. In the second year of our grant, we talked about finding agencies that would work with us. If the agency was in the neighborhood where the child lived, we would go to them and ask, “Can you take this child? What could you do?” For example, in the third year of the grant, Tom came to me and told me about two 7-year-old kids who had broken some windows. Their community service was to work in a voluntary vegetable garden in the community. They apparently enjoyed this because after their service was up, I think it was 10 hours, they asked the volunteer coordinator of that agency if they could stay for the rest of the summer. So the agency called Tom and asked, “Is it OK if these kids stay? They want to learn about gardening and we want to teach them about adult relationships.” Tom said, “Yeah, if they want to!” I think the idea is, “Why not take the next step?” It seems natural. It allows them to connect with the child and bring the child back into the community.

Q: Do you see restorative practices expanding to other departments within the police department? Would you like to see that?

A (Len): Yes, I would like to see that. I have some notions that I’ve been kicking around about how restorative practices can be part of ethical practices and how to integrate that into the way we operate as a police department or, for that matter, any organization. I also see that it could become part of management, the way we manage and supervise each other. I’ve been experimenting a little within my organization, with my own section. Also, there is a group of people who have formed something called the Finger Lakes Restorative Justice Consortium, of which Tom and I are members. They are more interested in promoting restorative justice in its many forms, not just the forms we use. We are a part of that effort. Also, the county of Monroe, which we are in, has about one million people and there are many different governmental agencies—school districts and police departments—who have inquired about what we are doing and how it works. The juvenile detention center, which is county-operated, is asking us how they could use that practice in their detention center. We are very willing to talk about what we do, what we believe in and in keeping with the practice of restorative justice, let them decide what’s best for them.

Q: Has this begun to spread to the schools in your area?

A (Len): In our area, the schools utilize our program. They like it because Tom can be there in a few hours. He can usually set up a conference in less than a week, as opposed to slower court or school processes. They love that Tom gets involved in addressing issues they’re having with the child, when they don’t think the school process will work fast enough or well enough from their perspective. They have all seen what the conferences can do. Something that I thought 3 years ago I think is beginning to happen now. It has snowballed. Now there are times when Tom may conference 5 to 10 a week, as opposed to 5 to 10 a month, to the point that we’ve hired a part-time person to work with Tom to help him with the process. We still want to keep to the belief that face-to-face contact with each of the participants and sitting down with them and talking to them about their roles and expectations of the process is better than phone conversations. We are on the brink of becoming overwhelmed as people the process as an effective tool. I’m very glad for The Finger Lakes Consortium because they can help in directing people. There are so many ways of doing this. It doesn’t have to be our way or a particular model. Our model works for us, but there are other models that may work for other people. Also, I know two districts outside the Rochester City School District have already explored training some people and doing their own conferencing.

A (Tom): Additionally, I want to make mention of one middle school that has endorsed us completely. It is the collaborative effort of many folks. In lieu of short term suspensions, they agree to juvenile accountability conferencing in place of a suspension, which they feel is punitive and doesn’t serve the needs of their students or the families that are involved. We have a school resource officer, two of them actually, in one middle school. The administrators in that school have come to endorse and believe in restorative practices. In that school, the teachers know us. There are many instances of bullying, different low-level assaults and theft at that school. We have a little location within the school. We’re allowed to use some of the equipment in the school to make copies of our agreements, to use the phones and to work with some of the staff in educating them about restorative practices. We go where we’re wanted and where we can be a resource to the community.

Q: What advice would you give to a police department that wants to get into restorative practices?

A (Len): You have to find a few people who really believe in it. We eventually targeted one school and one section of the police department—we have seven—to see if we could create some interest. So it was a slow start. We require, with a few exceptions, that the arresting office be a part of the conference. So we have to arrange for that person to be there at a time that is convenient for everybody. As they saw the process, they thought it was really good. They would go out and tell a couple more police officers. One person who was a supporter held the rank of commander, a high-level management position. She believed in it. And because she believed in the idea, she allowed me to do it and gave me the opportunities to do it. When she was promoted and no longer in my particular bureau, she still supported it. I always felt I had an advocate. Also, it was important to find someone like Tom Dwyer, who is very sincere, very patient and flexible. I hired Tom primarily because when he asked me what the rules were, I told him, “I don’t know.” When he asked me what the parameters of the program would be, I said, “I don’t quite know yet.” He liked that. Most of the other people I interviewed had social work backgrounds. They were very competent and probably, in some ways, more qualified than a person with an academic background in finance and accounting. But they wanted to know what the rules were and what the parameters were. I didn’t want to set those yet because I didn’t know how it would grow. He’s comfortable with that. That is the advice: don’t get too comfortable with the rules. Let this play out. It’s kind of organic. It won’t hurt anybody. I had a professor in college when I was in the master’s program in counseling who said, “No one ever died from counseling, so don’t worry about it.” No one is going to die from this process. We learn from mistakes we make or we learn from the process. People teach us, I think, all the time.

Q: Anything else you would like to say?

A (Tom): I’m just anxious to get back to Rochester to do more conferencing. Someone else in the conference earlier mentioned that she was anxious to get back to do circles. That’s where I really get my satisfaction. That’s what excites me, running the conferences and meeting all these families that have the same concerns that I would with my family.

A (Len): I have been employed with the department for many years as I mentioned. I have done many different projects and I am thinking seriously about retiring in 6 months. So, for me this has been a very satisfactory way to leave my agency. I feel that this is a wonderful piece, to see it grow and live. It certainly will live well beyond my employment in the department. I think when I do retire, between fishing trips and gardening, I might write about my experiences. It feels very satisfying to have been a part of this contribution to the community and see how the community has reacted to it. I think the best way to leave someplace you work is when you feel good about it and I feel good about it.

If you would like to learn more about the Juvenile Accountability Conferencing program or have any questions you may contact Len Wildman or Tom Dwyer at (585) 428-7236.

For more information about the IIRP’s Real Justice program and available trainings go to:


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