Paper by Frank Früchtel, presented in a plenary session at "Restoring Community in a Disconnected World Part 2," the IIRP''s 12th International Institute for Restorative Practices World Conference, October 21-23, 2008, Bethlehem, PA, USA.

Family group conferencing (FGC) has been used in New Zealand since 1989. This new way of care and protection support planning was triggered by an accusation of “institutionalised racialism” (Puao te ata tu, 1988, p. 25) by the then Department of Social Welfare towards Maori tikanga (customs and traditions). This historic mind-set denied Maori families their own ways of problem solving and decision making, thereby prolonging the process of colonisation as “institutional decisions were being made for, rather than by, Maori people” (ibid p.18).

FGC has begun to be adopted in Germany for non-racist issues in response to the general unwanted side effects of care and protection work. This article examines the hypothesis that what makes FGC necessary is not the issue of racism but a more fundamental phenomenon of administration, law, professionalism and modern government. We will argue that FGC is a legal procedure needed to cure the side effects of a welfare state’s procedures.

Habermas (1987) states that we have two options of explaining how society operates: the logic of the System or that of the Lifeworld. The lifeworld views society as a community: a network of relationships among people, such as family, friends, colleagues, schoolmates, lovers, club members and so forth. Members of such networks support each other because of the affinity and affection they experience in their relationships. They often will look out for each other and in times of need, help each other, simply because they care. The type of support used in the lifeworld is usually concrete, tangible and part of everyday life. Hence, those who receive support normally get what they expect from their relationships. Interestingly, with the lifeworld system, there is not a legal entitlement for support and no legal contract to enforce it. The support is value-based and although there can be an expectation for the favour to be returned, this is not the expectation that motivates. Rather, it is the belief or conviction in the principles of support and care. By acting and believing so, the values inherent in people and relationships are nurtured and strengthened — a self-energizing cycle.

The fabric of the lifeworld is woven by a type of communication where people try to understand the other person’s situation and viewpoint and act on the resultant understanding to affect each other. The more engaged people are with their lifeworld, the more they experience a sense of belonging and self-worth, receive and give support, and the more they integrate as members of a community. The self-energizing cycle of the lifeworld facilitates an important social work goal of integration. But social work is not part of this cycle — social work belongs to what Habermas (1987) calls the system.

Social work’s origin was industrialisation, which led to a destruction of village-based natural support networks when people transited to urban centres. A new way to deal with mass poverty was required — an organised system based on a functional logic without natural ties. This system is modern society with its administration and laws, politics and economy, organisations and professionals — experts who use logic that is significantly different to the logic of the lifeworld. The logic of the system is described by Max Weber as “instrumental rationality” (1964, p. 18), whereby decisions and actions are taken when there is a perceived benefit. The market economy is driven by this logic.

Nowadays, when a client visits a family service centre, the professionals there are paid a salary for their expertise based on a work contract. This contract is aligned to a funding agreement that their employer often has with an external stakeholder who finances the service. As such, a helping system is maintained that fulfils a responsibility of administering to people who have a legal entitlement for support. The family service centre professionals may empathise with the plight of the clients who seek support, but they can only offer help if they assess that the client’s problem is within the criteria of his or her entitlement. The type of help has to fall within the policies of the organisation and the realm of interventions recognised as a standard in professional practice. Thus, the expert assessment or diagnosis triggers the help.

Assessment and support are meant to be an objective scientific process repeatable at any time by any professional. The helping relationship is generalised — it does not need any natural ties. The communication involved has to fulfil a strategic purpose. The professional service delivers a predictable quality and specialised effectiveness, which beats the generic (and not always one hundred percent predictable) support of the lifeworld. Professional service also unlocks the narrow logic of the lifeworld for further intervention. Once a client is “in the system” the system also analyses and monitors other needs and problems, using a logic which may actually widen the narrow and traditional lifeworld perspective.

The medical profession has taught us that whenever specialists work, there are risks of side effects. Habermas has described such side effects as the colonisation of the lifeworld: “The imperatives of the system invade the lifeworld in the same way colonialists did master a tribal society and enforce assimilation.” (Habermas, 1987, vol. 2, p. 522, translated by author). The imperatives Habermas refers to are the mediums which fuel the system (formal law and money), producing “functional integration” (ibid).

Invasion happens when economical or legal mediums begin to shape (re-form) the relationship and the functioning of the lifeworld, and can be seen in postcolonial New Zealand. In traditional Maori society, children are not considered the wards or the “property” of their parents but are regarded as members of the tribe. Responsibility for their care is shared. Children can even be raised by caregivers who are not immediate biological family. This system called Whangai (Atwool, 2006) allows for children to have a place in several family systems. The Whangai institution conflicts with government’s administrative adoption system and adoption laws, which do not recognise grandparents and other tribe members as having the rights to make decisions on behalf of children in their care — unless formal adoption or guardianship has been arranged, not allowing children to be part of two or more families (Love, 2005, p 18). If it is not clear to which family children belong, the legal system is not able to classify the group as a family with its accompanying rights. Therefore the Maori family is viewed according to a model of individual responsibility and “ownership.”

If the legal entitlement for the care and protection of children is enforced solely with the means of the legal or economical system, the following side effects are usually observable.

Professional support or supervision, which is often an outcome of a legal decision, has 1) an inbuilt mechanism of exclusion — citizens become clients and will often learn quickly to rely on the help of social workers. This support is often more reliable than that from relatives, friends or neighbours. Clients begin to nurture ties with these professionals and this often results in 2) weakened ties with natural support networks (McKnight 1995). The same weakening occurs when people lose the ability to organise, advocate and care for themselves, because professionals are caring and advocating for them and undertaking decisions over their estates. When disadvantaged or disabled people received special support in specialised schools, homes or sheltered workshops — support that was intended to shelter and nurture— they became (3) cut from the fabric of the lifeworld through exclusion from their families, friends, neighbours and, in general, from mainstream society.

Social workers can impress children clients in a foster home with their polite and democratic manner of working, and the children will sometimes appreciate the child-rearing practices of professionals over that of their kin. Hence, the (4) failures of their own parents become highlighted, shame results and the efforts and authority of the parents are devalued. Before these children entered foster homes, the operating procedures of the state’s child protection teams demanded that (5) professionals systematically distrust the lifeworld as they perceive it and highlight weaknesses within the family. These professionals are entrusted to ensure the safety of children, and the extreme professional way of fulfilling this statutory mandate is to place a child or young person under the supervision of the state. By doing so, (6) the authority and responsibility of parents and kin are significantly reduced, thereby devaluing and weakening the family.

The dilemma facing social workers is how can social work, as part of the system, support the lifeworld without colonising it? For example, when the basic needs of food, shelter and education of children are not attended to, how can social work have the necessary impact on parents and yet leave them in the driver’s seat? To achieve this, social workers must do more than only link “clients” to the interventions that are provided by the experts in the system. While these expert services may be appropriate and necessary, social workers should also work towards de-linking citizens from expert “supervision,” and activate and utilise the problem-solving wisdom from within the lifeworld. Expert services must be organised around lifeworld solutions and remain permeable to lifeworld wisdom. This implies that interventions which try to minimize their own colonising effects need to also intervene in the system to adapt it to the lifeworld.

There is a need for a legal and professional procedure to create an inbuilt mechanism of preventing the legal and professional system’s tendency to overstep their boundaries and to invade lifeworld territory, without jeopardizing the beneficial effects of system support. FGC seems to be such an invention — able to perform on both sides (lifeworld and system) well.

The introduction of FGCs in 1989, through the Children, Young Persons, and their Families Act, was a dual response by the system to ameliorate the concerns of the lifeworld and to utilise its resources. Before 1989, professionals undertook assessments and made decisions for children deemed at risk. Large numbers of children were placed into state care outside of the family, culminating in widespread Maori concern at this system of alienation and discrimination (Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective, 1988). The FGC is a legal response to ensure that care and protection needs are met using plans designed by the lifeworld. Under this new approach, a care and protection coordinator — with statutory powers — calls the extended family to a formal meeting, encouraging complete family attendance. The family includes the child, parents, guardians, caregivers, extended family and others whom the family may invite, and professionals involved in the process.

The FGC meeting of the extended family has three main parts: 1) exchanging of information — where the care and protection coordinator provides the family with all pertinent information relevant to helping the family make informed decisions regarding the child; 2) a family-only time — which allows the family to discuss the child’s situation, develop solutions and make decisions; 3) final agreement — where the professionals return to the family to listen to their decisions. These are clarified, assigned time frames and responsibilities, and made final. Further follow-up meetings are often held to discuss progress and adjust the plan. This system utilises the lifeworld knowledge held by families and friends to make decisions for the care and protection of children.

However, in practice FGCs need to be sensitive as well as effective and this is not always the case. To be a “spear” of the system, which heals the side effects of the system, FGCs must be more than a method of care and protection casework — it needs to redefine “what is the case” in a more complex way. FGC is an approach at the intersection of four dimensions of work: 1) supporting people; 2) mobilising network support; 3) organisational development; and 4) enforcing ideas of what is required in society.

Therefore FGC casework involves: 1) Individuals; 2) their natural networks, which they draw support from; 3) the organisations that serve them; and 4) the structures in society that affect them. These four dimensions form the acronym SONI — a tool for analysing and guiding practical social work according to the lifeworld theory of Hans Thiersch (1986 & 1992). In the framework, as shown in Figure 1, the lower half of each quadrant indicates a dimension of the SONI model and the upper half describes key intervention techniques.

The Individual and Casework

FGCs needs be surrounded by an organisational culture that uses a strengths perspective, working in accordance with the will of individual clients. Social work often talks about what clients “need” and seldom about what clients “want.” A strengths perspective seeks to find each person’s motivations, rather than trying to motivate them. It is also important that social workers create “home games” (as opposed to “away games”) because people can lose confidence and demeanour when placed into the role of clients standing on unfamiliar ground. Home games are the prerequisite for a planning atmosphere where people are strong and impactful. A good FGC is therefore a home game for a family — which may be an away game for social work professionals.

A home game is determined by: 1) the local venue; 2) ensuring that clients’ cultural values and rituals are utilised; 3) making sure a number of lifeworld supporters are present; and 4) setting aside private family time where it is clear that professionals are the audience and the lifeworld people are the owners of the process.

SONI Framework of the Lifeworld Approach

The Network as Part of Casework:

There are findings from FGCs in Berlin that FGC coordinators are more effective when strongly connected with their community (Früchtel et al, 2009). We call this “case unspecific work” — work as part of casework but with no specific case in mind. This process makes FGC social workers more resourceful when establishing networks around the concerned families and is a factor in determining positive outcomes. The professional connects with their community, with people outside of the social service sector — bankers, builders, café owners, church workers, sports and recreation groups — the list is endless. These connections are made without a specific case in mind (case unspecific) in order to find resources that will later positively assist social workers’ to work effectively. Successful coordinators are a walking treasure chest of community resources and connections to all sorts of people gained through case unspecific work, and they are regularly drawing upon this social capital.

The Organisation as the “Case”

The FGC pilot evaluation in Berlin showed that goals developed at the conferences were often not achieved because the service providers involved with the plan were not flexible enough. These organisations provided “one size fits all” solutions — predetermined approaches to casework. Lifeworld solutions are tailor-made solutions and require that service providers undertake a change in culture, and this can require significant organisational development. Tailor-made solutions for excellent FGC practice require individual service-user plans — to increase the quality of individuals’ lives. Importantly, these plans must involve a structure for the improvement of providers’ service delivery. To be effective as a means of decreasing the colonialising effects of the system, FGCs must highlight and show how professional systems can become more flexible in allowing solutions tailor-made for lifeworld logic — an alternative to imposing standardised professional programmes and interventions.

Society as the “Case”

FGC is part of casework and casework can exhaust itself helping individuals. “Social workers [however] have a commitment to principles of social justice” states the fourth ethical principle of the International Federation of Social Workers (2005). All codes of ethics for social workers refer to a structural responsibility for social justice alongside the responsibility to help individuals.

Social work is the part of the system and has an obligation to amplify the vibrations of the lifeworld to ensure that the system perceives the perspectives of the lifeworld. In the SONI model’s dimension of “structure,” FGC is the warning section for the system, with sensors that are sensitive for not only detecting problems, but also for convincingly and influentially thematising these in such a way that they are acknowledged and utilised by the system (Habermas, 1996, p. 359). Those who only administer and execute laws lose this important function, which is necessary to ensure that the system and lifeworld are aligned.

A good FGC practice manages to combine empowering casework with structural empowerment. Structural empowerment requires that FGCs are not just used as a clever method for mobilising resources and for getting easier consent from clients. Rather, FGCs are to be utilised as a microcosmic will formation that produces a communicative power to influence the enactment of statutory processes within formal legal procedures. It is within this context that the law acts as a medium to link lifeworld and system, and to channel the expression of families’ interests and needs” (Hayes & Houston, 2007, p. 996).

FGC is not a method but a government policy using administrative, legal and professional means to build professional boundaries for professional systems in order to create lifeworld space for service users. As such, the FGC is a professional development tool which provides a methodology to combat the current of professionalism. It is not only a social work method but a democratic tool, a citizen’s right to limit the imperialism of professional and administrative systems.


  1. Atwool, N. (2006). Participation in decision-making: The experience of New Zealand Children in care. Child Care in Practice, 12(3), 259-267.
  2. CYP&F Act (Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act), commenced: 1 Nov 1989, in: gpacts/public/text/ 1989/an/024.html
  3. Früchtel, Frank et al. (2009): Familienrat als konsequente Sozialraumorientierung – Ergebnisse aus einem Berliner Modellprojekt, in: Forum Erziehungshilfen, Juli, pp. 17–27.
  4. Habermas, Jürgen (1987): Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Zweiter Band. Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft, Frankfurt (Theory of Communicative Action. Vol 2: A Critique of Functionalist Reason).
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  7. International Federation of Social Workers (2005): Ethics in Social Work, Statement of Principles,
  8. Love, Catherine (2005): Family Group Conferencing: Cultural Origins, Sharing, and Appropriation — A Maori Reflection, in: Burford, Gale & Hudson, Joe: Family Group Conferencing, pp. 15–30, London.
  9. McKnight, John (1995): The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits. Basic Books, New York.
  10. Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare (1988): Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Day Break). The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, Wellington.
  11. Thiersch, Hans (1986): Die Erfahrung der Wirklichkeit, Weinheim & München (The experience of reality).
  12. Thiersch, Hans (1992): Lebensweltorientierte Soziale Arbeit, Weinheim & München, Juventa (Lifeworld oriented social work).
  13. Weber, Max (1964): Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Köln (Economy and society).

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