Restoring Community

Originating in New Zealand with the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act in 1989, the legislation created a process called the family group conference (FGC), which soon spread around the world. North Americans call this process family group decision making (FGDM). The most radical feature of this law was its requirement that, after social workers and other professionals brief the family on the government’s expectations and the services and resources available to support the family’s plan, the professionals must leave the room. During this “family alone time” or “private family time,” the extended family and friends of the family have an opportunity to take responsibility for their own loved ones. Never before in the history of the modern interventionist state has a government shown so much respect for the rights and potential strengths of families (Smull, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2012).

FGC/FGDM brings together family support networks—parents, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors and close family friends—to make important decisions that might otherwise be made by professionals. This process of engaging and empowering families to make decisions and plans for their own family members’ well-being leads to better outcomes, less conflict with professionals, more informal support and improved family functioning (Merkel-Holguin, Nixon, & Burford, 2003).

Young people, who are usually the focus of these conferences, need the sense of community, identity and stability that only the family, in its various forms, can provide. Families are more likely than professionals to find solutions that actively involve other family members, thus keeping the child within the care of the family, rather than transferring care of the child to the government. Also, when families are empowered to fix their own problems, the very process of empowerment facilitates healing (Rush, 2006).

The key features of the New Zealand FGC/FGDM model are preparation, information giving, private family time, agreeing on the plan and monitoring and review. In an FGC/FGDM, the family is the primary decision maker. An independent coordinator facilitates the conference and refrains from offering preconceived ideas of the outcome. 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. Professionals evaluate the plan with respect to safety and legal issues and may procure resources to help implement the plan. Professionals and family members monitor the plan’s progress, and often follow-up meetings are held (Morris & Maxwell, 1998).