Family Group Conferencing

Background and Concept

Family group conferencing is based on centuries-old sanctioning and dispute resolution traditions of the Maori of New Zealand. In its modern form, the model was adopted into national legislation in New Zealand in 1989, making it the most systemically institutionalized of any of the four models. In South Australia, family conferencing is now widely used in modified form as a police-initiated diversion approach known as the Wagga Wagga model. (Developed by the Wagga Wagga Police Department, this model uses police officers or school officials to set up and facilitate family conferencing meetings.) Conferencing is also being used in U.S. cities in Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and several other States and in parts of Canada. (The Wagga Wagga model is the primary approach that has taken hold in North America.)

A variety of offenses have been resolved through family group conferencing, including theft, arson, minor assaults, drug offenses, vandalism, and, in a number of States, child maltreatment cases. In New Zealand, conferencing is used in the disposition of all but the most violent and serious delinquency cases (Alder and Wundersitz, 1994; Maxwell and Morris, 1993; McElrea, 1993).

Family group conferencing involves the community of people most affected by the crime—the victim, the offender, and the family, friends, and key supporters of both—in deciding the resolution of a criminal or delinquent incident. The affected parties are brought together by a trained facilitator to discuss how they and others have been harmed by the offense and how that harm might be repaired.

Procedures and Goals

Conference facilitator with victimsThe conference facilitator contacts the victim and offender to explain the process and invite them to the conference. The facilitator also asks the victim and offender to identify key members of their support systems, who also will be invited to participate. The conference typically begins with the offender describing the incident. The other participants then describe the impact of the incident on their lives. Some argue that it is preferable to allow the victim to start the discussion, if he or she wishes to do so (Umbreit and Stacy, 1996). Through these narrations, the offender is faced with the impact of his or her behavior on the victim, on those close to the victim, and on the offender’s own family and friends, and the victim has the opportunity to express feelings and ask questions about the incident. After a thorough discussion of impacts, the victim is asked to identify desired outcomes from the conference; in this way, the victim can help to shape the obligations that will be placed on the offender. All participants contribute to the problem-solving process of determining how the offender might best repair the harm he or she has caused. The session ends with participants signing an agreement that outlines their expectations and commitments.

Goals of family group conferencing include the following:

  • Providing an opportunity for the victim to be directly involved in the discussion of the offense and in decisions regarding appropriate sanctions to be placed on the offender.

  • Increasing the offender’s awareness of the human impact of his or her behavior and providing the offender an opportunity to take full responsibility for it.

  • Engaging the collective responsibility of the offender’s support system for making amends and shaping the offender’s future behavior.

  • Allowing both offender and victim to reconnect to key community support systems.

An Example of a Family Group Conferencing Session

A family conferencing group convened in a local school to consider a case in which a student had injured a teacher and broken the teacher’s glasses in an altercation. Group members included the offender, his mother and grandfather, the victim, the police officer who made the arrest, and about 10 other interested parties (including 2 of the offender’s teachers and 2 friends of the victim).

The conferencing process began with comments by the offender, his mother and grandfather, the victim, and the arresting officer. Each spoke about the offense and its impact. The youth justice coordinator next asked for input from the other group members and then asked all participants what they thought the offender should do to pay back the victim and the community for the damage caused by his crime. In the remaining 30 minutes of the hour-long conference, the group suggested that the offender should make restitution to the victim for his medical expenses and the cost of new glasses and that the offender should also perform community service work on the school grounds.

Considerations in Implementation

The family group conferencing process has been implemented in schools, police departments, probation offices, residential programs, community mediation programs, and neighborhood groups. Conferencing is most often used as diversion from the court process for juveniles but can also be used after adjudication and disposition to address unresolved issues or determine specific terms of restitution. Conferencing programs have been implemented within single agencies and developed collaboratively among several agencies. After completing a training course, either volunteers or paid employees can serve as conference facilitators.

Participation by all involved in conferences is voluntary. In addition to the victim and offender and their family members, a conference might involve teachers, other relatives, peers, special adult friends, and community resource people.

Lessons Learned

To date, two studies have been conducted to assess the impact of family group conferencing with young offenders. One study (Maxwell and Morris, 1993) assessed the impact of New Zealand’s law mandating the widespread use of conferencing. It found that families of offenders in conferencing programs are more frequently and actively involved in the justice process than are families of offenders whose cases are handled by standard procedures. It also found that offenders, victims, and their families described the conference process as helpful. Preliminary evaluations of conferencing programs in the United States also indicate high levels of victim satisfaction with the conference process and high rates of offender compliance with agreements reached during conferences (Fercello and Umbreit, 1999; McCold and Wachtel, 1998).

Practitioners involved in family group conferencing programs observe a reduction in fear for many victims. When used as a diversion from court, conferencing can provide a much speedier and more satisfying resolution of incidents than would otherwise be the case. Family group conferencing also builds community skills in conflict resolution and participatory decisionmaking.

For More Information

For more information about family group conferencing, contact:

  • David Hines, Woodbury Police Department, 2100 Radio Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125–9528, 651–714–3600 (phone).

  • Kay Pranis or Sue Stacey, Minnesota Department of Corrections, 1450 Energy Park Drive, Suite 200, St. Paul, MN 55108, 651–642–0329 or 651–642–0338 (phone).

  • Real Justice, P.O. Box 229, Bethlehem, PA 18016, 610–807–9221 (phone).

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A Comparison of Four Restorative Conferencing Models Juvenile Justice Bulletin February 2001