The History of Family Group Conferencing
FGC originated in New Zealand as a way to address the failures of traditional juvenile justice and to incorporate indigenous Maori values that emphasize the role of family and community in addressing wrongdoing. Institutionalized into law in 1989, FGC is now the standard way to process juvenile cases in New Zealand. Australia subsequently adopted the idea and has implemented a number of FGC models in various communities. Like VOM in North America, Australian implementation of FGC has been piecemeal, and the model used varies with the community.
All juvenile cases in New Zealand, with a few exceptions such as homicide, are diverted by courts to FGC. Consequently, judges report drops in caseloads of up to 80 percent. These conferences are then organized and facilitated by a youth justice worker employed not by the criminal justice system but by the welfare/social service sector. The conferences attempt to be inclusive. In addition to involving the offender, a major effort is made to include as many of his or her family members as possible, including extended family members. Victims and their supporters are invited as are any professional caregivers who have been involved with the parties. A lawyer/advocate for the offender is invited, and a representative of the police department, who serves as the prosecutor, is present. Facilitator roles are broadly and loosely defined and include mediation. The entire group, which includes participants usually considered adversaries, is expected to come to a consensus on the outcome for the case, not just on a restitution agreement. Goals of the conference include accountability, prevention of future misconduct, and victim empowerment.
FGC is clearly grounded in the theory of "reintegrative shaming" of offenders, which was developed by Australian criminologist Dr. John Braithwaite (1989), as well as Silvan Tomkins' affect theory (1992). By themselves, these theories were not sufficient in addressing the importance of engaging crime victims in the process. Restorative justice theory did not play a large part in the origin of FGC, but was used later to help fine-tune the approach, resulting, for example, in a greater appreciation of the centrality of victims' roles. Now, New Zealand Judge F.W.M. McElrea calls the approach the first truly restorative system institutionalized within a Western legal system.
FGC was adopted in Australia in a variety of forms, but the model most often promoted in North America was developed in the Wagga Wagga Police Department. It differs from the New Zealand model in that it uses police officers, usually in uniform, or school officials to set up and facilitate meetings. Developments in Australia were considerably influenced by Braithwaite and his work on reintegrative shaming, with its emphasis on changing offender behavior.