Potential Dangers of Family Group Conferencing
The FGC model has tremendous potential for enhancing the practice of restorative justice in North America by providing opportunities for crime victims to participate in holding offenders accountable and investing new stakeholders in the process (police personnel, school officials, and probation officers). However, a number of potential dangers could result in unintended consequences. There are at least five potential dangers in the current FGC approach, particularly with the Australian form:
1. Inadequate Preparation
Preparation of the primary parties prior to the joint conference is crucial to the process of building rapport and trust with the involved parties, preparing them for participation in a dialogue in which the facilitator/mediator does not dominate the conversation, assessing their needs/expectations, and understanding the full human context of the crime that occurred. Meeting in person with the parties prior to a joint meeting has long been recognized by most VOM programs as the preferred process. Although the New Zealand FGC model always involves prior meetings with the offender and family, it does not routinely involve prior in-person meetings with the victim and family. The Australia FGC model routinely contacts the parties by phone and only occasionally conducts in-person meetings. Eliminating in-person meetings prior to FGC may significantly limit the impact of FGC, as the parties may not feel safe and prepared to attend and participate freely in a genuine dialogue.
2. Victim Insensitivity and Coercion
The FGC model emphasizes the importance of involving and serving victims. However, several aspects of the model may inadvertently mirror the dominant, offender-driven criminal justice system and its use of victims as props: the offender's group is usually seated first, which limits the choices presented to victims (such as where they would feel the safest or most comfortable in the meeting room or whether they would prefer to begin the conference with their story); the meeting routinely begins with the offender's story; and separate meetings are not scheduled with the victim prior to facing the offender. If the FGC model is perceived as not being sensitive to the emotional, informational, and participatory needs of victims, it defeats one of its main purposesto serve victims' needsand is likely to trigger needless but understandable resistance from the larger victims' rights constituency.
3. Young Offenders Feeling Intimidated by Adults
The presence of so many adults, including a police officer in uniform, may be so intimidating to young offenders that they may not feel safe or comfortable enough to express and share their feelings and thoughts. It has long been recognized in the VOM movement that the presence of parents in some cases, not to mention additional adults, can interfere with the process of the juvenile offender truly admitting to his or her delinquent behavior and feeling comfortable enough to speak openly. As the FGC model is adapted for use in the United States, it is important to ensure that the process truly creates an environment in which the young person feels safe enough to actively participate, express feelings, and respond to questions posed by the victim. Otherwise, the conference could be dominated by adults talking at or about the offender, with the offender tailoring responses to suit the adults. Coercing offenders to say what adults want to hear is very different from a more genuine expression of their feelings about what happened.
4. Lack of NeutralityShaming of Offenders
Police officers, probation officers, and/or school officials play a particularly critical role in the FGC model, especially in the Australian form, as "coordinators" of the actual sessions (a role that is actually quite similar to facilitators or even mediators). Because of this, these public officials must be trained in conflict resolution and mediation skills so that they can put aside their usual authoritarian role as a public official. The inability of public officials (such as police or probation officers) to serve in a neutral (unbiased in the sense of not taking sides, even though the parties are not truly equal) and facilitative role can be a problem and needs to be closely monitored as FGC programs begin developing in more communities throughout the United States, especially given the retributive climate of American criminal justice. If conference coordinators fall into authoritarian leadership and communication patterns, the process could lead to the offender experiencing the conference as a "shaming and blaming" encounter. The process could be one of "breaking down the juvenile offenders and then trying to build them up," rather than the preferred "reintegrative shaming" in which the criminal behavior is denounced but offenders are treated with respect and feel safe enough in the presence of adults to express themselves.
5. Inflexibility and Assumed Cultural Neutrality of the Process
While the New Zealand model of FGC appears to allow for a great deal of flexibility in the process, the Australia model, which is being widely promoted in the United States, appears to be a very prescriptive, script-driven process. In many training manuals, coordinators are encouraged not to worry about whether the process should be adapted to different cultural needs and preferences within a community. Trainers emphasize that the FGC model (based on the Wagga Wagga experience in Australia) is remarkably resilient and beneficial if the coordinator adheres to the script and if the participants trust the coordinator. Many victim advocates, however, would be concerned about issues of power and control for the victim when the emphasis is primarily on trusting the coordinator. The inflexibility of the Australia model may present a serious obstacle to its being considered a truly restorative process that is victim-sensitive, particularly in diverse and multicultural communities.