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A family group conference (FGC) is a tool for including the family in planning and decision making when it becomes involved with child welfare or juvenile justice systems. An FGC is intended to give the family a say in how to fix the problems that brought them into contact with child protective agencies or the courts. The family is the center of the planning, with support, resources and guidance provided by public agencies, community service groups and the courts.
The concept of the family group conference was developed in New Zealand in the 1980s. FGCs were, in large part, due to the Maori people of New Zealand, who felt strongly that child welfare laws did not reflect a real understanding of Maori traditions of kinship. A family group conference incorporates the Maori idea that a family, including the extended family, knows itself best and will make a strong contribution to ensuring that it stays together. Some model of the FGC is now used in countries throughout the world. In the U.S., it is sometimes referred to as family-guided decision making.
A family group conference has three basic steps. Child welfare professionals tell family members about problems in the family that have come to their attention. These could involve truancy, neglect, inadequate supervision, or drug use and violence in the home. The family is then given time alone to confront the areas of concern among themselves and come up with its own plan to fix the problems. If there are no child safety issues, the family’s plan is then generally approved and is supported with outside resources to make it work.
Family group conferences work best when older children are involved. Smaller children, especially if they have been the victim of some form of physical abuse, may need to be placed outside the home, ideally with members of the extended family, until the parents can learn healthy discipline methods and coping skills through classes or therapy. Even when younger children are involved, the parents still maintain an active role in developing the plan for correcting the family’s problems.
The family group conference has proved helpful in the areas of domestic violence and child protection. If the family is involved in the court system, the judge will be made aware of the plan and can order further resources for the family, if necessary. Statistically, family group conferences reduce recurrences of the problems they are meant to address.