Family Group Conferencing

Family Group Conferencing (FGC) is a voluntary, inclusive and restorative approach to decision-making. It involves family members, their supports and professionals to work together at critical decision-making points to address harm that has occurred within family systems, and help promote well-being.

FGC has appeal across various sectors, including in Youth Justice, Family Law, Education, Child Protection, and for various cultural groups, including Maori, Aboriginal and CALD communities. FGC can be effective when there is family breakdown or stress on the family as a result of the negative impacts of drug and alcohol misuse, family violence, mental health concerns, disability, criminal matters or imprisonment of a parent. Family group conferencing offers people a process that creates the optimum environment, with appropriate resources, for important decisions to be made that are realistic, proactive, and therapeutic.

The Family Group (whanau) Conference was introduced nationally in New Zealand after some successful pilots in the 1980s relating specifically to Maori communities. The Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989  was enacted by the New Zealand Parliament. (In July 2017, the Act was renamed the  Oranga Tamariki Act 1989  or Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act 1989.) The Act provides for the Family Group Conference (FGC) as a mechanism for making decisions about a child or young person involved in a matter concerning the care and protection of children or youth justice.

Family Group Conferencing has been a feature of Victoria’s Child Protection decision-making and planning processes since 1994.  An Aboriginal Family Decision Making (AFDM) program began in Shepparton in 2002. Family Group Conferencing and Aboriginal Family Decision-Making were aligned with principles underpinning the Victorian Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities 2008. The model is now implemented state-wide in the Victorian child protection. A 2008 internal review found general agreement that FGC was a useful process in Child Protection practice, but that programs had developed differently across the regions, depending on the level of local interest.  

The 2012 report Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry highlighted an urgent need to strengthen planning by Child Protection at critical decision-making points, and to strengthen the support provided for family decision-making, so as to minimise the likelihood of re-reports and re-substantiations. Accordingly, the (then) Department of Human Services (DHS) received funding to expand and refocus AFDM and FGC in child protection practice state-wide. However, the 2013 departmental restructure resulted in less central oversight for A/FLDM programs. 

The current situation does allow for local autonomy and experimentation.  However, it increases the challenge of:

  • having A/FLDM work seen as core to Child Protection, rather than peripheral;
  • moving beyond programs being solely reactive towards more preventative / proactive work;
  • exploring further the possibility of pre-substantiation FLDM meetings;
  • achieving appropriate standardisation, quality control, and organisational learning.

Other Australian states

Adolescent and Adult Family Violence

Where there was scepticism in Australia about offering restorative processes in adolescent and adult family violence cases, there is now ongoing dialogue with experienced practitioners about what programs and processes can accommodate victims’ needs and address the harm being caused in family systems. Existing restorative programs and small-scale demonstration pilot projects have demonstrated some effectiveness in offering restorative processes within justice and community contexts. Next steps are to provide adequate and longer term funding to such projects, and for them to be evaluated by experienced researchers knowledgeable of restorative practices.

Current Australian programs have drawn insights from earlier restorative programs established internationally. In particular, the Canadian Newfoundland and Labrador Family Group Decision Making Project began in the mid-1990s. This innovative demonstration project provided family group conferencing in situations of child maltreatment and domestic violence, and in assessing the role of families in stopping interpersonal violence.

This early work in Canada became more widely understood by the early 2000s in research such as   Domestic Violence and Restorative Justice: Advancing the Dialogue and again in 2014, in the Evaluation Research on Restorative Justice and Intimate Partner Violence: A Review and Critique. This review, which included US programs, concluded that ‘…restorative justice can be used in ways that involve survivors, offenders, and community members; only offenders; and only survivors…’

Various trial programs of restorative practices to address family violence have been considered controversial, despite the limitations of existing justice responses, and the benefits purported by survivors

In New Zealand and Australia, academics, researchers and practitioners have advocated for decades that restorative practices should be an optional response in family violence and adolescent family violence cases.

New Zealand’s national commitment to the ideals of restorative justice, particularly on behalf of victims of crime, and the move towards an opt-out, rather than opt-in approach in their youth and adult justice systems, resulted in the Ministry of Justice deciding in 2013 to refer family violence cases to group conferencing. 

In the 2015, the Summary Paper of the practitioner workshop, Family Violence, the Law and Restorative Justice in New Zealand stated that: ‘…The programmes around the country already using restorative approaches report on generally positive outcomes for participants…Restorative justice can achieve better outcomes when incorporated into a multi-disciplinary package of support and accountability offered in partnership with other agencies. Many speakers stressed the importance of building good partnerships across specialist agencies.

The ACT has led other Australian jurisdictions in making restorative justice available as part of the response to family violence and sexual assault since November 2018.

Facilitators in the ACT Restorative Justice Unit have developed guidelines for the management of this type of offence, developed a capacity to manage complex offences, and established service provision agreements with educational and therapeutic service providers.

In 2017, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence examined these early evaluated programs. It made a total of 228 recommendations, and a series of these recommendations (122 – 128) concerned the provision of restorative justice options, particularly with regard to adolescent family violence, but also for other forms of family violence.

In Victoria, the first civil-based restorative program addressing Adolescent Family Violence commenced at the Melbourne Children’s Court in August 2018. This evaluated pilot program addressing adolescent violence is ongoing – and, in the process, of “writing the practice manual” on this approach.

Important lessons drawn from these Australian programs include that complex cases, such as those involving family violence, typically involve a combination of complex presenting issues. As a result, these case types seem to be most effectively addressed in a meeting (or series of meetings) combining elements of each of the group conference formats.  The sum total of these meetings constitutes a targeted, integrated and therapeutic intervention.