FAMILY GROUP CONFERENCING: A RESTORATIVE APPROACH TO FAMILY VIOLENCE
Restorative justice provides a different pattern of thinking about crime and justice as compared to the modern criminal justice system as we know it. The conceptual framework of a restorative system provides a view of crime as being more than lawbreaking. Injuries to victims, the community, and the offender are incurred, all of which need to be identified and repaired with active input by all parties. In addition, the offender must assume accountability for the offense. A cooperative effort in responding to crime, by building on strengths of the community and government, is needed such that community building can take place and prevention of crime can be enhanced (Van Ness and Strong, 2002).
Historically, restorative justice had been the dominant model of criminal justice up until the end of the Dark Ages (Braithwaite, 1998, Van Ness, 1986, Weitekamp, 1989). A resurgence of the philosophy began in 1974 in Kitchener, Ontario where a victim-offender reconciliation program was being piloted. By the mid-1990's there were approximately 300 programs in North America, 500 in Europe, and many developing in the Southern Hemisphere (Braithwaite, 1998, Peachey, 1989, Umbreit, 1998). During this time variations of the New Zealand approach of family group conferencing was emerging in countries such as Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Palestine, the United States, and Canada, enabling the parties to crime to encounter one another outside of the courtroom (Braithwaite, 1998; Van Ness and Strong, 2002).
There are many emerging models of restorative conferencing, however the underlying values focus on the interests of the parties most involved in the crime. Victims, offenders, and communities of care, not the state, become the principal decisionmakers regarding the response to the offense. Emphasis is placed on collective responsibility and shared values that can be used to address the consequences of the crime and the offender, with the goal of reintegrating victims and offenders back into the community. The importance of recognizing the impact of social or substantive injustice as well as emphasizing cultural relativity and sensitivity is also stressed. This process is designed to promote empowerment, dialogue, and mutual problem-solving among the participants and provide some understanding of the reasons underlying the offense (Van Ness and Strong, 2002; Morris and Maxwell, 2001). In addition, making amends via apology, changed behavior, restitution, and generosity provides acknowledgment of responsibility by the offender and an attempt to resolve the hurt inflicted (Van Ness and Strong, 2002).
Family group conferencing has been used to address a number of concerns ranging from various youth crimes to adult crime and neighborhood conflicts (Pennell, 2000). More recently, this approach has branched out to address issues related to family violence. Pennell (2000) presents a model based on the New Zealand approach in child welfare but adapted to address family violence in the Newfoundland and Labrador Project of Canada. The model was also used to set up the North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project in the United States. The focus is on building partnerships within the family as well as with the agencies and community groups involved in protecting the family. The family, relatives, and other close supports cooperatively develop a plan to address the issues concerning the family, which then needs to be approved by the mandated authorities to ensure safety and provision of resources before the plan is implemented (Pennell, 2000).
This process provides participants with a safe environment to voice their perspectives regarding the situation. The conference respects the culture of the family and the unique situation impacting its members. A family group conferencing coordinator organizes the conference and service providers are prepared on how to participate in the conference preserving safety and dignity of all members. Representatives from child welfare, correctional services, and the police report on the incident and what needs to be addressed in the plan. Information and services available to address substance abuse, domestic violence, or other issues impacting the family are also provided to incorporate into the plan as needed. The family is allotted private time to discuss concerns and reach an agreed upon plan, which includes a monitoring and evaluation component. Protective services continue to be involved with the family to ensure safety of the family members and assist the family and community organizations involved as needed. The family group conference can reconvene to make changes if necessary. There has been a limited number of studies conducted examining the family group conferencing approach to family violence. However, available research suggests that this process has been found to reduce child maltreatment (Marsh and Crow, 1998; Pennell, 2000) and domestic violence (Pennell and Burford, forthcoming; Pennell, 2000), and promote the well-being of children and other family members (Burford and Pennell, 1998; Pennell, 2000). Additional studies are warranted to explore outcome effects of this model regarding violence in the family.
Pennell (2000) stresses the importance of safeguarding family members through building partnerships. Protective services, relatives, community groups, and other public agencies collectively work together to assist in meeting the family member¡¯s needs and implementing plans to resolve concerns. The core principles of family group conferencing, to enhance family responsibility, advance children's rights, respect cultural diversity, and build state-community partnerships, require a different role of agencies and how they work with families, community groups, and other services (Pennell, 2000). The importance of collaboration and maintaining an open dialogue among all parties involved in the case is an integral component of this process.
Other programs have also attempted to utilize the family group conferencing model as an alternative to more traditional approaches to family violence. Ross (1996) presents a study of the Hollow Water Community Holistic Circle Healing Program in Canada, a town plagued by multi-generational substance abuse, domestic violence and criminal recidivism. To address these ills an Aboriginal Family Group Conferencing model was instituted. Efforts were directed at getting treatment and services to the families as opposed to a focus on punishment and separation. The community as a whole was positively impacted by the success of the program. The family group conferencing approach is solution-oriented, individualized for the community and event, and effective treatment is tailored to meet the family's needs, not the system's (Feldheim, 2003). These important aspects of the model seem to contribute to the favorable results of this approach.
Family group conferencing places control over the victim's actions and reactions back in the hands of the victim. Victims are offered the opportunity to participate in a self-initiated and self-placed treatment model, providing them with choice and tailored interventions to meet their needs. Offenders are given the opportunity to acknowledge the effects of the offense on the victims and take responsibility for their actions. Offenders' needs are also addressed, and a treatment plan is devised relying on community intervention to prevent the cycle of violence from continuing.
This framework provides a non-judgmental, non-threatening therapeutic approach and interventions that help explain the roots of the abuse. All parties are able to process and re-evaluate the meaning of the trauma in a flexible time frame and a supportive environment. In addition, legal institutions are able to realize that the victim's relationships may be important to them even when they involve violence. There may be conflicting loyalties and associated financial, emotional and cultural features of the abusive relationship that need to be recognized and addressed. The victim must be treated in the context of her relationships, her uncertainty needs to be respected, and her emotional and cultural loyalties deserve a safe and nonjudgmental arena to be processed (Mills, 1996). Family group conferencing provides such an arena.
The use of narrative is also very important in this process. Narrative allows connections to be made between self and society. It enables the victim to name the abuse, to interpret it as oppression, to re-experience their anger, and make the transition from victim to survivor. It helps the victim to find the language for the domination, and reject the rationalization of the abuse that may have been suggested by the offender as well as the social world. Narrative helps victims understand that their individual stories are embedded in the social discourse of their society and they are not to be blamed for the abuse (Riessman, 1994). Victims are able to dialogue with the offender to obtain a clearer understanding of the offender's perception of the abuse and motivation in committing the offense, as well as present the impact the violence has had on themselves and the family as a whole.
Most importantly, we need to respect the victim's choice, so as to not jeopardize his or her safety and cause more physical and emotional harm. We must realize that victims know their situation best, thus participation in a family group conference is strictly voluntary. Careful screening of participants is necessary for this process to determine if family group conferencing is a viable option for a particular situation. Van Ness and Strong (2002) stress the important issues that need to be considered before implementing such programs, such as minimizing coercion of participants, who to include in the encounter, and assessing the "restorativeness" of the approach. In addition, we must be mindful of the importance of proper program design, training, planning, consultation, collaboration and consistent evaluation of outcomes to ensure that good practices are followed.
As a community we need to develop ethical policies, procedures and intervening strategies that continue to address family violence. Victims are still at risk both mentally and physically because programs and policies focusing on their needs are limited. We need to increase collaboration between agencies and pool the knowledge and resources of hospitals, law enforcement, social services and other community organizations to provide adequate services to victims as well as offenders. As practitioners and caring professionals we can offer victims alternatives and avenues for help, but we must respect their decisions and not re-victimize them by taking away their control.
by Michelle. D. DiLauro (Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA)
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