January/February 2001Vol. 2, No. 1Families as Decision Makers in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases
First introduced in New Zealand in the 1980s, Family Group Conferencing is a non-adversarial process used in child abuse cases that provides families with the opportunity to make decisions regarding protecting children.
With Federal funding from the Nebraska Court Improvement Project, family group conferencing was introduced as a pilot program in three rural county courts in April 1999. Mediation centers are used to administer the conferences and train coordinators, social work professionals, and attorneys.
According to Dr. Victoria Weisz, director of the Nebraska Court Improvement Project, "the Family Group Conferencing Model consists of a facilitated meeting involving the extended family, the agency charged with protecting the children, service providers that have pertinent experience and information regarding the children and the family involved, and the children themselves if appropriate." The child protection worker referring the case has the final authority to approve the family's plan and present it to the court.
Weisz said the pilot program has focused on cases that are in the relatively early stages in the court system. Although a formal evaluation is just beginning, Weisz noted that anecdotal feedback from social workers, judges, and attorneys has been very positive and they feel much better plans are being made for children. Relatives are also very enthusiastic and quite pleased to be involved.
"Children have typically gone to live with relatives, not stranger foster care," observed Weisz. The current Family Group Conferencing project will continue until next summer. To date, 16 cases have been completed with an average of 15 people attending each conference. A comprehensive evaluation will involve collecting data from participants on the effectiveness of the process. A longer outcome evaluation will follow children after Family Group Conferencing for a year and compare them with a control group.
Although the initial results have been promising, a few obstacles have been encountered. Weisz recalled that some people were concerned that the family was not a safe place for conferencing to occur based on the premise that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree." However, she cited a study in Washington State, which followed the issue of child safety for two years and found that repeat child abuse rates were low. Another barrier has been that child protection workers have been somewhat slow in making referrals. "It's kind of a new deal, new process [for workers] and the problem is more about not knowing what to expect, " said Weisz.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is exploring the possibility of expanding the program statewide in January 2001. The Nebraska Court Improvement Project has also just received a Federal grant from the Children's Bureau to implement Family Group conferencing in three urban counties: Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy. Unlike the pilot project, the new initiative will target family group conferencing to cases later in the court system. It will be offered to families at the time of the permanency hearing for children who have been in the system for a year, who are with foster families who have no plans to adopt or become guardians, and who will not be returned to their families.
"These are kids that are languishing in the foster care system," commented Weisz. "We are hoping that relatives who may not have been involved, will come forward to adopt or be guardians."
Dr. Victoria Weisz
Director, Nebraska Court Improvement Project
Center on Children, Families and the Law
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
121 South 13th St., Suite 302
Lincoln, NE 68588-0227
Visit the website of the National Center on Family Group Decision Making (http://www.fgdm.org), sponsored by the American Humane Association, for access to research/evaluation suggestions, policies and protocols, practice tips, and a discussion area to dialogue with professionals worldwide.
Search the documents database of the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (http://basis.caliber.com/cwig/ws/library/docs/gateway/SearchForm)
for additional resources on family group conferencing.
For information on other child welfare court improvement projects and links to child protective court improvement Web pages, visit the website of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law (http://www.abanet.org/child/courtimp.html).