Social Work Family Group Conferencing
Peter Marsh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0240


Family group conferences (FGCs) were developed to provide a decision-making model for serious social welfare, and justice, problems. They were designed to address situations where state intervention was likely to be needed, and where that intervention could have a major impact on the family. The conferences bring together the extended family, which can include supporters, and the professionals directly concerned, in order to decide how to alleviate the problems. They were developed in New Zealand in the 1980s, and have since been used, expanded, and researched widely. The key elements of the FGC model are full involvement of the extended family; involvement of the crime victim with due safeguards (in justice work); respect for the family’s cultures (which could involve who is in the family, the setting of the conference, protocols, language, and more); an independent facilitator; private time for family deliberation; and a professional approach that provides clear jargon-free information, with a willingness to act on plans made by the conference unless there are legal reasons not to do so. The implications for professional practice of the family-led, family-based model are substantial. Professional reports need to be understandable to lay people, and there needs to be agreement on the value of family-led/based decisions (including family-friendly places for, and timing of, conferences), support for the facilitator’s role as advisor/consultant to the family rather than leader/informer, and agreement from services that plans from conferences will be implemented in all reasonable ways. Families also need to put considerable effort into the FGC process, including putting aside grievances in the interests of supporting a family member; facing up to serious issues that usually have emotional consequences; being prepared to commit serious time to the conference; and being willing, in principle, to alter behavior and give up time to enact the conference’s plan. FGCs are a significant innovation in social and justice services. They empower people in ways that are often a major disruption to the practices of the modern state. They have been expanded to cover adult mental health problems, terminally ill patients, and domestic violence, alongside their original use in child welfare and youth justice. They are present in at least twenty countries, but are usually not part of full-scale mainstream services (New Zealand being a prominent exception). There are substantial programs in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, as there are in North America, but in the latter a significant number of projects do not use all of the basic principles of the FGC and are time-limited trials. There is substantial research, showing that all types of problem can be dealt with, that family members are very positive about the experience (and in the best projects, so are young people), and that professionals welcome the approach (although the professionals do not always cooperate fully). FGC decisions usually involve enhanced family engagement within the plan, increasing the likelihood of continuing social support as compared with time-limited professional support.

Reference Works

FGCs are a major social innovation, disrupting existing social service and justice models in many countries, and providing a challenge for researchers to describe and analyze because of their diversity and their complex interconnections with existing law and national, regional, and local cultures. In order to understand this area, the reader needs to have knowledge derived from the principles underpinning the development of the different relevant social science disciplines, the different countries, and the different practice experiences of a model that has a unitary set of principles but deliberately diverse applications. The reference works in this section examine all aspects of the FGC model, use a wide range of disciplines, cover a wide range of countries, and describe and analyze many different approaches within the overall FGC parameters. Hudson, et al. 1996 provides a conceptual and theoretical starting point by providing a comprehensive overview of the FGC foundations and the key development issues, by writers from government, practice, and academia who have backgrounds in law, criminology, sociology, and social work. It covers the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The interconnection of the approach and restorative practice, based on New Zealand experience, is expertly covered in Maxwell and Liu 2007. Ashley and Nixon 2007 and Pennell and Anderson 2005, on the other hand, provide more detailed material on the practical aspects of the FGC, including its use for different social problems. Burford and Hudson 2000 also sets out the practice philosophy, in the context of comparing and contrasting it with other conferencing practices. It provides analyses of different countries, as Morris and Maxwell 2001 does in regard to the youth justice system. In child welfare, the presentation of a major research project in Marsh and Crow 1998, accompanied by analysis of the philosophy and practical detail of the conferences, the work of coordinators, and the nature of the decisions and outcomes of the conferences, enables its use as a textbook for those new to the area. Clarijs and Malmberg 2012, in its coverage of political, legal, and societal issues, as well as practice approaches in a number of European countries, provides another good overview of the different elements of the FGC approach. A short, but relatively comprehensive, review of the research into of FGCs is provided in Frost, et al. 2014.

  • Ashley, C., and P. Nixon, eds. 2007. Family group conferences: Where next? Policies and practices for the future. London: Family Rights Group.

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    An overview of the background, philosophy, and development of FGCs, including coverage of the practice in different settings and countries of the United Kingdom.

  • Burford, G., and J. Hudson, eds. 2000. Family group conferencing: New directions in community-centered child and family practice. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    The FGC approach set in the wider professional framework of other conferencing and community-centered practices, including comparisons between different countries and some of the issues involved in evaluating the conferences.

  • Clarijs, R., and T. Malmberg, eds. 2012. The quiet revolution: Aggrandising people power by family group conferences. Amsterdam: SWP.

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    Covers social, political, and philosophical issues around FGCs, with an explicit examination of broader democratic and public policy issues and detailed analyses of different settings and countries.

  • Frost, N., F. Abram, and H. Burgess. 2014. Family group conferences: Evidence, outcomes and future research. Child & Family Social Work 19.4: 501–507.

    DOI: 10.1111/cfs.12049E-mail Citation »

    Examines the research literature relating to process and outcomes of FGCs in a range of countries, including a review of implementation issues.

  • Hudson, J., A. Morris, G. Maxwell, and B. Galaway, eds. 1996. Family group conferences: Perspectives on policy and practice. Leichhardt, Australia: Federation Press.

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    A focus on early development, with coverage of FGCs in various countries and particularly strong coverage of New Zealand and justice settings.

  • Marsh, P., and G. Crow. 1998. Family group conferences in child welfare. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides background, philosophy, and policy coverage, with the report of a major UK research study analyzing FGC process, input, output, and outcome, and with detailed material on implementation and practice.

  • Maxwell, G., and J. Liu. 2007. Restorative justice and practices in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Institute of Policy Studies.

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    The book provides substantial coverage of the restorative principles that underpin FGCs, examining criminal justice, education, and historical wrongs, with chapters that reflect on the overall development of a restorative society.

  • Morris, A., and G. Maxwell, eds. 2001. Restorative justice for juveniles: Conferencing, mediation and circles. Oxford: Hart.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sets FGCs in a restorative justice context, with material on various countries, and providing critical analyses of their role in justice issues.

  • Pennell, J., and G. Anderson, eds. 2005. Widening the circle: The practice and evaluation of family group conferencing with children, youths, and their families. Washington, DC: NASW.

    E-mail Citation »

    As with Ashley and Nixon 2007, this volume provides an overview of the development, use, practice, and evaluation of FGCs, but from a predominantly US point of view.

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