As formal systems for the protection of children have evolved in this country, certain barriers to achieving justice within the child protection system have emerged concomitantly. Specifically, these barriers involve ambiguous definitions of abuse and the appearance of social inequality and bias within the child protection system. One means of surmounting these barriers to justice is family group conferencing (FGC). Support for this assertion comes from the integration of the restorative justice model and procedural justice theory. When applied to the practice of FGCs in child protection, the integration of these theoretical perspectives provides a strong rationale for the use of FGC and a theoretical framework from which the outcomes and causal mechanisms of FGCs may be evaluated.
Key words: family group conferencing, procedural justice, restorative justice, child protection, child abuse, child neglect
Much of the research on Family Group Conferencing (FGC) in child protection has been descriptive in nature. Many of these program evaluations have emphasized aspects of program fidelity and somewhat superficial outcomes, such as levels of participation, duration of conferences, rates of accepted plans, and participants' satisfaction. Although this kind of research is useful for describing FGC, it falls short of explaining how the model works to transform the child welfare culture or how it achieves greater safety and stability for children and families. In this paper I will provide a conceptual integration of two models of justice: restorative justice and procedural justice. In so doing, I will provide theoretical support for the use of FGC as a means of achieving justice and improving outcomes in field of child protection. The integration of these two paradigms also establishes a framework from which FGCs may be evaluated.
FGC is one of several conflict resolution models founded on the values of the restorative justice movement (McCold, 1999). Restorative justice seeks to redress wrong-doing through the inclusion and open dialogue of those parties affected by a particular offense. Models based on restorative justice values offer an alternative to prevalent models of justice emphasizing retribution and rehabilitation (Braithwaite, 2002). The aim of restorative justice is to solve problems in a manner that elicits and integrates the perceptions and desires of those affected by the problem, thus, promoting active responsibility for solving problems. "Active responsibility is the virtue of taking responsibility for putting things right." (Braithwaite, 2002, p. 129). Thus, central to all restorative justice practice is the idea that direct contact between offender and victims under the protective cover of the community is essential (Cohen, 2001).
Retributive justice, on the other hand, is more concerned with punishing an offender than it is solving the problems associated with an offense. As Braithwaite argues, restorative justice places the focus of interested parties on the problem rather on the person. "Through blaming the other, we declare ourselves blameless as we abrogate the possibility of us taking active responsibility for righting the wrong." (Braithwaite, 2002, p. 129). Restorative justice models place the centrality of concern on understanding and solving problems as opposed to blaming and punishing offenders. Placing the focus on problems as opposed to persons encourages parsimonious solutions, because the extraneous influences of retribution are omitted from the process (Braithwaite, 2000).
Using a restorative approach towards child protection, the state operates on a course that is congruent with the needs and abilities of its citizenry. Braithwaite (2002, p. 29) describes this as "responsive regulation", where government is responsive to the conduct of those they seek to regulate. …