Sharing Power with the People: Family Group Conferencing as a Democratic Experiment (1)

By Merkel-Holguin, Lisa | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Sharing Power with the People: Family Group Conferencing as a Democratic Experiment (1)


Merkel-Holguin, Lisa, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Can family group conferencing be leveraged to promote the democratic ideals of voice, freedom, justice, fairness, equality, and respect, and provide the citizenry with the opportunity to build a more just and civil society? This article reviews family group conferencing, and various model adaptations, from a democratic context and through the lens of responsive regulation.

Family Group Conferencing in a Democratic Context

Who knows what is best for the people if not the people themselves? This question, which reflects the core principles of democracy, also is central to the practice of family group conferencing. If child protection is seen as a public concern, then the process of making decisions to keep children safe and healthy benefits from being democratized.

Beetham (1999, 21) suggested that the defining principles of democracy are that "all citizens are entitled to a say in public affairs, both through the associations of civil society and through participation in government," and that "this entitlement should be available on terms of equality of all." In other words, in a democracy, supreme power lies with the people, all of whom have a right to freedom, equality, and a voice that will be heard and respected. Family group conferencing promotes the sharing of power for decision making between family, kin, professionals, state and the community, while balancing responsibility and accountability among these groups.

Braithwaite (2000) proposed that it is not possible to achieve a fully participatory democracy on a large scale, because it is impossible to involve all affected citizens in important decisions. He contends, however, that this notion gives credibility to the prevailing perspective that representative democracy is all that is possible. Unfortunately, the result is an inactive, non-participatory citizenry that refrains from developing community and abdicates its responsibility for building democracy.

Family group conferencing--if implemented in the spirit of its originators--provides an opportunity to revitalize representative democracy and to build strong, healthy communities and families. It provides a forum for individuals to come together to exchange information, share ideas, and demonstrate their care and concern in a framework that teaches and supports active responsibility. It establishes a process by which families can work through their problems and devise their own solutions. From a responsive regulation perspective, FGC promotes individuals self-regulatory capacities thereby forestalling the state's need to transcend the regulatory pyramid. In essence, families have the opportunity to create plans that regulate their own behavior, before a more intrusive form of intervention is undertaken.

In an FGC, families have the opportunity to tap into their own resources to rebuild and strengthen existing social support networks, form new connections, and forge effective partnerships with formal systems. When given a choice, most people support the democratic principle of ensuring that people have a voice in matters that concern them. If FGC principles are fully supported, the citizenry has the opportunity to realign bureaucratic systems and programs to meet community needs.

Family group conferencing challenges years of paternalistic practice in which professionals have assessed problems, used clinical tools to determine levels of risk or harm, and developed corrective action plans with little consideration for or interest in families' opinions (Turnell, 1998). Since the early days of societies for the prevention of cruelty to children, child welfare professionals have been taught that it is their job to rescue children, that they are the experts, and that they have the solutions to families' problems. Are entrenched and powerful systems ready to support a practice model as empowering as family group conferencing?

Responsive Regulation in Child Welfare

Braithwaite's framework for responsive regulation provides a new perspective for understanding the compatibility of empowering partnership practice in child welfare with the coercive power of the state and its responsibility for child protection.

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