The use of family group conferencing and related family involvement interventions in child protection is rapidly increasing in the United States and many other countries. There is some concern that the child welfare field will travel down the same road as it did with intensive family preservation services; that is, tremendous enthusiasm later derailed by rigidly designed evaluations that showed unimpressive effects. The work of John Braithwaite suggests an alternative path for finding justifiable excitement about these interventions. Drawing upon Braithwaite's writings and ongoing evaluation research, this article suggests afar steps we can take towards an integrative strategy for developing effective family involvement interventions.
Key words: group decision making, program evaluation, child welfare, child protection, family involvement, C.P.S. interventions
The use of family group conferencing and related family involvement interventions in child protection is a rapidly growing practice around the world. For example, the number of communities in the United States trying Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) grew from five in 1995, to over one hundred by 2000; similarly, in 1994, four pilot programs began in England and Wales, and now fifty-five local authorities or nongovernmental groups have FGDM programs in those countries (Nixon, Merkel-Holguin, Sivak and Gunderson, 2001). Even as child welfare practitioners are eagerly implementing these programs, researchers are more cautious. For example, Whittaker asks: "While enthusiasm runs high, many questions remain: Will family group conferencing meet the ultimate test of empirical validation in rigorous studies with appropriate controls?" (Whittaker, 1999, p. xv). While clearly stating his preference for more rigorous clinical trials, Barth concedes that: "the assumptions of family group conferencing are so compelling that variations on this practice will undoubtedly continue to develop without evaluation endorsements" (Barth, 2002, p. 201). Gelles is more critical in saying: "This service is being widely touted as effective and widely adopted without a shred of scientifically reputable evidence that this intervention actually works. This is an echo of what happened with Intensive Family Preservation Services" (Shirk, 1999, p. 18). Many researchers would agree that the potential of Intensive Family Preservation Services was hurt by an early push for a specific family preservation services model, called Homebuilders, when there was no evidence (pro or con) to suggest that this specific program model was effective (Adams, 1994). Therefore, with family involvement interventions it may be prudent to more quickly involve evaluation in the development of the intervention. On the other hand, some FGDM proponents are wary of evaluation research: "Research has, for the most part, been done by someone, to someone else, to produce data that was used by yet someone else. It was experienced as having mystical importance and complexity but very little practical value at best and at worst was a tool to justify the continued oppression of others" (Nixon, Merkel-Holguin, Sivak and Gunderson, 2001, p. 29). What is needed is an approach to family involvement research that is consistent with the intervention's values of community and family empowerment. John Braithwaite's work on restorative justice may provide some theoretical concepts (Braithwaite, 2002a) and a method for developing theory (Braithwaite, 1993) that could be useful in current efforts to use family involvement interventions in child protection. In this article, I describe some key ideas from Braithwaite's work and then illustrate their applicability using evaluation research of family involvement programs. Family Group Decision Making and Team Decisionmaking are discussed under a rubric I call family involvement interventions. Both of these models focus on a plan for the care and protection of a child that is developed through a meeting of child welfare professionals and the child's extended family in cases of child abuse and neglect. …