Responsive Regulation in Child Welfare: Systemic Challenges to Mainstreaming the Family Group Conference

By Adams, Paul; Chandler, Susan M. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Responsive Regulation in Child Welfare: Systemic Challenges to Mainstreaming the Family Group Conference


Adams, Paul, Chandler, Susan M., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The purpose of this article is to examine the challenges inherent in transforming child welfare services. We apply Braithwaite's model of responsive regulation to the restorative practice of family group conferencing in child welfare. Shifting the role of the state away from controller of families in the child protective services system to one of regulatory partner with them is extraordinarily difficult. The paper looks at the complexities of reorienting child welfare services through the use of family group conferences on a large scale.

Key words: responsive regulation, restorative justice, family group conference, child welfare, child protection

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In this article, we argue that Family Group Conferencing (FGC) in child welfare has a transformative potential, but one that is hard to realize for systemic reasons. We first examine the application of Braithwaite's (2002) model of responsive regulation to child protective services (CPS) in the United States. We argue that model enables us to understand the relation of two apparently contradictory but essential elements of FGC--empowerment and the context of social control or state coercion. We discuss the difficulties of implementing FGC in the United States and suggest that the range of models and variations currently being practiced across the country may be in part evidence of and a response to these difficulties.

Drawing on the experience of the State of Hawaii in adopting a uniform model of FGC and its application statewide to over 2,000 cases, we conclude with a discussion of the kinds of system change needed to facilitate and support the mainstreaming of FGC. The wide variations in FGC and in other forms of family group decision-making (FGDM) may be decried as representing compromises of core principles that undergird the model. This variety also is making evaluative research difficult since researchers are failing to specify a consistently applied model of the elements of FGC prior to analyzing its effectiveness. On the other hand, the diversity of forms of FGC may be celebrated both as creative adaptations to local conditions and cultures and as providing a natural experiment without prejudging the key, efficacious components of the approach. We sidestep these disputes and take a different path here one of exploring the systemic context in which policy-makers and practitioners are attempting to apply FGC principles and processes.

Conferencing as Regulation

Braithwaite's (2002) work on restorative justice and responsive regulation provides a valuable conceptual framework for this undertaking. It enables us to see both the restorative aspects of FGC--its relation to indigenous practices aiming at solving problems and setting things right, its empowerment of families, and its widening the circle of care and control beyond the professional-client relationship--and FGC's role in the context of responsive regulation of families. Braithwaite's discussion of responsive regulation draws on the field of business regulation. It enables us to see, in the complex field of child welfare, how combining the empowering aspects of FGC with the coercive power of the state is not necessarily a limitation or contradiction. Rather, empowerment and control are different, but necessary and mutually enriching aspects of a dynamic model of state regulation of families to protect children.

The Braithwaite Pyramid

Braithwaite (2002) contends that "restorative justice, deterrence and incapacitation are all limited and flawed theories of compliance" (p. 32). Each needs to be understood and applied in a model that includes all three. In his figure entitled "Toward an Integration of Restorative, Deterrent and Incapacitative Justice," Braithwaite (2002, p. 32) hierarchically orders these concepts and places restorative justice at the base of the pyramid, filling up most of the space.

The pyramid provides a dynamic, non-formalist model of governmental regulation, whether of a nursing home, a nuclear power station, an insurance company, or a family. …

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