Family Group Conferencing in Child Welfare: Responsive and Regulatory Interfaces

By Pennell, Joan | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Family Group Conferencing in Child Welfare: Responsive and Regulatory Interfaces


Pennell, Joan, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


A regulatory approach compels the child welfare worker to make decisions according to set procedures and prevents responding flexibly to families. Differential response is a way that child welfare is departing from legal formalism. One means is convening a family group conference (FGC) to develop a plan. John Braithwaite's regulatory pyramid assists in conceptualizing differential response. This article reports a factor analysis of data on achievement of FGC objectives to elaborate three interfaces for fostering responsive regulation. Each interface keeps the family group at the center of planning while firmly maintaining their connections with community and government programs.

Key words: family group conferencing, responsive regulation, child welfare, differential response

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A well circulated cartoon shows a child welfare worker being lynched by an angry mob. The caption for one frame reads, "Social worker who took child into care," and the caption for the other reads, "Social worker who did not take child into care." No matter what the social worker decides, the populace is provoked to take the law into its own hands. Such vigilante justice is in reaction to seemingly arbitrary authority. It condemns the social worker and in all likelihood the child's parents and leaves the child in need of protection. This gallows humor will continue to resonate as long as public child welfare is defined solely as saving children from their parents. Some children need such rescuing but far more need supports and protections that safeguard them and their families.

The doctrine of parens patriae, however, obligates the state to substitute as parent when the child's own parents fail to protect because of their personal limitations or those of the wider society. This same doctrine has raised legitimate concerns about the abrogation of the rights of parents and children and has led to an emphasis on due process through the courts. The result is heightened legalism interacting with the state's liability for the child's safety. This combination chokes off opportunities for child welfare to join with the family and community in forming partnerships of caring.

John Braithwaite's (2002) theory of responsive regulation points to a viable alternative for child welfare. He posits a regulatory pyramid with a broad base of responsiveness to offenders underneath an apex of legal regulation. Because the state is charged to care for children in need of protection, child welfare must maintain a firm interface between responsiveness and regulation. This article examines how family group conferencing (FGC) achieves this interface. First, an overview is provided of the movement toward responsive regulation in U.S. welfare, the role that FGC can play in promoting responsive regulation, and its key practices in child welfare settings. Then, utilizing a factor analysis of findings from a FGC study, three interfaces are elaborated--family leadership, cultural safety, and community partnerships. In conclusion, a model for interfacing responsiveness and regulation in child welfare is presented.

Responsive Regulation and Child Welfare

Child welfare in the United States has a lengthy history of swinging between a priority of child safety or family support (Jimenez, 1990). Child safety stresses the state's responsibility to regulate the child's care and ensure that it meets adequate standards of protection; family support urges a responsive approach to children and their caregivers to promote healthy families. While both regulation and responsiveness are necessary for safeguarding children, neither approach alone is sufficient for an effective child welfare system (Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, & Barth, 2000). Family support is limited when caregivers will not, or more often cannot, change their practices on their own; community services are lacking, inaccessible, or under utilized; and the broader economic and political systems undermine families (Pecora, Reed-Ashcraft, & Kirk, 2001). …

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