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Minneapolis Conference on Conferencing. August 1998.

By Charlotte Gottschau

Minneapolis is a fine city. Full of sculptures and lakes and creativity. And the First North American Conference on Conferencing: A New Response to Wrongdoing in Minneapolis in August was a fine conference. Full of enthusiasm and concrete examples. Organized by the Real Justice program which brought "conferencing" to North America.

Topics Reviewed

Family violence. Dr Gale Burford, Professor of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland was (with Dr Joan Pennell) co-director and co-principal investigator of the Family Group Decision Making Project in Newfoundland and Labrador. He presented findings from the follow-up study with 32 families in the Decision Making Project and comparison group. And he showed a 44-minute video of a dramatization of a family group conference in which the extended family and authorities came together to halt the problem of family violence in one particular family.

A teenage girl had one too many run-ins with her drunk, unemployed father, in front of her mother and younger sister. The father, a charming man when sober, had a history of hitting his wife and daughter. The 4 of them hid the violence from everyone. This time the girl, black-eye and all, confided in a school counsellor. The counsellor was legally bound to inform the social worker who informed the police. The father was charged and held in gaol.

Instead of leaving it there - with a good chance that the father would return home to the same situation once he was released from gaol - this case went to the Family Group Decision Making Project. The project coordinator took 3 or 4 weeks to prepare everyone - including police, parole officer and social worker - for a family group conference. She asked the mother and the 2 girls who they would like to have with them to support them in their eventual meeting with the father. She asked the father who he would like to have with him to support him in his eventual meeting with his wife and daughters. He chose his brother, she chose his brother's wife. The teenage girl chose her maternal grandmother but also brought a close girlfriend. Except for the friend, none of the others really knew about the violence. As is usual, the whole extended family was also invited - in this case, the father's mother and the mother's parents.

The Project has certain rituals. The eventual meeting was held in a community centre. Everyone who had been involved in some way - the family and their chosen supporters, the arresting police, the social worker, the father's parole officer, the project coordinator, and a government resource person from the Addictions Treatment Commission - sat in a circle. The coordinator reiterated the "rules" and the schedule for the day, the "authorities" each spoke about their involvement and their roles, and the resource person listed the resources available to the family. Then everyone except the family and their supporters left the room and went into a different part of the centre.

The family, after some shyness and truculence and tears, began to open up to each other, helped by their supporters. For the first time the problem of the violence came out into the open. For the first time the problem was actually addressed. And the family began to work out a plan. The father would live with his brother, and at certain times would come home to visit his wife and daughters. He would take counselling and attend AA. The wife would attend AlAnon. There were other parts to the plan.

All this talking took a long time. There was a break at mid-day, and everyone, family, supporters, authorities and coordinator sat down to lunch around a big table at the centre. The family went back to their planning. When their plan was complete, the family presented it to the investigator and to the authorities. The plan had to be workable and address the safety issues. The plan was approved. The resources were available and the plan went into action.

You might say this was a waste of the authorities' time - although there was nothing to keep them from doing paperwork and making phone calls while they were waiting as safety backup. From the authorities' point of view, every family which came out of the closet in a supportive and practical environment became one less "client", and problems - which would normally arise as the next generation set up their own families - were nipped in the bud. This family learned how to use the extended family concept to talk safely together. According to Gale Burford, there is no violence in the preparation phase nor during the conference: The punch line is that safe conditions can be created by involving the extended family and authorities and thereby, as one person at the conference said, "the envelope gets pushed".

Health Canada, Family Violence Prevention Division, funded the video and will make the video available, together with a set of facilitator's notes and a brochure about the project, in the Health Canada libraries across Canada. The American Humane Association in Colorado also has copies of the video for viewing.

Dysfunctional schools. Terry O'Connell, senior sergeant, and Peta Blood, constable, New South Wales Police Service, Australia gave several workshops. They use the family group conferencing model at home, in workplaces, in schools, and of course in the justice system with victims and offenders. Terry O'Connell has 7 children. He said his children conference him to death whenever he steps out of line. In Australia, after giving a workshop on conferencing, Terry O'Connell was approached by a Sydney inner-city elementary school principal. His school was rife with children exhibiting "abhorrent" behaviours. The teachers could do nothing more with the children except suspend or expel them.

At the school, over a period of time, Terry and Peta gave a series of 3-hour then 1-day workshops to the teachers and staff. They concentrated on how important relationships - between staff and teachers and students - are in creating a safe and supportive environment (beginning with staff and teachers) thus eliminating practices which effectively isolate or exclude students, parents and other community members. They emphasized the necessity of teachers' sharing common understanding and beliefs about which of their practices are likely to influence each others' and the students' behaviour, shifting the teacher's focus from a preoccupation with "abhorrent" behaviours to ways of promoting "wholesome" behaviours.

When I approached Terry O'Connell for information, he acknowledged: Ted Wachtel's schools have been using this framework for some years and it was my exposure to what his organisation (Real Justice) had been doing with very difficult kids, that gave me the insight to try an integrated approach in the Sydney school as was described in our workshop.

The concept is simple. The restructuring of one's belief system is hard. It means a giving up of control in the classroom. It means encouraging the children to set the rules in the school. It means not taking personally a child's rejection. Suppose a child refuses point-blank to participate in a lesson, stating the lesson does not interest him. Don't send the child to the principal. Accept that the child may have a point. Ask the other children to participate, what are their feelings? "Problems... can be viewed as learning opportunities." This is not anarchy. This is not chaos. This is getting children involved in their own learning. An involved child is a happy child. A relaxed, non-confrontational teacher is a happy teacher. It is impossible for a teacher to know everything. Let the teacher accept his non-infallibility and get on with it!

For more information on this particular school project contact: Senior Sergeant Terry O'Connell, NSW Police Service, Level 8, Avery Building, 14/24 College Street, Darlinghurst NSW, Australia 2010 Tel No 0293395997 Fax No 0293395856 Email

Restorative justice. The entire Minneapolis conference was on restorative justice. On restoring balance to one's self, to one's family, to one's school, to one's workplace, to one's community. On healing. Conference proceedings will be published over the next couple of months on the Real Justice web site:

Terry O'Connell, John McDonald, David Moore and Margaret Thorsborne have written a Real Justice Training Manual: Coordinating Family Group Conferences. Real Justice has scheduled 2-day facilitator workshops across North America. The Vancouver workshop will be held at the Plaza 500 Hotel on January 11-12, 1999. In Canada contact REAL JUSTICE, P.O. Box 426, Station F, Toronto, ON M4Y 2L8. Phone: (416) 944-8705 Fax: (416) 944-3278 E-mail:

Charlotte Gottschau is a holistic divorce lawyer and mediator with a background in criminal justice. Charlotte can be reached by email at:

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