Family Group Conferences as a Form of Court Approved Alternative Dispute Resolution in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases

The problems associated with long-term foster care of children have escalated over the past decade as more abused and neglected children enter the already overworked and underfunded state child protective system& The recent Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 mandates giving preference to placement within the extended family for children who cannot be returned to their parents. Compliance with this law requires substantial changes in the policies and procedures of human services agencies in most states. This Article discusses “family group conferencing,’ a new model for working with families within the system. Family Group Conferencing originated in New Zealand and is now in place in the child welfare agencies and family courts of several states. In this model, professionals working in the child-serving agencies take a collaborative rather than adversarial role with families; enabling the extended family to devise a plan for the care of the abused or neglected child with the approval and oversight of the family court.

In this Article, Lowry presents a proposal for combining family group decisionmaking with court-approved alternative dispute resolution models that have been used successfully in other fields of law. Lowry also discusses some of the concerns attending the development of family-centered program such as confidentiality requirements in state and federal law. The author recommends, as a first step within a state, the establishment of two or three pilot programs. In the author’s proposed model, all parties-including the family members the child’s attorney, the social service agencies and others involved in the case-would reach an agreement that they would submit to the family court judge. The court, as the ultimate decisionmaker, would incorporate the approved plan into a court order for the child’s placement and custody. The family-centered dispute resolution plan keeps the child within the care of her family and is both less costly and more efficient than the current long-term, out-of-home placement that often devastates children by leaving them in impersonal state custody throughout their childhood.