Family Group Decision Making Helps Prison Inmates Reintegrate into Society
Oct 02, 2009from the Restorative Practices E-Forum
for 21 September by Deni Thurman-Eyer and Laura Mirsky
Family group decision making (FGDM), known in New Zealand, the UK and Europe as family group conferencing or FGC, is proving to be a beneficial restorative practice to help reintegrate prison inmates back into society. This article addresses restorative FGDM/FGC programs in prisons in Adams County, Pennsylvania, USA, and in Hungary.
Beginning in New Zealand in 1989 in the youth justice and child welfare systems, FGDM/FGC operates according to the premise that the direct involvement of a family group works better to solve a family’s issues than the efforts of professionals alone to solve those issues for people. A key ingredient of an FGDM meeting is “Family Alone Time,” when the family group is left alone, without professionals in the room, to devise plans to solve their own issues. These plans are then evaluated by professionals for legal and safety concerns.
Community Service Foundation, a model program of the IIRP, provides FGDM conferences for youth and families in Pennsylvania. (Please see www.familypower.org for links to articles about FGDM/FGC.)
It Takes a Village, a private service provider based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, provides FGDM for youth and families. Agency program manager Dewaine Finkenbinder began using FGDM with adjudicated prisoners in Adams County in 2003. Adams was the first county in the nation to utilize a cross-system approach involving both the department of children and youth services and justice agencies, said Finkenbinder.
In FGDMs at Adams County Prison, family members meet with the prisoner and prison officials. Prison officials have an opportunity to relate the inmate’s positive behaviors and accomplishments during his or her incarceration, enabling the family to focus on achievements rather than the behavior leading to imprisonment. Finkenbinder said that this strength-based approach is proving transformational in Adams County’s criminal justice system.
Finkenbinder discussed FGDM’s impact for a family when the breadwinner goes to prison: FGDM meetings provide a structure for developing a support system to keep the household going. A children and youth (C&Y) caseworker approached Finkenbinder when a mother of three children was about to be re-arrested for driving while intoxicated and was facing 45 days in prison and 45 days’ probation. Anticipating the family’s needs during the mother’s incarceration, an FGDM meeting was held to bring the extended family together to work out a plan, which C&Y accepted. The plan provided a way for the children to stay with family members rather than be dispersed to different foster families. After the mother was released from prison, an adult probation officer found her drinking – a violation of probation. Since a plan was already in place as a result of the FGDM conference whereby family members would care for the children, the probation officer needed only to make a call to redeploy that plan. The family was able to prevent a crisis.