New Zealand Social Work Tactic Hits Shore, Makes Waves: Up Close and Very Personal: A Seat at a Family Conference

Martha Shirk
October 1, 1999

(Child welfare officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., allowed Youth Today reporter Martha Shirk to observe a family conference, provided she conceal the family’s identity. Her report follows.)

The dad, a beefy, middle-aged man with a chip on his shoulder, was the first family member to arrive for the conference that would decide the fate, at least temporarily, of his family. In another jurisdiction, he might have been called the perpetrator: a month before he had struck his 16-year-old daughter, Mindy, in anger, and someone had called the police. His outburst triggered a child abuse investigation, a brief stay in a children’s shelter for Mindy, and a formal finding against him of child abuse. But today, he and the rest of the family and several others whom they invited — a bishop from the Mormon Church, a neighbor and Mindy’s boyfriend — were gathering to work out a family plan to reduce conflict in the home and keep Mindy safe.

As the other invitees trickled in to the conference room at a community agency, the tension built. The mom, visibly tired from working overnight in an emergency room, shredded a tissue. Mindy clutched her boyfriend, Justin, 18. The dad sat on the opposite side of the conference table from Mindy and her mom. Two county social workers — the one who investigated the child abuse report and the one who will work with the family in the coming months — sat beside him.

Then the two facilitators, social workers James Anderson and Vivette Catipon, laid down the ground rules, which were also displayed prominently on a board:

  • Focus on the child.
  • Be respectful of each other.
  • One person speaks at a time.
  • It is OK to disagree.
  • Do not blame or shame.
  • Confidentiality.
  • Focus on the solution, not the problem.

“That word ‘child’ isn’t right,” the dad objected. So the first rule was changed to: “Focus on Mindy.”

Anderson asked family members if they would like to begin the conference with any sort of ritual. At the mom’s request, the bishop offered a prayer.

And then the real work began — a 2 1/2-hour conversation with the stated goal of “open(ing) lines of communication to build agreement on house rules.” The end product would be a “family plan,” which, if approved by social workers, would keep the family out of Santa Clara County Dependency Court.

Roots of Trouble

For the first half hour, the focus was on the family’s strengths. The list eventually filled four pages of a flip chart.

Linda Romero, the child abuse investigator, started by telling the family that she was impressed by the parents’ shared goal of doing “what is best for Mindy.” She said she found the dad “open and honest,” and the mom very nurturing. Both clearly loved their two children, she said. And she lauded Mindy for having the courage to agree to the meeting.

The bishop agreed with Romero’s insights, and added more praise for Mindy. She’s “bright and musically talented, easy to get along with, and has brought joy to people’s lives,” he said.

Louise, the neighbor, spoke carefully. “Both parents are very supportive,” she said. “They’ve always been there for their children, emotionally and financially. They’re wonderful parents.” Justin, Mindy and the father offered similar views.

Then came time for the discussion about “issues and concerns.” At the facilitators’ request, the dad went first.

The root of the family’s problems, he said, was “opposite parenting philosophies” stemming from different backgrounds. He was American-born, and his wife a native of the Philippines. His philosophy of parenting was, “You teach them the best you can, but you can’t really tell them anything.” His wife, on the other hand, wanted to keep tight control of her children’s lives. She didn’t believe that girls should date before they were 18, and the source of much friction in the household was that Mindy was sneaking out to meet her boyfriend.

The mom worked three jobs and was rarely home, so the dad, who was frequently unemployed, was expected to enforce the house rules. The mom constantly berated him for his failure to keep better tabs on Mindy. “I’m blamed for everything,” he said. “I’m the problem.”

The mom agreed that she and her husband were often in conflict over Mindy. A big concern for her was that Mindy finish high school, proceed to college and “remain morally upright.”

Mindy, her voice quavering, talked about the difficulty of straddling her parents’ two world views. She said her mother’s worries were valid; she had flunked her final semester of 10th grade because she had cut so many classes. She had “messed up” and was now trying to rebuild her life, she said.

The other participants added their concerns: that Mindy might become pregnant and not finish high school, that she was no longer taking piano lessons despite significant talent.

Although family conferences are meant to take as long as necessary for a family to reach consensus, the dad threw a monkey wrench into this one when he announced that he had to leave by 1 p.m. That left only about 85 minutes for the family to develop a plan that social workers could approve. The facilitators called a 10-minute break and urged participants to partake of the snacks they’d laid out — bagels, fruit, coffee, chips and soda — so they’d come back ready to work. Everybody returned from the break noticeably more relaxed.

The Family’s Plan

The facilitators then helped the family agree on the primary issues they needed to address in their plan: school, values and morals, safety, and family relationships. Mindy’s mom panicked momentarily when the facilitators announced that they were leaving the room so the family could have “private family time.”

“I thought the purpose of us being here was that you were going to help us,” the mom said.

Although “private family time” is optional in Santa Clara’s model of family conferencing, county officials believe strongly in it. As a compromise, Anderson suggested that the bishop remain to facilitate.

And then most of the nonfamily members — the two facilitators, the two social workers, and the neighbor — went to an adjoining room to share their impressions of the family dynamics. (At Mindy’s request, her boyfriend was allowed to stay with the family.)

After 30 minutes alone, the family summoned the professionals back. The mood was noticeably lighter. The mom had stopped crying, and Mindy was smiling. She had been given the task of entering the family plan on a flipchart, and she looked poised and self-assured standing at the front of the room.

The list of house rules they’d agreed on was straightforward:

  • Honesty
  • Curfew Monday-Thursday 9 p.m.
  • Curfew Friday-Saturday, midnight
  • Phone if late
  • Let parents know plans
  • Finish summer school
  • No cutting classes
  • Complete homework and turn in on time
  • Not home alone with Justin
  • Limit phone calls to 30 minutes
  • No physical or verbal abuse
  • Assigned chores

The professionals congratulated the family on reaching agreement. But Linda Romero, the investigator, pointed out an omission agreement on the consequences to Mindy for breaking house rules. “She’ll be grounded from everything from the phone, from visiting her friends, from going to a movie,” the mom said.

Mindy’s face fell. Then the bishop spoke up. “I think the punishment needs to fit the crime. Maybe one hour of grounding for coming home late an hour, or something like that,” he said. The mom agreed.

Then Mindy raised a new issue. “I want to know who’s living in the house,” she said. “I don’t feel safe living under the same roof as my dad, and he said the same thing about me.”

The dad interjected: “I won’t hit her if she doesn’t hit me.”
“And what will you do if she hits you?” Romero asked.
“Well, I’ll call 911 and wait 40 minutes for the police to come,” the dad responded.
The mom spoke up. “It’s hard enough for her to be a teenager. Right now, I think it would be better if dad lived somewhere else,” she said.
“Are you OK with that?” asked Tanya Byers, the social worker who will monitor the effectiveness of the plan.
“Sure,” the dad replied with a shrug.
So the family plan was amended to require the dad to live apart “until the social worker and the therapist deem it appropriate for him to return, and both dad and Mindy feel safe.”

“I think Mindy deserves a round of applause,” said Jim Anderson, one of the facilitators. Then came the epilogue. Anderson asked each participant to talk about what the family conference had meant to him or her. The mom spoke first.

“I think this is a positive experience, because our family is in trouble,” she said. “We have problems with communication to begin with. In a conference like this, we were able to talk openly. I hope that our family will be able to get back to the way it wants to be. I realize it will take a lot of work, especially from dad and I.”

Justin said: “I think that if they set their minds to it, they can do it. I think it was good for me to be here, because now I know the rules, too.”

The bishop said: “I appreciate the openness and the honesty of the family and the willingness of their friends to be here.”

Mindy said: “I’m happy that it happened. At first I wasn’t happy to hear that I had to be open and share my problems, because I’m not usually that open. But I think it’s helped.”

Only the dad didn’t speak up. “Time’s up,” he said when his turn came. “We ought to just go.”

Shirk, Martha. "New Zealand Social Work Tactic Hits Shore, Makes Waves: Up Close and Very Personal: A Seat at a Family Conference." Youth Today, October 1999, p. 18.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.