NASW Press
0 Items
Home    >    Widening the Circle
Widening the Circle
The Practice and Evolution of Family Group Conferencing with Children, Youths, and Their Families
Joan Pennell and Gary Anderson, Editors
ISBN: 978-0-87101-367-5. 2005. Item #3673. 262 pages.

NASW Members
Save 10% (print edition): $16.19
You MUST enter member number to receive member discount at checkout.
Widening the Circle is about developing family leadership, cultural safety, and community partnerships to safeguard children, young people, and other family members. This volume describes family group conferencing and critically analyzes its contributions to widening the circle. The practices presented are based on the authors’ extensive experience with family group conferencing in the United States and Canada as applied primarily in child welfare but also extended into juvenile justice and domestic violence.

Special Features

  • Unified overview of practice and research on the model

  • International findings

  • Extensive family examples

  • Steps for organizing, facilitating, and following up on conferences

  • Physical, emotional, and cultural safety at conferences

  • Guidance for communities on starting and sustaining conferencing

  • Evaluating conferencing to enhance practice

  • Future directions for reshaping child welfare

Foreword by Carol Wilson Spigner
Preface by Joan Pennell and Gary R. Anderson

Chapter 1: Widening the Circle
Joan Pennell

Section I: Conferencing
Joan Pennell and Gary R. Anderson

Chapter 2: Before the Conference – Promoting Family Leadership
Joan Pennell

Family Example 1: Understanding the Diagnosis – Have the Conference Belong to the Family Group

Family Example 2: The Out-of-State Family Reunion – Foster Understanding of the Family and Creativity in Planning

Family Example 3: Bicultural Communication – Help the Conference Participants Take Part Safely and Effectively

Chapter 3: At the Conference – Advancing Cultural Safety
Joan Pennell

Family Example: We’re Not Stupid – Tap into the Strengths of the Family Group in Making a Plan

Chapter 4: After the Conference – Maintaining Community Partnerships
Gary R. Anderson

Section II: Initiating and Sustaining Conferencing
Joan Pennell and Gary R. Anderson

Chapter 5: Collaborative Planning and Ongoing Training
Joan Pennell

Community Example 1: The Social Worker and the Cell Phone

Community Example 2: The Young Person at the Training Camp

Community Example 3: "This Wasn’t a Time to Bash Mom"

Community Example 4: Bills, Rides, and Mentors

Chapter 6: Family Group Conferencing and Supportive Legislation and Policy
Gary R. Anderson

Section III: Evaluating Conferencing
Joan Pennell, Carol Harper, and Gary R. Anderson

Chapter 7: Checking for Model Fidelity
Joan Pennell

Family Example: "Everyone Had a Different Idea Why We Were Having It"

Chapter 8: Identifying Short-Term and Long-Term FGC Outcomes
Gary R. Anderson and Peg Whalen

Chapter 9: Calculating the Costs and Benefits of Family Group Conferencing
Andy Rowe

Appendix: Costs of Family Group Conferencing
Joan Pennell

Section IV: Reshaping Child Welfare
Gary R. Anderson and Joan Pennell

Chapter 10: Safety for Mothers and Their Children
Joan Pennell

Family Example 1: Where the Father and His Family Contributed to the Conference and the Plan

Family Example 2: Where the Father and His Family Did Not Contribute to the Conference and the Plan

Family Example 3: Women’s Advocacy and Addressing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Chapter 11: Analyzing Family Involvement Approaches
Lisa Merkel-Holguin and Leslie Wilmot

Chapter 12: Family Group Conferences in the Youth Justice and the Child Welfare Systems
Gale Burford

Chapter 13: Family Group Conferencing and Child Welfare: Contributions and Challenges
Gary R. Anderson

About the Editors
About the Contributors
Child welfare systems across this country are committed to the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in care as a matter of public policy and organizational intent. Knowledge of family and its meaning in the lives of children as well as social work practice require that children are protected in the context of their family, culture, and community. Maltreatment by and separation from parents have potential short-term and long-term psychological and cognitive consequences, which can compromise a child’s development. A major challenge for the child welfare system has been striking the right balance between a time-sensitive, child-protective approach and the efforts to engage families in problem solving and resolution of the issues that lead to placement. A second challenge confronting public child welfare agencies is to provide services in a manner that uses cultural and community strengths. This volume makes a major contribution to thinking and practice related to these two critical issues.

Child welfare systems have struggled with family engagement for the past three decades. Research has documented that most of the time and resources in the child welfare system are directed toward the children, with less investment in efforts to engage families in building their own capacity to protect their children. Among the social costs of these policies and practices are long stays in out-of-home care and no permanent attachments for the children. Public policy has attempted to address this issue through the reasonable efforts requirements, the funding of reunification services, and expedited adoptions. Despite these efforts, 126,000 U.S. foster children have no family of their own (AFCARS, 2001).

If the child welfare system is to be protective, fair, and just, it must serve children and families well and in the context of culture and community. This requires not only eliciting the voices of families and communities but also developing and delivering services in partnership with families and their communities. Family group conferencing (FGC) offers a powerful strategy for engaging families and holding them accountable for the changes that are essential to ensuring children’s development in the context of safety and permanence.

This book is the most systematic examination of FGC to date. Looking through the lens of practice, research, and policy, the authors explore not only the state of the art but also the state of the science related to this approach. The volume describes what is and identifies future challenges. I hope the contribution made here will expand discussion of effective approaches to helping not only children but also families and their natural helping networks, resolve the problems that contribute to maltreatment.

Carol Wilson Spigner, DSW
Kenneth L. Pray Professor, School of Social Work, University of Pennsylvania
and Associate Commissioner for the Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1994-1999
Widening the Circle describes and critically analyzes an intervention called family group conferencing (FGC). The guiding metaphor of "widening the circle" not only frames FGC practice, but also serves as the reference against which to assess the accomplishments and limitations of the model. Widening the circle refers to developing the family leadership, cultural safety, and community partnerships to safeguard children, young people, and other family members.

The volume is based on our experience with FGC in the United States and Canada as applied primarily in child welfare, but also extended into the fields of juvenile justice and domestic violence. Drawing upon our work as FGC developers, evaluators, and consultants, we have used a question-and-answer format to address commonly raised questions about the model’s practice and evaluation. Typical questions are, Is it safe for children? Should domestic violence cases be excluded? Do we have enough resources to carry out FGC? How can we measure its outcomes? Does it change how we carry out child welfare and juvenile justice?

The responses to the questions highlight key points and use examples to illustrate FGC processes and outcomes. Summaries of research findings are used to substantiate patterns, and differences are explicated through an analysis of community contexts and family cultures. Joan Pennell’s examples are from the North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project, and Gary Anderson’s examples are from New York City and the Michigan Family Group Decision Making Evaluation. All family material has been disguised to protect the participants’ confidentiality.

Widening the Circle is devoted to examining how the principles of FGC orient the intervention and its evaluation and how they promote the three pathways to safeguarding children, youths, and their families – family leadership, cultural safety, and community partnerships. In chapter 1, "Widening the Circle," Joan Pennell introduces the concepts that form the basis of FGC; describes key features of FGC; defines family leadership, cultural safety, and community partnerships; and outlines the nine principles guiding FGC implementation (Pennell, 1999). Six of the nine FGC principles offer direction on how to work directly with the family groups and their service providers.

Section I: Conferencing

These principles are elaborated in the three chapters on conferencing in the first section of the book. Chapter 2, "Before the Conference – Promoting Family Leadership," addresses the referral process and conference preparations. In doing so, it relies on the following three principles:

  • Have the conference belong to the family group.
  • Foster understanding of the family and creativity in planning.
  • Help the conference participants take part safely and effectively.

Referencing these principles, Joan Pennell emphasizes the importance of structuring the pre-conference work in a way that moves the family to the center of planning. Thus, it is necessary to define the conference’s purpose in a way that is readily understood by the family group and encourages their best thinking, to weight invitations toward family members and away from service providers, to include a broad spectrum of family and "like family," to de-professionalize the setting and process of the meeting, and to find ways for each participant to engage safely and competently in the deliberations. The aim is to advance the family’s leadership from the outset.

Chapter 3, "At the Conference – Advancing Cultural Safety," reviews the five main phases of the conference: (1) opening in the family group’s traditions, (2) sharing the information necessary for planning, (3) having a private time for the family group to deliberate, (4) finalizing the plan, and (5) closing the meeting. During these stages, Joan Pennell notes that two FGC principles offer guidance:

  • Tap into the strengths of the family group in making a plan.
  • Promote carrying out the plan.

The conference is geared toward creating a culturally safe forum in which family group members receive the necessary information and supports to make their own plan, privacy in which to express their views and draw on their traditions to find solutions, and authorization so that the plan can be carried out and revised as needed.

Chapter 4, "After the Conference – Maintaining Community Partnerships," examines the work carried out in the aftermath of the conference. The crucial tasks are carrying out the plan, monitoring and evaluating its implementation, and revising it as necessary. As Gary Anderson notes, the guiding principle here is the following:

  • Fulfill the purpose of the plan.

The chapter highlights the importance of community partnerships to ensure the continued involvement of the family group and service providers.

Section II: Initiating and Sustaining Conferencing

Too often, conferencing falters because insufficient attention is given to developing a hospitable context for its implementation.

Three FGC principles are concerned with forming and maintaining an environment that will facilitate the success of conferencing:

  • Build broad-based support and cultural competence.
  • Enable the coordinators to work with family groups in organizing their conferences.
  • Change policies, procedures, and resources to sustain partnerships among family groups, community organizations, and public agencies.

These principles entail generating interorganizational linkages, policies, and evaluative approaches that support and correct model implementation. These are elaborated in the second and third sections of the book on, respectively, initiating and sustaining FGC and evaluating it.

Chapter 5, "Collaborative Planning and Ongoing Training," focuses on the development work necessary to begin the program and the continued effort necessary to sustain and enrich the program once it has been established. Joan Pennell stresses that before they begin the process, key participants must be oriented to the model and then engaged in planning the means for initiating, implementing, and evaluating the FGC program. Given the importance of community partnerships for successful conferencing, the author urges a collaborative approach to planning that brings together diverse partners from the outset of an FGC program. Once conferencing has started, the program must continue to offer training, consultation, support, and opportunities for exchanges – not only for the FGC coordinators, but also for other participants, particularly the referring social workers and their supervisors.

Chapter 6, "Family Group Conferencing and Supportive Legislation and Policy," addresses means of developing a hospitable national and state context for carrying out FGC. This is especially crucial for programs outside New Zealand, because most operate without legislation that mandates the model and none have legislation that explicitly incorporates Indigenous traditions and terms. Such legislation does not in itself guarantee cultural safety for FGC participants. Without legislation, however, FGC programs face an even greater challenge in resisting racist practices and respecting cultural diversity. The necessity of meeting this challenge is evident in child welfare systems that remove children of color from their families and communities in far greater proportions than white children (Roberts, 2002). As Gary Anderson discusses in chapter 6, U.S. child welfare legislation, while not mandating FGC, has values and practices that encourage its application, and federal reviews further support the implementation of FGC programs.

Section III: Evaluating Conferencing

Evaluation research on the implementation of FGC is relatively substantial; however, studies of its outcomes are more limited because of the recent introduction of the model in many locales. Cost analysis is the most limited of all, reflecting the nascent state of economic analysis in community-oriented services. Joan Pennell and Gary Anderson, joined by American Humane researcher Carol Harper, open the third section of the book by setting forth a program map or logic model encompassing FGC implementation, outcomes, and costs.

Chapter 7, "Checking for Model Fidelity," looks at ways to evaluate the implementation of the FGC intervention. Evaluation requires that researchers have a blueprint of the model against which to compare actual practice, and FGC processes are now sufficiently articulated for program evaluators to assess adherence to the model. At the same time, the model cannot be so rigidly specified that it prevents families from taking leadership in designing their own conference. To circumvent this danger, Joan Pennell discusses how key FGC guidelines can be used to assess faithfulness to the model in a way that respects FGC’s flexibility and responsiveness to family cultures and local contexts.

Chapter 8, "Identifying Short-Term and Long-Term FGC Outcomes," describes ways to evaluate the results of conferencing. In general, assessing child welfare outcomes is difficult for many reasons, including the often conflictual nature of family-agency relationships. These conflicts are partly a function of the power of child welfare workers to remove children and partly the result of normative differences of opinion on child rearing. The latter, in particular, can lead to disagreements between child welfare workers and their clientele on the desired outcomes. Commonly, for example, the child welfare system defines the desired outcomes as removing immediate risks to children, whereas family groups tend to think in broader terms of safeguarding the children’s long-term interests and keeping them connected to their community. As Gary Anderson notes, U.S. legislation encourages a broad look at outcomes, including child and family safety, permanency, and well-being, and he proposes that the evaluation assess immediate, intermediate, and long-term outcomes.

Chapter 9, "Calculating the Costs and Benefits of Family Group Conferencing," focuses on FGC expenditures and relates these to outcomes. In a climate of results-based accountability, fledgling social programs such as FGC too often are asked to demonstrate that they are a less expensive and more beneficial alternative to practice as usual. Economist Andy Rowe takes the stance that new programs can and should collect data on their costs and benefits, and he illustrates doable ways of gathering this information. He also takes the stance, however, that without external funding, new programs are not positioned to compare their costs and effectiveness with those of suitable alternatives. In a summary appended to this chapter, Joan Pennell reviews research on FGC costs.

Section IV: Reshaping Child Welfare

Family group conferencing is a method that is simple in terms of its concept, but complex in terms of its implementation. The complexity stems from its divergences in philosophy and practice from the conventional child welfare system in the United States. This system holds parents accountable for their failings without encouraging responsible interventions by the family group and community. The fourth and final section of this book examines the extent to which the FGC model is an effective alternative for safeguarding mothers and their children; its fit with other family involvement models now emerging in child welfare; its capacity to integrate planning efforts of multiple systems, including the juvenile justice system; and its overall contributions to reshaping child welfare and its challenges in doing so.

Chapter 10, "Safety for Mothers and Their Children," addresses the benefits and hazards of FGC in safeguarding family members. Family approaches in child welfare have been sharply criticized for endangering the safety and rights of children and increasingly scrutinized for their impact on abused mothers, especially when batterers take part in the decision making. In this chapter, Joan Pennell highlights the crucial role of the family group in stopping violence against both the adults and the children of the family, as well as the necessity of alliances between child welfare workers and domestic violence workers to prevent further family violence and promote healing in its aftermath. She summarizes findings on FGC processes and outcomes in situations of domestic violence and examines the consequences of including the maternal and paternal sides of the family. The participation of multiple sides of the family group points to a possible fourth pathway for safeguarding children and other family members: It is termed "inclusive planning" (Pennell, in press-b). In conclusion, she outlines a series of steps for carrying out FGC where there is a history of domestic violence.

Chapter 11, "Analyzing Family Involvement Approaches," reviews a range of models for engaging family members in child welfare planning. Family involvement models in child welfare are proliferating in the United States, and workers are often uncertain about which model to select for a particular family. Based in the American Humane’s Family Group Decision Making Center, Lisa Merkel-Holguin and Leslie Wilmot compare three current U.S. models – FGC, family team conferencing, and team decision making. They also examine trends in family group decision making (FGDM) in the United States and raise critical questions about whether these developments keep FGDM on track with its original aims.

Chapter 12, "Family Group Conferencing as a Strategy for Achieving Integration and Coordination in the Youth Justice and the Child Welfare Systems," addresses the conflicts that young people face in dealing with multiple public authorities, including the youth justice and child welfare systems. Drawing on his experience with child welfare, youth justice, and FGC, social work educator and researcher Gale Burford proposes a strategy to integrate planning from these two systems through FGC. He further stresses the importance of keeping distinct their different mandates: protecting young people versus holding them accountable for their behaviors and preventing further criminal activity.

In chapter 13, "Family Group Conferencing and Child Welfare: Contributions and Challenges," Gary Anderson presents FGC as a promising model for inclusion in child welfare interventions, but not a panacea. Drawing on legislation, professional codes of ethics, and trends in child welfare, he delineates the compatibilities between the aims of child welfare and the practices of FGC. At the same time, he sets forth challenges to mainstreaming FGC in the U.S. child welfare system – families’ multiple problems, coordinator’s capacity to reach out to alternative cultures, professional exertion of control, and the infrastructure of agencies. He concludes that although the idea may at first appear threatening to child welfare agencies, sharing power is the route to widening the circle and contributing to real change.
Joan Pennell, MSW, PhD, is professor and head of the Department of Social Work, North Carolina State University. She received her PhD in social work at Bryn Mawr College and her MSW from Dalhousie University, Canada. She is the principal investigator of the North Carolina Family-Centered Meetings Project and previously directed the North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project, both with the goal of fostering inclusive approaches to planning in child welfare. Before her return to the United States, she served with Gale Burford as the principal investigator for a Newfoundland & Labrador (Canada) demonstration of family group conferencing in situations of child maltreatment and domestic violence. Her writings particularly focus on empowerment approaches to practice, program development, and research. She coauthored Community Research as Empowerment: Feminist Links, Postmodern Interruptions (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Family Group Conferencing: Evaluation Guidelines (American Humane Association, 2002). She has made presentations on family group conferencing in Australia, Canada, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and across the United States.

Gary R. Anderson, MSW, PhD, is professor and director of the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, and his MSW from the University of Michigan. He is the principal investigator for the State of Michigan Department of Human Services Family Group Decision Making evaluation. He was previously the founding director of the National Resource Center for Permanency Planning at Hunter College in New York City. He coedited The Challenge of Permanency Planning in a Multicultural Society (Haworth Press, 1997) and edited Courage to Care: Responding to the Crisis of Children with AIDS (Child Welfare League of America, 1990). He is the editor of the Child Welfare League of America’s journal, Child Welfare.
Family group conferencing has become increasingly popular in the field of social work since its introduction nearly two decades ago as a practice model with families and their children. The FGC model emphasizes the strengths and potential of families, community organizations and public agencies to resolve issues confronting family members. In this well-written and clearly organized volume, the authors present family group conferencing as a family-centered, family strengths-oriented, culturally relevant and community-based model. They delineate in depth its major principles and methods and illustrate its application in diverse child welfare and family settings. Widening the Circle is a valuable text that will enrich the work of practitioners, researchers, and students faced with challenges of helping families in contemporary society.

Anthony N. Maluccio, DSW
Professor, Graduate School of Social Work
Boston College


With great skill, Pennell and Anderson demonstrate the centrality of combining family leadership, community involvement, and public agency cooperation in achieving success in the child welfare system’s effort to safeguard children. The use of examples from "real" families allows the reader to experience the effectiveness of the Family Group Conference model as it creates opportunities for families to take the lead in developing solutions for challenges related to child maltreatment, domestic violence, and child safety. This carefully researched and well-written book provides one of the most comprehensive guides for initiating and sustaining Conferencing. In addition, it deals with critical enablers of success such as the concept of "cultural safety" and the integration of a well-defined role for fathers in child welfare practice. This book is truly a vehicle for widening the circle of those who strengthen the role of families in child welfare decision-making.

William C. Bell
Executive Vice President, Child and Family Services, Casey Family Programs
Commissioner, New York City Administration for Children’s Services, 2002-2004


Widening the Circle is the definitive work on Family Group Conferencing. Building from its roots with the Maori in New Zealand, this book documents the growth of the FGC model and its applications with multiple cultures and populations. Significantly, the book provides several chapters on evaluating different aspects of FGC: assessing fidelity to the model, outcome evaluation, and cost analysis. It illustrates the strengths of coupling family accountability with empowerment in action. It redefines the roles of practitioners in mutual work with families in ways that strengthen their abilities to make good decisions, to use community resources, to decrease isolation and to build community and community partnerships FGC in its full implications in this book offers positive strategies for family-centered systems change and research and for new policy directions that promote family and community responsibility for the safety and welfare of children.

Marie Well, PHD
Berg-Beach Distinguished Professor of Community Practice, School of Social Work
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill