The Conferencing Unit conducts both Family Conferences in relation to youth criminal offending and Family Group Conferences in relation to the care and protection of children.

Family conferences are convened by youth justice coordinators and take place when a youth admits the commission of an offence. Conferences are intended to divert matters away from the court system. At a conference the young offender, the offender’s guardian/family/or other appropriate person, the victims of the crime, a police officer and a coordinator meet together. These people discuss the offence and determine a suitable outcome that will attempt to address the needs of all parties, while adhering to the philosophy and policy directives set out in the Young Offenders Act 1993.

This model is based on a “family decision making” philosophy. Current worldwide thinking in this area is that, given supports such as information, opportunity and resources family members and other participants are able to make decisions appropriate to the circumstances. This process empowers participants to take responsibility for key decisions affecting them.

Under the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017, the Conferencing Unit responds to referrals from the Department for Child Protection and the Youth Court. Referrals state the care and protection concerns in relation to children and the Conferencing Unit offers families the opportunity to address these concerns via a Family Group Conference. It is the family’s right to have such a conference if they believe it would be useful. However, they are not obliged to do so and may prefer to seek alternatives.

These conferences are conducted by Family Group Conference coordinators. The conferences involve the guardians/parents of the child, family members, an officer from the Department for Child Protection, any person who has counselled or treated the child, the child, and any other person who may be appropriate/supportive in their role. Additionally, the child must be represented by an advocate so that his/her wishes are adequately represented at the conference. It is the coordinator’s role to arrange for the appointment of the child advocate.

The aim of a Family Group Conference is to provide an opportunity for a child and their family to make informed decisions as to the arrangements for the care of the child and to make voluntary arrangements for the care of the child that are consistent with the Act. Those decisions can be reviewed from time to time.

Participants

The coordinator of the Family Group Conference is responsible for notifying all people entitled to be at the conference of the time and place at which the conference is to be held. The following people are entitled to be at a Family Group Conference:

  • The child;
  • The parents and guardians of the child;
  • Members of the child’s family;
  • Persons who have a close association with the child;
  • A person who is arranged to act as an advocate for the child;
  • Any person authorised by the Chief Executive of the Department for Child Protection;
  • A person who has examined, assessed, counselled or treated the child; and
  • Any other support person or person who, in the opinion of the coordinator, would be of assistance in their role.

The coordinator must ensure that a suitable person is arranged to act as an advocate for the child at the conference.

Procedure

The coordinator will ensure that information as to the child’s circumstances, and any grounds for suspecting that the child may be at risk is presented to the conference. Family members and the child (if appropriate) then have the chance to discuss this information privately and try to arrive at a plan or solution that they think will address the issues or concerns that have been raised.

If a person who is entitled to attend a Family Group Conference is unable to attend, the coordinator must take reasonable steps to ascertain that person’s views and present them to the conference.

Proceedings of a Family Group Conference are confidential and evidence of any statement made is not admissible as evidence in Court. The written record of decisions is admissible in Court for the purpose of establishing that those decisions were made.

Decisions

Decisions made at a Family Group Conference should, if possible, be made by consensus of all people present at the conference. A decision will only be taken to be valid if the child, their parents and guardians, and the Chief Executive each accept the decision.

The coordinator must ensure that a written record is prepared of all decisions made at a Family Group Conference (valid or not). The coordinator must then cause a copy of the record of decisions to be provided to each person present at the Family Group Conference and to be included as part of the child’s case plan.

A further Family Group Conference may be convened to review the arrangements made at the first conference if required by a valid decision of the first conference, or if two or more members of the child’s family who attended the first conference request a review.

If appropriate arrangements cannot be made for the care of the child at the Family Group Conference an application may be made to the Court for care and protection orders.

Statutory Guidelines

As with Care and Protection applications in the Court, in all Family Group Conferences, the paramount consideration is to ensure that children and young people are protected from harm. In addition, the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 provides the following further considerations in the administration of the Act:

  • The child’s need to be heard and have their needs considered;
  • The child’s need for love and attachment;
  • The child’s need for self-esteem;
  • The child’s need to achieve their full potential;
  • The importance of early intervention;
  • The child’s personal views on the matter;
  • The need to preserve the child’s culture, language and religion; and
  • The need to maintain a nurturing, stable and secure environment for the child.

Family Group Conferences are based on the beliefs that:

  • Families, extended families and kinship networks should be involved in decision making because families know their own capabilities and have strengths they can draw upon;
  • People are often more likely to be committed to decisions that they have been involved in making;
  • Family decision making helps the child remain within their family, community and kinship network wherever possible;
  • A cooperative, rather than adversarial relationship is created between families and agencies when they are included in decision making processes;
  • Family decision making models can be culturally sensitive as the family advises the coordinator about the most appropriate decision making processes within their culture and in this way meetings can be respectful of the family’s values and beliefs.

In 2019 the Conferencing Unit celebrated 25 years of conferencing in South Australia. A short YouTube video A tale of two meetings, (released 2014) looks at the Conferencing Unit’s productive past, how it works and predictions for the future.