VOMA Quarterly

SMALL GROUP CONFERENCING IN MINNESOTA - A VOMA Interview
with Carolyn McLeod by Beverly Moore

Carolyn McLeod is Coordinator of the Washington County, Minnesota Community Justice Program. She is also a Board member of VOMA.

work from restorative justice principals.


What are the differences between SGC and FGC?

There are quite a few important differences between the SGC and FGC models.  In SGC, trained volunteer mediators facilitate the conference. In FGC, law enforcement officers or school officials facilitate the process.  In SGC, participation is voluntary for victim and offender, and there are no consequences if the offender is unwilling to participate. In the New Zealand FGC model (which is national policy), victims and offenders are required to participate.  In SGC, teams of mediators prepare participants for the Conference by meeting in face-to-face pre-conference interviews. In FGC, preparation is mostly done over the phone.  In SGC, mediators are trained to assist the participants by first explaining the format of the process. Mediators only intervene when necessary to assist the participants through the steps of the process. In FGC, facilitators are trained to use printed scripts to move through the process.  In SGC, if other issues (historical, for  example) emerge during a conference, mediators allow the participants to deal with them during the course of the meeting. In FGC, if other issues emerge during a conference, the facilitators require that the issues be tabled and the conference focuses only on the  offense that caused the complaint. In SGC, cases can range from petty misdemeanors  through felonies, including death and/or dismemberment. In the Australian FGC model,  cases are referred as diversions at the police level or from schools. The New Zealand model receives referrals from any level of the justice system.

What are some of the challenges of managing SGC?

Most of the challenges of managing a SGC program are logistical. Arranging a time and place for a large number of people to get together can be difficult.  Also, coordinating the team of mediators conducting the pre-conference interviews is time consuming, requiring a lot of telephone work in order to get and give feedback from and to all the mediators involved.  Mediators must use a great deal of care that offenders and victims are the  focus during the conference. Many times they are the ones who have the most difficulty articulating their feelings. The support people who might be present seem to have a relatively easy time saying how they feel about what happened, and also seem to find it easier to decide what the offender needs to do to make things right again. This must not  be allowed. 

What would you say to other communities interested in implementing SGC?

I encourage all programs to consider offering SGC when it seems appropriate to a particular case. In Washington

What types of justice programs does your county offer?

The Community Justice Project of Washington County Court Services is based on restorative justice philosophy. The project includes four distinct conferencing options: a Victim Offender Conferencing Program for both adult and juvenile offenders, Small Group Conferencing attending to criminal matters as well as status offenses and Large Group Conferencing designed to respond to the aftermath of criminal activity or to offer intervention early in a situation so it does not become a criminal matter. The fourth component of this project is Community Forums a process to help build - or rebuild - community and to identify and target actions that will ease problems in the community.

What is Small Group Conferencing (SGC)?

Small Group Conferencing requires several mediators. Parents, partners, or other support people such as teachers, clergy, coaches, neighbors and others who the victim, offender or their support people identify as important to include do participate. Their participation is less than those directly involved (the offender and victim), but it is important in the process. Having these support people share with the offender how the behavior affected them helps everyone understand that we are all connected and that others care. Participation of support people in the Conference is limited to ensure that the offender and victim have enough time and opportunity to work through their stories and feelings, and to ask questions and get answers.

Are there similarities between Small Group Conferencing (SGC) and the Australian and New Zealand models of Family Group Conferencing (FGC)?

The Small Group Conferencing model used in Washington County is similar to other FGC models in several ways. They all require the mediator/facilitator/coordinator to be  specially trained to conduct the conference. All three models invite victims, offenders, and offender's parents/support people/siblings and any others who have interest and reason to be included as participants to attend the conference. Conference attendance usually ranges from six to thirty participants. Tables are not used in any of the models. Instead participants sit in a circle (or a horseshoe shape with the facilitator at the open end). All three models seek to focus on the event that precipitated the conference and all three attempt to arrange a restitution agreement that covers the victim's losses and is realistic for the offender to complete. In all three models, participants are asked to tell what happened, how they were affected, what they felt and what they need or want or are willing to do to repair the harm done. Finally, all three models seek to