Saturday, 21 October 2017

Māori, Family Group Conferencing and the Mystifications of Restorative Justice

The following blog offers up text from a presentation by Paora Moyle (in absentia) and I, assisted on the day by Moana Jackson, at the Social Movement, Resistance, and Social Change Conference held at Massey University Albany, 6-8 September 2017.

Feted by the demi-gods of restorative justice, celebrated by advocates and policy entrepreneurs alike, the Family Group Conferencing (FGC) forum is often presented as reinvigorating the practice of ‘traditional' western restorative justice (RJ) processes, assisted by a respectful, judicious application of Indigenous philosophies and cultural practices. The FGC forum is also frequently depicted by RJ advocates as a culturally appropriate and empowering justice mechanism for indigenous peoples, including Māori. To date, however, there has been little empirical research that investigates these claims as they relate to the experiences of indigenous FGC service providers, and indigenous community members and representatives involved in FGC forums.

In this presentation, we offer primary research from one of the authors (Moyle) on Māori whānau (families) and community member’s experiences of the FGC forum. This research builds on Moyle’s (2013, 2014) previous work on Māori social worker experiences with FGC. We examine in detail Māori whānau and community member’s perspectives on the ability of the forum to enable them to have significant input into decisions regarding issues related to child care and protection, and youth justice issues. Drawing from this research we challenge claims made by RJ advocates and policy entrepreneurs that the forum offers Māori a culturally appropriate and empowerment justice process.

The Mystification of the Family Group Conference
Elsewhere we have argued that one of the marketing strategies utilised by members of the restorative justice industry, especially in setter colonial contexts, is the persistent, mythological representation of interventions like the FGC forum as being founded on Indigenous cultural principles and practice.  The functional perspective given to the role of myth in relation to the law is effectively summarised by Cavello who contends that myth operates to ‘construct reality by organising experience and perception, and that law’s reality appears to primarily express the perspective or mythology of a particular social group’. We argue that much of the restorative justice field within contemporary, globalised criminal justice lends itself to the power of a functional analysis of the role of myth in crime control, most especially the problematic elements of myth building and maintenance, namely the process of mystification.

In order to distinguish the functional role of mystification within the broader process of myth construction, Cavello (1992, pp. 29-30) writes that in contemporary societies, myth and mystification, while often co-existing, have opposite functions:

"[M]yth is used to clarify, to reveal truth, to explain sense and experience, and to guide people to a deeper understanding and appreciated of their reality - their individual selves, their society, their world - then mystification is employed to obfuscate, to confuse, to hide meaning and significance, or to imply it where there is none".

The purpose of mystifications in the RJ context is to make the movement, its objectives, its reason d'etre “seem inevitable, eternal, and externally produced”. One area where this process has been especially potent is in advocate’s claims that its core principles are imbued with, or founded upon, the philosophies and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples. This is a point Richards highlights when she observes that "[r]estorative justice’ is variously portrayed, for example, as being ‘consistent with indigenous custom, being ‘based on’ or ‘underpinned by’ indigenous customs, ‘arising out of’, ‘being fed by’, ‘owing a debt to’ or being ‘embedded in’ indigenous traditions, and/or having been ‘established by’ indigenous communities".

We contend that it is through the activities of advocates of the FGC that we observe the practice and impact of the mystification process writ large, especially when advocates of the forum claim that:
1) Construction of the Act that introduced the FGC was influenced by Māori concerns for the prevalence of institutionally racist and culturally inappropriate practices within the New Zealand criminal justice system;
2) Because the FGC and Māori justice protocols both share ‘restorative elements’ – indeed the FGC components derive directly from Māori, its use demonstrates the ability of the formal system to culturally sensitise itself, and address the justice needs of Māori in meaningful ways; and
3) That it was designed in part to enable Māori families/communities to manage the response to Māori youth offending (more about this issue later).

The persistent mystification of the FGC forum has resulted in the alleged Indigenous foundations of the forum acquiring the status of an uncontestable ‘truth’. This situation persists despite growing critical research and literature that exposes the imprecision of the aforementioned origin myths, including Mike Doolan’s (2005, p. 1), one of the primary architects of the 1989 legislation, admission that “those of us who were involved in the policy development process leading up to the new law had never heard of restorative justice”. Doolan (2005, p. 1) further acknowledges that the primary goals of the forum were to hold youth offenders responsible for their offending behaviour, and reduce referrals to the Youth Court, and not to provide Māori whānau with an avenue to “control responses to the offending of their youth”.  Today we seek to problematise the mystification of the FGC forum as it relates to oft-repeated claims of cultural appropriateness and empowerment of Māori. We situate our claims in prior research from Moyle, in primary research presented here for the first time. Over the past two and a half decades these claims have been consistently replicated in a significant amount of criminological literature.

Exposing the Gap Between Mystification and Lived Experience
Thematic analysis of the interviews with Māori practitioners (Moyle, 2013; 2014) and preliminary findings from ongoing research with whānau  participants, identified a number of key themes, two of which we will discuss here, namely a lack of cultural responsiveness, and the mystical origins of the FGC.

A Lack of Cultural Responsiveness and Capability
In the first of the two projects undertaken by Moyle, Māori practitioners involved in criminal justice and child care and protection were asked about their experiences of the FGC as practiced in New Zealand. Participants' reported that in many instances FGC involving Māori clients was often impacted by a lack of cultural competence by non-Māori professionals involved.  This, along with what they believed was the biased application of rules, created significant barriers for whānau in attaining positive outcomes from the process. 

Several of the participants spoke about the inappropriate conduct of officials involved in the FGC process. They reported this as flowing form the eurocentric, monoculturalist foundations of New Zealand' youth justice and the statutory social work systems, which has resulted in a 'one world view, one size fits all' standardised approach to engaging with a socio-culturally diverse clientele. Imported risk assessment tools were viewed as particularly problematic because their construction rendered practitioners incapable of considering relevant historical factors (i.e. colonisation), and contemporary factors (i.e. institutional racism and systemic bias) that participants believe contribute to Māori over-representation in New Zealand's criminal justice and child care and protection systems.

While participants shared some positive accounts of the FGC experience, overall their engagement with practice was negative. For example, a key findings from the whānau project was that by-and-large, mainstream non-Māori social workers did not know how to engage with them. For example, participant 19 stated that:

"The family group conference is about as restorative as it is culturally sensitive.... in the same way Pakeha [European] social workers believe they are competent enough to work with our people.... Pakeha think they're the natural ordinary community against which all other ethnicities are measured".

Participant 7 also commented that:

"In the FGC we were talking about how ‘Pākeha’ the caregiver training was when most kids in care are Māori. The social worker said, “our training teaches all prospective parents how to be culturally sensitive... culture is important to us (to child protection) but the health and wellbeing of a child must come first.” Like, being Māori is secondary, an add-on, or a choice!"

Moyle’s (2013) research with Māori practitioners showed that mainstream social workers, despite being professionally accredited as culturally competent to work with Māori, often did not understand, value or put into practice fundamental elements of a Māori worldview, such as whakapapa (genealogy/family connections). Often they did not understand that whakapapa is more than just genealogy, and is in fact fundamental to a Māori child’s cultural and spiritual identity, long term development and wellbeing. Consequently, those social workers may not reasonably investigate family connected to a Māori child. The implication of this, an issue also identified by Pakura (2005), is that it hinders the potential for enhanced and meaningful whānau involvement in the FGC process.

The Mystical Origins of the Family Group Conferencing Forum
A further thread of FGC disempowerment for Māori was linkages between the idealised origin myths of the FGC, and the actual practice of conferencing. Participants in Moyle’s research talked about how Māori have been indoctrinated with the FGC’s potential to be culturally responsive because it was presented as based on a Māori model of restorative justice. While some participants agreed with this representation, most did not, including participant 4 in Moyle’s current research with whānau, presented here, who stated that the “family group conferencing was never a Māori process... (laughing) the Pākehā took the whānau hui, colonised it and then cheekily sold it back to the native”.

While policy entrepreneurs and RJ advocates often represent the FGC as culturally appropriate and ‘Indigenous inspired’, the majority of Moyle’s research participants in both her practitioner and whānau projects experience align with the view of Māori commentators such as Love (2002) and Tauri (1998) that the process is as an attempt by the state to Indigenise child care and protection and youth justice through the co-option of Māori cultural practices. While it is possible to argue that the state members of the RJ industry have successfully mystified the forum, the largely symbolic use of Māori culture has not translated to effective practice, with the majority of participants from Moyle’s current research with whānau participants describing the process as culturally inappropriate and disempowering. Participants align this critique with the way that forum-related practice undermined and even at times excluded Māori cultural expertise. This shortcoming in practice is exemplified through the experiences of participant 21, a kaumatua (elder, who commented that:

"CYF (Child Youth & Family) said I couldn’t attend the FGC because I wasn’t whānau. But the whānau wanted a tikanga process and I was the kaumatua. Then the next week CYFs ring and ask me to attend a different FGC... talk about ‘dial a kaumatua'!"

What do Māori Want?
Moyle’s (2013, 2014) recent studies as well as the research with Māori practitioners and whānau participants presented here demonstrate that many experience the FGC as culturally inappropriate and disempowering, as ‘enforcement-based’ rather than ‘strength-based’. Given that this is their experience, it begs the question what do Māori want to make the process more meaningful?

Participants identified a range of policy changes and alterations to FGC practice they believe would enhance outcomes for their whānau and communities. The first significant change relates to the way in which youth justice and child care and protection policy is developed. Specifically, participants wanted policy makers to reconsider their preference for importing socially and culturally inappropriate interventions and instead, work directly with Māori communities to develop effective solutions that reflect New Zealand’s indigenous context. In terms of FGC process, participants wanted power sharing partnerships developed between the service agencies and Māori communities and providers. They also stressed the need for greater emphasis on community-based initiatives to deliver real changes in the lives of Māori participants, as opposed to the current preference for a top-down, managerialist approach to programme delivery, and over-emphasis on administrative, measurable outcomes such as fiscal responsibility and individual accountability.

Simply put, for the FGC forum to work as a culturally responsive, empowering and whānau inclusive process for Māori participants, it must be delivered by, or at the very least reflect the needs and cultural contexts of the communities within which it is practiced. For any intervention to be effective for whānau (i.e. the FGC), Māori need to be involved in its development and delivery: from identification of community needs, to designing and directly delivering those programmes themselves. They also need to be involved at all stages of programme development, change and local evaluation of these. We believe a good place to begin the process of making the forum meaningful would be a conscious effort by leaders in the youth justice and child protection sectors to seriously consider the issues raised by Māori participants in Moyle’s recent (2013, 2014) research and reported in this presentation.

Cavello, L (1992) The Mythologies of Law: A Postmodern Assessment. Master's thesis, York University, Ontario.
Doolan, M (2005) Restorative Practices and Family Empowerment: Both/And or Either/Or? Retrieved 8 August from
Love, C (2002) Maori Perspectives on Collaboration and Colonisation in Contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand Child and Family Welfare Policies and Practices, paper presented at the Policy Partnerships Conference, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, June.
Moyle, P (2013) From Family Group Conferencing to Whanau Ora: Maori Social Workers Talk about their Experiences. Master's Thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North.
Moyle, P (2014) Maori Social Workers Experiences of Care and Protection: A Selection of Findings, Te Komako: Social Work Review, 26(1): 55-64.
Pakura, S (2005) The Family Group Conference 14-Year Journey: Celebrating Successes, Learning from Lessons, Embracing the Challenges.  Paper presented at the American Humane Association's Family Group Decision Making conference, Harrisburg, Pennslyvania, 6-9 June.
Tauri, J (1998) Family Group Conferences: A Case Study in the Indigenisation of New Zealand's Justice System, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 10(2): 168-182.

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