Voice, power and discourse: Experiences of participants in family group conferences in the context of child protection

Journal article
Canadian CW research

Ney, Tara
Stoltz, Jo-Anne
Maloney, Maureen

Journal of Social Work, 13(2): 184-202

Summary: The purpose of this article is to explore the tensions that emerge when two very different discourses – the ‘democratic’, participatory discourse of FGC and the legalistic, bureaucratized discourse of conventional child welfare practice – attempt to integrate. We present the findings of a qualitative study, where we conducted 74 interviews, involving 26 adult family members/caregivers (three youth); six child protection workers; and three FGC coordinators. By listening to the voices of participants, we explore the complexities and tensions that exist at the nexus of (at least) two competing discourses, when the FGC process takes place within the child protection bureaucratic structure.

Findings: Our findings show how participants’ voices were co-opted by the more forceful child protection discourse, itself shaped by legal, bureaucratized, and neoliberal discourses. This research shows how in each case participants’ experience of power was subjugated, even though, in each instance, the case was perceived to have had a successful outcome by the social worker and FGC coordinator.

Applications: If those involved in administering and delivering family group conferencing continue to at least be aware of how power operates in this context, then the possibility exists to realize FGC's broader social justice and transformative goals. Further, a reflective practice (Schön, 1991) can mitigate the possibility of cooptation from particular bureaucratic, legal, and neoliberal discourses which dominate at different times, and which are incompatible with the inherent values and objectives of the FGC.