Article 40 © copyright to the Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape

An experience with a family group conference

Belinda Pule, Department of Social Services, Mogwase

Introduction

The case was referred from Sun City police station. It involved a 15 year old girl charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. It was alleged that she stabbed her grandmother (aged 70 years) with a knife. Preparations were made for the conference and during this stage the grandmother and mother of the child indicated serious concerns. These concerns had also become evident during an earlier developmental assessment of the child in question. She was emotional and even cried. She expressed her belief that her granny hated her and she had therefore developed ill feelings for her in return. It was evident that there was something wrong in the family's relationship despite them sharing the same house.

The conference

At the conference the probation officer explained its purpose emphasising the concern for reconciliation. The parties' roles and other expectations were also clarified. It was explained that the probation officer would facilitate the conference, but in order to mediate and not take sides.

The offence was examined in more detail and it transpired that the accused had stolen her grandmother mango. The grandmother had confronted her and tried to beat her but in the process the accused had stabbed her with a knife on the hand. The grandmother stated that she was emotionally hurt.

The accused said that she had been sick from school and was confronted by her granny who tried to beat her. The accused was covering her school books and when she tried to ward off the beating mistakenly scratched her granny's hand as well as her own. She then cried when stating that it was not intentional. The accused told her mother when she came home from work but she did nothing about it.

After the deliberations, it became evident and agreed on that:

The result of the conference

The grandmother agreed that the case should be withdrawn, but expressed the view that the relationship problems caused her much anxiety. She was happy to have had the opportunity to raise and have them attended to. The accused's mother also indicated that the situation has been troubling her but it had a long history because of which she was unprepared to reach out to her mother. They also agreed that earlier interventions by relatives were fruitless and had caused more tension. They agreed to cook one meal as a family and to communicate their feelings and concerns rather than harbour them. The Probation Officer would refer the case to the area social worker who will keep in contact with the family in an effort to maintain and strengthen the renewed bond. The accused asked her granny to forgive her for being disrespectful by fighting back. In turn, the grandmother forgave her, also stating that she is named after her sister and this had been troubling her, as her ancestors would not accept their problems.

Observation by the Probation Officer

Family Group Conferences offer much opportunity for both victim and offender to expose their feelings as well as real issues, unlike court trials that focus only on the offence and factors directly relating to the offence. Family group conferences offer great opportunities to handle feelings and ensure that they are attended to. Parties in an family group conference are viewed holistically with consideration to their conditions, effects of the offence on their families and possible implications. This ensures total reconciliation and almost 99% assurance for non-recurrence. This is not the case with court trials where the offender never has the opportunity to observe exactly how his or her action affected the victim.

On the other hand, if not well prepared, a family group conference may cause a havoc situation that may end up in physical fights or emotional attacks. The facilitator has to be firm and directive. Backing by the court and recognition of a legal body behind efforts of the facilitator is very crucial to offer it the dignity and respect necessary for effective formal professional status. Finally, family group conferences are in line with the African Unity sentiments - any child is a child of the nation therefore his or her misdeeds should be handled in a kgotla (homely) manner before they can be declared irresolvable.