Circle Conferencing: When You Listen, They Speak

By Laura Melton Tucker, June 26th, 2009

Listen to this entry.

Imagine being 14 years old and getting into trouble for walloping the school bully. Add in some layers. You started the fight on school grounds. There were witnesses. The police were called. The other kid’s parents have filed an assault charge. It gets worse. The next day after you return home from school your mom meets you at the door in tears. A representative from the local housing authority has called to say that your behavior is grounds for eviction. Your younger siblings stare at you open eyed. They’re about to be displaced, too. When you push past them to go to your room, you are flooded with feelings of shame, humiliation and anger.

This scenario may sound dramatic, but it’s a real one, repeated too often in Iowa City. In response, our local housing authority has implemented a Family Group Conferencing mediation program to put time and space between an offending minor’s action and an eviction.

As background, the Iowa City Housing Authority spends over 5 million dollars annually in a progressive program that gives rent money to qualifying Iowa City families so that they can live in the same neighborhoods as their doctors, teachers, city council representatives and convenience store workers. In essence, the bulk of Iowa City’s low income housing is invisible. The ICHA pays owners of rental properties a portion of a family’s rent, and in exchange, it pledges to the community to keep neighborhoods safe by expelling tenants who break the law. This strict policy extends to the minor children of families who live in low income housing. While eviction for a teenage child’s mistake seems heavy handed, the community’s trust and stake in the program must be honored in order for the program to exist. Consequently, when a minor gets in trouble, the intervention is swift and serious.

One of the pieces of this intervention is a facilitated mediation that asks the offender and family members, along with representatives from the housing authority and law enforcement, and other key supporters of the offender – teachers, counselors, friends or extended family – to come together and sit in a circle and talk. Family group conferences are highly structured, in part to ensure fair and equal participation. Every attendee has a turn to speak. A question is posed by the mediator, perhaps one focusing on the impact of the violent or illegal behavior, or one asking about possible changes that could be made to protect against future incidents, and then one by one each person in the circle speaks. This is an opportunity for the offender to be heard, for the circumstances behind the violent act to be contextualized, and for the group to share in the solutions and decisions that will affect the family.

There are no guarantees that the conference will enable the teen and the family to remain in their home. Still, the family group conference gives the family a chance to state their case, and more than that, allows the young person to hear from other caring adults. The takeaway is that family group conferencing provides families an opportunity to share in the decision making process. There is great power in people gathering in a circle, all listening to the one speaking.

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