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Differences in How Girls and Boys Respond to Family Group Conference: Preliminary Research Results

Gabrielle Maxwell
Venezia Kingi
Institute of Criminology
Victoria University of Wellington


This paper presents preliminary findings from an analysis of interviews and file data on a sample of young people who had youth justice family group conferences in New Zealand in 1998. The file data were available on 616 boys and 117 girls and interview data were available from 302 boys and 59 girls.

The file data describe the type of offending that occurred, responses to the offending and the reconviction history of the young people as adults. The interview data describe the young people's background and experiences while growing up, their life since the family group conference and, most importantly, their views of the family group conference. Data have been collected on the memorability of the conference, preparation for it, participation and involvement in it, and agreement with the conference decisions. The feelings of the young person about fairness, respect, remorse, shame, and whether or not they were forgiven and accepted as a person, were explored.

The data here suggest that girls were less responsive than boys to restorative aspects of family group conferences, despite their lesser involvement in criminal offending. Some possible reasons for this paradoxical finding are discussed.


Research from New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere is beginning to demonstrate that family group conferences, particularly when they are well run and managed, have the potential to induce remorse in offenders, and to assist families and young people to jointly take responsibility for repairing harm to victims and taking steps to prevent reoffending. The conferences can produce outcomes that are seen as satisfactory by victims, offenders, families and a range of justice professionals. Young people who participate in conferences report that, compared to court, they find conferences fair, inclusive of them, involve them in decisions, and provide them with opportunities to repair harm and make a new start. Victims, also, are more likely to report that conferences, compared to courts, allow them to be included, involve them in decisions and assist them to put the offence behind them.

However, the fact that a relatively small number of girls offend has made it difficult for researchers to answer questions about whether or not there are important gender issues in relation to family group conferencing, and whether or not girls respond differently from boys when involved in a restorative process. In this paper we report on preliminary findings of a study which incorporates an oversampling of young women for the purpose of answering these questions.

The research we describe here is a large-scale, retrospective study of files on 1,000 family group conferences. We are currently interviewing as many of the young people involved in these conferences as can be traced and consent to participate. This paper presents preliminary findings from an analysis of some of the interview and file data collected by the end of July 2001 on this sample of young people who had family group conferences in New Zealand in 1998:

  • Family group conference file data were available on 733 young people - 616 boys and 117 girls.
  • Re-offending information in the adult courts was available for 700 young people - 590 boys and 110 girls.
  • Interview data were available from 361 young people - 302 boys and 59 girls.

There are some records where complete information was not available so that the actual N in any particular table or for any particular item can fall short of the possible N of 733. In the tables, data highlighted in bold print are those where differences between boys and girls were significant at the 5% level using chi-squared tests.

Offending Patterns

Internationally, previous research has demonstrated that offending patterns are often very different for girls and boys, and so are the criminal justice responses to their offending (Anleu 1991, Chesney-Lind 1997, Heidensohn 1996). In this sample, too, we found that girls were more likely to have committed fewer and more minor offences, they were more likely to receive less severe outcomes and they were less likely to reoffend. These findings are detailed in Table 1 (except for reoffending, which appears in Table 4).

Table 1 Comparing Boys and Girls: Type of Offence, Source of Family Group Conference (FGC) Referral, Seriousness of Most Serious Offence and Number of Offences
Girls %
Boys %
Total %
Nature of offence %
Burglary 16 34 31
Car theft 16 29 27
Shop theft and other dishonesty 40 32 33
Property damage and abuse 9 16 15
Violence minor 34 23 24
Violence - not minor 4 13 11
Drugs and anti-social 13 13 13
Other 29 27 27
Source of FGC referral %
Police (direct referral) 50 37 39
Youth Court 50 63 61
Seriousness of most serious offence %
Less serious 41 31 33
More serious 59 69 67
One offence only % 41 33 35
Mean number of FGC offences 3.04 3.65 3.55

The data in Table 1 show that the girls committed different types of offences from the boys. They were more likely to commit minor violent offences than boys. They were less likely to carry out more serious offences of violence, burglaries, car thefts, and property damage and abuse. On average, the girls were more likely than boys to be referred directly for a family group conference rather than being charged in court. All these differences were statistically significant at the 5% level. These findings are consistent with the other data in the table that show that the girls were more likely to have committed offences that were rated as less serious, and commit fewer offences, although neither of these findings reached the 5% level of significance.

Previous History

Boys and girls also differed in their backgrounds. Table 2 shows differences in the proportions of girls and boys who had a previous history with the care and protection and youth justice systems.

Table 2 Comparing Boys and Girls: Previous History of Contact with Care and Protection (C&P) or Youth Justice (YJ) Systems
Girls %
Boys %
Total %
Previously notified for C&P 58 41 44
Previously referred for YJ FGC 47 56 56
Previously appeared in Youth Court 28 32 32

The data in Table 2 show that girls were more likely than the boys to have been previously notified to the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services as being in need of care and protection (58% of the girls, compared to 41% of the boys). On the other hand, it was the boys who were more likely to have been referred previously for a youth justice family group conference or to answer charges in the Youth Court (although the latter was not statistically significant).

Family Group Conference Records

The records show that for 92% of the conferences a victim of an offence was identified and that a victim was present for 42% of the conferences. At least one family member was present at 97% of family group conferences and 90% of the conferences achieved agreement on the decisions. Recommendations and plans almost always (95%) included some type of accountability, most commonly an apology, work in the community or work for the victim, and reparation or a donation. Recommendations for court orders that involved supervision (6%) or transfer to the District or High Court (2%) were uncommon. In close to half the conferences there were some recommendations specifically designed to prevent reoffending by providing for a rehabilitative programme or for education or training.

Table 3 Records of Family Group Conference Attendance by Family, Agreements and Outcomes
Girls %
Boys %
Total %
A victim was identified 87 93 92
At least one victim present 43 42 42
At least one family member* present 96 97 97
FGC agreed 86 91 90
Accountability of any kind 97 95 95
Apology 85 77 78
Change of residence 16 10 11
Work for community or victim 60 67 66
Reparation/donation 55 58 58
Any minor restriction of liberty 25 39 37
Supervision 3 7 6
Supervision with activity 2 2 2
Supervision with residence 1 2 2
Transfer to District or High Court 0 3 2
Other provisions to prevent reoffending 48 49 48
Any rehabilitative programme 23 24 24
Education or training 19 23 22

* Family members included parents, caregivers, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts and other members of the extended family.

Comparing boys and girls, the data in Table 3 show that girls were less likely than boys to have a victim identified for their offending; this difference was almost significant. However, boys and girls were equally likely to have a victim present and at least one member of their family present.

With respect to the outcomes of the conferences, some differences can be observed. There was a tendency for conferences for girls to be somewhat less likely to reach agreement. Their recommended outcomes were more likely to involve apologies and a change of residence, but less likely to involve work for the community or victim, or restrictions of liberty of any kind, including custodial penalties of supervision with residence or transfer to District or High Court for consideration of a prison sentence. Only the difference in restrictions of liberty reached significance. These findings about the lesser severity of recommended outcomes are consistent with the findings reported earlier that girls' offences were less serious and fewer in number. Rehabilitative programmes were equally likely to be recommended for both boys and girls, but girls were slightly, although not significantly, less likely to have recommendations for educational and training programmes.

Reconvictions in Adult Courses

It was possible to obtain information on reconviction in the adult courts during the year following their 17th birthday for 700 of the sample. Data were also available for 585 of the sample for reconvictions over the 18 months after their 17th birthday.

Table 4 Reconvictions in the Adult Courts at 12 Months and 18 Months after the 17th Birthday, Showing Percentages of Girls and Boys Who Were Reconvicted of any Offence
Girls Boys Totals
After one year 35% (n=110) 55% (n=590) 52% (n=700)
After 18 months 43% 66% 62% (n=585)

The data showed that, overall, 52% of the sample were recorded as having at least one conviction in the year following the date on which they turned 17 years of age, and 62% recorded at least one conviction in the 18 months following that date. These overall reconviction rates seem somewhat high, but a number of factors account for this: the young people were those whose conference had been for relatively serious offences rather than young people who had committed minor offences, and the reconvictions included a range of traffic offences.

When girls and boys are compared, it is clear that the reoffending rates were significantly lower for girls at both 12 months (35% of the girls were reconvicted compared to 55% of the boys) and 18 months (43% of the girls compared to 66% of the boys).

Comparing Girls' and Boys' Responses to the FGC

The most interesting and potentially useful findings in this study are to be found by comparing the responses of girls and boys to family group conferences.

The young people were asked about their memory of the conference, the extent to which they were prepared for it and consulted about it, and their participation and involvement during the conference. They were also asked about their responses to the victims and to their own offending, the responses of others to them and for their views on the outcomes. These results, comparing the replies of boys and girls, are presented in Table 5.

Table 5 Boys' and Girls' Agreement* with Statements about their Involvement in and Views about the Family Group Conference; Percentages from Young People
Statements Girls %
Boys %
Total %
I remember a lot about it 41 53 51
I was told what would happen 75 77 76
I was told what others might expect of me 63 70 69
I was told about possible outcomes 75 76 76
I was consulted about who should come 71 84 82
Participation and involvement
I felt involved in making decisions 43 55 53
I understood what was going on 74 83 81
I felt I had the opportunity to say what I wanted 52 73 69
I felt too intimidated to say what I wanted 55 40 42
Responses to victims and the offence
Was a victim present? 47 59 57
I could understand how the victim felt 51 75 71
I felt really sorry about my offending 58 61 60
I showed the victim I was really sorry 52 66 63
I think the victim accepted my apology 59 60 59
I could see the victim's point of view 67 79 77
I was able to make up for what I did 68 81 79
In the FGC I felt what I did was wrong 71 56 59
I felt ashamed of myself 53 51 51
Responses to them
People were there who cared about & supported me 90 94 93
In general people were looking out for my best interests 72 65 67
People spoke up on my behalf 79 80 80
People showed they cared about me regardless of what I had done 76 83 81
I was treated with respect 57 70 68
I was treated fairly 63 77 75
People talked about what they liked about me 43 57 55
People treated me like a trustworthy person 31 50 47
The way I was dealt with made me feel I was a bad person 53 52 52
I was treated as though I was a criminal 54 52 53
After the FGC people showed me I was forgiven 49 61 59
People gave me another chance 60 83 79
People made it clear I can put the whole thing behind me 63 78 76
People didn't let me forget what I had done 41 38 38
Views on outcomes
I understood what was decided 88 95 94
I really agreed with the decisions 64 66 65
The decision was better than I expected 57 63 62
I decided to keep out of trouble in future 80 76 77
I now feel what I did was wrong 77 86 85

* Agreement has been defined as responses of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale: 1 = Disagree and 5 = Agree.

** The number of respondents to the particular questions varies - not each person answered every item.

The data in Table 5 indicate that, on the whole, the young people responded positively concerning their family group conference experience. Over half remembered a lot about the family group conference and only 8% indicated that they had little or no memory of it. The differences between boys and girls were not significant. In terms of preparation, over two-thirds said that they had been prepared on all issues. Boys more often reported that they were consulted about who should attend and this is the only difference between boys and girls that was significant in this group of items.

At the conference, about 80% felt that they understood what was happening and just under half reported that they did not feel they had been involved in the decisions. These differences between boys and girls were not significant. However, about three-quarters of the boys said that they were able to say what they wanted while only about half the girls reported this. In addition, over half the girls said that they felt too intimidated to say what they wanted to, although this was reported by only 40% of the boys; both these differences were significant.

For half of the sample, the victim was present at the family group conference. For this group, about three-quarters of the young people reported understanding how the victim felt and seeing the victim's point of view. Three-quarters of the boys said that they understood how the victim felt, but only half the girls reported this - a significant difference.

About three-fifths to two-thirds reported feeling really sorry for offending, showing that they felt sorry, and that they thought that the victim had accepted their apology. Boys were more likely to say these things than girls, although the differences were not significant. About 80% felt that they were able to make up for what they did and, again, these were more likely to be the boys, and this difference was significant.

About half of both the boys and the girls reported feeling ashamed of themselves. However, significantly more of the girls said that in the family group conference they felt that what they did (their offending) was wrong (71% of girls compared to 56% of boys).

A large number of questions were asked that focused on the way the young person felt others responded to them in the family group conference. Generally, at least 80% reported that there had been support for them in the conference and three-quarters reported that people had made it possible for them to put things behind them. Two-thirds and three-quarters, respectively, reported being treated with respect and treated fairly. However, about half reported being made to feel like a bad person and that they had been treated as though they were a criminal, and over a third said that people did not let them forget what they had done.

Again, gender differences emerged on several of these items. Generally it was the boys rather than the girls who were more likely to report being treated with respect, being treated fairly and being given another chance. Significant differences emerged on the items about being treated fairly, being treated as trustworthy, being given another chance and people making it clear that the young person could put everything behind them.

The last group of items in Table 5 describe the young person's views of the outcomes. Nearly all (94%) said that they understood what was decided and two-thirds agreed with the decisions. Nearly two-thirds said that they thought the outcome was better than they had expected. Over three-quarters said that they had decided to keep out of trouble in future. Looking back, 85% said that they now felt that what they had done was wrong. There were no differences between girls and boys on these items.

Comparing Girls' and Boys' Opinions of the Impact of the Family Group Conference

The young people were asked if the impact of what had happened at the family group conference had helped them stop, or reduce, their offending; 358 young people, 59 girls and 299 boys, responded to this question.

A third (33%) of those interviewed reported that having a family group conference had helped them to stop or reduce their offending. Girls were only half as likely as boys to report this (19% compared to 35%) and this difference was significant. This finding seems consistent with the findings reported in the section above, which suggested that girls were less likely to be touched by the family group conference than were the boys.

Summary and Conclusions

Preliminary data from the Achieving Effective Outcomes study currently underway in New Zealand show that, in general, young people are more likely than not to feel positive about their family group conference experiences. The large majority reported being prepared for what might happen, understanding what happened, being able to have their say, that people were there who cared about them and looked after their interests, and that they were given another chance. Most reported feeling sorry about their offending and seeing the victim's viewpoint. They generally understood the outcomes, decided to keep out of trouble in future and, now, two years later, felt that what they did (their offending) was wrong.

However, nearly half reported some experiences that were less than satisfactory. These were young people who did not feel involved in decisions, felt too intimidated to say what they wanted to, did not feel what they did was wrong and were not ashamed of themselves. About half reported that they were not treated as trustworthy, were made to feel a bad person or as though they were a criminal, and did not really agree with the decision.

In general, girls reported more negative experiences of their family group conference than did the boys. On most items, differences were not significant, but some were. More often it was the girls who did not feel that they had an opportunity to say what they wanted, felt too intimidated to say what they wanted to, and felt that people did not give them another chance and let them put things behind them. Furthermore, only about half the girls reported understanding how their victim felt and only two-thirds reported being able to make up for what they did. Fewer than two-thirds of the girls reported being treated fairly and fewer than a third said people treated them as trustworthy. The girls were more likely to report experiencing only one of the outcomes that were, arguably, more positive from a restorative viewpoint: they were were more likely to report that, during the family group conference, they felt that what they did (their offending) was wrong. Finally, the girls were much less likely than the boys to report that attending the conference had helped stop or reduce their offending.

The results reported here appear paradoxical. Why should the girls in this sample be more likely to report that they experienced the family group conference process in ways that were less likely to be restorative? Their pattern of offending suggests that most committed relatively less serious offences. They were about as likely as the boys to have had a victim present and to have had family support. However, relatively more of them were referred directly to their family group conference and relatively fewer had appeared in the Youth Court. Furthermore, fewer of the girls compared to the boys reoffended after their family group conference.

There are a number of possible reasons for these findings. One is that responses to a family group conference differ depending on one of the several factors on which the girls and boys tended to differ: for example, the type of offences they committed, the relative seriousness of their offending and their history of previous victimisation are three possibilities. The Rise study (Sherman et al. 2000) found that, compared to control groups, reduced reoffending was observed after conferences for offences of violence but not for property offences. In the sample described here, although the girls were less likely to have a previous history of offending, they may have come from families with more adverse backgrounds, as more of the girls had previously been notified to the Department of Child Youth and Family Services as being in need of care and protection. This history of greater possible victimisation may be an explanatory factor.

Girls also differ from boys in the ways in which they respond to social situations: the way they presented in the family group conference when confronted with their offending may have affected the responses of others towards them, which, in turn, may have influenced the way they experienced the conference. Previous research suggests that female offending is generally responded to differently from male offending: sometimes more leniently and sometimes more negatively (Daly 1994, Hedderman and Gelsthorpe 1997) and this could suggest that they were treated differently during the family group conference. Further analysis and data collection, including observations currently being carried out on 100 family group conferences, may provide some indication of which, if any, of these hypotheses can explain the differences discussed in this paper.

Whatever the reasons for the gender differences reported here, these data indicate that we cannot assume that a family group conference will provide a similar experience for everyone. Differences may lie in the nature and type of offences committed. They may lie in how young people are treated in the family group conference. They may lie in how young people interpret and react to events in the conference. They may lie in the history and backgrounds of the young people. One thing is certain - in some important respects girls and boys are responding differently.


Anleu, S. (1991) Deviance, Conformity and Control, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Daly, K. (1994) Gender, Crime and Punishment, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Chesney-Lind, M. (1997) The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks, California.

Hedderman, C. and L. Gelsthorpe (eds.) (1997) Understanding the Sentencing of Women, Home Office Research Study 170, Home Office, London.

Heidensohn, F. (1996) Women and Crime (second edition), MacMillan Press Ltd., London.

Sherman, H., H. Strang and D.J. Woods (2000) Recidivism Patterns in the Canberra Reintegrative Shaming Experiment (RISE), Australian National University,

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Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 17

Differences in How Girls and Boys Respond to Family Group Conference: Preliminary Research Results

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