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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Mary Mitchell & Sara Ali

Adaptive Family Group Conferencing practice: keeping families at the heart of decision making during COVID19

Families have the right to be involved in decisions which affect them. This is even more essential  at a time when it is difficult to physically see family members involved in social work services. Family Group Conferencing [1] (FGC) provides a positive example for inclusion and rights based practices. This article uses a case example to highlight the positive and adaptive work being provided by an FGC service in Scotland. We highlight the need to be responsive in emergency situations but also to be mindful of FGC principles to ensure the transformational change experienced from the process. We explore the potential of FGC to empower families and communities during this time alongside its potential to  realise the rights of families to engage indecision making.

This article is written by Sara Ali, a Service Manager for Children 1st , and  Mary Mitchell, a Lecturer in Social Work at The University Edinburgh. We both have an interest in the rights of children and family members to be involved in decisions which affect them.

FGC and the right to family engagement in decision making

FGC is a family led decision making approach where practical plans are made by the family to keep children safe and improve their quality of life. FGC originated in New Zealand in the late 1980s and has spread internationally over the past three decades. In Scotland, it was pioneered by Children 1st  (a national children’s charity) and is now used widely across the country.  An independent FGC Coordinator brings the extended family together to explore issues affecting the child and support family members to find their own solutions to keep the child safe, healthy and happy (Mitchell, 2019).

Children’s rights, to be protected and to participate in matters that affect them, are a prominent thread in current policy and legislation review and reform in Scotland, such as the Children and Young Peoples (Scotland) Act 2014 and the Scottish Independent Care Review for children and young people in care, including The Promise (The Scottish Government, 2020).  As Connolly  (2005) points out, partnership work and sharing power with families has the potential to strengthen the safety net for ‘children at risk’ and, as such, it is difficult to argue against the human right of family members engagement in FGC decision making (Morris and Connolly, 2012: 43).

Our argument here is to suggest that families right to be involved in decision making is no less important during COVID19. In fact, we argue that it is harder for families to be heard at the moment and the need for practices which support the rights of families are even more crucial. FGC is an approach that can help ensure the rights of families are incorporated in practice.

FGC practice during COVID 19

Sara is a  Service Manager overseeing a FGC service in Children 1st.  Since lockdown, Sara has felt that she and her staff have been on a journey regarding FGC practice. Initially, everything seemed to stop, yet the stress on their most vulnerable families had increased overnight; children were not at school, everyone was suddenly at home together, people were suddenly unemployed and were plunged into poverty, increasing stress and in some cases further risk to children. In addition, the support which families had previously been offered had changed; support workers were unable to visit the house, schools were not operating in the same way and social workers could only work with families in crisis. Sara observed that due to the increased strain on families and the change of supports available her team have seen an increase in emergency referrals.

Decision making platforms have also changed. Looked After and Accommodated Reviews, Child Protection Case Conferences, Child Planning Meetings and Scottish Children’s Hearings have all moved to online meetings. These virtual meetings are a necessity but often, despite the best efforts of professionals, can be difficult for families to engage in without the right access to and confidence with technology. This situation can exclude families from feeling fully involved in decision making meetings .

The team have adapted how they  build relationships with family members, gather views and support the development of family plans. Staff had to try to build trusting relationships, which is at the heart of FGC practice, remotely through video and phone calls and through meeting family members for socially distanced walks. Family meetings moved  online. Through Microsoft Teams different people move in and out of the meetings and ‘private family time’ is achieved by the FGC coordinator and other professionals being able to virtually  leave the meeting. When everyone is ready the family then invite the professionals back in and the plan is reviewed.

An example of adaptive practice is discussed below. Permission has been provided by the family members for us to use their case in this article. Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Evan’s FGC

The FGC service received a referral regarding Evan, 15-year-old boy.  Evan’s mother (Sandra) and stepfather (Craig) were struggling to cope with the level of distress that Evan was experiencing.  Sandra was extremely concerned by the increased hostility in the house, for her own and others safety  and she was unsure of how much longer she could manage Evan at home. The team began working towards a family plan to support Evan at home. However, during this time Evan was assaulted by his stepdad and was placed on the child protection register.

Through the FGC work, the team had already begun to explore what supports the family could offer Evan, and possible kinship options if needed. They were therefore able to help the family come up with an emergency plan as an alternative to foster care. Evan shared with the coordinator that he would like to live with his Uncle Charlie but also see his Gran (Jean) regularly. Evan then went to live with his uncle with Jean’s support. Now that Evan was in a safe place, the shift of the focus of the family meeting had become how the family could work together to keep Evan safe and happy living with his uncle.

The views of the family and Evan were gathered over the phone. Evan’s biological father Tim was also contacted as Evan shared that he would like to see his dad again and build their relationship.

The FGC coordinator contacted all family members by phone to go over the views and concerns that needed to be addressed, the family then had one week of private family time where they contacted each other and came up with their own plan.

The plan highlighted where Evan wanted to live and what support other family members could offer to strengthen the placement to ensure Evan had a meaningful family life. The plan also reflected how relationships could be rebuilt within the family. The plan was agreed by the social worker.

We asked the social worker their views of FGC in this case:

“FGC has made a big difference to Evans’ life and with the situation that developed resulting in Evan moving on from the family home, it prevented the need of a placement for Evan.” (Evan’s social worker)

Evan’s case highlights that by adapting practice but keeping the core principles of family engagement at the forefront, FGC can meet the needs of the family during the current restrictions. As restrictions continue, and more decisions are being made in an emergency, FGC offers a model, which can not only help provide an alternative to care but ensure that the right of families and their children are being upheld.

Discussion:

Building trust, feeling heard, strengthening family relationships and widening the support circle around the family are all part of the transformational change which occurs through the FCG process. As well as demonstrating an ability to find kinship carers in emergency situations, the case study highlights some of the transformational change that occurs through the FGC process (Mitchell, 2018; 2019).

An important factor of FGC is that the coordinator is independent from the social work teams and does not take part in the formal assessment of families. This independence helps negate the experience that some families have where statutory services make decisions for them  rather than with them. The family in the case example fed back that they felt heard. For example, Tim stated:

 “It was the first time I’ve felt listened to in years” (Tim, Evan’s father)

Tim was not in contact with Evan before the FCG and their relationship had broken down. In addition, Tim’s relationship with Evan’s social worker  had been poor. Yet, Tim engaged with the FGC process and there is now a plan in place for increased contact with his son, Evan.

Part of the role of the FCG coordinator is to  contact the wider family network, this  allows  for the identification of previously unrecognised strengths within the family. Strengthening and utilising this extended network can reduce the risks for the child within the family. In the case example, increasing the family network to include Tim (Evan’s father), Jean (Evan’s grandmother) and Charlie (Evan’s Uncle), allowed him to stay within his family. In child welfare practice there has been an historical emphasis on the mother as the primary care giver for the child; fathers have been less visible as has their involved in child welfare decision making (Nygren et al., 2019). Fathers contribution to the positive and protective  effect on a child’s educational, psychological and behavioural outcomes are well documented (Clapton, 2017). The involvement of Tim in Evan’s family meetings  is an important example of how FGC process can support the involvement of fathers in child welfare decision making.

At the heart of FGC practice is community empowerment and building family resilience. These values are even more important to families during this time of limited external support and service provision. By working flexibly to meet the needs of families we can help them to draw on the strength of people within their wider circle, building resilience to deal with issues and problems as they arise.

While many of us have worked hard to make sure our FGC services are embedded in child care and protection processes there is a risk, as lockdown continues, that we are overwhelmed with emergency cases. We need to consider the impact of COVID on the rights of children and their families. Working with families in crisis may lead to a stronger focus of service led outcomes, such as keeping children out of care, although essential, this could potentially result in us losing sight of the transformational changes that may happen for families through the FCG process, including their right to be involved in decisions affecting their lives (Mitchell, 2019).

We don’t know how long these changes to service provision will last, supports and decision-making platforms will not return to ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. In order to ensure we are keeping the rights of children and their families at the centre of practice and decision making, we need to adapt how we engage and build relationships with families. FGC is a model which can support imaginative and resourceful working with families in these restricted times.

We have seen during lockdown that FGC can support family’s views being heard and be given the opportunity to create their own plan and provide an alternative to an emergency foster placement. In Scotland, we need to take seriously that FGC is stated as a preferred method for supporting children and their families in decision making in both the Children and Young Persons Act (2014) and The Promise. More generally, FGC can offer a solution to some of the difficulties we may all be having supporting families  right to be involved in decision making.

Mary Mitchell : mary.mitchell@ed.ac.uk

Sara Ali: sara.ali@children1st.org.uk

References

Clapton G. (2017) Good practice with fathers in children and family services. Insight, 38. (accessed 22.6.2020).

Connolly M. (2005) Fifteen Years of Family Group Conferencing: Coordinators Talk About Their Experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand. British Journal of Social Work 36: 523-540.

Mitchell M. (2018) Re-imagining Family Group Conferencing ‘Outcomes’. School of Social and Polictical Science Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Mitchell M. (2019) Reimagining child welfare outcomes: Learning from Family Group Conferencing. Child & Family Social Work.

Morris K and Connolly M. (2012) Family decision making in child welfare: challenges in developing a knowledge base for practice. Child Abuse Review 21: 41-52.

Nygren K, Walsh J, Ellingsen I, et al. (2019) What about the fathers? The presence and absence of the father in social work practice in England, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden—A comparative study. Child and Family Social Work: 144-155.

The Scottish Government (2020) The Promise. Scotland.


[1] FGC is also known as Family Group Decision Making in Scotland.