Kate Parkinson Special Edition

Family Group Conferences: the basis for an alternative child protection system?

Family Group Conferences: the basis for an alternative child protection system?

Whilst the government’s proposed review of the child protection system is fundamentally flawed and falls short in so many ways, one thing is clear: the child protection system in the UK needs to change. It is widely acknowledged to be an oppressive, bureaucratic and risk averse system (Rogers and Parkinson, 2018).

It is also a system which privileges the expertise of professionals over the lived experience of children and families.

Family Group Conferences (FGCs) offer a viable alternative to existing child protection decision making processes, which can address the shortfalls highlighted above.  As FGCs are one of the most widely researched areas of social work practice (Morris and Connolly, 2012) there is a significant body of evidence that supports this claim.

What are FGCs?

 FGCs are a family led approach to decision making. They originated in New Zealand in the late 1980s in response to the disproportionate number of Maori children in the children protection and care system at that time. The approach is said to be based upon Maori cultural principles.

At an FGC, it is the family, not professionals who have the responsibility for decision making and agreeing a plan for the care or protection of vulnerable children and adults in their family. Families are supported in the FGC process by an independent FGC co-ordinator and the local authority is very clear with a family: what the family’s strengths are; what concerns the family need to address at the FGC; what the bottom line is – i.e. what the local authority will not agree to, and what services and support are available to support a family with their plan. It is the responsibility of the local authority to agree a family’s plan if it is safe, legal and addresses all of the identified concerns (Edwards and Parkinson, 2018).

The Current Practice Context

The Family Rights Group (FRG) (2015) estimate that approximately 76% of local authorities have a FGC service. However, FGCs are not embedded in child protection legislation and policy and with the exception of one or two notable examples, FGCs are merely an ‘add on’ to existing child protection processes, with social work teams having the choice whether to offer FGCs to families on their caseload.

The introduction of the Public Law Outline (PLO) in 2008 to offer guidance on the care proceedings process is clear that all family alternatives to local authority care should be explored pre -proceedings and recommends FGCs as an example of good practice (Evans, 2011). It stops short of stating that families should be offered a FGC prior to the court process commencing.

The PLO has ensured that many local authority FGC services have shifted their focus from offering FGCs at earlier stages of the safeguarding process to offering them only at the pre-proceedings stage to ensure that the statutory requirement to exploring kinship alternatives to care is met (FRG, 2009). This has meant that in many local authorities, it is less likely that families will be offered an FGC at the early stages of the child protection process.

A Model for Change

There is a substantial international evidence base for FGCs. Edwards and Parkinson (2018) in a review of this evidence base found that FGCs have the potential to:

1) Reduce the number of children entering state care

2) Ensure that children remain in the care of their families

3) Improve contact arrangements between children in care and their families

4) Support families to develop safe plans for children

5) Ensure that children and families feel more engaged in child protection processes

6) Ensure that more fathers are engaged than in traditional child protection processes.

Another significant area highlighted by the research has been the engagement of families, and their satisfaction with the FGC process. Evidence suggests that families are more satisfied with FGCs than traditional local authority processes and are more likely to engage with professionals as a result (see Brady and Miller, 2009). The research suggests that relationships between families and professionals and amongst professionals themselves improve as a result of the FGC process (Walker, 2005).

This is significant when one considers that strong family relationships are a protective factor for children (Rogers-Baber, 2017) and relationship -based social work practice with families is widely acknowledged to achieve better outcomes for users of social work services (Stuart, 2020).

However, despite this evidence, one of the most significant hurdles, which has thus far prevented FGCs from becoming fully embedded in social work processes is the lack of what is perceived to be a robust evidence base for practice, with a shortage of longitudinal and comparative studies demonstrating the effectiveness of FGCs. What Works (2020) undertook a systematic review on the effectiveness of FGCs in the child protection context and concluded that there was little evidence that FGCs improve outcomes in child protection and reduce the numbers of children entering local authority care. However, this review focused only on Randomised Control Studies (RCTs) and excluded a wealth of qualitative pieces of research on the basis that they were not sufficiently robust. A number of social work academics expressed concern about the ethics of measuring the success of FGCs using RCTs, as using the approach ensures that families who might benefit from a FGC are denied a service, if they are part of a control group (Turner, 2019). Furthermore, in dismissing other qualitative pieces of research, the review has chosen to ignore the voices of professionals delivering FGCs and those with lived experience who have shared their experiences of FGCs as part of research. Indeed, one of the concerns expressed about the proposed care review is that it is dismissing the voices of families who have experienced chid protection processes and care experienced individuals, as well as social work professionals, in favour of a panel of largely civil servants with no experience of social work or social work processes (BASW, 2021). These expressed concerns about the lack of an evidence base for FGCs is potentially a convenient smokescreen to mask a reluctance of social work policy makers to ‘share’ power with service users and support a system which privileges the service user voice. Furthermore, FGCs are perceived to be a costly service, with the average FGC costing £2418 (Mason et al, 2017). The DfE has made it very clear that there is going to be no more money available to support the Care Review (Simpson, 2021). However, if cost is a key factor here, research has highlighted the potential cost benefits to local authorities who have implemented FGCs. For example, recent figures from Coventry City Council (2013) estimated that the city’s FGC service made an annual cost saving of between £651,000 and £1,230,000. Furthermore, the cost is not just financial – there are psychological, emotional, ethical and rights- based costs for not allowing children and families to have a say to in decision making about their lives. There is an argument that whatever the possible outcomes from an FGC, they should be offered to families, as it is ‘the right thing to do’, in line with social work values and ethics.

 FGCs as part of the statutory process: a note of caution

The fundamental principle of FGCs is about empowering families to make decisions for themselves and to take collective responsibility for individuals within their family. A family have the right to choose whether they have an FGC or not.  A question arises then about how empowering an FGC can truly be if it is a statutory part of the child protection process and one which families feel obliged to engage in. Indeed, evidence from New Zealand suggests that nearly 30 years after their implementation, FGCs have become a part of an adversarial legal process and that the model has been ‘watered down’. There are many cases, for example when families are not offered private family time, which is a core part of the process and where FGCs are being viewed as a ‘tick box’ exercise, rather than a way of meaningfully engaging families (Child, Youth and Family, 2012).

Connolly (2006) in a study on the attitudes of 46 FGC coordinators, found that there was a tension between finding solutions that preserved the integrity of the family and meeting the legal requirements of the child protection process. Concerns raised focused on: questions about how much power families really have in the FGC process when professionals ultimately have to agree to a family’s plan; how the philosophy of FGCs fit into an increasingly risk-averse chid protection system; the professionalisation of the coordinator role and the lack of resources and services sometimes available to meet a family’s plan.

However, on the other hand, there is the argument that legally mandating service provision leads to a sharper focus and better decision making, which is exemplified in the case of Hawaii, who offer a state- wide FGC service. This service has resulted in a decreased number of child protection cases reaching the court process, a reduction in looked after children and where children need to be looked after, a decreased number of placement moves (Walker, 2005). What is clear is that for FGCs to be successful, they need to be an embedded part of a child protection culture and process, rather than just an ‘add on’ service (Doolan, 2007). Family led decision making should be at the heart of the child protection process. It is clear from the research that actively engaging families in decision making leads to better outcomes, ensures that risk is addressed, and children are safeguarded from harm. FGCs are a tried and tested model of family led decision making which are part of the legislative child protection process in New Zealand, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland so there is no reason to suggest that they could not be successfully applied in the UK context. After all, we already have lessons from the Leeds FGC service, which has been a part of a DfE pilot, in embedding FGCs in child protection processes. The resulting evaluation report (Mason et al, 2017) found that FGCs resulted in fewer child protection plans, reduced involvement of social work services and increased satisfaction of family members. This is consistent with outcomes demonstrated in the existing body of international literature. Let’s take this existing learning and use it to create a child protection system that we can be proud of and one which is consistent with core social work values and principles.

Kate Parkinson, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Salford and former FGC Practitioner/Manager.

Additional References

Brady, B. and Miller, M. (2009) Barnardos Family Welfare Conference Project, South Tipperary: Evaluation Report, Galway, NUI Child and Family Research Centre.                                     

Doolan, M. (2007) Working towards an effective agency mandate for family group conferences. In Ashley, C. and Nixon, P. (eds.) Family group conferences: Where next? Policies and practices for the future. London: Family Rights Group.

Family Rights Group (2015) Data on the number of FGC services in the UK’, unpublished, London: Family Rights Group.