Family group conferences (FGCs), where family networks are invited to hold meetings to make decisions and plan for the future of their child or children, originated in New Zealand. They are increasingly common internationally and are gradually becoming available throughout the UK. But how effectively are they involving children? A recent research project has explored the role of children in FGCs.1
FGCs are most often used in child welfare situations but have also been used with families where there is domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health problems. Professionals attend the beginning of the meeting to provide information and again at the end to look at the plan the family have created.
Children and young people typically attend the FGC and frequently professionals and family members express concern that children might be vulnerable in the FGC because they might witness arguments, hear unsavoury details or not have their voices heard.
Our study looked at the experiences of 25 children and young people aged between six and 18 from 18 families. All took part in FGCs organised by NCH Cymru’s Family Answers project in south east Wales, in partnership with three local authorities. The project works with families facing a range of child welfare problems, prioritising children at risk of becoming looked after.
Research methods included: interviewing the children using a range of interactive methods, interviewing main carers, social workers and co-ordinators, re-interviewing 13 of the children after six months, analysing the written plans and costing two sample FGCs. The main findings were:
- Twenty-three of the 25 children were living within their family network, or independently after six months.
- The two children who were looked after were in long-term foster placements with the agreement of their birth families.
- Of the 15 children who were in full-time education, all had maintained or improved their school attendance and satisfaction with school.
- Most of the children felt that they had been listened to and supported during the FGC. A small number felt they had not been.
- Having a formal or informal advocate appeared to enhance the children’s involvement.
- There are some ways in which professionals continue to exert control over the meeting, but also some demand for this from the family members.
- FGCs appear to be a useful method for involving fathers in child welfare planning.
- In general, FGCs appear to have the potential not only to democratise professional/service user relationships, but also to help democratise relationships within families.
Our results might be seen as optimistic. For these children, the FGC appears to have aided stability, retaining most of them in their family networks and, in the children’s opinions, to have improved family relationships. For a small minority, the experience was distressing due to family rows or feeling not listened to.
For progress to be made with FGCs in the UK, two steps need to be taken. The first is that more evidence is needed about their effectiveness by mapping the outcomes for larger numbers of children. Our next project involves designing a method to help with this.
The second step is more challenging. FGCs sit uneasily alongside the top-down system of social service provision in the UK. Their effectiveness will not be maximised until the principle of allowing service users to have more control over services becomes established.
1 Sally Holland, Sean O’Neill, Jonathan Scourfield, Andrew Pithouse, Outcomes in Family Group Conferences for Children on the Brink of Care: A Study of Child and Family Participation, Cardiff University, 2003. The study is available from www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/whoswho/holland.html
Sally Holland is a lecturer at Cardiff University school of social sciences.