Family group conferences: how one family in Essex decided to tackle its problems

Natalie Valios visits a family who drew up their own blueprint to confront their problems with the help of Essex’s family group conference service

When a child draws a picture of how school feels for them and it shows teachers as devils, children smoking and broken doors and smashed windows, you know there is a problem.

In 14-year-old Katherine Brace’s case, the picture was a way to let teachers know how unhappy she was at secondary school. “I was bullied and I was worried it would get worse,” she says. “I was worried about using the toilet because other kids were smoking in there. Lunchtime was horrible because I was bullied about my size.”

Her father, Jason, says: “We were having trouble getting her to class. She was using excuses about not feeling well, she was
scared and crying.”

Another complication was that Katherine often feels unwell because she has Gardner’s syndrome with polyposis. This is a hereditary bowel condition – her father and nine-year-old brother Jason also have it – which if left untreated will lead to bowel cancer. Most people with this condition need a total colectomy, otherwise the average age of death is 39. The condition means that sometimes Katherine needs to use a toilet quickly.

After many discussions with the school about the problem, Katherine’s parents were at their wits’ end. They felt that the school failed to understand the seriousness of their daughter’s medical condition, the impact this was having on her education or that her anxieties were escalating. They contacted an education welfare officer who suggested they meet Gill Holland, senior education worker in the restorative justice family group conference service at Essex Council.

“We didn’t want social services involved,” says Katherine’s mother, Eleanor. “We didn’t want to make the situation worse, but we didn’t know who else to turn to. We were nervous when Gill turned up and at first I didn’t like her because she stuck up for the school. But then she said something nice about the family. She explained who she was and asked us what we wanted and said she was working for us and if she could help she would.”

From inauspicious beginnings, there is now a great rapport between Gill and the family which is immediately clear when we walk through the front door of the Braces’ home in Harlow, Essex. Greeted by Eleanor holding the latest addition to the family, four-week-old Elle-Mae, Gill soon asks to hold her and Jason and Eleanor affectionately call her “Nan” as the baby is passed over for a cuddle.

The FGC co-ordinator – in this case Gill – doesn’t solve the problems, but ascertains what the problem is and seeks help from
family members and other organisations. To help her, she asked Katherine to draw how she felt about school and how she  would like to feel about it.

“It’s about putting everyone together and sharing the information before the conference so that everyone knows what they
have to offer,” says Gill.

Eleanor says: “We wanted Katherine back in school and the school to recognise her illness and emotional needs.” There were problems at home too.

Katherine would just stay in her room, and would not participate in family life. The conference itself is held in a neutral place. The power dynamics are different because the family gets to question the professionals rather than vice versa. As well as Katherine, her parents and her younger sister Shannon, her Aunt Christine (Eleanor’s sister) and her Nan (Jason’s mother)
attended the conference. There were also representatives from the school and local voluntary organisation Families in Focus.

A day before the meeting Katherine was given some devastating news. She was told that she needed a biopsy to determine
whether she needed a bigger operation. If she did she would have to lose weight and be fit otherwise she could die under anaesthetic.

But without the operation she would undoubtedly die. Understandably she struggled to come to terms with this news, which
heightened her anxiety going into the conference. So Gill and Katherine had a code: if she wanted a break Katherine would give a covert nudge to the education worker.

Katherine says: “I wanted the conference to make me feel better at school and at home. I talked about my drawings of school and they helped me describe how I was feeling. The first one was to show how frightening it can be; it can get hectic.

The teachers were shocked about what I thought the school looked like.”

Eleanor says: “They asked Katherine her opinion and that made her feel good. You saw teachers as people and it wasn’t teachers versus parents. After the information sharing the professionals leave the family to make the plan.” (See “Action plan”.)

Eleanor wanted someone to help with Katherine’s self-esteem: “I was scared to let her do things, even though I wanted her
to. Lots of Katherine’s problems are emotional ones from me because I have put them on her.” Gill interjects: “A lot of good
things have come from you too.”

So, it was as big a step for Eleanor as it was for Katherine when, as a result of the conference, Katherine went to voluntary
organisation Rainer for the first time. She now goes weekly and her confidence and independence have improved as a result.

Eleanor says: “Katherine has come out of her room and wants to spend time with us. She has become confident at school.

Teachers are proud of her and she’s gone up a level in maths. She’s now full time at school.”

Katherine is now much happier at home and at school and says the FGC “helped a lot”. For her parents, says Eleanor, “it’s the
best thing we have ever done”.

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This article appear in the magazine, issue dated 5 October, on pages 32 & 33, under the heading Conference Call


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