Keeping it in the family

A Maori method of family support used in child protection is
earning almost universal praise from its participants, writes Ruth
Winchester. But does it impress the wider fraternity of family

Family group conferencing – a family-centred approach to
planning for children at risk – was pioneered among the Maori
community in New Zealand, and arrived in the UK at the beginning of
the 1990s. The basic premise is that members of the child’s
extended family are gathered together for a one-off meeting with
the express purpose of coming up with their own plan to address
concerns about their family member.

Estimates suggest that more than 60 local authorities already
have schemes in operation, while another 40 are in the process of
setting them up. Project managers and co-ordinators who work with
family group conferences describe the process as “hardly rocket
science”, and are emphatic that it is simply a different way of
arriving at a child welfare plan.

Staff are said to be enthusiastic and committed to the process
and report that children recommend them to their friends. Families
like them, which could not be said about the traditional child
protection approach.

But specialists are starting to view the widespread adoption of
the model with a mixture of pleasure and alarm, amid concern that
vital elements of the process are being lost in translation. Others
are worried that the ethos of family-centred planning is coming
into conflict with a social care system dominated by professionals.
And some professionals, for their part, are wondering whether they
really want to be playing second fiddle to families who are
creating their own solutions.

Family group conferences are now being used in a number of
settings, including youth justice, domestic violence and even adult
mental health. But the most common use is in cases where the local
social services department feel there are child welfare concerns,
or where a child is about to be taken into care.

At the beginning of the process the child’s extended
family is gathered to discuss how they can address concerns about
their relative. The extent of the “family” is defined by the family
itself, and conferences can include as few as two or as many as 30
members. Sometimes close friends, neighbours or peers are also

The conference takes place on neutral territory, which can be a
hotel, a church hall or a room above a pub – anywhere comfortable
and private. An initial briefing, given by an independent
co-ordinator, details why the conference is being held, what needs
to come out of it, and the resources available to the family to
achieve that end.

The professionals then withdraw, leaving the family alone to
formulate a plan. This process can take several hours, at the end
of which the family presents its plan to address the problem, and
outlines the resources and support needed from social services and
other agencies. If the proposals are acceptable to the professional
staff, the plan is put into practice. Families are often offered a
follow up meeting a few weeks or months later to assess

So far, so good. The model seems to be a particularly
enlightened way of empowering communities, listening to service
users and involving them in decision-making. So why do some local
authorities and social services departments seem so half-hearted
about the process? Why are some authorities running hundreds of
conferences, while others commission less than a handful each

One regular objection is that of cost. An average family group
conference costs between £500 to £600 – a cost to social
services departments that can seem prohibitive when compared to a
child protection conference.

Hilary Horan is project manager for Barnardo’s, which runs
FGCs for a number of local authorities in and around Wiltshire. She
admits that the first question many local authorities ask when
presented with a costing for a conference is “What can we cut

The answer, according to FGC specialists, is “not much”. Many
practitioners are worried by reports that schemes are stripping
vital elements from the process in the interests of saving money.
One example is using the family’s social worker to facilitate
the meeting, rather than hiring an expensive independent
co-ordinator. Other short cuts include holding the meeting on
social services premises, cutting out the private family time, or
deciding not to employ an independent advocate for the child.

But, as Horan points out, local authorities rarely do their sums
properly. While a sum of £500 may make managers wince, if the
money spent on conferences held in-house by social services were
accurately costed, including meeting rooms, professionals’
time, photocopying, heating, lighting and stamps, an FGC would
start to look comparable. It could also be argued that money spent
on family-centred approaches pays big dividends in the longer term,
particularly if children are able to stay with their family rather
than go into care.

But perhaps there are more fundamental objections. While you
would be hard pressed to find a social worker openly opposed to
FGCs, in private there is no doubt that many feel reluctant to
relinquish their control and direction of individual cases. And
even when there are frontline staff keen to refer child welfare
cases to a FGC, they can be thwarted by more senior staff who feel
less enthusiastic.

Robert Tapsfield is chief executive of the Family Rights Group –
a voluntary organisation which was instrumental in bringing FGCs to
the UK. He suggests that it can be very difficult for people
working within a culture of “professionals know best” to go against
the grain and hand over control to families. As he explains: “I can
imagine assistant directors asking questions like
‘what’s happening with this family’ and
‘why aren’t you doing that?’. Lots of social
workers would feel pretty uncomfortable about admitting
‘we’re waiting for the family to get together and
decide what they want to do’.

“Family group conferences are still not publicly well known and
it’s not something a family facing care proceedings would ask
for,” Tapsfield adds, “so the access to them tends to be controlled
by social workers. Rather than asking why they’ve been so
successful, you could ask why they haven’t been more so – and
professional reluctance is very much a part of the answer.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on social services
departments to be in charge of children, to be assertive and to
know what’s happening. When you look at something that
empowers and enables the family, one can see why it doesn’t
fit in with the status quo. They [FGCs] redefine the relationship
between the family and the state. Therefore they are not easy to do
while you are delivering standard social services within the
traditional framework – in some way they are incompatible with
other decision-making processes. And, to be frank, they are very
easy for social workers to undermine.”

Mair Jones is a co-ordinator and trainer for the independent
charity Cartref Buntnewydd in Gwynedd and works for the Cwlwm
Project (Welsh for tie or knot) which runs family group conferences
across Wales. She has been working with FGCs since their
introduction and is a staunch advocate. But she believes that there
are problems wth the way family group meetings are being adopted by
some mainstream agencies.

“The crux of it is how family group meetings are incorporated
within a system that revolves around bureaucratic decision-making.
The process challenges the very nature of those bureaucratic
systems, by empowering service users to make decisions. This is
what most government documents are encouraging us to do.”

Family group conferences received their first official
recognition last year with a brief mention in Working Together
to Safeguard Children
.1 Yet while most supporters
welcome the statutory recognition of the model, many feel that it
has had some unwanted side-effects.

According to Tapsfield: “On balance the mention in Working
has been a good thing – it’s given the process
legitimacy and official recognition. The downside is that the
British government has a history of absorbing radical ideas and
institutionalising them. The question is whether they can
institutionalise family group conferences without losing their
radical quality.”

The question is a difficult one. As FGCs become more common, as
more social workers refer families to them, and as clients begin to
demand them, there is clearly a danger that the more unpalatable,
costly or daunting elements will be lost – either intentionally, or
through a process of attrition. The paradox is that diluting the
process to make it acceptable to the majority risks devaluing it
altogether. Ultimately, the way FGCs are developed in this country
will put our commitment to user involvement to the test.

1 Department of Health, Home Office and
Department for Education and Employment, Working Together to
Safeguard Children
, The Stationery Office, 1999.

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