Ask the family

“You don’t really talk at home like we did there, at the
meeting…we are quite a close family but because it’s a drug
habit, you tiptoe round it…but when we were there, it was only
about that, so you have to talk about it. So you didn’t feel like
you had to hold anything back, you could just talk freely.”

For this 15 year old, living once again with her mother after two
years in foster care, the family group conference had proved a
turning point in kicking her crack habit. She was rejoining the
access course she had abandoned some months ago and was preparing
to go on a residential drug treatment programme. Four months later
she was back home, still needing support but apparently off

We interviewed Kelly and her mum as part of an evaluation of the
pilot project on family group conferences run jointly by Hull
social services and a local Barnardo’s project. Such conferences
are being introduced across local authorities in the UK as a means
of engaging the extended family and sometimes friends and
neighbours with children’s and young people’s problems. Although
they have broadly similar goals, they vary somewhat in how they are
set up and managed. This project, for example, specifically
excluded children where there were child protection concerns.

Kelly and her mother were upbeat about the experience and its
effect on their lives. The family live in a run-down district of
Hull and were hardened from years of contact with social services
and other agencies. So what was the success of this particular
family mediation process down to?

It was important for Kelly and her mother that the process was
separate from the statutory one. The convenor was independent of
social services and was down to earth. The preparation time had
helped set the scene, and the conference had given the family the
chance to see what they themselves could come up with. What made it
different? “Being given the choice. I had the decision whether or
not I wanted to [go on a rehab scheme] and all the family decided
whether it was a good idea and whether it was good for me. I think
it was me that made the decisions really. I’ve never been able to
do that before. I’ve just had social workers making decisions for
me, without even consulting me, so that was brilliant because you
got to decide for yourself.”

We looked at the first 20 families for whom group conferences were
held, seeking the views of family members, convenors and the
referring social workers through questionnaires and interviews. We
also had 15 completed questionnaires from children and interviewed
a further nine of the children and young people involved. Their
views were very interesting, since other evaluations of group
conferences do not usually include children’s perspectives.

Projects seem to vary in the extent to which children are included
in the conference. In Hull, every effort was made to involve them,
although sometimes the families themselves did not wish them to be
present – something the children concerned complained about in
their responses.

The children’s questionnaires suggested a mostly favourable view.
They appreciated the practical efforts to make them feel welcome.
Food and drink were the items most frequently mentioned, followed
by seeing members of their family and the chance for the family to
talk: “I liked the food and drink. Everybody was polite. It was
nice the family got together,” was a typical response. Dislikes
were relatively few, ranging from “not being able to go in the
parents’ room”, from a child whose family had excluded the
children, to “mum and dad disagreeing”.

All but one of the nine children and young people we interviewed
(ranging from age six to 16) found the conference a good, or partly
good, experience. They felt well prepared for what would happen and
understood why it was being held: “To talk about supervised contact
with my mum, and to find out where I could go if dad goes into
hospital again,” was the response of one 11 year old. The younger
children hoped for treats: “A chocolate bar, some jelly, swimming,

Most were positive about the experience of being in the conference:
“Good, positiveÉ I was very safe, comfortable. Plus I’d got
the family as well.” The absence of professionals was often
commented on: “Weird, different. Because the social workers and all
that lot aren’t there.” One child said: “A bit embarrassing, but

For some, such as an evidently troubled boy in his early teens, the
conference had proved a mixed experience. “I didn’t like it. I just
didn’t like everyone being together.” Asked if there was anything
he had liked, he replied: “I didn’t know my nana and grandad cared
that much – I just didn’t know.” His mother interjects that they
have told him before, and he adds: “But it was hearing it, hearing
them saying it.”

Only one, a 14-year-old, now pregnant and living with friends,
found the conference a bad experience. She felt abandoned when the
convenor and her social worker went out. “Even though they are my
aunties and uncles and I do know them, you haven’t seen them for
ages and they are just throwing all these questions at you. It was
just ‘her mum isn’t her mother, is she?’ and ‘her mum this and her
mum that’ and ‘why did I do it?’ I was in bits after that.”

We asked whether anything had changed as a result of the
conference, either for them or for their family. Of the seven who
answered, two, including the 14-year-old quoted above, thought
nothing had changed. Five felt things had got better. Kelly
highlighted an issue that to us, and other researchers,1
appears central – the importance of further support from social
services after the meeting: “It is not that we were sat there, we
talked about it and after that jack-all got done, because I bet in
some cases that does happen. But in my case it was good – the
people they gave us were brilliant. They made us feel
comfortableÉ we could speak how we spoke. It just depends who
you get and whether your social worker can be bothered.”

So enthusiastic was Kelly about the meeting that she has been
trying to get a conference set up for her boyfriend.

The children’s views, which on the whole were positive, were echoed
by family members and social workers. Inevitably, not all was rosy.
It is unrealistic to expect families where problems have often been
entrenched for years to resolve these in one short meeting. Some of
the children, of whom the 14-year-old quoted was an extreme
example, felt unsupported, out of control and even abandoned in the
meeting, feelings that in some instances were shared by the family

As researchers, we made some recommendations which included
introducing greater flexibility into managing the conference
process, and ensuring that the children had an advocate as the norm
rather than the exception. However, the project, which has now been
slightly restructured and is nearing the end of its second year, is
an example of a local innovation that is managing to empower and
address the needs of families, children and young people.

Margaret Bell and Kate Wilson are senior lecturers at
the department of social policy and social work, University of


1 C Lupton and P Nixon, Empowering Practice? A
Critical Appraisal of the Family Group Conference Approach
Policy Press, 1999

Background reading

K Wilson and M Bell, Evaluating Family Group Conferences; a
Report on the Hull and Barnardo’s 348 Family Group Conference
, University of York, 2001

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