The role of family group conferences in preventing the need for care proceedings

Family group conferences could benefit children who may face care proceedings and represent a long-term cost saving to councils, reports Gordon Carson

Family group conferences could benefit children who may face care proceedings and represent a long-term cost saving to councils, reports Gordon Carson

Family group conferencing is undergoing one of its periodical increases in popularity, thanks to budget cuts and the interest in early intervention.

The Family Commission, led by 4Children, has called for all families to have a legal entitlement to an FGC if concerns are raised that children are at risk, while the Family Rights Group, in its submission to the Family Justice Review, said FGCs could save councils millions of pounds every year by preventing children from entering care. Children’s minister Tim Loughton is also enthusiastic about their use.

This wave of popularity was kick-started by a recommendation to use them more in the Public Law Outline, a legal protocol introduced in 2008 to reduce the need for care proceedings. Research by the Family Rights Group, suggests that 69% of local authorities in England now offer FGCs in some form, whether through an in-house service or contracted to an external provider.

However, concerns remain that the decision to refer children and their families to FGCs, which are run by independent co-ordinators, can depend on the inclination of individual social workers rather than as the result of systemic practice.

Yet, when the service is mainstreamed, the results can be impressive. For example Kent, which has transformed and grown its FGC service over the past 10 years, has found that 88% of the 672 children who were the subject of an FGC from 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010 have not entered the care system as of the latter date (though admittedly some may only have taken part in an FGC during the previous month).

Kent’s county FGC manager, Dawn Walsh, says the key to the FGC model is the pre-conference preparation meetings held by the co-ordinator with members of the wider family network. “The level of preparation that goes in ahead of the FGC itself gives the family time for their heads to rule their hearts.”

Leeds Council has just started rolling out its FGC service to the full city after a successful pilot in South Leeds.

Bernie Jackson, Leeds’ FGC co-ordinator, says their aim is to reduce the number of children in care and so they accept referrals from a wide range of services including all children classified as in-need as well as those on child protection plans.

The South Leeds pilot worked with 18 families in the first 12 months and only one child from these families subsequently became looked after. The benefits extend further than this though, says Jackson. “There are a lot of soft outcomes, such as increasing family functioning and improving relationships between family members, including couples who are separated,” she adds.

Family Rights Group have been promoting and advising on FGCs since the early 1990s, and chief executive Cathy Ashley says the time is right now to bring the model even further into the mainstream of children’s services. In a survey of six projects, it found FGCs had prevented 206 children from becoming looked after in the past year, and led to 56 children returning to their families from local authority care, saving almost £9.9m in total.

Jane Stacey, Barnardo’s UK director of children’s services, does not think FGCs will be made compulsory under the coalition government, but says clear guidance on the role of FGCs would provide “strong encouragement” for councils to use them.

Meanwhile, Claire McCarthy, 4Children’s director of public affairs, says there is a strong argument for local authorities to use them as part of their early intervention programme and not just in the “most urgent and pressing child protection cases”, despite current funding pressures.

FGC services should be carried out at the same time as the common assessment framework process or where there are concerns about children in need, she claims.

“It would be naive to say there would be no cost implications up front – there would need to be more resources for training, for example – but it would be relatively small and there’s a classic invest to save argument to be made,” she adds.

Case study: How a family group conference helped Katie, aged 10

Katie’s story shows just how effective FGCs can be in preventing family problems from escalating.

Katie, aged 10 at the time, lived in Leeds with her mother Lizzy, baby brother Jack, and Jack’s father Mark. Lizzy suffers from bipolar disorder and Mark works full-time. Katie was a young carer for her mum and often stayed off school to look after Jack.

The children were also found at home alone, and Lizzy has an older son from a previous marriage who lived nearby and was violent towards his mum.

Although Leeds social workers had considered calling a child protection conference in Katie’s case, instead they opted to refer the family to an FGC in December 2008.

Along with the core family members, the FGC was attended by Jack’s paternal grandmother, Lizzy’s two sisters and brother, and professionals, including a community psychiatric nurse and a representative of a young carer’s project. There was also an advocate for Katie.

The plan agreed at the FGC focused on Katie being a sister to her baby brother, rather than his carer. Lizzy’s sisters agreed to care for Jack when Lizzy was unable to do it, so Katie didn’t need to stay off school. They also provided respite for Katie so she was able to stay with her aunts at the weekends.

Katie and her mum, Lizzie, have spoken at events to highlight their experience of FGCs, and Lizzy has described it as “life changing”. By May 2009 the case was closed and there have been no further referrals.

All names have been changed.

What are family group conferences?

FGCs are a way of making decisions about the care of children by involving the extended family in the planning process. Their aim is to empower the family rather than have professionals impose decisions. Responsibility for solutions is shared between the family and professionals, and families receive private time to make decisions.

After referral, an independent co-ordinator identifies the extended family network and meets with people attending the FGC to discuss the process. The meeting involves family members and professionals, who provide information to help develop a plan for the child. The family then discusses the plan in private before it is agreed by all parties. It is also subsequently reviewed to see if amendments, or a replacement, are required. Children are usually offered access to an advocate.

The model was developed in 1989 in New Zealand, after indigenous people raised concerns about a lack of awareness of Maori cultural practice when making child welfare decisions. It has been adopted worldwide, including in Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the Republic of Ireland.

Source: Examining the Use and Impact of Family Group Conferencing, Lee Barnsdale and Moira Walker, Social Work Research Centre, University of Stirling, 1997

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