Family group conferencing ‘can transform social work with adults’

Safeguarding study finds using family group conferencing has delivered savings, better outcomes for vulnerable adults and made social work less process-driven.

Using family group conferences to support adults at risk can transform social work by encouraging practitioners to focus on empowering people and helping them draw on their strengths and networks.

That was a key message from a project looking at how social work practice in safeguarding can become less process-driven and more focused on improving outcomes for adults at risk and making the experience of going through adult protection processes better for them. A report on the Making Safeguarding Personal project, which was overseen by the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, was published last week.

The findings drew mainly on the work of four councils: Central Bedfordshire and Greenwich, which used family group conferencing (FGC) to bring together the adult at risk and their family to explore options and support them to make decisions; and Hounslow and Hackney, who had used various methods to survey or capture the experiences of people who used adult safeguarding services. It also took evidence from six other councils on their experiences of personalising the safeguarding process, one of whom, Hampshire, had used FGC.

Cultural shift among social workers

The sites that had used FGC, which though common in child protection is relatively rare in adult protection, reported the biggest impact on social work practice. “All reported that there had been a cultural shift across adult services as a result of this approach,” said the report. “They saw social workers thinking about the person’s family network and the resources that they could bring at an early stage using an asset-based approach.”

Such asset-based approaches, under which social workers support people to retain independence by making best use of their abilities and the support of their families and communities, are being promoted by government and sector leaders as a way social workers can reshape adult social care to become more preventive and less crisis-focused.

Central Bedfordshire used some of its more experienced social workers in facilitating FGC meetings, while Greenwich, following Hampshire, commissioned the charity Daybreak to deliver the conferences but trained 48 of its social workers in FGC to enable them to refer into the service.

Resolving complex problems

The study found that social workers were initially sceptical about FGC and were reluctant to refer cases to conferences, but over time recognised its benefits, enabling them to explain these to people at risk and their families. Social workers found that family group conferences helped families resolve complex problems by drawing on their personal strengths and resources. Hampshire council reported that adults at risk felt empowered and listened to, and Greenwich said that FGC gave them back control over their situation and made them feel supported.

Though FGC was a slow process and initially resource intensive, councils found that it resulted in significant savings. Councils also found that family group conferencing delivered savings. Greenwich found that a family group conference cost £1,500 per case but could delay admission to a care home, saving significant sums, while a study by Hampshire identified savings of £77,360 from 49 referrals, due to avoiding or delaying residential care admissions, and reduced use of home care or care management time.

Though FGC was best used as a preventive service designed to avoid the need to make a safeguarding referral, Central Bedfordshire council then worked with social workers to apply a similar approach to complex cases where FGC itself would not be appropriate. The report said that this was also successful with better engagement with people and their families and social workers feeling more confident in supporting the person to make difficult decisions.

Capturing views of safeguarding service users

The other councils studied, who had attempted to capture the views of adults who had gone through the safeguarding process, found that this had improved safeguarding services and also reshaped social work practice.

The most successful approach was to ask adults involved in the safeguarding process what they wanted to achieve at the start of the process, midway and then at the end. This focused social workers’ practice on the desired outcomes and how these could best be achieved throughout the process. All councils involved in the study agreed that this should become an integral part of safeguarding practice.

The project report said the findings were encouraging but more research was needed into how adults could be helped to make difficult decisions in complex circumstances, “if we are to change social work practice in safeguarding adults from being process driven to having…a focus on outcomes”.

The project, which ran from February 2012 to March 2013, was funded by Towards Excellence in Adult Social Care programme board (£20,000), which oversees sector-led improvement initiatives in adult social care, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (£10,000) and the LGA (£7,000).

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