by David Wilkins
It has been claimed that Family Group Conferences (FGC) “could save councils millions of pounds every year by preventing children from entering care”. However, a 2016 meta-analysis of 14 non-UK studies, with an impressive 88,495 participants, found that overall, FGCs “did not significantly reduce child maltreatment [or] out-of-home placements”.
It added: “FGCs were found to increase the number and length of out-of-home placements for families with older children and minority groups.”
Yet many UK local authorities believe that FGCs are useful in preventing children coming into care and have some good evidence to support their claims. In Leeds, for example, FGCs are embedded within a wider philosophy of restorative practice, and according to a recent evaluation, have contributed significantly to reduced numbers of children in care and reduced numbers of child protection plans.
Similar positive findings have been made in relation to FGCs in North East Lincolnshire, in Kent, and via the work of Daybreak (a charity specialising in the provision of FGCs). What might explain these apparently contradictory findings?
It is important to first acknowledge that FGCs should be about getting the right plan for the child, not achieving some predetermined goal.
In a recent twitter debate, Professor Sue White said they should not be considered a ‘magic bullet’ for keeping children at home but as a way of involving families in decision-making, and this is the right thing to do, not because of arguments about effectiveness or outcomes, but because collaborative engagement between families and professionals lies at the heart of good practice.
In the same debate, several people noted it can often be the right decision to bring a child into care, and if families are more involved in such decisions and children are kept safe as a result, why should that be considered a form of failure?
Itsmotherswork suggested we were asking the wrong question to begin with and that we should be evaluating instead how FGCs impact on outcomes for children, regardless of whether they spend time in care or not.
One important consideration is of course how the FGC is organised and how this can change its impact. For example, an FGC might be organised as an integral part of a practice system designed to include families and as a mechanism for working in partnership. It might be well planned and structured, involve many extended family members and the resulting plan well-supported and resourced by the local authority.
Tick a box
Alternatively, a FGC might be held in order to tick a box, while professionals continue to hold onto real decision-making power. It might be organised in a hurry and poorly planned, involve only the child’s immediate family and the resulting plan almost immediately marginalised and forgotten. Clearly, one would expect better outcomes in the former case than in the latter.
In other words, FGCs should not be considered as a stand-alone intervention, rather they need to be considered in context, ideally as part of a whole system, value-based approach of seeing families as ‘partners not pariahs’.
We also need to be clear about what question we are asking when seeking to establish effectiveness. FGCs have in many cases ensured that where it is not safe for the child to stay at home, they are cared for by extended family members, rather than foster carers they have not met before – and many would consider this to be a good outcome. Although of course there are some children who do need foster care or residential care.
In such cases, the FGC has not ‘prevented’ an out-of-home placement but it has certainly made a major difference for the child and their family.
Nevertheless, we need to be transparent with families about why we are holding a FGC and what we hope to achieve.
Families can only truly participate in decision-making if they have access to the same information as professionals. The challenge is how to share such information in helpful and constructive ways, acknowledging the complexities and limitations of the evidence-base and thinking through how this might apply (or not) to the family’s individual situation.
This includes discussing how the FGC might work for this family and child, what might happen as a result (and what might not) and giving families the time and opportunity to challenge and ask questions of professionals.
Providing families with transparent information about the purpose and possible outcomes of the FGC can only enable, rather than prevent, collaborative decision-making about what might be in the child’s best interests.
David Wilkins is a senior research fellow at the University of Bedfordshire. He tweets @david82wilkins.
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