A group of academics has written an open letter to the children’s social care What Works Centre raising concerns over a new programme to evaluate family group conferences (FGCs).
The scheme, announced in May, is in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE) and will see £15 million of government money being spent in 40 council areas with the aim of keeping families together.
As well as family group conferences at the pre-proceedings stage, the study will also seek to test the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) model, both by employing randomised control trials (RCTs).
But a letter co-signed by 14 leading academics, led by Sheffield University’s Kate Morris, called into question the RCT approach’s suitability for use around FGCs, which it noted offer “a rights-based opportunity for children and families to develop a plan for vulnerable family members”. It argued that FGCs ‘work’ simply by existing, thereby allowing rights and responsibilities to be exercised.
‘Curtailing rights in the name of evidence’
By randomly allocating access to FGCs, the letter added, “some families will be denied the opportunity to exercise their rights and responsibilities in order to produce evidence for professionals and policy makers”.
It added: “This is markedly different to experiencing uneven access to FGC services across the UK, instead this is curtailing the opportunity to exercise rights in the name of evidence.”
The letter said the ethics of using RCTs in this way were “unpalatable” and smacked of the need for generating evidence being prioritised over the need for families to have as much help as possible to stay together.
Morris told Community Care she did not disagree with trials around FGCs but that these should be funded comprehensively with all children and families given active options to participate or not.
“It’s important to hold the discussion – how do we explain this to children and families who don’t get the service,” she said. “If [money] is going into local authorities to fund FGCs pre-proceedings and we are going to randomly assign families – not who wants it and who doesn’t – it’s about discussing RCTs in the context of ethical practices.”
‘We are offering FGCs to more people’
But Mike Sanders, the executive director of the What Works Centre, defended the design of the programme, which he said would offer councils that would not otherwise have explored FGCs the option to do so.
“Rather than denying [FGCs] to half of families, we are offering them to more people than would otherwise have been,” he said.
“We should make sure we deliver the intervention, given that there is this rights advantage, to as many people as we can in the context of the evaluation, while not sacrificing the evaluation itself,” Sanders said.
“Conducting research badly, coming to the end and not learning the answers to questions, that would be unethical,” he added.
Sanders said that he hoped the trial would enable local authorities and social workers to make more informed decisions about the use of FGCs.
“Imagine we get to the end of the trial and find FGCs are hugely successful, both in terms of rights and outcomes – that strengthens the case for them being taken up more broadly,” he said.
“If we get more disappointing results – that FGCs have no effect on children’s outcomes, or a modest one – that would act as a spur for people to develop new ways to allow families to exercise their rights, leading to stronger and more positive outcomes for young people.”