Lessons from holding virtual family group conferences under Covid

While lockdown prevented face-to-face conferences from being held, one authority developed a virtual model that has retained FGCs' strengths-based focus and will be maintained beyond the pandemic

Social worker carrying out video assessment
Photo: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock (posed by model)

By Tim Fisher and Jamie Spencer

Brian’s story

Brian is a 70-year-old man with a learning disability. He had been living with his brother for many years, but as they both got older his brother could no longer give him the support he needed and a move to supported living was planned. He was worried by the pandemic and unsettled by being physically apart from family for the first time in his life.

A traditional family group conference was not possible due to the restrictions so a virtual conference was convened, to talk about what was happening and bring people together to support the forward journey for Brian, from his brother’s home into the new accommodation. His attachment to and love for his old life was a big topic for him in the first meeting.

Camden council’s adult social care service set him up with his own tablet and support with the technology so he could contribute fully alongside others in the virtual space. The family talked through everything Brian would need for the move. Due to the lockdown, the family could no longer offer all the physical support they would have wanted to provide but they were still able to give emotional support in this difficult move and do his shopping and deliver to him what he needed on a rota.

The move was a success and Brian is now able to physically see his family as lockdown has eased. Brian’s brother has moved round the corner and says they are closer than ever.

Brian told us that thanks to the connection over distance virtual conference we were able to facilitate, the family came together to support this life change and help comfort him through it, which was very important to him.

We’ve been carrying out adult family group conferences in the London Borough of Camden for the last few years. FGCs are family network meetings where people come together in person to work through problems and make a plan, and are part of our commitment to working with individuals and families to give them the freedom to make their own plans.

Risks to FGCs

In March, there was a real danger that FGCs would be put to one side as the emergency professional response to Covid-19 kicked into gear. The language we heard around us was understandably focused on ‘protecting the vulnerable’ and meeting people’s needs as we wondered how we could retain our commitment to strengths-based working through the crisis.

In fact, as Brian’s story highlights, Camden’s adult FGC work quickly formed part of the mainstream response, evolving in ways that surprised us and teaching us all about virtual meetings as we lived our new slogan, “connection over distance”.

We saw 50 referrals for adults from April to July, an absolutely unprecedented demand for the service. The demand included specific concerns raised by the Covid crisis such as connecting isolated families, supporting people who are anxious, planning returns home from hospital, and building networks of support for individuals who are shielding due to their clinical vulnerability.

We know that FGCs are a space where people can come together to look after each other, by sharing information and having private time to come up with a plan to solve a problem or make a change. Covid-19 and lockdown meant we had to hold with the well known and powerful elements of these independent conferences, using different & digital methods.

Video conferencing tips for FGCs

There are some important things to consider when using video conferencing tools:

  • how people can access these platforms;
  • which ones are secure to use and align with local policies (some local authorities block some popular video conferencing tools so you need to plan ahead to get permission if you need it!);
  • the platforms families are already using;
  • access to wifi or reliance on precious mobile data allowances;
  • using virtual breakout rooms to preserve the principle of ‘private family time’.

Widening the circle

FGC co-ordinators, who facilitate the meetings, have embraced this way of working. They have learned new tools and speak about the good feeling and spirit of connection in the work during this time.

The team of 10+ independent co-ordinators, who between them speak more than 20 different community languages, have also been working in a more graduated way as ‘network connectors’, building up to larger virtual meetings where possible but always doing significant work with people to support links, increase contact and add reassurance in people’s informal networks. This work has significantly relieved pressure on citizens and our frontline workers.

One of the points of exploratory learning for FGC has been around connections made locally to community volunteers who are part of the mutual aid movement, a new concept for us in our FGC practice as we widen the circle beyond family and traditional networks of support.

We have been awed by the continued resilience and creativity of the people, families and communities we work with. Face-to-face FGCs are happening again, tentatively held for citizens who want them and rigorously risk assessed, but we know the connection over distance approach and its digital methods will remain.

Tim Fisher is service manager – FGC and restorative practice, and Jamie Spencer head of transformation and performance, at the London Borough of Camden. It has recently published a report on adult FGCs in the borough

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