By Deanna Edwards, Kate Parkinson and Alex Ryan
Family group conferences (FGCs) have been around in the UK since their introduction by Family Rights Group (FRG) and others in 1992 and they have been increasingly used in recent years for family-led planning in children and families’ social care.
Whist they are also used in adult services their major use still sits in children’s services. With Covid-19 came a number of challenges to FGC practice and services have often needed to be creative and resourceful in how they have met these challenges.
Covid restrictions have meant that many FGC services have either had to stop working or significantly alter their practice. Many FGC staff have simply been redeployed, often as social workers or family support workers, in order to support these increasingly stretched services at a time when many workers were shielding and unable to work.
Others however have adapted their practice to plan, prepare and deliver ‘online FGCs’, and the national network run by FRG have developed guidance for these.
‘Can’t read a room virtually’
Many FGC services that we have spoken to are offering families a choice of whether to go ahead with an online FGC, postpone the referral until a face-to-face FGC can resume or to close the referral.
If an online FGC is agreed then generally most, if not all, of the preparation is done via phone and video platforms and the FGC then takes place by video call, with family, friends and workers all ‘attending’ virtually. This often has the advantage of involving people who may not otherwise have been able to attend.
This may include relatives who live abroad, are in prison or hospital, have illnesses or disabilities that make face-to-face meetings difficult. It may also make it easier for family members who may not wish to be in a room together (eg estranged parents, or where families have strained relationships or there has been domestic abuse).
However, the disadvantages are also evident. Many families will find it difficult to plan in a virtual environment, young people’s voices may be lost and families may not have the resources to effectively participate with an online forum. One co-ordinator commented that you ‘can’t read a room virtually’.
A hybrid approach
As the first lockdown relaxed, some FGC services offered a ‘hybrid’ approach where some preparation took place by telephone and some via socially distanced visits – when weather allowed, these often took place in gardens and other outdoor spaces.
Alex, who is manager of the Gloucestershire FGC service, says:
“We have been able to continue our work with families through the pandemic by being creative and really listening to families. We were conscious that virtual child protection conferences were taking place and that many social care colleagues continued to meet with families face to face.
“In that spirit, we have changed the way that we work and recognise the need for building relationships through using phone or facetime, where home visits are not an option. We have worked with families to create safety and support plans to ensure that needs are being met whilst in lockdown and by holding virtual FGCs.
“However, this is by no means how any co-ordinator wishes to continue to work, as FGCs are based upon building those relationships with the entire family network and other services involved and direct contact is a key part of this process.
“What it has taught us, is that despite the limitations, some families have still been enabled to take control and plan for their children in a virtual FGC. In fact this method could be argued to be even more inclusive, as the families who may have felt uncomfortable being in the same room as other members of the family and who would possibly have declined an FGC as a result, are now more willing to become involved.
“If we have to continue to use virtual FGCs in the future, we will work hard to ensure that nobody’s voice gets lost in the virtual environment and that the person who is the subject of the FGC remains central to the decision making and the development of the FGC plan.”
A lockdown FGC case study
All names and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.
Olivia was referred to the FGC service following concerns for her and her unborn baby due to domestic abuse. She had recently split from her partner and was isolated and disconnected from her family and support network.
When the co-ordinator contacted Olivia she agreed to meet initially in person to consider an FGC. The co-ordinator and Olivia met outdoors and maintained social distance whilst discussing the meeting. Olivia wanted an FGC but was concerned that her family were no longer supportive.
Nevertheless, she agreed that the co-ordinator could contact her wider family and friends. This subsequent work was done via telephone and friends and family were supported to attend a virtual FGC.
This support included helping people to access virtual platforms, agreeing a time and date and agreeing ‘ground rules’ for a virtual meeting. Ground rules included not accessing the meeting in a public space and not recording private family time as well as some of the more typical FGC ground rules.
The FGC took place on a virtual platform attended by family and friends. Private family time took place in a breakout room. The social worker and co-ordinator remained in the main room but were available to enter the breakout room if called in by the family.
A plan was developed enabling Olivia and her baby to live with Olivia’s mum and brother. The baby has now arrived and both are doing well. Olivia has rebuilt relationships with her extended family who are enjoying getting to know the baby.
Speaking of the FGC, Olivia said: ‘It was really helpful. I didn’t know who was out there to help me. We have become a much closer family. I was a little nervous about the meeting and in some ways, being virtual helped: it was awkward at first but once we started talking it was just like normal how we talk as a family.”
It is still early days to evaluate the impact of virtual FGCs. However, with a third lockdown, high case, hospitalisation and, tragically, death rates and the vaccine rollout having a long way to go, it is anticipated that virtual FGCs will be with us for quite some time. So, there is scope for research into the use and efficacy of virtual FGCs and a discourse to be had on what constitutes best practice in the virtual world.
It is crucial to ensure that the principles of the FGC model, namely those of empowerment and the family as the expert, continue to be upheld and do not become obscured or minimised in this virtual world.
Deanna Edwards and Kate Parkinson are lecturers in social work at the University of Salford, and Alex Ryan is manager of the Gloucestershire FGC service.
 For a detailed account of FGC practice see Edwards D and Parkinson K (eds) (2018) Family Group Conferences in social work. Involving families in social care decision making. Policy Press
 With thanks to Will Golden and Just Psychology FGC service
 With thanks to ‘Olivia’ and her family