Over 2,000 children per year in England could avoid care through the rollout of family group conferences (FGC), research has found.
Providing all families with an FGC before they enter care proceedings could also save over £150m a year, said evidence body Foundations*, after releasing findings of a study it commissioned into the impact of conferences.
Children whose families were referred for an FGC before care proceedings began were significantly less likely to be in care twelve months after entering pre-proceedings than those whose families were not so referred, found the study.
FGCs are facilitated, family-led meetings of relatives, friends and professionals involved with a child at risk that are designed to produce a plan to keep the child safe.
Largest trial of FGCs
The 21-month evaluation, carried out by the children’s charity Coram, was the first in the UK to use a randomised controlled trial (RCT) to test the impact of FGCs, and the largest such trial in the world, covering 2,548 children from 1,471 families across 21 councils.
The study ran from September 2020 to May 2022 and was funded through the Department for Education’s supporting families: investing in practice programme, which is designed to test promising interventions in children’s social care.
RCTs are considered the gold standard method for testing the impact of an intervention and involve comparing outcomes between a group receiving the intervention and an otherwise similar control group that does not.
The study evaluated the impact of FGCs at the pre-proceedings stage, when local authorities inform families that proceedings to take their children into care will follow unless they take specific steps to address assessed risks to children.
The 21 councils – none of whom were previously offering FGCs at pre-proceedings – randomly allocated half of families to receive an FGC (the intervention group), plus their usual services, and the other half just to receive usual services.
Fewer children entering care after FGC
The primary outcome studied was the care status of children 12 months after the relevant council issued the pre-proceedings letter, for which Coram’s research team had data for 643 children in the intervention group and 584 in the control group by the end of the study.
The two groups were similar aside from the fact that mothers in the control group were significantly more likely to have had a child taken into care previously.
Among those in the intervention group, 34.7% had gone into care within 12 months of the FGC, compared to 46.6% children in the control group. After researchers adjusted for the different care histories in the two groups, they calculated that 36.6% of those in the intervention group were in care after 12 months, compared with 44.8% of the control group.
This was a statistically significant difference which meant that those in the latter category were 1.24 times as likely to be looked after than their counterparts.
Children in the FGC group were also significantly less likely to face care proceedings, with 59% doing so 12 months after the pre-proceedings letter, compared with 72% in the control group, after adjustment for baseline differences.
Those whose families received an FGC were also likely to have spent significantly less time in care than those in the control six months after the pre-proceedings letter was issued, an average of 10 fewer days after adjustment.
However, this effect was not significant 12 months after the pre-proceedings letter, and there were no significant effects in relation to any of these three outcomes after 18 months. Researchers said this was likely to be because of the relatively low available sample size.
Savings from conferences
Based on the results, Foundations estimated that 2,293 fewer children would go into care in England annually were FGCs to be rolled out nationally at the pre-proceedings stage. In 2021-22, 31,010 children started to be looked after in England.
The study calculated that the FGCs delivered through the programme cost £5,242 per child per year, a figure inflated by the inclusion of set-up costs and the impact of Covid-19, which disrupted the delivery of conferences.
Nevertheless, this was more than outweighed by the calculated saving of £6,202, from the reduction in those going into care, meaning a net saving of £960 per child per year.
The study used the following model for FGCs:
- A mandatory offer of an FGC with the pre-proceedings letter, followed by referral to the FGC service and preparation for the conference.
- Each conference discussed what support the family network could provide to enable the child(ren) to live with their parents safely and sustainably, or, if this was not possible, who in the network could provide this care, and with what support from the others.
- Following this, a plan was drawn up by the family, which would then be agreed (or not) by the local authority or court, as applicable.
- If approved, the FGC plan would be implemented and then reviewed.
The study builds on previous evaluations showing promising evidence for FGCs, including of Leeds council’s family valued programme and charity Daybreak’s service for children on the edge of care, delivered in Southwark and Wiltshire.
Call for councils to adopt FGCs at pre-proceedings
However, neither of these studies involved an RCT, which Foundations said were “more able than other designs to attribute the differences they find to the programme or service evaluated”.
“Every effort must be made to enable vulnerable children to live safely within their family network before considering care proceedings,” said Foundations chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne.
“We now have evidence that family group conferences, which empower families and children, have a higher success rate of keeping families together than going straight to care proceedings does.
DfE statutory guidance on pre-proceedings states that councils should involve wider family members in decision making where there are child protection concerns, and consider referral to an FGC unless this would be a risk to the child.
However, this too often did not happen at all or took place too late in the process, when taking the child into care was becoming the only option, found the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in its final report last year.
Casebourne, whose organisation is chaired by care review lead Josh MacAlister, added: “We encourage all local authorities throughout England to act on this high quality evidence that FGCs work to implement FGCs earlier.”
Children’s social care reform plans
However, Foundations stressed that the study only provided evidence for the use of FGCs at pre-proceedings, and recommended further evaluation of its potential impact at other – particularly earlier – stages.
The DfE plans to test the impact of family group decision making – a more general concept than FGCs – at an earlier stage of a child’s involvement with social care as part of its children’s social care reform programme.
This will primarily be through the up to 12 families first for children pathfinders, which will test its proposed new model of family help and child protection, starting later this year.
Following the Foundations report, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said it welcomed the wider use of family group decision making, with most councils already using it to some extent.
‘Mounting body of evidence’ for FGCs
However, families, communities and young people policy committee chair Helen Lincoln warned that it was “challenging doing so in the context of increasing demand and long-term funding pressures”.
Charity the Family Rights Group, which provides training and consultancy to councils on FGCs, said the Foundations report added to the “mounting body of evidence” that conferences enabled children to “live safely and thrive within their families”.
Chife executive Cathy Ashley added: “At a time when there is a record number of children in care, it is now beyond doubt that all families should be offered a family group conference before their child is taken into care. These findings confirm that government should adopt this approach nationwide rather than the limited system of pathfinders currently being pursued.”
*Foundations has been formed from the merger of What Works for Children’s Social Care and the Early Intervention Foundation