A family group conference (FGC) is a structured decision-making meeting made up of ‘family’ members. ‘Family’ is determined broadly, to include the children, parents, extended family and even significant friends and neighbours to the family who may not actually be blood-related. This group of people are given ‘private’ time to reach a plan to facilitate the safe care and protection of a child or children in need. The professional is involved in information giving at the beginning of the process and in the assessment of the plan following a decision. All professionals are excluded from the private time, which is attended by family members only. Family Group Conferences are used to make plans for children in a number of different contexts: Child Welfare, Youth Offending, Education Welfare, Domestic Violence, Children as Young Carers, Foster Breakdown, adoption etc. There would appear to be no particular area of work where this process is unsuitable. Some areas such as Child Protection and Youth Offending have used the process extensively, whilst others such as Education Welfare, Adoption and Adult services are still at the exploration stage.The Family Group Conference processStage 1: The referral:
The process starts with a referral being made to the local family group conference service. Local services have different referral criteria, often dependent upon funding priorities. In most areas it is the child’s social worker who is most likely to make a referral, but it could be other professionals such as the child’s teacher, youth offending team worker or health visitor and in a few parts of the country families can refer themselves.
For a referral to be made the following will need to be met:
- There are concerns about a child’s welfare that meet the criteria set up the local family group conference service
- A parent or carer with parental responsibility or a young person aged 16 or 17 year old with sufficient maturity agrees the referral and to the sharing of information.
Whether or not a family group conference takes place is a decision made by the family. Under no circumstances can a family be made or forced to have a family group conference.
Once a referral to the local family group conference project is made, the project allocates a co-ordinator to the family.
The co-ordinator helps the family to plan the meeting and chair the meeting. The co-ordinator is different from the referrer and acts as a neutral person. The co-ordinator will not influence the family to make a particular decision but will help them to think about the decisions that need to be made. Families should be offered the opportunity to request a co-ordinator who suitably reflects their ethnicity, language, religion or gender, and the family’s request should be accommodated wherever possible.Stage 2: Preparation
The co-ordinator organises the meeting in conjunction with the child/young person, parents with parental responsibility and/or the immediate carers, identifying who is in the family network for the child. This can include close friends.
- The co-ordinator discusses with the child/young person how they can be helped to participate in the conference and whether they would like a supporter or advocate at the meeting . The supporter/advocate will then meet with the child/young person in preparation for the meeting.
- The co-ordinator meets with members of the family network, discusses worries or concerns, including how the family group conference will be conducted, and encourages them to attend.
- The co-ordinator liaises with the referrer and other relevant agencies to ensure family members have appropriate information about the child welfare and/or protection concerns which need to be considered at the family group conference. This includes identifying any bottom line about what can, and, importantly, cannot be agreed as part of the plan for the child from the agency’s perspective and provide information about services that could help the child or family.
The co-ordinator negotiates the date, time and venue for the conference, sends out invitations and makes the necessary practical arrangements.Stage 3: The conference
The family group conference follows three distinct stages.
a) Information giving
This part of the meeting is chaired by the co-ordinator. They will make sure that everyone is introduced, that everyone present understands the purpose and process of the family group conference and agrees how the meeting will be conducted including, if felt helpful by those present, explicit ground rules. The service providers give information to the family about:
- the reason for the conference;
- information they hold about the child and the family that will assist the family to make the plan;
- information about resources and support they are able to provide;
- any child welfare concerns that will affect what can be agreed in the plan (e.g. that the child must not have contact with a particular person); and
- what action will be taken if the family cannot make a plan or the plan is not agreed.
The child/young person and family members may also provide information, ask for clarification or raise questions.
b) Private family time
Agency staff and the co-ordinator are not present during this part of the conference. Family members have time to talk among themselves and come up with a plan that addresses concerns raised. They will identify resources and support which are required from agencies, as well as within the family, to make the plan work.
c) Plan and agreement
When the family has made their plan, the referrer and the co-ordinator meet with the family to discuss and agree the plan including resources.
It is the referrer’s responsibility to agree the plan of action and it is important that this happens on the day of the conference. It should be presumed that the plan must be agreed unless it puts the child at risk of significant harm. Any reasons for not accepting the plan must be made clear immediately and the family should be given the opportunity to respond to the concerns and change or add to the plan.
It is important to ensure that the children involved have a clear understanding of what is decided and that their views are understood.
Resources are discussed and agreed with the agency concerned, and it is important that, at this point, timescales and names of those responsible for any tasks are clarified. Contingency plans, monitoring arrangements and how to review the plan also need to be agreed.
The co-ordinator should distribute the plan to family members involved and to the social worker and other information givers/relevant professionals. If the child is ‘in need’, the social worker should include the family plan on the Integrated Children’s System.Stage Three: Implementation of the Plan
It is essential that everybody involved implements their parts of the plan within agreed timescales and communicate and addresses any problems that arise.Stage Four: Review of the plan
There should be a clear process for reviewing the implementation of the plan. A review family group conference or other meeting should be offered to the family so they can consider how the plan is working, and to make adjustments or change the plan if necessary.