Family Group Conferences (FGCs) have become familiar to many people working with children and young people in the UK and internationally. While they have traditionally been used in cases involving vulnerable children, they can be equally useful when the safety or welfare of an older person is at risk.
Usually, an FGC takes place following a referral, often made by a social worker. It is a meeting of the vulnerable person’s extended family and friends, together with professionals working directly with the family. The whole FGC process is facilitated by a qualified coordinator, who undertakes preparatory work and chairs the meeting.
The meeting itself is an opportunity to learn about and discuss concerns about one or more individuals, and then make a plan to address those concerns. What is special about an FGC is that the plan is made by the family, not the professionals. They therefore ‘own’ it and have much greater commitment to it. Those vulnerable individuals on whom the plan is focused are the 'beneficiaries' of the FGC.
A crucial element of an FGC is ensuring that the voice of the beneficiary is heard and that they can fully participate in the process. If that person has difficulty expressing their views, as may be the case with a child, a victim of abuse, an older person or someone with a disability, they will be helped. We can provide a trained advocate, or a family member or friend will be given guidance by the coordinator to help the beneficiary.
Preparation for the FGC
One of the key elements of the FGC process is the preparation period. It begins with the coordinator visiting the beneficiary to explain the process. The beneficiary can then decide whether or not they wish to go ahead.
Once that is agreed, they discuss the concerns that need to be addressed, who should be invited to take part, and where and when the FGC meeting should take place. Together they also identify any potential barriers to a productive meeting and ways to overcome them, and whether they or any participant needs an advocate or support person.
The coordinator then makes contact with everyone the beneficiary wishes to invite. As far as is possible, they also meet face-to-face so the coordinator can explain everything to them and seek their views on meeting arrangements.
Both the beneficiary and the invitees are asked what information they would like to have in order to make decisions and formulate a plan. The coordinator will then try to ensure that this is provided at the meeting.
Preparation is vital and usually takes 2-4 weeks. It can be quicker in an emergency, but must still be thorough, whatever the timescale.
What happens at the FGC?
There are three parts to the meeting:
1. Information sharing
The first part of the meeting involves all the attendees: the beneficiary and their family and friends, the referrer, and other professionals working directly with the family. Information about the concern is shared, along with any identified resources or support options. The family are encouraged to ask questions for clarification. This part of the meeting is chaired by the coordinator.
2. Private family time
The second part of the meeting, and what distinguishes it from other meetings, is the private family time. All professionals, including the coordinator, withdraw to another room and the family meet on their own to make their decisions and plans.
3. Agreement of the plan
The third part of the meeting takes place when the family have made their plan. They present it to the referrer and any other relevant professionals for their feedback on whether the plan adequately addresses the concerns. This part of the meeting is also facilitated by the coordinator.
A review or follow-up meeting is often held 6-12 weeks after the original FGC. This is to check on progress made with the plan and address any outstanding issues. Timing will depend on individual circumstances.
FGCs are based on a set of basic principles and beliefs that include the following:
- Members of the extended family have intimate knowledge of their own family, including who is safe and who is not safe around vulnerable people.
- Members of the extended family tend to have a life-long commitment to each other.
- We are all more committed to carrying out plans for our own welfare and for that of our family if we make those plans ourselves, rather than being expected to act on decisions made for us by others.
- Good decisions are made on the basis of accurate information, and meetings therefore need to have the benefit of openness, honesty and clarity.
- People work better together if they have mutual respect.
- If we identify and work with the strengths of a family, we are more likely to achieve a good outcome.
There is a considerable body of research about FGCs, both UK and international, that addresses both the process and its outcomes. It shows that families are overwhelmingly positive about the process and that it is very successful in achieving good outcomes for children and young people.
The research also clearly demonstrates that, by reducing the number of children and young people taken into care, FGCs can deliver significant cost savings to the public purse.
Our work with families experiencing domestic abuse has also achieved excellent outcomes and has been shown to reduce incidents of further abuse, and in some cases the need for police action.
Daybreak’s pioneering work in using FGCs in cases of elder abuse, and for other vulnerable adults facing difficult decisions, has demonstrated that the process can be applied to other age groups. It has proved to be effective as a decision-making tool in a much wider context.