Family Group Conferences (FGC) have become familiar to many people working with children and young people in the UK and internationally. Although they have traditionally been used in work with vulnerable children and their families, they are equally applicable to any situation where decisions need to be made about the safety and welfare of a family member and a clear plan needs to be established.
A Family Group Conference is a meeting of the extended family network and friends together with those working professionally and directly with the family, including a qualified coordinator who facilitates the entire FGC process. It is essentially a decision making and planning meeting which takes place to address a particular concern about one or more individuals. In the jargon, these individuals who are the focus of the FGC are termed service users.
Central to the process is the empowerment of any service user who is vulnerable, or who may have difficulty expressing their views. This may be a child, a victim of abuse, an older person, or someone with a disability. A crucial element of Family Group Conferences is ensuring that the voice of the service user is heard and that they are enabled to participate fully in the process. This may be with the help of a trained advocate, or through the support of a friend or family member who will be prepared by the coordinator to help them undertake this role.
Preparation for the Family Group Conference
One of the key elements of the FGC process is the preparation period. The coordinator will visit the service user and the family members they wish to involve, introduce herself, explain the process, and identify and help overcome any barriers to a productive meeting. She will discuss the concerns that need to be addressed, and who should be invited to take part. The service user and family will be asked to consider where and when they would like the FGC to take place. They can also ask for information they feel will help them make their decisions and plan at the FGC.
Preparation is very important and usually takes around 2 to 4 weeks. It can be quicker in extreme emergencies, but preparation must be thorough, whatever the timescale. It is also during this time that the coordinator will discuss with the service users if anyone needs an advocate or support person to enable their participation. If so, an appropriate person will be identified and helped to prepare for this vital task.
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 service user 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 the professionals, including the FGC 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 opinion on whether the plan addresses the concerns. This part of the meeting is also facilitated by the coordinator.
A Review or follow-up meeting is often held around 6 - 12 weeks after the original FGC. This can monitor the 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:
- that it is the members of the extended family who have the intimate knowledge about their own family, including who is safe and who is not safe around vulnerable people.
- that members of the extended family tend to have a life-long commitment to each other.
- that we are all more committed to carrying out plans for our own welfare and for that of our family if it is us who make the decisions, rather than being expected to carry out the decisions made for us by others.
- that good decisions are made on the basis of accurate information, and that meetings therefore need to have the benefit of openness, honesty and clarity.
- that people work better together if there is a principle of mutual respect, which is an important statement of our humanity
- that 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 both in the UK and internationally about family group conferences 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. 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, and is effective as a decision-making tool in a much wider context.