In January I was very honoured to co-chair a “Knowledge Exchange Seminar” as part of Family Potential, the centre for policy and practice research, having spoken at their previous seminar.
I was lucky enough during both to meet Tim Fisher, who has taught me an inordinate amount about Family Group Conferences (FGCs). As such, I asked him to write a Guest Post and I am very glad to present this below and grateful to Tim for taking the time to do it.
Family group conferences – family led decision-making
My name is Tim Fisher and I am the manager of the family group conference service in Camden. I have worked doing family group conferencing (FGC) in a number of places in England and Wales as well working for NSPCC and Advocacy for young people.
I met “Annie” from Surviving Safeguarding during a series of Family Potential events and she really blew me away with the power of what she had to say. Getting her message across about what she’d gone through, its emotional impact and the things local authorities should do better. So I was very pleased when she contacted to me to say that a guide to family group conference would be useful for her blog and this is it!
I have set out a simple (I hope!) introduction to FGC with some quotes from family members who have been there and done it.
What is a Family Group Conference?
An FGC should be an independent meeting organised for you with the family you want to have there. It is not supposed to be ‘just another meeting’; you may have lots of meetings to go to! So, a good FGC should feel different and aim to make a difference where possible.
It can be a chance to get clear information, have your say, offer your own ideas and make a plan that brings in family (including supportive friends).
FGCs are a chance for families to make:
Plan A; we support the children’s parent to continue looking after them and set out what support the family can provide.
While also in that same meeting making a back-up:
Plan B; if something happens and they can’t stay with the parent the children should be cared for by this family member we choose.
“It got to the heart of the matter” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)
“Everyone spoke and listened to each other” (Female aged between 15-16 years who had an FGC)
What actually happens at a family group conference?
There are three parts to an FGC:
Part 1. Information giving
This is the part of the meeting where you get the information you need to make a plan. A professional most closely involved with your family (usually social worker) should explain why they are worried about your child and tell you the sort of help that they can offer. There should be lots of chances to ask them questions and to be clear about what they are saying. They will then leave the meeting.
Part 2. Private family time
You, your family and friends will be left on your own, without the people who work with you, so that you can talk about the information that you heard in the first part and make plans together for you. The co-ordinator and other information givers stay in another room.
Part 3. Explaining your plan
Your family will share the plan with others at the meeting, including any information givers who were there at the beginning of the meeting. The plan should be agreed as long as it is a safe plan. The plan remains yours whatever happens and you can use the document in court.
Who can have one?
Nearly 90 per cent of local authorities have a family group conference service according to a survey from the Family Rights Group. Most of those are working with families with children on child protection plan, on the whole when care proceedings have started or are likely. There is government guidance that says it’s best that these families have one before they arrive in court.
A plan made in an FGC should always be your plan (the families plan). FGCs work hard for agreement between everyone with the child’s interest at heart, however if you’re going to court and you disagree with the social work viewpoint, your plan remains your plan.
Most people find out about FGCs from their social worker but in some areas a family can request one themselves and some local authorities (like Camden) offer FGC to families earlier on, to help sooner – even sometimes before social workers get involved. It should always be your choice whether you take part or not.
Who organises a family group conference?
The meeting is organised by an independent co-ordinator. ‘Independent’ means someone who should not be involved in the safeguarding decision making. The co-ordinator will meet you and your family to plan and prepare for the meeting and will always be available to help sort out any problems.
It’s important that during an FGC the family group make the decisions!
“The Co–ordinator was really supportive and helpful” (Family Member that took part in an FGC)
“The co–ordinator was sensitive and was skilful at chairing” (Professional who participated in an FGC)
Who should come to a family group conference?
You should be in control of the guest list. The best people will be those who know you and care about you; your family, plus friends and neighbours who feel like your family.
If safeguarding is going to be discussed then your social worker is very likely to want to be at the meeting, this might benefit you (and your family) if have questions you want to ask and important things to say. It is possible that other professionals attend to help with information and advice if you want them to – but the family should be in the majority.
“With everyone in the room, no one could go away saying they did not know what was going on” (Quote from a family member who has been part of a Family Group Conference)
What if I agree to take part in a family group conference?
Your co-ordinator should talk with you about who is in your family network. Whenever possible, everyone important to the child will be invited. The co-ordinator will make sure that the child or children’s views are heard in the meeting. Where appropriate they may arrange for someone to support the child in the meeting, or to speak for them.
You should feel in control of the FGC. After talking with you, the co-ordinator will arrange a time and a place for the meeting, refreshments and crèche for any younger children. The meeting will, whenever possible, be in the language you use at home. There are many trained FGC Coordinators working all over the UK that speak different community languages. A good FGC should be organised appropriately to your culture.
“It reminds me of other cultural family meetings back in my country of origin. It was very important for all of us to have a co-ordinator from our own background. It made everything easy, and there was no barrier of language and culture” (Family Member)
“An advocate is available for young people which means that there is a voice for the child.” (Teacher)
it gives a chance to think about what is happening and plan to make things better. Its gives a space to talk, helping with confidence and being able to look at the future. It promotes togetherness and helps young people” (Camden Young People)
Are FGCs confidential?
An FGC service shouldn’t talk about your problems to anyone unless you ask them, It should be confidential unless there is a risk to a child, You only tell us what you need to and nothing more.
What will happen to your plan after the meeting?
Whenever possible, the social work department should respond to your plan at the end of the meeting. If this is not possible, the social worker will make sure a decision is reached about your plan quickly. Once the plan is agreed, the social work department should work with you to put the plan into action. Later on, another FGC can be held to review the plan and see what still needs to be decided.
“I feel at least some form of dialogue has now begun and hopefully we can begin to work together as a family for our child’s sake.” (Family member)
Why I believe in FGCs
So – I hope that brief guide to FGC is helpful. It is very much the positive side and honestly that is because I believe FGC sets out with good intentions, building on families’ ability to keep their own children safe.
It’s got to be said that the research shows (check out Family Rights Group if you want to see the research) overwhelmingly that people who have had FGC think it helped them – however if you are reading this and you have experience of where FGC could have been better it would be very helpful to hear that too.
If you want yet more info on FGCs click through to the excellent Family Rights Group website.
I am happy to answer anybody’s questions about Family Group Conferences in the comments below or feel free to tweet me!
Family Group Conference Manager at Camden