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Family group conferences: advice for families

Families involved with children’s services can sometimes feel practitioners or managers are making all the decisions. Or that the family does not have much say. A family group conference can make it easier for families to be involved in making plans and decisions about their child.

A family group conference is a planning meeting led by the family and arranged by an independent person. The process ensures that families are at the centre of decision-making.

Understanding family group conferences

In this section you can learn more about family group conferences. Click on the four FAQ dropdowns for quick, initial information. And then take a look at our one page ‘What is a family group conference?’ guide. There is also a three-part family group conference film.  This aims to help families think about whether a family group conference is right for a child in their family.

What is a family group conference?

A family group conference (FGC) is a family-led decision-making meeting. It brings together the whole family, and others who are important to the child. Together, at the family group conference, they make a plan for the child.

What is the aim of a family group conference?

Practitioners who know the child (such as a social worker) may have raised concerns. Or the family may be asking for more support. The family group conference should address the problems identified. The aim is to agree a plan to address those challenges, led by what the family thinks will help.

How is a family group conference different from other meetings?

Family group conferences are based on the idea that if families are properly supported, they will make safe, relevant plans for their children.  They are different because:

  • It is the family who make the decisions
  • In other meetings the plan is made by practitioners who sometimes consult with some of the family
  • A family group conference takes place at a time and a place to suit the family and may take place outside of office hours
  • Wider family members and friends are invited
  • Children are invited and should be supported to play an active role in a family group conference

A family group conference will always involve private family time.

Is a family group conference the same as a family meeting?

A family group conference is not the same as a family meeting. Open or download this table which shows the similarities and differences.  Families often report they feel that they have more say in family group conferences.

Situations where family group conference can happen

What the family group conference process involves

In this section you can read all about the family group process from request for a conference (referral) through to will happen at the conference.

Read more detailed information about each stage of the process below:

1. Getting started – the referral

The process starts by a family being referred to a local family group conference service. The person who makes the referral is the ‘referrer’. They will usually know and be working with the child or family. This could be a social worker, teacher or health visitor for example.  Sometimes families can refer themselves for a family group conference.

2. Independent coordinator appointed

An independent coordinator is then appointed. Their job is to help the family plan for their family group conference. They help families to think about the plans and decisions that need to be made. They are neutral.  This means that the coordinator will:

  • Not influence a family to make a particular decision
  • Be independent from any social worker from children’s services that may be working with the family.

3. Preparation – 8 steps

Click on the drop downs below for a guide to the 8 steps of preparation for the family group conference process.

Step 1: Initial preparation

  • Coordinator contacts referrer to clarify why the referral was made.
  • Coordinator helps the family to prepare. The coordinator should:
    • Meet with the child
    • Meet with the parents or carers.
    • Find out if there is agreement for the conference to go ahead
    • Meet with the wider family and friends’ network
    • Explain the family group conference process.

Step 2: Agreement for the family group conference to be held

The family group conference can only proceed if the parents or others with parental responsibility agree. A young person aged 16 or 17 can also consent to the conference taking place.

Step 3: Involving the child/young person

The coordinator will explore with the child or young person and their parents how they wish to be involved. How a child’s engages be dependent on the child’s age and understanding and view point. The child or young person may want an advocate to help them express their views.

Step 4: Who is invited to a family group conference?

It is up to the parents or carers (or young person aged 16 or 17) to decide who should be invited. Those invited can include:

  • People from the family and friends network
  • Practitioners who know the family.

Children and young people’s views should also be central as to who is invited to attend.

If there is disagreement about who should be invited the coordinator will help the family to think through what might happen if key people are or are not there.

Sometimes the child or parent may be concerned about being at risk of harm if certain people attend. Although conferences can go ahead in these circumstances with agreed safety measures in place, sometimes this may not be possible. It will then be necessary to have two conferences. Or, the person who is not invited can be asked to give their views in another way, for example in writing.

Step 5: Practical arrangements

The coordinator will help the family to decide where and when to hold the family group conference.

The coordinator will try to ensure that the family group conference takes place at a time and a venue to suit all of the family. It may need to take place outside of office hours or at a weekend.

The family will also be asked what food and refreshments they would like. The aim is to make sure the family are as comfortable with the arrangements as possible and that it feels like their meeting.

Step 6: Meeting invited family members

The coordinator will usually meet with all family members invited to the family group conference. The coordinator will:

  • Explain to them how the conference will work
  • Explain the key concerns that need to be addressed
  • Discuss with each person what ground rules they want to run the family group conference. For example, to remain child-focussed and to avoid revisiting old arguments.

Step 7: Advocates for the young person or adults who would benefit from additional support

The coordinator should ask a young person and any vulnerable adults if they would like help to express their views at the family group conference and to take part. The coordinator will discuss who could act as an advocate and make any arrangements.  If there is no professional advocacy support available, then another coordinator could act as advocate. Or, it may be that another family member can provide the support.

Step 8: Meeting the practitioners to prepare them for the family group conference

A key part of the information provided by the referrer and any other practitioners is about challenges they think need addressing. The coordinator meets with these practitioners to make sure they are:

  • Well prepared to give clear information to the family
  • Ready to share any ‘bottom line’ conditions for keeping the child safe and well-cared for.

Many family group conference services will insist that the referrer provides this information in writing for the family before the family group conference. This helps the family to begin thinking about the issues beforehand.

4. The conference

The stages of a family group conference

This infographic shows the stages of a family group conference.

Download

And open or download this table further detailed information about what happens at the family group conference.

Family rights, options and agreeing the family group conference plan

Do families have a right to a family group conference?

No. But, government statutory guidance called Volume 1 Children Act 1989: Court orders and pre-proceedings says children’s services should consider making a referral for an FGC ‘if they believe there is a possibility that the child may not be able to remain with their parents… unless this would place the child at risk.’

This is a type of guidance that children’s services must have regard to.  The courts have said that means it should be followed unless there is good reason not to.

Parents and carers (or other family members) should always ask to be referred to a family group conference if they feel this would be helpful.  They can ask a social worker from children’s services or another professional to refer them.

There is a family group conference service in most local authority areas. If a parent, carer or other family member is told there is no local service then they should:

  • Still ask for a family group conference
  • Ask if their local authority can pay for a conference offered by another family group conference service (for example in a neighbouring local authority?)

Do families have to have a family group conference?

No, taking part in should always be voluntary. It is important to remember though that a family group conference is a key opportunity for:

  • Family members to take the lead
  • A family to develop a safe plan for a child
  • Finding out the help and support family and friends can offer
  • Exploring whether family and friends could take on the care of the child if needed.

Once a case is in the Family Court, there is a strict court timetable for decision making.

This means it can quickly become too late for wider family and friends to:

  • Consider what help they can provide
  • And to consider caring for a child.

What happens if a plan isn’t agreed by the family?

When a plan is drawn up in private family time, it is best if it can be agreed by everyone in the family. In the third stage of the meeting the coordinator will ask whether everyone agrees the plan. If the plan cannot be agreed, a family may be given time to return to private family time or a chance to meet again.

Where agreement isn’t possible then the different views family members have can be recorded. This will mean that the possible options available for the child are still clear and known.

The referrer (the person making the referral) should have informed everyone of what will happen if a plan cannot be agreed.

Finding a family group conference service

Families can find out whether there is a family group conference service in their local area using the list of services in England and Wales available here.

Family group conference service standards and making complaints

What standards should a family group conference service work to?

Any local family group conference service should provide families with written information about the service.  This should include details of the standards the service applies when working with families. If this information is not shared the independent coordinator can be asked for it.

Family Rights Group administers a national standards framework for family group conference services. This framework sets out standards for how family group conference:

  • Services should operate
  • Coordinators are trained
  • Coordinators are managed.

This is currently a voluntary scheme. Family group conference services that have met these standards (‘accredited services’) will have a particular logo.  Families can ask their local service if it is accredited.

Full information about family group conference standards and accreditation is available here.

Can families complain or give feedback about a service?

Any family group conference service should regularly seek the views of family members. They should take into account what families tell them in developing and providing the services.

The independent coordinator should share information about how to complain or provide feedback about the service.  This information should usually be provided when the coordinator first meets with family members.

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