Transcript: Recognition Matters: family group conferencing

A discussion about the practice of family group conferencing and how it can make a difference to families

Podcast Episode: Recognition Matters: family group conferencing

Category: Child protection 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
MM - Professor Mary Mitchell
HR - Heather Rush
NH - Nicky Hunter

MD When children are really vulnerable to harm social workers have to work even harder to create partnership with families where risk is present. For infants, babies, and very young children, as well as older children who are nonverbal or require constant care as they grow up, ways need to be found to work with risk that does not necessarily involve family separations.

Family Group Conferencing is one way of holding risk with the older children and adults in a family and agreeing how that risk will be addressed. Parents and expectant parents need an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, with the sustained relationship-based support of professionals.

In this episode, Dr Mary Mitchell, Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh, and social workers Heather Rush and Nicky Hunter from the City of Edinburgh Council, speak about the practice of Family Group Conferencing and how it can make a difference to families.

This forms part of a child protection and welfare project titled Recognition Matters, which bring together knowledge from different pieces of research to strengthen practice and improve the experiences of families.

A film of a parent’s experience of Family Group Conferencing has been made available. A link to Azaria’s story can be found in the show notes of this episode, along with other related resources.

MD Thank you Mary, Nikki and Heather for coming together to speak about the Recognition Matters Project and particularly focusing on family group conferencing or decision making. I know that Recognition Matters is a child welfare and protection project, Mary could I just ask you firstly, where did the idea for Recognition Matters come from?

MM Yes, it was quite an exciting project because a colleague of mine who works at Napier University now was also doing her PhD at the same time I was so, I did my PhD on family group conferencing, or family group decision making or how it’s known in Scotland, looking at outcomes for children who were at risk of being accommodated and Ariane Critchley was doing her PhD on the processes of pre-birth child protection and so while the studies themselves were really different when we came to the end of it and we were chatting through kind of the connections of it, really one of the strong things that came through in both of the studies was about process and that process really mattered to families going through these very critical … at critical moments in their life, as decisions were being made so, for Ariane’s work was about pre-birth child protection and often the removal of babies from their parent’s care and for me it was about children who were at risk of being accommodated and the importance of process, not only to the outcomes for the families but also what it made them feel like as the process was happening and that that really made a significant difference to how they responded to the process and what happened as the process occurred. So, what happened is we came together and we thought, actually that process is about recognition, about people being seen and heard and setting an agenda within those really crucial processes of child protection and so both of us sought to find some money and some colleagues who had been involved in those projects so Heather was one of the practitioners in both of our studies and so we approached her about maybe doing a knowledge exchange project and she opened the door to a whole range of people like Nikki, Azaria and Julie who had been involved with family group decision making as well and Nikki, as she said, is involved in child protection processes within City of Edinburgh Council. So, then what we did is, we actually thought about what is it we want to make Recognition Matters say and do? And as a collaborative group we kind of developed the idea of creating a short film which Azaria would tell her story which is an animated film and then we did a seminar which kind of talked through Arianne and my research but also Azaria’s story and her experience. Nikki was Azaria’s social worker and what really made a difference for Azaria through the processes of child protection process, pre-birth child protection process and family group conferencing and really what made a difference for her as a person going through those experiences.

MD Could you explain to me Mary, what family group decision making or conferencing is?

MM Yes, so as I said, my PhD was about family group conferencing and it’s been … family group conferencing is really a supported decision-making process which is aimed to involving children and families in child welfare and protection processes. It can be seen, it’s an internationally known decision-making process and it originated in New Zealand and really in the late 80’s/90’s around the concern, I suppose, for married community, about having so many children placed in care without families being involved in decision making of that child being removed from their care. From those early origins of New Zealand, it’s kind of become an internationally known process and came to Scotland, again around that time in the early 90’s and Children First were part of bringing family group decision making to Scotland and since then it’s had it’s ups and downs in implementation in Scotland but it’s seen in both local authorities and in charitable organisations as implemented. Heather is part of the family group decision making here in Edinburgh which is a big team of family group decision making coordinators. So, the process itself is a 4-stage process, one of referral where an agency will refer a family or a child to the decision-making process, there will be an independent coordinator appointed to that family. They’ll take a long time to prepare the family for a group meeting and that might be about the coordinator going to meet different family members and practitioners who are involved with that family about what are some of the concerns and strengths of that family. Then there will be a … the coordinator will organise with the family a family group meeting which will have stages in itself. So, there’s an information sharing stage with professionals and family members where everybody talks about what the concerns are, why there is social work involvement with this family and what the strengths are as well. Then the professionals leave the room and the family private time where the family talk about what’s going on for them and they develop a plan and then the professionals come back into the room or the screen as may be at the moment. They then talk through that family plan and it’s often a family plan where … so, things like where people get help picking up children from nursery or they get help with shopping just really often quite simple things that really support what’s going on in the family to take some of the stress away and then they’ll be also professional input into that plan so that might be a more social work agenda being placed in about how social workers might meet with the family once a week, etc. So, the plan looks like what the family want it to look like, they identify and it gets signed off really by all those people in that family meeting and the 4th element of that process is the monitoring and the review process so, maybe 5 to 6 weeks later, they’ll come back together and say, how’s the plan going? Do we need to tweak things? What’s the stress level like? What’s the safety level like? So, the family themselves are in control of that plan itself. And often that plan, the family group meeting plan sits alongside child protection planning and safe guarding as well. I know Heather or Nikki will have been involved in that process much more than me but that’s kind of the essence of it. It’s really about engaging family in decision making around child protection and welfare.

MD That’s great Mary, thank you for that. That’s excellent. Moving to you Heather, could you just give me an over view of how family group conferencing has worked in Edinburgh?

HR Yeah, so I mean I think Mary’s captured in essence what a family meeting is and it sounds great when you really kind of put it like that and so that’s how we always hope for a family meeting to go. So, in Edinburgh, we started in about the early 2000’s, so 2003 and that was an inhouse local authority service with just one post at that time. So, James who kind of started it off in Edinburgh, he was a bit of a one man show at the time and really kind of brought what Children First were doing in the rest of Scotland and brought that to Edinburgh to look at where we could sit in terms of helping to facilitate plans for children. There were concerns about, in terms of their welfare or protection or where they needed to be cared for out with their family or to remain within their families. So, the service has grown over the years and it’s kind of been an incremental growth and at the moment we have, I think, we’ve got 19 people in our team and that’s our business support, 2 team leaders, a team manager and I think we’ve got 19 coordinators, maybe about 16/17 full time equivalents. We’ve got different parts to the service, our core work is around child welfare and protection and that’s where the majority of our work comes in so either children that are on the edge of care, where things at home are breaking down, where there’s child protection concerns or there’s some kind of significant welfare concerns that’s brought to the attention of social work. So, we look at, right from pre-birth up to kind of through care and after care stages. So, we have our babies service which is the bit that I’m involved in and where I’ve linked in with Mary and Nikki, in particular. So, our babies service is 0 to 12 months and pre-birth and we have a process in Edinburgh whereby any unborn baby, infant up tot the age of 12 months is brought to social work attention for the purpose of a social work assessment then a notification comes to our team to look at whether a family group conference or decision-making meeting would be appropriate. So, we link in with the different locality teams, look to see could family decision making do something a bit different there, could we look at offering every family that came to the attention of social work for an assessment around welfare or protection, a family meeting to look to see who is in the network, could kinship options be identified at an earlier stage, could we be looking at family plans taking place to prevent child protection case conferences. So, it was looking at what could we do to minimise the intervention from social work for families. We, we set up a pilot project with south west are of Edinburgh to look at every single baby that came into their service to offer a family meeting and we did that over a 9/10-month period and that was really, really successful. What it did show was that for those babies who did go into foster care that conversations were had, that meetings happened, that families were involved in the decision making and where meetings couldn’t take place, there was still information there for children that went through later into their life. For the majority we got really good plans at home and plans that families, parents could take to their child protection case conferences and really talk about who there was in their network. So, that people felt prepared when they were going to case conferences and so that it reduced that risk of getting to the time where a baby was born and not sure what the plans were going to be. So, bringing that right to where we are just now, we developed that over the years and at this stage the process is that every baby that comes to social work attention, for an assessment because there’s concern about welfare or protection or vulnerabilities within their family then a family meeting is offered to those parents and their extended network and that works really, really well and it stops that decision making from maybe practice teams about whether a family should be put forward or shouldn’t be put forward for a family meeting. It’s about equal entitlement so that every family gets that opportunity to be part of decision making for their baby. So, it works really well, we work with Nikki and her team quite a lot. We work with all our localities across Edinburgh but we’re also looking at more preventative work around early years centres so, we’re linking in with early years centre, we link in with the family nurse partnership who work with young mums who have babies from 15 to 22, I think the age range is, so we link in with them, we link in with the perinatal mental health service as well and we’re always looking to expand that just now. What works really well for families is that communication between social working and really hearing what the worries are and talking about the possibilities of what can be planned.

MD Thanks very much Heather, that’s really interesting. It’s great to have that information. Nicky, can I just turn to you and ask you, how did the family meetings then differ from other meeting settings where decisions are made?

NH They’re so different, they really are. The main meetings that I’d be involved in other than a family group meeting would be a children’s hearing, a child protection case conference and a looked after review. These meetings are extremely formal and intimidating for a worker so, I can’t even imagine what they would be like for a family member. Also when we’re preparing for these meetings, it’s a social work report that’s prepared as well as other reports and they’re pretty damning reports because the reason we’re at the case conference or the reason we’re at the review or the reason we’re at the children’s hearing is because there are concerns and there’s child protection risks so, not only is the meeting itself intimidating, the parents have had to read maybe a 20 page report almost about what they’re doing wrong. Later on, in the process, I always say that to families, the first couple of reports are probably the hardest to read because I’d like to think we’re going to get better and they’re going to get more positive as time goes on. So, you’ve already got this report that you know everybody round that table has read about you. They’ve read every mistake you’ve ever made so, that to me is a scary thing. Whereas your family group meeting, it is … we are very honest when we go into these meetings, well we’re honest with the family beforehand, with the parents to say, look, we need to share these concerns, we need to share why we’re involved but it’s not down there penalising them in black and white. We’re not giving that … this is what you’ve done wrong, it’s actually, do you know these are the things that are not going well but we need to look at what can go well. What can we put in? So, I think for families, they go into that meeting with a very different state of mind really. They go in thinking, this is about me, this is my meeting, this is not Nikki’s. And I think the fact that I leave the meeting as well, so the social worker leaves the meeting whereas with most meetings we’re the ones that, the panel chair comes too and the reviewing officer comes too whereas actually I’m not the expert at that meeting, it’s the family, I’m only setting the scene really and then leaving and letting them come up with it. So, I think empowerment is the word I’d probably use for families. It empowers them, it just gets them together and it also allows them to be honest with each other. Some times you’ll have parents that, they’ve maybe told family about some of the substance use and not other parts so it actually it gets the cards on the table but they’re not there to judge each other. The groundwork’s already been done by the coordinator for that so, really this is a non-judgemental arena, this is not to wag the finger at each other, it’s actually, we’re family, we need to pull together so, I think it’s just a nicer feel. It is a nicer feel, certainly as a practitioner do you know, you feel more at ease.

HR It’s a very future focused meeting so, it’s not about regurgitating the past and you know it’s about being aware of the past and we talk about that in preparation time but also when we’re getting our views from the services involved but also the family, that information has gone back and forward before the meeting so as Mary was saying, the preparation time is really important because you’re speaking to family members individually and you’re speaking to the professionals involved and really kind of teasing out what are the concerns, what’s been tried, what are you worried about, what are the things that are going really well, where are the strengths in the family and you start to get a picture of what a plan might look like but also your posing those questions to family that a social worker would be doing but they just take it in a different way because you’re seen as … you are independent, you’re independent to the social work process in terms of decision making and assessment and although we’re all very experienced social workers we’re not assessing them. And we’re not reading all the background reports so, the information that we get prior to a family meeting is from the social worker so it’s looking at what are the risks, what are the strengths, what are the things that need to be discussed in a family meeting and that’s the information we take to the family. So, it’s very kind of open about this is what’s been discussed, this is the information I have and let’s talk about it, let’s get your view and actually families share so much more because they want to be heard, they want their story to be told, they want to be listened to, they maybe had experiences previously that they felt has been quite negative so, it does kind of give them a role within decision making.

MD Do you think that it’s very much relationship-based practice?

HR Yes, very relationship based. We work in a very restorative way so, our aim is to break down that communication and actually develop relationships and you can see that working really well in a family meeting where the social worker may not have known the family and there may be that barrier between family and social work that’s developed because of history with the family or just because of that fear that family have that social work are there to take children away and place them in care and that’s not what the family meeting’s about. The family meeting’s about looking at building those relationships and getting that communication going but also it helps the worker see how the family function and what the dynamics are. And that’s really powerful.

NH I think it also helps the social worker look at extended family as supports as well that we wouldn’t maybe think about like I’ve been in numerous family group meetings where there’s been a cousin or an aunt that we’re not looking at the child being placed with so I wouldn’t ever have thought because of confidentiality and things, I would never have thought, right, I’m going to phone Auntie so and so and see how things are. Whereas once you’ve been to those meetings, the relationships really grow between the worker and the extended family so that aunt or that cousin or that uncle know that this isn’t going very great, I’m a bit worried about her, I’m going to just pick the phone up to Nikki. They wouldn’t have done that before because we would never have questioned it before, we would never have met. Whereas I’ve found that’s been a really good thing or if they actually think that the family are doing well but they need something different, they’ll pick the phone up to me because they feel that they now have ownership of that plan, which they do and they have a responsibility rather than just leaving it to the parents or leaving it to the social worker.

MM It’s come out a lot in the research actually about talking to the wider circle around the child, the wider family members. Involving the network in more than just say, the mum or the dad, was actually really … in 2 ways, one is that grandparents sort of suddenly felt, “oh, I can actually be involved and I’ve got an in to be able to support this family in a way that if it was just social work, I didn’t feel I was invited to be involved.” So, that was really powerful, some of the comments from aunties and grandparents and even just family friends who became significant people in a child’s life. They really commented that the process of being involved in a family group meeting meant that they had a place at the table, that they felt a relief at being involved actually. So, that was really a significant part of extending the family and social workers often said, “I was amazed that there was all these people. I’ve worked with this family for years and years and years and I didn’t realise that they had 4 brothers and sisters.” It’s not that social workers wouldn’t normally see that or wouldn’t want those people to be involved. They’re focus is very much on the child and what’s that happening so the family group conferencing idea and the process allows it to just be a little bit more open and widening the circle around who might be able to support that child and build strengths for that family and understand that there are different strengths and assets within the family that the social worker may not know about.

MD Does it ultimately make decision making easier or more complex?

NH I think both for the practitioner from my point of view I think it can make plans more challenging but more child focused. So, I think it can sometimes, if you have a case that’s a bit risky and you’re a bit concerned, it can almost be your default position to look for a foster care placement because you know that baby is going to be safe and sanitised and everything else whereas if I know that I also have an extended family or a friendship group then I will definitely try harder for that child to remain either at home or with a family member so, it does make it more complicated for the worker but I think it’s definitely better for the family member.

MM From my perspective as an academic looking in on that, what I think happens is it doesn’t reduce down an issue actually or reduce down the family to a really simple this is the issue, it actually engages with the complexity of what’s going on which is real and so, you know I think Nikki’s answers really apt, it’s not necessarily better or worse, actually what it does is engage and embrace the complexity of what’s going on for families and what social work is like as a practitioner.

NH I think definitely from the children at home, it definitely supports because as I said, do you know, if it’s a straight forward: go to foster care, then that can be easy whereas if we have, and it’s not what we want, but it can be the easier option sometimes or not the easier, the less risky option is what I’d say, the less risky but we can’t be completely risk averse. Where I think family group plans really come into their own for me, when that child is at home, I know there are so many other layers now protecting that child. It’s not me Monday to Friday and living on my nerves at the weekend which it can be, if I have a child living at home where there’s not been family support, there’s not been a family play, I don’t know whose looking after that child at the weekend if the parent’s not managing or that evening whereas if I’ve had a family group meeting and there’s been a robust plan put in place, I know that auntie’s checking in on Friday night, I know Granny’s on the phone and if there’s something wrong she’ll go in and take that wee one or she’ll go and stay there so when the child’s actually living at home, it relieves my stress a lot.

HR And I think it kind of works against that myth that families are collusive and that they don’t tell. I think that maybe that’s been a concern in the past and a bit of a barrier in the past but what we find on the whole is that families can pick up on those subtle changes far more than a worker can because they know their niece, their granddaughter, their daughter, you know they know when there’s something going on and I think that’s particularly appropriate when there’s really complex issues around substance use and mental health and domestic abuse so yeah, it can bring it’s challenges and complexities but with it, it also allows families to talk about what it going on, what can we do to help?

MD Is family group decision making just about finding family placements?

NH No. Well, I don’t know about from Heather’s point of view but certainly from my point of view it isn’t. It is about finding the support for the family because actually for a new born baby, a family placement might not be the best outcome for that child or for the parents. It’s about finding the best outcome or the best plan for the child and the family. So, I’ve been working a case very recently with Heather’s team and we had 2 plans and one was that they unborn baby, when the baby was born might go with family however there was a possibility that the baby would be accommodated and that family came together to put in a second plan, how to support the parents if this baby was accommodated. This baby has been accommodated and the plan is working extremely well and the parents themselves feel the best thing for that baby is to be accommodated because it’s giving them the time to work on what they need to work on but the family have really rallied round and taken the couple into the centre of everything. So, they’re ensuring they’re not on their own, they’re not down, they’re looking at the future. For a new born baby, yeah, the second plan is definitely about supporting the family but then we’ll have a further meeting ab out what happens when this baby comes home so, how do we put the support into it for this baby to remain at home. So, this is very much a process with this family, it is at the moment, it’s how do we support this couple whilst the baby’s accommodated but actually we’re all moving to this baby coming home. We all have that shared goal, so our next meeting which we’ve already got a date for, right okay so, what are we going to do when this baby’s home? How are we getting this baby home? That’s one of the things for me. The other thing is, it’s actually about finding information about the extended family. As Heather sort of alluded to earlier, we have children who with the life long links as well, who we don’t, we’re not placing them with family, and we have babies who we are not considering placing with family but we want to know about family. We want the life story material, we want to know who granny was, who great granda was, what their history is, what they’re background is. And that’s something that as a social worker, it sounds harsh to say, but I don’t have the time to find out and its rich material for this child but when I’m dealing with a certain aspect of that child’s life and the legal processes that can get missed and it’s horrible and I wish it didn’t get missed but it does and that’s where I’ve also found that the family group meetings have really came into their own certainly for some of the families that I have worked with. So, even though we’re not placing that child there, this child may be placed for adoption, but the child is going ot go with their rich history that they might not have had.

HR We had a lovely example of, you know a wee baby that was going to family over in Ireland and that had been part of a family plan, a family meeting but what gran was able to do, so gran was in Edinburgh and she didn’t keep good health and there was concerns about how long she would be around but her being able to record, and I was with her, to record a wee song, an Irish lullaby to send to the baby. The baby would always have that, she didn’t see her gran again but she would always have that. And that’s some of the things that we have the opportunity to explore with families where, yeah, baby might not be going home, or might be going home but that richness in their history about who they came from, who was in their family, their family stories that we talk about that we take for granted sometimes you know when we live in families where we’re altogether and we’ve always been together that we can have that information so a family meeting can do lots of different things, it’s not yeah, in some instances it’s about finding kinship options for families but sometimes it’s about that family just getting opportunity to come together to talk about, well what can we offer, what can we do as a family? And what can’t we do? So, for those children who can’t be placed with family, they have on record that their family met and they considered it and we spoke about it and with regret they couldn’t do what was needed to do for that child. And there’s a whole range like Mary is saying, for the families who need some practical support with shopping or cooking, or somebody going round to clean the house or taking the child out for few hours or overnight so it’s a huge range because social work assessment comes to teams for a variety of things so it’s about looking at from that early intervention to that, the most intervention.

MD I think it’s lovely, all of those connections that are made in there and that sort of richness around family. And we talked in quite some detail about some of the benefits of bringing the extended family or network together, are there complexities in there as well?

NH Absolutely.

HR Oh yes. You’re working with families where relationships are complex and they’re difficult and they’re broken and there’s a whole kind of gambit of reasons why family meetings are difficult and it’s usually about relationships, it’s usually about communication about people that have fallen out over the years or information … sometimes parents don’t want their family to know really personal information about them and what we do is we take that really gently we hope and keep the focus on what’s in the best interest for the child, what’s in the best interest to the baby.

NH Same as what Heather said is family dynamics can just be very difficult and I work pre-birth so there is a lot of history there, there’s usually issues with substances so there can be a lot of damage that’s been done to the families over the years. You’re also getting, when it’s a pre-birth case conference or a pre-birth family group meeting, you’re quite often bringing 2 families together that have never met, so there’s not established relationships there so, it’s almost like, well it’s your daughters fault, it’s your sons fault so, that can be … almost you can see them sitting over the opposite sides of the table at the very beginning of the meeting thinking, okay right, and judging each other and judging each other but usually by the end of it actually it’s amazing just how they can be so open with each other because you don’t want to sit in a room with another family that you don’t really know. Very often they’ve never met each other, do you know until this stage. In fact, I’ve rarely worked with families that have known each other before the family group meeting, I have worked with one and they just refused to be in the same room as each other. But again, that was worked out, there was still a family support plan put in place but there was 2 family meetings because the family just couldn’t put their differences aside and that’s fine but there was still a robust plan actually put in place so, yeah it’s a relationship so they can be great for families but there’s a lot of history there as well.

HR And that’s where something like just subtle diplomacy or mediation is quite helpful when you’re going back and forward. Also, the bit in the family meeting where there’s private family time, is really powerful for people coming together so you might leave the room as professionals and people are kind of sitting at you know, opposite sides of the room and when you come back, they’re having coffees together. And we don’t know often what’s been discussed in private family time but people tend to come together when it’s about the child.

MD Mary, can I just ask you a little bit more about the coordinator role then? Does the coordinator need to be independent?

MM Yeah, I mean certainly in the research that I’ve done in the literature. The independence of the coordinator in family group decision making is quite crucial. You can hear from what we’ve talked about, it’s a highly skilled role actually, it’s not somebody who just comes in and chats to people. They’re doing mediation, they’re doing restorative practice, they’re assessing how family members might get together and working on a process of trying to move towards this meeting and so the independence of that coordinator is quite crucial so that they’re not seen as being part of social work or they’re not seen as being part of an element of a family or coming from a certain part of the family and so they’re independence of being able to go and see lots of different people and lots of different agencies to talk through from what that person’s perspective is and then bringing that and facilitating a meeting that will allow those different perspectives to be heard for the first time in quite different ways I think is quite crucial. Certainly in the research that I did that independence was seen, they’re not operating as a social worker, they’re not operating to assess the family and they’re not seeing social work reports in fact, they go to a family and not have actually seen any of that material before so it’s really the family giving them information from their perspective and similarly going to social work or health or education and trying to work out how those different agencies are working together to support the family. I think also what happens within the process is this sort of thing that happens at the independence of that coordinator means that the family see social work and the other agencies difference and the agency see the family in a way, they get different information. So, there’s this dynamic that’s created by through the facilitation of an independent coordinator of that process.

MD Which is helpful on the (… unclear)

MM Yeah.

HR No, I was just going to echo some of what Mary was saying about how families see you and that role and although you’re a social worker and they know that you’re a social worker, the relationship is different because you’re going, you don’t hold that power, you don’t hold the decision-making power and I think that’s really important for families is that they’re seeing you as somebody that can almost bridge that gap and break down the barriers a bit between family and social work.

MM You know they’re the kind of the independence of the coordinator really supports the equality or the balancing of that power so for social workers often they take a step back and see family in a different way. And family are able to step forward in lots of ways rather than feeling threatened or shamed or judged. There’s something that happens within the process that allows them to be that balance of power dynamic between the state and the family and the independence of the coordinator is quite crucial to that. I think also one of the things that social workers said is that it doesn’t … the role of the independent coordinator and the process of family group conferencing doesn’t threaten their role because they still are in a statutory role and they have a position that they need to take and actions that they need to take but it allows them to be heard in a different way and to see the family dynamic differently or the same. You know, it will help with risk management, quite considerably, and I think that’s quite crucial and that is aided by the independence of the coordinator.

MD So, Scotland then is moving forward with the promise, how does family group decision making then keep this promise?

NH We were chatting about this earlier, weren’t we?

HR This is something that we talk a lot about in our team and it’s certainly something that’s really live just now in terms of Scotland’s promise and on the back of the independent care review, for us and family group decision making, we feel that you know, our service lends itself really well to the work around the promise so, that bit about widening the circle, bringing the family together, people having that equality and decision making and having their voices heard and looking at support being in a way that they need it at the time that they need it and in the way that they need it. So, families having a voice through family group decision making is really important in making sure that the support that the child is getting is right, that its not about being resource led, that it is more about being needs led. At the beginning of our journey, talking about the promise and how we deliver that but in terms of we’re working in a very restorative family focused way.

MM I suppose one of the messages for me that comes through the promise is that families and children should be recognised and involved in the process of decision making and not ignored and I think part of what … however difficult the decisions are that are being made and I think one of the things that really strikes me but when I was doing the research for family group conferencing is that families were seen, they were recognised, the process really allowed them to come into the decision making process in a real way. Sometimes that’s very difficult, I’m not saying it’s the panacea to everything but it really struck me of the stories that families told about their experience of feeling supported, feeling heard, feeling involved if it hadn’t been for that decision making process, we wouldn’t have our children now, is really crucial. Those things are really hard to pin down in (… unclear) you know, it is about relationship-based factors, it’s about listening but there is I think a real balancing of recognising that family members really need to be involved in decision making processes and this is a process that can help make that happen.

HR And that the child is very much part of the process as well that the child will be very much part of their own family meeting if they want to be, that their views aren’t just recorded and taken note of. That they’re really heard and they’re really discussed at the family meeting and from things like a child deciding where the family meeting’s going to be, what they’re going to eat at their family meeting, then the focus really is about bringing people together and part of that as families we eat and drink together so it’s important for the child to be involved in that for the child to be part of thinking of questions for their family. Who do they want to be involved, who do they want to advocate for them if it’s appropriate and if they feel unable to talk for themselves or they get upset, so they’re really at the centre of the family meeting.

NH Can I add to that as well about keeping the child at the centre? I think the child can very often get lost at case conferences and at children’s hearings and at looked after reviews. I write reports on a daily basis for these forums, there’s a very small part in that report that is about the child. It’s about the parents, it’s about the parent’s history, its about health needs, it’s about drug issues, it’s about the wider circle, it’s about universal services, actually when you go back and look at it and if you done a search, there’s very, very little about the child, very little about the child. And I write these reports daily but when you go to a family group meeting it is all about the child. We’re not discussing what ml of methadone you’re using or what your housing issues are, not really. But it’s all about what are we doing for this child, how are we supporting you with this child? Whereas a lot of the other meetings, they’re ultimately about the child but a very small part of the meeting is actually about the child.

MD And can I just ask around family group decision making? Does it apply then to other parts of social work? So, you’re supporting children really, it’s around child protection and welfare so can it be used and applied to other parts of support?

HR Yeah, absolutely. So, Edinburgh were involved in a project with health and social care and that was really, really successful. Unfortunately, it’s not been able to continue but that was really successful and often that’s looking at adults who need additional support so, whether that be around their discharge from hospital or adults with addiction, people coming out of prison, it can really transfer into a lot of situations where people need support so it’s not just about children, it’s a person-centred meeting so absolutely. And one of the key areas that we’re really interested in, family group decision making is working with men. How men are recognised in social work processes and within meetings particularly in child welfare and protection, we tend to work a lot with women and its women that we have at meetings and at case conferences and actually a lot of the time men are quite missing from that so, we are really keen to be developing some work around that. One of those areas are young dads, who are often seen as being risky or dangerous that we’re looking to see how we can bring them into a family meeting because they’re the child’s father, they’re going to be their father for throughout the child’s life. Whether they’re present or not so it’s about how can we work in a way that brings them in right from the start. Mary probably knows a wee bit more about different areas that are offering different services across the …

MM Yes, I was going to say that internationally it operates in slightly different ways. You could have, they can work in juvenile justice or criminal justice mediation issues before or at points of crime, and bringing people who have in a restorative way but also in the Netherlands what happens is that it’s a right for … it’s in legislated that it’s a right for anybody whose involved with the state, might be involved with a decision that they have a right to have a family meeting before that. So, actually if you were about to be evicted from your house, you’ve got a right to call a family meeting to think about ways that might support from not being evicted from your house before you actually are. So, there’s kind of different processes in different countries and jurisdictions really. I mean, I suppose our focus is on child protection but there’s obviously adult services as well and across Scotland they’re kind of coming in with family group decision making at various different points so, there could be an earlier prevention process as opposed to just before a child might be accommodated.

MD I’d just like to thank you all for coming together to have this really fascinating discussion about this topic and I think there’s going to be loads of really interesting learning and reflection for practitioners and people who are just interested in this topic in the sector so, thank you all very much.

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