Family Group Conference:
A Method to Strengthen Client’s Influence and Self-Reliance?
Stavanger University College
School of Health and Social Work Education
Social Work and Social Policies
Inter University Centre, Dubrovnik.
Family Group Conference is a method for decision-making within the welfare services, developed in New Zealand during the 1980s. Since then, many countries have introduced Family Group Conference, or variants of the concept, into child welfare and protection services, youth justice services, schools, services that address family violence, victim services, and the resolution of conflicts between adults. Legislative mandates for Family Group Conference exist in New Zealand, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, and the Republic of Ireland.
In other countries, the method is being introduced as best practice initiatives. In this context, I can mention United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Israel, Canada, several states in the US and all the Scandinavian Countries. In the UK the organisation “Family Right Group”, consisting of relatives of children in state care, took the initiative and the responsibility to implement Family Group Conference in 1993. (Marsh & Crow 1998). In Sweden Family Group Conference was introduced in 1995, as best practice initiatives in 10 municipalities. The project was financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and lasted for 2 years (Lilja 1997). The project has been properly evaluated and the results are published (Sundell & Häggman 1999, Andersson & Bjerkman 1999).
Regular roundtables are held throughout the world whereby best practice initiatives for Family Group Conferences are explored. There is a growing body of literature and positive research evidence that this approach to child and family issues is no worse and in many respects distinctly better, than conventional professional practice (Crow & Marsh 1997).
Family Group Conference was introduced in Norway in 1994. Over the years, there have been several initiatives to implement the method as best practice. In 1998/2001, The Ministry of Children and Family Affairs financed two projects to test the method within the Child Welfare Services: 18 municipalities were involved in these projects and a total of 65 Family Group Conferences were organised. Proper studies from a selection of these cases are published on a national base (Einarsson 2002, Løfsnes 2002). However, the knowledge gained from experience and evaluation studies is still considered limited. The Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs therefore adopted a National Plan of Action in 2003, to implement, test and evaluate Family Group Conference within the Child Welfare Services (Einarsson & Nordahl 2003).
The national project consists of three main elements:
- Training of social workers and coordinators
- Organising Family Group Conferences
- Evaluation and Research
The project is conducted by The Norwegian Social Research in Oslo (in the Norwegian the acronym is NOVA). University colleges are responsible for training social workers and coordinators. Evaluation and research are accomplished by Regional Child Protection research units.
In this article I want to introduce Family Group Conference, with particular focus on historical and ideological background, method characteristics and working process. The question of clients’ influence and self-reliance will be illuminated with reference to studies on families’ experiences after they have been involved in a Family Group Conference. The presentation will mainly be based on Norwegian, Swedish and English source material.
Historical background – The New Zealand Approach
As initially mentioned Family Group Conference as an approach to social problems was developed and implemented in New Zealand during the 1980s, as a method within the Child Welfare Services.
The background was the acknowledgement that there was a crying disparity between the number of the indigenous population, the Maoris, in the population and the number of care orders for Maori children: 2/3 of the children in residential or foster care had a Maori background, while the Maori people represented only 1/3 of the total population in New Zealand. A nationwide study also showed that there was a huge and growing dissatisfaction among the Maori people related to the governmental social policy, system and services.
The main complaints were (Atkin 1990, Marsh & Allen 1993, Maxwell & Morris 1992):
- That their children lost their cultural roots and were not well fostered, but placed in white families or institutions with white staff.
- That their own cultural background and traditional ways to solve problems in the family were not valued or taken into consideration, and that the English problem-solving methods were not fit to meet with their family problems.
The Maori people had a long tradition of using the extended family as consultants and active participants in problem solving and claimed that this should be given some kind of official status.
The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989, which introduced the process known as Family Group Conference, created a model for child welfare practice based on the concept of partnership between the state and family groups, bringing community support into that partnership.
In developing the new law, and in response to the Maori people in particular, New Zealand sought a new method of decision-making that would put families in the centre of activity. The method had to be flexible and capable of cultural adaptation. It had to be established in such a way that the other legal processes respected its place and supported the powerful positioning of the extended family in child welfare and youth offending decision-making. While the process was to be the primary method of achieving maximum diversion from involvement with courts in both civil and criminal jurisdiction, it sought to eschew any approach based around community panels or other form of layperson involvement in determining what would happen with children in the notice of the system (Atkin 1990, Dolan 2002).
The framework seeks to:
- Institute effective care and protection practices by working with families.
- Keep young persons who offend in their communities.
- Increase and improve community and Maori participation in the delivery of services by working with communities and traditional tribal structures.
- Provide culturally appropriate services.
- Reduce the number of children in state care.
- Reduce involvement of children, young persons and their families with courts.
- Involve victims of offending in key processes.
- Separate the jurisdictions for Youth Justice and Care and Protection.
The 1989 Act emphasises that court proceedings, civil or criminal, are a last resort, and encourages community-based solutions, whereby families, extended families, sub-tribes, tribes and family groups takes prime responsibility in decisions about their own children. Neither civil or criminal court are able to make a decision on the disposition of a case unless a Family Group Conference has been held, and has either not resolved the matter or has decided to involve the court (Atkin 1990, Dolan 2002).
The central role of Family Group Conference
The concept of the Family Group Conference, based on indigenous problem-solving methods, emerged from the policy debates on how to achieve these imperatives. The Family Group Conference has a central role in New Zealand’s child welfare law. There are some general points about the concept (Dolan 2002, Maxwell & Morris 1992) :
- It is a legal construct and, as such, is concerned with obligations and entitlements that are legally enforceable.
- It recognises the right of families to be involved in decisions about their children when the State has cause to intervene.
- It is respectful of families having problems – it recognises the primarity and dignity of the family, and that “family” is more than a single household.
- It promotes resolutions that are creative and imaginative.
- It brings together the formal state and professional system, and the informal family and community system, both of which have essential knowledge and skills to bring to bear in seeking the best outcomes for a child.
- It recognises that, given power, good information and the resources appropriate to the situation, families will protect vulnerable children as well and probably better than the State can.
Family Group Conference: characteristics and working process
A Family Group Conference is a meeting which is prepared, directed and accomplished according to a certain structure, process and goal. The goal for the Conference is to formulate a plan according to a certain task or question given for discussion at the meeting. The method aims to turn the traditional decision-making process on its head. Rather than the family members attending a meeting dominated by the presence and agenda of professionals, the Family Group Conference is predominantly a meeting of the family group. Professionals attend, but their task is to give relevant information, report on their assessment of the problem, and to indicate any resources and support available, i.e. provide relevant information for the family to reach its decision, not to present their plan and seek family compliance (Lupton, 1998).
Four key characteristics are identified as essential preconditions of a Family Group Conference (Lupton, 1998):
- A co-ordinator, independent of the social service department and the family to prepare and organise the Conference.
- The term “family” is interpreted widely, and includes family, friends and other significant people: the extended family (that is willing to be involved).
- The family always has the opportunity to plan in private: A private family meeting.
- The family’s plan is agreed by the professionals unless, and only unless, the plan places the child at risk of significant harm.
The participants in the Family Group Conference are:
- The immediate and the extended family.
- The social worker that is responsible for” the case”.
- The coordinator.
- Other professionals nominated by the family or the social services to attend.
A Family Group Conference is based on a written agreement between the immediate family, the social worker and the coordinator. In this agreement the family give their consent to organise a Family Group Conference, which includes:
- To agree about the questions to be discussed at the Conference.
- To give their consent that necessary information is provided to the Conference.
- To accept a coordinator to conduct the process.
- To give their consent that the extended family and other professionals may be involved.
The coordinator, through her/his signature, accepts to organise the Conference and make sure that there is a common understanding of the questions to be discussed and decided upon.
The working process consists of three phases:
- Planning the Conference.
- The meeting/conference.
- Following-up the family’s plan.
In Child Welfare cases, the child/children/adolescents are included in the whole process. A person from the extended family will be appointed to support or speak for the child during the whole process.
Planning of the Conference
The vital task in this phase is to decide about practical arrangements concerning the Conference (where and when), who is going to be invited, and to prepare all participants for the meeting. The most active parties in this process are the coordinator and the immediate family. The coordinator will map out the family’s network to get a picture of current participants and then, together with the immediate family, discuss and decide whom to invite to the Conference. In my experience, most often the coordinator and the family reach an agreement on this, but if a disagreement occurs, the family has the final decision.
The coordinator meets with everybody that the family wants to invite from the extended family, to formally invite them to the Conference, to inform about Family Group Conferences in general, to motivate them to accept the invitation, and to prepare them for the meeting.
The social worker’s task in the planning period is to invite and prepare other professionals nominated by the family or the social services. This might, for instance, be the family doctor, a teacher in school or kindergarten, etc. Professionals who are involved in the family and will contribute with information that is important for the Conference to make a good decision.
The Conference takes place on “neutral ground” and is practically arranged according to the immediate family’s wishes (time, refreshments, etc.) The coordinator has the role of a hostess/host and is responsible for seeing that everybody is welcomed and to make the invited feel as comfortable as possible.
The Conference consists of three parts:
- Information giving.
Professionals provide relevant information about the case and share their initial assessments with the extended family.
- Private family time.
The officials and the coordinator withdraw, and the family is left to work through the information they have been given and to formulate a plan.
- The full Conference reconvenes.
To hear from the family about their plan and to negotiate the sorts of support, resources and monitoring that may be required, including how and when the plan will be reviewed.
The coordinator chairs the first and the third part of the meeting.
Everybody involved attends this part of the Conference. A Family Group Conference always starts with a kind of opening ceremony, where everybody introduces themselves in relation to the main person(s), in my material, the child/adolescent (“My name is Catharine, I’m Paul’s aunt, the sister of his mother”). The idea behind this is to remind everybody why he or she is invited and to keep the focus on the child, and also to secure that everybody is properly introduced.
The coordinator will then review why the Conference is convened and read the questions for the meeting to discuss and decide about. She/he will also remind participants about Conference rules:
- To be focused on the current task, present situation and the future.
- To let everybody say what they have to say without interruption.
- Unanimous approval of the plan.
- To keep confidentiality about the Conference issues.
The floor is then given to the social worker to share his/her information and initial assessments, and then to the other professionals. The family members may ask questions to elaborate or clarify the information, but no discussion is permitted in this part of the meeting.
Timing: approximately 40 minutes.
Private Family Time
In this part of the Conference, the extended family is supposed to work through the information they have been given and to formulate a plan of action that everybody agrees on. No officials are present, but they will be accessible if the family needs them for clarifying questions or advices on how to proceed. The extended family will work together for as long as necessary. The result will either be that they formulate a plan or that they decide that they cannot agree on a plan and have to hand the matter over to the authorities.
Timing: Average 2 hours. Variation 0.5 – 5 hours.
The full Conference reconvenes
When the family has agreed about a plan (or agreed that they cannot agree on a plan) the full Conference reconvenes to hear from the family about their plan and to negotiate the sorts of support, resources and monitoring that may be required, including how and when the plan will be reviewed. The aim is to formulate a plan that everybody present can sign.
As previously mentioned, the family’s plan is agreed by the professionals unless, and only unless, the plan places the child at risk of significant harm.
Timing: approximately 50 minutes.
Following-up on the family’s plan
How to follow up the family’s plan is formulated in the plan itself, and may differ from family to family. Usually some kind of regular meetings between the social worker and the immediate family are contracted. It is also usual to make an appointment to reconvene the Family Group Conference after a certain period (for instance, 3 – 6 months) to evaluate and review the plan.
Family Group Conferences – Client’s Influence and Self-reliance
Theoretically and ideologically, Family Group Conference is based on political theory of democracy and an empowerment – and strengthens perspective in social work, where focus on users, resources and involvement is vital. The idea of “partnership” between families and professionals is outstanding. Family members are to be given a central role in decisions being made about their children, shifting the balance of power between them and the professionals. This is particularly for the countries that have established a legislative mandate for Family Group Conference (Horverak et al. 2002, Lupton 1998, Løfsnes 2002).
Several elements implicit in the method contribute to this:
- Using an independent coordinator to convene and conduct the Conference seeks to establish the family and the professionals as equal parties in the decision making process.
- Emphasis on preparing family members for the Conference seeks to strengthen their competence and capability to influence decisions.
- The private family time gives the family the opportunity to make plans sensitive to and reflective of their culture and to discuss openly without fear of information being used against them if, for instance, the case goes to the court.
- Organising the Conference on neutral ground also seeks to contribute to the balance of power between the family and the professionals (none of the parties play on their home ground).
Empowerment and self-reliance are closely related terms. They are both highly contested concepts, vested with a range of very different and possibly competing meanings and expectations. By definition, empowerment must be seen to involve the acquisition of power on the part of those who are relatively powerless (Lupton 1998). Starrin (1997) claims that empowerment contains both psychological and political dimensions and may be understood both as a process and a goal. In both dimensions the development of self-confidence, self- reliance, and influence on vital decisions and quality of life are central elements.
Zahl and Eriksson (2003:6) claim that the idea of self-reliance in social work can be traced as far back as 1922 and Mary Richmond ”What is Social Case Work?”, where “...emphasis is placed on the policy of clients participating in making plans for their own welfare and to promote their wants, giving room for wants and self-directed activity”. The similarity between the ideology behind this and the ideology behind Family Group Conference is outstanding. Both approaches are explicitly based on the believe that what people decide and do for themselves counts more towards permanent well-being and positive change than what other decide and do for them. When we look at the idea of self-reliance in modern times, we most likely will find it presented in the term empowerment (ibid: 13).
Previous studies on Family Group Conference in the UK, Sweden and Norway have a short-time perspective and are mainly based on interviews with family members and social workers shortly after their participation in a Conference. The focus for research is mostly related to experience and evaluation of the method, i.e. the psychological empowerment dimensions. Knowledge about the long-term effects and political empowerment dimensions are therefore limited (Andersson and Bjerkman 1999, Jackson and Morris 1999, Lupton 1998, Løfsnes 2002).
International studies give the impression that most families report that organising a Family Group Conference has been a positive experience. Families feel that they have control of the process and influence on problem definition and resolving. They also report that the resolutions are more creative, imaginative and sensitive to their culture. Further, in advance, most families were sceptical about sharing their problems with the extended family, though in hindsight they expressed relief that the problems had been aired openly.
Eventhough Family Group Conference does not have therapeutic goals, my personal experience is that this method has a great potential to create changes. Once the extended family is invited to the Conference and has met with the coordinator, something happens to the relationships and the communication in the family. It seems that this gives a permission to speak openly about something that many have been concerned about, but not allowed to show that they care about. The Family Group Conference seems to release resources and caring potential in the family network, and also relief the immediate family’s ability to utilize this potential.
Both the previous mentioned studies and knowledge based on experience clearly support that Family Group Conference gives a positive contribution in the psychological understanding of the term self-reliance. When it comes to more practical understanding, to be independent of state support, there also seems to be a positive effect in the short term but, as mentioned above, we do not have long-term data. However, one interesting finding, is that while most social workers earlier were very concerned that the families would ask for unrealistic service support the plans of action show that most families asked for less support than the social workers were prepared to give (Løfsnes 2002).
In short, the most important outcomes of Family Group Conferences as best practice initiatives can be summarized as follows (Andersson and Bjerkman 1999, Einarsson 2002, Jackson and Morris 1999, Lupton 1998, Løfsnes 2002):
- The families themselves feel more seriously involved.
- They are allowed to take responsibility.
- They have influence in important decisions in their own lives.
- They feel more respected.
- They feel that resources in the network are more available.
- Both the immediate families involved and the professionals reports that the Conference has had a positive effect on their relationship.
This feedback indicates that Family Group Conference has an empowering effect and might represent one method to strengthen clients’ self-reliance.
As previously mentioned, the child/adolescent is to be involved in all three phases of the Family Group Conference: the planning, the meeting and the following up. This raises important questions concerning, on the one hand, the child’s right to protection, and on the other hand the child’s right to be involved. The child’s role and situation in family group conferencing is now to become a central focus in studies related to this method, especially in the Nordic Countries.
A Finnish study (Erkers & Nyberg, 2001) finds that in most cases the extended family is seriously concerned about the child’s situation, even before they are invited to a Family Group Conference. They also find that there is a clear significance between involvement of and focus on the child during the process and with regards the benefit from the Conference. Even so, to keep focus on the child throughout the process is one of the main challenges in this way of working and demands a certain consciousness and certain measures. The study considers the following measures to be of great importance:
- To secure that the questions given for the Conference to discuss and decide about are focused on the child’s situation and needs.
- The information from professionalizes to be focused on the child’s situation and needs.
- Mapping of family network and invitations of extended family members according to the child’s perspective.
- To always appoint a person from the extended family to support or speak for the child during the whole process.
- To emphasise the child’s involvement and participation.
- The coordinator has to keep focus on the child in her/his work.
Andersson and Bjerkman (1999) find that about 50% of the Family Group Conferences in their material was successful according to, 1) a significant improvement in the child’s situation, and 2) that the Conference represented a positive event for the child. These Conferences are described as embracing Family Group Conferences and are characterized by some important common elements:
- The four key characteristics are respected.
- Distinct child perspective.
- Child participation in the process (planning, meeting, following up).
- The child feels protection and care from somebody in the extended family.
According to this study, these are important success factors when Family Group Conference is used within the Child Welfare Services.
The remaining 50%, the unsuccessful Conferences are described as reserved Family Group Conferences and the following common elements are found to be:
- The four key characteristics are not fully respected.
- Main focus on adults’ problems.
- Persons important for the child are excluded from the Conference due to conflicts between the adults.
- Weak (only partly or non) child participation in the process.
Horverak (2003) has interviewed 20 children/adolescents in Denmark and Norway about their experiences from participating in a Family Group Conference concerning their own situation. According to this study, the involved children can be categorised in four groups:
- The hurt (5).
- The disappointed (5).
- The satisfied (3).
- The extremely satisfied (7).
Except from the hurt all adolescents initially wanted the Conference to lead to a change in their situation. The study supports the results from the above-mentioned Finnish study, that there is a clear significance between the child’s involvement in the process and degree of satisfaction. One interesting finding is that when it comes to the Conference result, the plan of action, both the hurt and the extremely satisfied are very similar in their evaluation. The group that clearly evaluates the Family Group Conference as a bad experience regarding both process and benefit are the disappointed. These are the children that hoped for a change, but found that nothing happened after the meeting.
A doctoral study in Norway about the child’s perspective and involvement is due to be published in late 2004 (Embla no. 6/03,16-17). This study aims to focus on the dilemma between the child’s rights to protection versus involvement, and covers a considerable number of Family Group Conferences.
Generally speaking, one might say that the Nordic studies on family group conferencing seem to support the international body of literature and positive research evidence stating that this approach to child and family issues is no worse, and in many respects distinctly better, than conventional professional practice.
This article has intended to draw the line between Family Group Conference, empowerment and self-reliance. The historical and ideological background for the method has been presented as well as the method itself. The connection between empowerment and self-reliance has been explored and also the specific elements in family group conferencing that intends to empower people. The referred studies support the idea that Family Group Conference, given certain conditions concerning the key characteristics and the child’s perspective, really could be a method to strengthen the client’s influence and self-reliance.
Empowerment and self-reliance are generally looked upon as something good and desirable in social work. However, as social workers, it is important always to be aware that our profession relates to political conditions and that using these terms may also be a double-edged sword (Starrin 1997). To implement Family Group Conference as a method within the child welfare services might be a contribution to clients’ involvement and self-reliance, presupposing necessary family support. On the other, hand the method could also be used politically to transform responsibility and costs from the state to the private parties, and as such contribute to the dismantling of the welfare state.
In respect to these issues, I therefore want to end this article by quoting a paragraph in Carol Lupton’s critical article (1998), “User Empowerment or Family Self-Reliance? The Family Group Conference Model”:
Ideas or initiatives that claim empowerment as a central objective therefore require careful scrutiny to assess the particular combination of rights and responsibilities by which they are underpinned. As we have seen, the FGC model is being promoted explicitly as a vehicle for empowering families. It is also, however, both in the UK and in New Zealand, underpinned by a legislative framework which posits a more residual role for the state and a greater degree of self-responsibility for individuals and families. It is of relevance that the FGC model has been developed in a society that has radically reduced its welfare state, and its arrival in the UK occurs at a time when the provision of public welfare services continues to be subject of keen political scrutiny. In this context, it is clear that the interest in the FGC model may be driven by a number of, possibly conflicting, political and ideological objectives, including both a recognition of the rights of families to have a greater say in decisions about their children and a concern to reduce the extent of these families’ reliance on state support.
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