SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
Family Group Conferences (FGCs) are increasingly being used to make plans for vulnerable children.
The Public Law Outline requires that a record of key discussions with the family (which could include a family plan arising out of a FGC) is filed by the local authority when proceedings are issued as part of the pre-proceedings checklist and that active case management includes encouraging the parties to use an alternative dispute resolution procedure where appropriate during the proceedings, which is likely to include the use of FGCs.
Although there is no legal requirement to use FGCs in England and Wales, they are now being offered to families in the majority of local authorities on a range of child welfare issues including:
- Safeguarding children likely to suffer harm;
- Permanence planning when a child cannot live at home or leaves care;
- Contact arrangements;
- Youth offending, anti-social behaviour and truanting;
- Early help for families.
This chapter was added to the manual in May 2019.
- What is a Family Group Conference?
- Referrals to the Family Group Conference Service
- The Referral Procedure
- The Family Group Conference Co-ordinator
- How does a Family Group Conference Plan Integrate with Child Protection Planning?
- Stages of the Family Group Conference
- Implementation of the Plan
- Review of the Plan
- Ending of Involvement
- Recording and Information Sharing
1. What is a Family Group Conference?
A Family Group Conference (FGC) is a decision making meeting in which a child's wider family network come together to make a plan about the future arrangements for the child. The plan will ensure that (s)he is safe and his/her wellbeing is promoted.
FGCs are intended as a respectful and empowering process in which parents, children and members of the wider family (Connected Persons) are given clear information about the agency's concerns and are asked to produce a plan that addresses those concerns and answers specific queries.
The expectation is that the family's plan will be agreed by the referring agency provided it adequately addresses the concerns which the agency has identified and is safe for the child.Every family is unique and has its own community values, culture, personalities, dynamics and history. An FGC uses the family's own skills, strengths and personal knowledge to resolve difficulties. Using the family's own expertise and ensuring their involvement in the FGC process can help to redress the power imbalances that are experienced by children/young people and their families. A major strength of the FGC is that the child or young person normally participates in the meeting and can therefore have a major influence on the plans that are made for him/her.
2. Referrals to the Family Group Conference Service
Referral for a Family Group Conference will require:
- Someone with Parental Responsibility must agree to the referral and to the sharing of information. Parental responsibility could be held by the birth parents or the local authority (under a court order). The views of a competent child will need to be considered;
- The existence of a network of Connected Persons. (This may include relatives, significant family, friends or community members). The network may not be immediately apparent and this should not prevent a referral being made even if immediate carers consider there to be no family;
- The need for a decision or a plan to be made to address specific concerns identified;
- The commitment of the family to find a solution to the concerns identified.
Referral for a FGC can come from either the child's social worker for children who are already part of a social worker caseload or from the Early Help Service at the point of a crisis or chronic situation developing that could ultimately result in a referral being made to MASH.
Situations where a referral for a FGC should be considered include the following
- Where PLO is being considered and children may be at risk of becoming Looked After.
- When referring to Care Management and Resource Panel, (CMRP) for resources that could potentially be explored and / or be met by the family or their network. For example, placements, respite, support packages, legal orders, PLO;
- By notice, where Care Proceedings are being initiated in non acute situations, a FGC must be automatically explored with the family and discussed at any pre proceedings meetings (Pre PLO);
- Where there is any request for accommodation, including S20, short term or longer term situations;
- Where there is a negative outcome following a pre birth assessment;
- Where there is an application for the discharge of a Care Order to bring a child home (reunification);
- Where revocation of a care order is being sought and a robust plan is required to be put before the Court;
- Where there are sufficient concerns to transfer a family to a statutory social work team from the Early Help Service.
FGC's can be offered to a family on more than one occasion and there is no restriction on the status or type of case, whether it can be classed as Family Support, Child Protection, Care Proceedings or other Children Looked After. Particular attention should be given in care proceedings that consideration of an FGC is revisited at any pertinent point.
However, there are some situations where A FGC is contra-indicated. These include:
- Where a family has a history of intergenerational Sexual Abuse;
- Where there is an on-going Section 47 Child Protection Enquiry;
- Where there is high risk of violence at the conference.
Each case would need to be discussed on its merits and through consultation with the relevant SW or Early Help team manager, Service manager and the FGC manager.
Referral for an FGC does not mean that an FGC will take place if it is agreed that it would not be appropriate following discussion between the referrer and the FGC team manager. A referral would not proceed if the family refused consent to share information that is relevant to safeguard the child/ren /young person.
3. The Referral Procedure
Initial discussions are held between the referrer, their SW or Early Help team manager, the service Manager as required and the FGC manager to ensure the appropriateness of the referral.
The referrer must discuss the referral with the child's carer(s) who hold Parental Responsibility. Verbal consent to the referral and the sharing of basic information must be obtained to proceed and recorded on the child s case file. The carer should be provided with a copy of the information leaflet explaining Family Group Conferences.
If proceedings have been issued, the referring agency must inform the child's guardian that they are making the referral to the FGC service. The FGC co-ordinator must also contact the child's guardian so that they are aware that the FGC is taking place and has accurate information about what a FGC is.
The FGC team manager or a FGC co-ordinator will arrange to discuss with the referrer (and their team manager where possible) the referral in detail and explore the referral form. This meeting will clarify the issues to be addressed, e.g. specific areas of concern, issues of race /language/ disability, how introductions of the co-ordinator to the family will be made, the means of on-going communication throughout the FGC process, clarification of roles and responsibilities, how the plan will be validated. This discussion will also identify the details of any "bottom line". The referral does not need to include detailed background information.
The FGC manager will need to ensure:
- That there is a plan or decision to be made at this time and the referring agency is willing for the family to come together to do this;
- That the referring agency is committed to the FGC process and that a member of staff is allocated to work with the case and attend and input at the meeting. To maintain momentum the member of staff must be able to stay for the whole of the conference to approve the plan.
It is important that both the professionals and the family are clear about the purpose of the conference and what they are hoping to achieve from it.The referral will then be allocated to a co-ordinator who then begins to facilitate the FGC.
4. The Family Group Conference Co-ordinator
FGC services will always be co-ordinated independently from the service or team which has concerns about the child's safety and wellbeing. The Co-ordinator is neutral i.e. that they have no case holding, statutory or decision making responsibilities in relation to the child. The co-ordinator should not have had any previous involvement with the family or represent the views of any agency working with the family nor would they attend other meetings connected with the child so as not to compromise their independence.
The role of the independent co-ordinator is vital in negotiating attendance at a FGC and in informing all participants about the process involved. This role is separate from other professionals' involvement with the family.
This will mean preparatory visits to family members, children and professionals. Written consent to hold the FGC will be obtained by the co-ordinator with the person with parental responsibility and the young person sufficiently capable of providing consent. No contact with any other family members can occur until this consent has been obtained.
Ensuring the attendance of Connected Persons is crucial to the success of the conference. This may mean that family members may have to travel some distance and in special circumstances from abroad. Other items for consideration are the choice of the venue, the availability of interpreters, child care etc.
The co-ordinator organises the meeting in conjunction with the child/young person and those with parental responsibility and/or immediate carers, identifying who is in the family network for the child, including close friends. Discussion will take place with the family about who needs to be present. Guardians are not automatically invited to the FGC as the invitation list is decided by the family.
The co-ordinator discusses with the child/young person how they may be enabled to participate in the conference and whether they would like a supporter or advocate in the meeting. The child/ young person must be enabled to participate fully within the process and it is the co-ordinator's role to find flexible and imaginative ways of achieving this.
Unless there is a good reason not to, the co-ordinator must visit everyone in person to help to prepare them for the meeting, discuss worries or concerns, including how the meeting will be conducted and encourage them to attend. If the co-ordinator feels that it would be inappropriate for a particular family member to attend, then a decision can be taken to exclude them from the FGC.
This will be an exception and if exclusion was to take place it would be based on the child's best interests. Examples could include: a person being a risk to Children offender, (previously known as Schedule 1 offender), risk of harm to the child/ young person attending, a history of domestic violence and a severe power imbalance in the family such that the victims would be too intimidated if the perpetrator was present.
Should this be the case, their input to the meetings must be achieved in alternative ways, for example through letters or tape recordings. The grounds for exclusion must be clear and must be put in writing to the particular family member. The decision to exclude a family member rests with the co-ordinator and may occur immediately prior to the conference if someone is deemed unfit to attend e.g. due to alcohol or drug use.
The co-ordinator liaises with the referrer and other relevant agencies to ensure family members have appropriate information about:
- The child welfare and/or protection issues which need to be considered at the FGC. This includes identifying any "bottom line" about what is and what is not acceptable in terms of a plan for the child from the agency's perspective;
- Services that could assist the child or family.
The co-ordinator negotiates the date, time and venue for the conference with the family and arrangements are made where possible to facilitate their attendance without them needing to take time off work etc. This may mean that conferences take place at weekends or in the evening. The co-ordinator sends out invitations and makes the necessary practical arrangements. The conference must take place in the family's first language, if that is their preference, with interpreters for others as needed.
There is an expectation that the allocated worker attends and remains for the duration of the FGC. Any time that falls outside of usual working hours for the allocated worker is to be taken back in consultation with the team manager and / or service manager. The expectation is that the TOIL policy will be utilised as meeting details will be known in advance of them occurring.
5. How does a Family Group Conference Plan Integrate with Child Protection Planning?
Where a Child Protection Plan, LAC plan or court application is in place or is being considered, it is essential to discuss how the FGC plan will contribute to keeping the child safe and reduce the risks that have been identified in the existing documents or those being prepared. The timing of an FGC is crucial and as such should precede any other type of application wherever possible. An FGC is a family led decision making process that should be valued and should be given first priority where it is safe to do so. It is unfair to offer FGC then, for example, issue care proceedings immediately, or move to PLO without waiting for the outcome of the FGC. Any concerns abut such timing should be discussed with the team manager or service manager.
FGC's are family led meetings and not all professionals involved with the family need to attend. For this reason, it is better practice not to incorporate a Core Group Meeting, PLO or any other meeting into an FGC. However, it is important that relevant professionals who may bring resource or support for the family are invited.
Any Family Plan drawn up at the FGC must be sent to the CP chair, IRO, Children's guardian and / or the Court so it can be included in the review of the plans.
Family members who have agreed to monitor the Family Plan should be invited to any review mechanism to ensure that there is continuity between the processes.
The FGC does not remove or replace the need for Child Protection Conferences, reviews, Looked After reviews, core groups or any other statutory or support meeting.Where the FGC process uncovers new information that the child is suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, the co-ordinator must inform the child's social worker immediately. If the child does not have or was not referred by a social worker then a contact must be made to MASH.
6. Stages of the Family Group Conference
The Family Group Conference is held with the following three stages:
Stage 1: Information giving
This part of the meeting is chaired by the co-ordinator who makes sure that everyone is introduced, that everyone present understands the purpose and process of the FGC and agrees how the meeting will be conducted, including if considered helpful by those present, explicit ground rules.
Professionals will not need to provide a written report but will be expected to provide a verbal contribution detailing the strengths of the family, issues of concern, services available and the "bottom line". Agencies must also be prepared to respond to any queries that the conference members may have (This could include questions from family members and advocates).
The type of information that is helpful to present to the family includes the following:
- Current concerns and the reason for the conference rather than a detailed history;
- Experience of the family's strengths and successes as well as concerns;
- Clarity about what needs to change for the child and within what timescales;
- Information about what resources could be available to support the family plan, any limitations on resources (including resources of time), timescales for accessing resources and any procedures that need to be followed to obtain resources;
- Any child welfare concerns that will affect what can be agreed in the plan such as the child not having contact with a particular person or a schedule one offender;
- What action will be taken if the family cannot make a plan or the plan is not agreed or agency concerns are not addressed in the plan. This could vary from 'remaining concerned' to evoking statutory powers such as an application for a care order.
The presentation of information is important, the FGC is not a Child Protection Conference and it is helpful that the information that is presented is clear and understandable to the family. General issues include:
- Information must be up to date but not new, there should be no 'surprises' for the family members with whom agencies have working work;
- Statements should be specific such as "Jack has been absent from school for 13 sessions in the last term" not "Jack has missed school a lot";
- Avoid jargon, with explanations of any professional terms;
- Keep explanations of concerns centred on the needs of the child rather than on what it is felt the adults should do;
- Focus on the problem rather than anticipating solutions, for example, "How can the family ensure that Darren is taken to school every day" rather than "Mum needs to get Darren to school more often";
- Questions are not intended to be assessment related, but rather focussing on a plan that the family can create in response concerns.
The child/young person and family members may also provide information via an advocate or other supporter, ask for clarification or ask questions.
Stage 2: Private Family Time
The co-ordinator and professionals withdraw from the meeting after the information sharing stage and professionals, apart from the referrer, can leave the meeting at this point. The family members must have time and privacy to talk among themselves and come up with a plan that addresses the concerns raised in the information giving part of the conference, identifying resources and support which are required from agencies, as well as within the family to make it work.
The co-ordinator will join the family for private planning time only if the family ask for them to be present, otherwise the family are left on their own to discuss and plan. If an advocate is present the child/young person will decide whether or not they want their advocate to remain during private family time.
Stage 3: Plan and Agreement
The family then produce their plan. The co-ordinator can assist with this if the family requests this but the plan should be written by the family. If the co-ordinator is asked to write the plan they must write it in the family's own words. The referrer and the co-ordinator meet with the family to discuss and agree the plan and negotiate resources. The referrer may need to consult with their manager before accepting the plan but it is hoped that any discussions will have taken place prior to the FGC.
It is expected that the family plan is accepted by the referring agency unless the issue of the child's safety and well-being has not been satisfactorily addressed and the child is deemed to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm.
Any reasons for not accepting the plan must be made clear immediately and the family should be given the opportunity to respond to the concerns and change or add to the plan if necessary.
It is important to ensure that any child/young person present has a clear understanding of what is decided and that their views are understood.
Validation/presentation of the Plan
The family's plan will be presented to the referrer at the end of the conference. It is expected that the referrer will remain at the FGC until the family have made their plan. Discussion will take place between the co-ordinator and referrer and other agencies that may have been requested by the family to provide services. If the referrer is not present at the end of the conference the family will be contacted by the referrer within three days to be advised about the professional view of the family plan.
Distribution of the Plan
The co-ordinator types the family plan, unless the family want to do this themselves and distributes the plan to all relevant agencies and the family within five working days of the conference. There are no formal minutes of the FGC - The plan is the only record of the FGC.
In addition to the plan agreed by the family, the following information should be included by the Coordinator on a separate sheet:
- Name and date of birth of child(ren) who were the subjects of the FGC;
- Date and venue of the FGC;
- List of everyone who attended and who was invited but unable to attend - making clear who each person is and their connection to the child;
- The questions the family were asked to address and the details of the plan addressing these questions;
- Names and contact details of those who have agreed to monitor the plan;
- Date of the Review FGC.
7. Implementation of the Plan
All those concerned need to implement their parts of the plan within agreed timescales and communicate and address any concerns which arise. The family will be asked to nominate a family member/friend, or ideally two people, who will take responsibility for informing the referrer if the plan is not working and/or needs adjustments.
8. Review of the Plan
A review date for the FGC will be agreed at the conference and is usually planned to be held no later than three months after the initial FGC. The review will be convened by the co-ordinator and the referring agency will be expected to attend. The date and time for this will be written into the family plan.
The review enables the family and the referrer to check out if the plan is working and to adjust the levels of support or resources necessary.
All families will be offered a review but it is the family's decision as to whether a formal review takes place. Families may choose to review the plan themselves informally and will update workers on progress.
The review is arranged on the same principles as the original meeting, i.e. with private family time. It will be the responsibility of the referrer to update the family group of the current situation in relation to the child/young person or any significant changes which have occurred since the initial meeting.Any changes to the family plan arising from the Review FGC will be agreed and circulated in the same way as the initial plan.
9. Ending of Involvement
The FGC services involvement will end once the initial and review FGC's have taken place.
Involvement will also end if:
- The referral has been assessed as inappropriate;
- The family withdrew or did not provide consent for the FGC to proceed;
- A decision was made that it was inappropriate to proceed i.e. if safety issues were too great.
10. Recording and Information Sharing
The FGC service's primary function is to facilitate the Family Group Conference and any recording will relate solely to the conference. A file will be held until the end of the project. A detailed record will only be made when information is given which relates to concerns for a child's or other person's safety. These records will be forwarded to the relevant social work team.
The referrer will be responsible for recording their involvement with the FGC and the outcome of the conference (Social Workers will be expected to record information on Liquid Logic in the area specified for recording FGC once this is in place). It is the referrer's responsibility to share all key documentation including relevant sections of the plan with guardians and the court.