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The Family Unity Meeting Program in the County of San Diego Child Protection Setting
Elizabeth Quinnett, County of San Diego Administrator, Health and Human Services Agency
Russell Harrison, Rutgers University

Posted 2002-08-09


Plenary Speaker, Friday, August 9, 2002

From "Dreaming of a New Reality," the Third International Conference on Conferencing,
Circles and other Restorative Practices, August 8-10, 2002, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Paper written by Elizabeth Quinnett and
Russell S. Harrison, Ph.D., Rutgers University

San Diego County is a large county, bigger than the state of Rhode Island, with 3,000,000 inhabitants of diverse makeup. There is a large Hispanic population due to our proximity to the US/Mexico border; 60 Native American tribes; about 8% African American as well as various other groups. In the San Diego City School District, over 50 various languages are spoken. Traditionally, San Diego has been seen as a conservative city perhaps due to the large military presence and large retired population. The past decade has seen many changes in the makeup of the population, all impacting and influencing the work of the social worker in the child protection setting. This diverse population demands understanding and sensitivity to the mores of these various groups and skill in assessing risk in families of all types.

San Diego County child protection workers investigate thousands of child abuse allegations each month. There are over 6000 children in foster care or group home settings. Now they are being asked by courts to place more emphasis on concurrent planning and expand attempts to reunite children with parents or familial caregivers.

In the past when social workers returned children to their own homes, all too often problems reoccurred. The result is a large cohort of child protection workers who have seen it all, become jaded in their views, and lost hope in the potential for successful family reunification processes. They too often distrust parents, and prefer to work in a hierarchical manner as in the past.

In almost every job interview a social work administrator faces, they are asked how they would implement a new program with staff resistance. The San Diego experience might give you some new answers, which we will briefly outline below.

What we have found in San Diego, as have social workers in other settings, is an embracing of this “new” way of working with families, in a manner that is respectful, empowering, and honest. It “feels right”. It is how we would like our own families to be treated if they were caught in the child protection system. This embracing of the new practice does not occur overnight however, but rather requires an effort over time, recognizing all the principles of change management. In such a setting a successful program administrator must overcome major barriers to ensure the success of an alternative method of family intervention. In this report we will briefly outline how the Family Unity Meeting process has been implemented and hope that your agency or setting will be encouraged to employ this model also. We are working in an agency with approximately 700 social workers working with cases that all have either an allegation of or a true finding of child abuse. These social workers may work with families involved in the system, from non-Court investigations, through Court intervention, family maintenance, family reunification and adoptions. There are staff in specialized areas like foster care, independent living skills, medically fragile, and specialized Spanish speaking units. Abuse in California is defined in the Welfare & Institutions Code which describes physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, exploitation and absence of a parent or caretaker. In San Diego, we have had family meetings with families throughout the system.

KEY ELEMENTS IN THE FAMILY UNITY MEETING IMPLEMENTATION MODEL USED IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

In San Diego County, we have decided to emphasize several key elements to ensure successful implementation of the Family Unity Meeting Model.1

1) Training and Staff Motivation

In San Diego County most new members assigned to the Family Unity Meeting program have had little experience or understanding of the process, or the values on which it is based. Many of these facilitators have been thrust precipitously into a new way of doing things, with little background or understanding of the family unity meeting ethos.

To orient them to the new ethos both external and internal trainers have been used. First a consultant was brought in to provide an overview of the family unity meeting movement, and how it worked in other settings. Next leaders in the Family Unity Meeting program provided training. Fortunately there were experienced trainers to use as a resource. These included the program “chief” and a former supervisor in the program. There has been a major emphasis on self-training through structured on-the-job learning and team building.

At the present time, we do not distinguish between the role of coordinator and facilitator. Because of budget limitations, we have staff that performs both functions. In order to accommodate the needs of the family, the person who coordinates or brings the meeting together, may end up not facilitating the meeting. This would be to meet the language or cultural needs of the family, which may not be met by the coordinator. We are aware that there are other counties and child welfare sites where this is not the practice. We keep our eye on our outcomes, which are very positive. The feedback from families is exceptionally praiseworthy of the process, which is, in the final analysis, what seems to have the most influence on the outcomes—from our perspective.

As will be explained later, all staff is given an opportunity to “process” each Family Unity Meeting (FUM) session in a “post meeting” involving the program coordinator for all sessions, the facilitator or facilitators for the specific session, and the caseworker assigned to the case in which the FUM intervention format has been used.

2) Training Curricula

In San Diego, we spent a great deal of effort in educating staff within the agency, court officers, attorney groups and community agencies on the FUM model. We did so prior to full implementation and have viewed this as an ongoing need over time. Staff involved in coordinating and facilitating meetings are visible in case consultations throughout the regional offices, may show up at a judicial meeting to update officers on the program or may speak up to advocate for the program at any opportunity. The staff issue a quarterly newsletter, have created a brochure and their posters are visible at the various regional sites. All of these efforts have attempted to integrate this new practice into the fabric of the Agency. A growing emphasis has been placed on developing training and outreach programs to reach a much wider audience, including all the major stakeholders in the world of children’s protective services, both within and without San Diego County. A concerted effort was made early on to engage the Juvenile Court hierarchy, attorneys and community providers in the hope of eliciting their support. This effort has proven worthwhile.

To facilitate the training of session facilitators and other participants, we have developed a wide range of training materials. Internal documents are used to educate social service personnel about the model, especially new staff members assigned to the FUM program. Internal documents have also been developed to provide orientation to both family participants and social workers not familiar with the process.2

3) Refining the Format

The staff of the San Diego County Family Unity Meeting program is encouraged to follow a carefully developed sequential process prior to, during, and subsequent to a specific family unity meeting session. It is this overall process - plus the values of community involvement and family preservation and mutual respect - that define the FUM model.

The sequential process used for family unity meeting sessions in San Diego County:

1. A COORDINATOR PREPARES FOR THE MEETING, FOLLOWING A REQUEST FOR A MEETING BY THE CASEWORKER. (PRE-MEETING ACTIVITY):

• The caseworker assigned to a specific child abuse case must make the initial determination that a FUM session would be appropriate in a given family situation. This requires that the caseworker must be aware of the program, and how it works. Increasingly, judicial officials are also encouraging caseworkers to consider this option. They refer their case to the FUM unit.

• The Supervisor of the FUM unit next selects a coordinator for a specific referral, from among the available staff. This coordinator reviews the referral from the caseworker who is requesting a meeting.

• The coordinator reviews the “referral” and decides on the appropriateness of the process for the given case. Potentially the coordinator can reject the application. Over time, the staff has become more skilled at screening cases. Whereas, in the beginning, every referral was accepted, more careful assessment is now employed to ensure safety, full participation and a meaningful outcome.

• Next the coordinators help identify who will be invited to the meeting with the assistance of the caseworker, and ultimately with the parents. The coordinator for the FUM sessions talks to the social worker and the parents prior to the Meeting to see who should or should not attend.

The staff tries to be as inclusive as possible. However, the coordinator for a session should carefully consider whether a perpetrator of sexual abuse or physical violence should be allowed to participate in the meeting. The presence, maturity and emotional condition of the child victim should be given heavy weight in this determination.

This determination cannot be arbitrary. For example, just because a parent may have been convicted of a crime in the past, does not mean they are automatically excluded. For example, a recent meeting involved a father with a prior conviction for manslaughter for which he had served time. On the other hand, he had no involvement in the abuse that had occurred. In this case the meeting outcome was an agreement for the grandmother to assume custody of the children.

• The coordinator determines when the meeting should be held, and where. Potential participants are normally asked when they are free to attend either through letters or phone calls. The coordinator tries to pick a site as convenient as possible to all participants, particularly family members. The office is not always the most acceptable site for a meeting as the participants do not always see it as neutral. However, if there is the issue of safety to consider, this may be the ideal setting where there is security on site.

• The coordinator identifies a session facilitator if they are unable to attend a specific meeting. The coordinator should ensure the facilitator has been trained in the FUM process. The coordinator should also pick a facilitator who can respond to family needs with respect to language and culture. A translator may be required if no facilitator is available who is fluent in the language of the family. This is not preferable but is sometimes necessary, given limits on staffing available to the FUM program.

• The coordinator also selects a co-facilitator for each meeting. This allows for a sharing of responsibilities in facilitating. Their job may be that of the “recorder.” They summarize what goes on, write on flip charts when appropriate, and write up the “agreement” which defines the action plan developed at the FUM session. Additionally the co-facilitator may help out in moderating the discussion as needed.

• The coordinator sends out invitations, steps back, and hopes for the best. There are occasions where more than those invited may appear at the actual meeting. This is the result of family members reaching out to each other and eliciting support from these additional participants. We have viewed this as a strength and have not discouraged or not welcomed these attendees.

2. THE FACILITATOR TAKES OVER WHEN THE MEETING CONVENES

In San Diego County the facilitator is asked to ensure that many different elements are covered during the meeting. Whenever possible, they are asked to follow a specific format that has been refined for San Diego County.

In each phase of the meeting, the facilitator must ensure that everyone knows what will happen and why he or she is there. They must achieve clarity among all participants as to why the meeting is being held and why each participant has decided to come to the meeting.

However, even though they are responsible for facilitating the outcome, they must remain as neutral as possible to let the group carry the burden and achieve leadership and momentum as soon as possible. The facilitator’s role is to reframe, to summarize, and to make sure each participant is encouraged to articulate what needs to be said. If the group achieves its own internal direction, the facilitator can play a much more passive role. In short, both the process and the outcome are important.

Given these caveats, the facilitator launches the process.

3. WHAT GOES ON IN EVERY FAMILY UNITY MEETING SESSION

• Set the Stage

Typical participants include parents, grandparents, extended family, friends, members of church groups, community based service providers, as well as the caseworker. Occasionally the meeting may include foster parents, school personnel, or observers. However, they should only be present with the permission of the family.

The facilitator starts by thanking each participant for coming. This is important as it is often with great trepidation that a family comes together in these complex abuse situations.

Next they outline the format of the meeting. They also cover the nitty-gritty basics, such as the possible duration of the meeting, the location of bathrooms, and when food will be served. They also should specify that the meeting is confidential. What is discussed at the meeting should not be divulged outside of the group session. The parents are then requested to specify their agreement with the format and persons present.

The only exception to the confidentiality rule is in regards to a new child abuse allegation that emerges in the session. It is explained to the group participants that, by law, any new abuse allegation must be reported. Participants who are mandated reporters are asked to identify themselves.

Next the facilitator asks every person present to introduce themselves to the group. Each participant explains their relationship or connection to the family. The cultural context of the family should be respected in these introductions, honoring the “elders” in some cases if they are present.

• Explain the Purpose of the Meeting

After each participant explains their relationship or connection to the family, the parents and caseworker are asked to tell the group why they decided to have a family unity meeting. Then other participants are also asked to explain why they came to the meeting. This review of the goal of the meeting helps ensure that all the participants agree on the agenda of what is discussed at the meeting. This assists the facilitator in keeping the meeting “on track”. A common goal is often to produce a written plan or agreement that will bind the parents and all other participants, and ensure a “safety net” around the children

• Establish “Ground Rules”

At this point in the meeting, the facilitator asks the family if they want to set some ground rules for the meeting. Families, in our experience, often do. These will be written down and posted by the facilitator. Usually they are displayed on a flip chart that is visible to all participants.

Some examples of ground rules are: “One voice at a time. No interrupting another who is speaking. No obscenity. No referring to old events that are irrelevant to the present goal of the meeting.”

Once posted, the facilitator can refer the group to the ground rules if they are veering from them. This facilitates order in the meeting in a non-hierarchical fashion. The goal is to emphasize that the family “owns the rules” and have established their own rules - not the facilitator or other professionals present. When the family later meets on their own, they can refer to these ground rules again, in order to keep order.

• At some point the facilitator addresses the issue of anger. They should acknowledge that there is a “history” in the family that anger is no doubt present in the hearts of many, and that resentment is a normal feeling. However, even though there may be anger present due to the history of the family and the harm experienced by the children, this is expected and okay, within the limits of the ground rules set by the family and other participants.

• The facilitator asks the caseworker to provide a very brief summary of the case. The caseworker should not express any conclusions or judgements about what has been done or what should be done. The caseworker should not express any personal biases or expectations regarding the outcome of the meeting. In their presentation the caseworker should cover certain points in regard to the bottom line protective issues. For example, the caseworker should explain whether the parents are involved in a court adjudicated or voluntary relationship with the agency. If there is a court case and/or a service plan in place, this is where the social worker can present relevant information to the group. This establishes the “bottom line” issues that must be addressed when the family later develops an agreement. For example, if there is a temporary restraining order in place regarding the father, the family would not suggest he transport the child to doctor’s visits.

After the meeting the court may review the “agreement” that results from the FUM session if the parents agree to do so. The “agreement” from the FUM session is attached to the court records that are reviewed at subsequent court hearings.

If the court accepts the new FUM agreement, they may modify some of the requirements from the previously mandated court plan. Thus it is important for participants to know what the courts have previously mandated.

• Launch a “Strengths Identification” Process

Every session should try to establish a sense of community and compassion among all participants. We also use a “strength-based” approach to working with families. San Diego uses a “strengths identification” process to help this occur.

The facilitator asks each participant to identify what is right and good about the parents. What are their strengths, what are their virtues? The facilitator may choose to begin with the parents identifying their own virtues. As each virtue or strength is mentioned, the facilitator lists them on a flip chart, and ultimately posts them on the wall, since there may be several sheets.

If children attend the meeting the facilitator may want to have the group identify their strengths, and post them as well. This process may involve caretakers other than parents depending on the case.

This “strength identification process” is a very powerful part of the FUM session, and should never be omitted. Nor should the facilitator cut this discussion short, since the rest of the meeting will build on these identified strengths.

One goal of this process is to help the parents. The process emphasizes that the parents are not all bad. This helps the parents deal with their own sense of failure, shame, and self-loathing. It helps them see that they can move beyond their troubled past.

For many parents, this discussion may be the first time they have ever heard anyone define them in a positive way. The parents often have fought with family members. They often feel that their family and community have given up on them. They often yearn for forgiveness.

The strength identification process not only helps the parents. It also helps the other participants. They develop a more balanced perspective on who the parents are, and what they can be, with help from their community. The participants are encouraged to look forward to building an agreement in which children can be reunited as much as possible with parents, while at the same time being protected by the involvement of the extended family and the larger community in which they live.

• Facilitate the Fellowship Process

Following the “strength” assessment process, which is often very emotional, the group takes a break.

At every session we provide refreshments. This is not simply a mindless tea and cookies ritual. Rather it builds on the recovery model. A successful recovery model tries to address all three components of the human condition - body, mind, and spirit. Thus we provide refreshments to all participants in a meeting session. We feel there is something special that occurs when people “break bread” together. It is not just a physical act. This is also what families do, in general, when they get together. This puts people at ease and helps establish some good will among the participants.

After the break, the facilitator reassembles the group to deal with concerns and goals, optional means to achieve goals and address concerns, develop an operational implementation plan or agreement, and close by obtaining verbal feedback and written evaluations from all participants.

• Deal with Objectives, Concerns, and Goals That Will Become Part of the “Agreement”

Following the break, the participants reconvene. The task now is to identify the issues to be overcome, and the goals to be achieved, to make the entire FUM session a success.

In referring to problems, the facilitator uses the word “concerns”. San Diego facilitators do not talk about “problems”, as these are pejorative terms. Rather, they talk about “concerns”.

The discussion of “concerns” is often emotional, since it addresses the more negative and perhaps emotional aspects of the case. It is important for the facilitator, during this discussion, to remind participants of the “ground rules” as anger and defensiveness may surface here. It is also here that old history may come up. The facilitator must keep the issues current and related to the recent abuse events—as defined in the ground rules.

The co-facilitator writes down the concerns on the flip chart and these are posted also. When everyone else has stated their concerns, the caseworker is asked to state their concern—very briefly. The intent here is to ensure that the “bottom line” agency and court concerns are addressed.

After all the concerns are listed, the facilitator and co-facilitator help the participants group the concerns into categories. They usually logically fall into a few categories. If there are more than three or four, the group decides which three concerns are most important to address in this session to develop the final agreement/ action plan. The participants may elect to convene again if they want to meet around those concerns not addressed in this meeting.
During the discussion of these concerns, parents often feel defensive. They may express this defensiveness in anger. The facilitator needs to remind the group about the strengths of the parent. They should also refer back to the ground rules that typically limit how anger can be expressed. By referring to strengths, the parents are encouraged not to give in to negativism but to retain their hope for a successful reunification of their family, if that is the goal of the group. Also, the concerns are to be directed and connected to the goal of the meeting.

Ultimately, participants turn their attention to the goals to be achieved in the final “agreement” or action plan that must emerge from this session.

• Family Alone Time

During the session, the facilitator should guide participants to identify key issues and concerns to be overcome and specific goals to be achieved. Then the task is to identify remedies and solutions. The facilitator then allows the family to meet privately to develop a plan or agreement. The various flip charts posted around the room can be used as a guide. They are given sample plans to help them see how other families have come up with very specific actions. All participants are asked to address how they can help provide solutions, not just vague aspirations, but specific remedies.

While the family meets privately to develop their plan, the other participants in the meeting leave the room, to return when the family indicates it has completed a plan. Timelines are often defined out of necessity. Most meeting sites have closing hours so this helps define the time the meeting takes in general. If a family needs additional time, the meeting can be reconvened at another time.

A recent meeting involved two young, unmarried parents, both of whom suffered from drug abuse. Many participants offered help in getting them to their mandated drug rehabilitation programs. One participant volunteered to repair the father’s car so he could go to work. Another relative offered to take the father to AA meetings. It was touching when a young brother of the teenage mother offered to baby-sit the infant. He wanted to be involved in the solutions.

The point is, everyone is asked to provide very specific and tangible help to meet the goals defined by the group process.

• The Family and Other Participants Reconvene to Present and Discuss the Plan

The family designates someone to present their plan to the reconvened group. On occasion, they may decide to go back to family alone time to work on clarifying some particular part of the plan. This review of the plan ensures that no Court ordered actions are violated. For example, if there is a no contact order or a temporary restraining order or supervised visitation order, it is important for the social worker to raise these limitations.

The agreement should be an action plan that specifies who will do what to help the family achieve the goals of the particular session.

Sometimes the plan is to return the child to its birth parents. Sometimes the plan is to place the child with a relative. Sometimes the plan is placement outside the family. Whatever the plan, the ideal is to unify the family around their plan and elicit their support.

• Closure and Feedback

Towards the end, the facilitator should seek closure now that the plan has been developed. First the facilitator encourages verbal feedback. Each participant is asked to express his or her feelings about how the meeting went. It is often surprising at the positive statements expressed at this stage—even by those who initially were cynical about the process.

Finally the facilitator distributes an evaluation form for each participant to complete. This includes the social worker, the community members and family members.

These simple checklists are normally collected before the participants depart, some participants prefer to fill them out at home, and mail them back in a stamped self-addressed envelope.

After they have been received, they are used as input to subsequent evaluation of program outcomes.

4. AFTER THE MEETING ADJOURNS

The facilitator forwards the agreement to the coordinator within 24 hours of the session. The supervisor meets with the caseworker, facilitator, and co-facilitator. They discuss what went on at the meeting. In part this discussion is a technical review. We also call this time, “critical reflection”. The facilitator discusses what went right and what went wrong. This debriefing allows the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to expand facilitation skills. It also helps to maintain integrity in the practice and “model drift”.

This debriefing provides feedback to the coordinator. Of equal importance, it provides an opportunity for the facilitator to unwind. Our facilitators are very compassionate and involved in the FUM session. They care a great deal about the outcomes. They have just participated in what is often a highly emotional and highly charged meeting. By discussing the session, it helps them move on to their next assignment.

At present, we have a computerized system to record data on the families referred for meetings, the meeting goal, and the meeting outcome and there are fields for recording further data over time. A barrier and challenge in this area, purely and simply, has been the difficulty in acquiring support staff to perform this data entry. The reality has been we are now deluged with referrals for meetings, which have put a great strain on staff who have made the preparation, and meetings a priority. Engaging assistance from the local San Diego State University School of Social Work has been of great help.

Copies of these data are available for those interested. In general we have experienced “success” in the vast majority of our cases. We define this success by the extent that the family feels the process has been helpful. The challenge has been applying research and outcome measurement to those intangible “magic” outcomes. There are some meetings where the family never comes up with an agreement. It may be that they cannot get beyond the discussion of the concerns that have been raised in the meeting. There are times when a family member walks out of the meeting or we need to take a “time out” when emotions run high. Remarkably in the very high percentage of meetings, all the participants state they feel the meeting was helpful and that they would come to another meeting. We see that in some families this coming together is the beginning of a new way of working on issues within the family. This may be the first time they have ever attempted to come up with solutions as a family. Our definition of “success” may not be theirs. In these situations, the meeting has often planted a seed, one to be nurtured and hopefully to grow as the family grows in this new approach to protecting their children.

Endnotes

1 The term “family unity meeting” usually refers strictly to the Oregon model where the meeting is facilitated from beginning to end. In San Diego, this is how we began. We moved to family alone time and have not turned back. We retained the program name as it was well known in the County and it was not practical to change the name. It was the practice that seemed most significant, rather than the name.
2 For an example of relevant documents, see Elizabeth Quinnett and Russell Harrison, “An Overview of the Family Unity Meeting Model,” A report prepared for the CWLA Mid-Atlantic/ New England Regions Training Conference,” July 1999.