Article Detail

Program Design: The Family Group Conferencing Project — Etobicoke

Posted 2000-08-12

Approved by Steering Committee October 1999


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

The George Hull Centre for Children and Families, the Etobicoke Children’s Centre, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke) and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke) collaborated to establish the Family Group Conferencing Project. This is a pilot project planned for three years, funded by the Children’s Aid Foundation.

The Family Group Conferencing (FGC) approach is being tested for it’s usefulness as a methodology which better enables families and family networks to develop and implement plans to ensure the emotional and physical safety and well being of children through increasing the creative use, integration and mobilization of formal and informal resources.

Family Group Conferencing was first used in New Zealand where there was a concern that Maori children were over represented in both the juvenile justice and child protection systems. Further, Maori people felt that they were excluded from the planning for their children. The approach was incorporated into New Zealand child and family legislation in 1989. Family Group Conferencing is now being used in the field of child protection in some parts of Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada.

The approach includes family members and service providers being invited to a conference and being prepared for the conference; holding the conference; distributing the plans amongst participants; and planning for a review meeting. The conference itself is made up of three discrete stages. Service providers provide a concise and non-judgmental description of the risks that exist for the child as well as outline strengths observed in the family. Questions raised by the family are answered and concerns regarding the risk are discussed, until the family is clear about the risks to the child. The family then has a time on their own where they develop the plan to address the safety and well being concerns for their children. Finally the plan is presented to the child welfare workers for approval. Provided it does not compromise the child’s safety and physical and emotional well being it is accepted.

 

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT:

History of the Family Group Conferencing model:

Family Group Conferencing was initiated in New Zealand in response to the Maori people’s concern that their children were over represented in both the juvenile justice and child protection systems. The Maori also believed that their family group which includes the nuclear family, clan and tribe should be involved in the planning for their children. A further concern was that once Maori children entered the juvenile justice and child protection systems, that they were often "lost" from the Maori kinship system, with children frequently being placed in "Pakeha" (Caucasian) homes and the family having little meaningful connection with the child.

The model has since been adapted to include not only juvenile justice and child protection planning, but also planning within the educational system for children who may be having behavioural or learning difficulties. It also has been adapted to different contexts and cultural settings. It is being used in parts of the United States of America, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Canada.

The application of the Family Group Conferencing model to Etobicoke:

In 1997, the four partner agencies, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke), the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Etobicoke) [CAST], the Etobicoke Children’s Centre and the George Hull Centre for Children and Families collaborated to work towards the establishment of the Family Group Conferencing project. This is a three year pilot project funded by the Children’s Aid Foundation.

The project was developed in response to wanting to develop a process which would enhance family involvement in decision making and in developing plans for the safety of their children. Previous initiatives within the child protection agencies stressed that there was a need to empower the families in ensuring their children’s safety. It was felt that earlier involvement of the family in planning would also be helpful as well as engaging the extended family both in the decision making and in supporting the family. There was also a desire to seek options that were culturally sensitive.

This project is being launched at a time when current initiatives in child welfare are emphasizing the focus of child safety rather than family preservation.


GOALS:

GOAL:

To better enable families and family networks to develop and implement plans to ensure the emotional and physical safety and well being of children through increasing the creative use, integration and mobilization of formal and informal resources using Family Group Conferencing.

This goal is to be achieved through four activities:

  1. Model and Partnership Development
  2. Preparation of agency staff and community partners
  3. Development of processes for stimulating and managing referrals
  4. Implementation of Family Conferences


STRUCTURES

•  Coordinator

The coordinator would carry out the following tasks:

Before the conference:

  1. To work with the families referred so that they clearly understand the process of the Family Group Conferencing.
  2. To assist families in determining the supports that they have and the supports that they will need to develop a workable plan to ensure the child’s safety and well being.
  3. To connect with community resources that can assist in Family Group Conferences through the provision of language or cultural interpretation, and ensure that the individuals selected are acceptable to the family.
  4. To identify service providers in conjunction with both the child protection worker and the family.
  5. To identify with the child protection worker and the family whether it would be useful to have a resource person present, and then to identify an appropriate person to fulfill that role. (Such a person would link the potential impact of an issue with the risks for the children and would identify potential resources available to the family).
  6. To prepare consultants, service providers and resource people for the conference, and to review any reports to be presented prior to the conference.
  7. To see to the logistics for setting up the conference including venue, transportation, refreshments and child care.

During the conference:

  1. To facilitate Family Group Conferences where the family members meet with the service providers involved with the case (including the child protection worker) in a manner that allows the family to understand the risks clearly, and where the family members are then provided the space to develop a plan ensuring the safety and well being of the child.
  2. To reconvene the Family Group Conference when the family has a plan to be presented to the child protection worker for approval. This would include assisting the family to regroup if the first plan is not acceptable.

After the conference:

  1. To arrange a further conference if the planning initially is unsuccessful.
  2. To send out a copy of the agreed upon plan to all participants within 10 days of the conference.
  3. To plan, prepare for and implement a review process within 3 months of the first conference.

Ongoing:

  1. To be available to the family if they require further explanations or information
  2. To work cooperatively with the staff from the four agencies coordinating the project.
  3. To train other coordinators if required.
  4. To work closely with the research team.
  5. To report to the supervisors and utilise consultation as needed.
  6. To keep Steering Committee informed of developments through the supervisors and working group.

•  Child Protection Workers (Family service worker)

  1. To familiarise themselves with the purpose, processes and procedure regarding Family Group Conferencing.
  2. To discuss with the supervisor any families which could be considered for conferencing.
  3. To discuss possible referral with the coordinator.
  4. To approach the identified family, brief them on the process regarding conferencing and to invite them to participate.
  5. If the family is interested, to inform the coordinator.
  6. To meet with the coordinator ( and if appropriate also the supervisor) to brief her on the history of the family’ s involvement with child protection, the risks threatening the children, the perceived needs of the children and the reasons for the referral
  7. To share with the coordinator any relevant court documents or recordings
  8. To liaise with the coordinator on an ongoing basis and to keep both the coordinator and the supervisor informed of any significant developments in the family
  9. To prepare a presentation for the conference which outlines 1)a brief history of the family’s involvement with the child protection agency 2) strengths in the family 3) concerns and risks identified in the family and the impact these have had or might have on the children’s safety and well being 4) any legal constraints
  10. To review the proposed presentation with the supervisor and coordinator
  11. To make transport arrangements for any children in care
  12. To ensure that other members of the child protection team are apprised of the process and involved as appropriate
  13. To be present at the conference and to make the presentation
  14. To approve or veto the plan presented by the family depending on the extent to which the plan addresses the risks and meets the safety and well being needs of the children
  15. To present the plan to court if applicable
  16. To provide services as agreed in the plan
  17. To support and monitor the implementation of the plan
  18. To liaise with the coordinator in terms of the review process

•  Research Team

The Family Group Conferencing Program Steering Committee requested assistance from a research team from Ryerson Polytechnic University and Wilfrid Laurier University to develop methods for the evaluation of services provided by the Family Group Conferencing program. The development of evaluation mechanisms will support the on-going development, implementation and management of the program, provide reports to funders, and assist in expanding the service and replicating it elsewhere.

The purpose of the evaluation is two fold: to provide ongoing feedback to the Steering Committee and Program Coordinator to assist in the implementation and operation of the program on an ongoing basis (formative evaluation); and to assess and disseminate the program benefits, strengths and impacts on completion (summative or outcome evaluation).

The evaluation research support provided by the research team includes:

  • the review of relevant literature
  • the development of a "logic model" for the program identifying the relevant implementation and program activities
  • identification of implementation, output and outcome objectives
  • identification of implementation, output and outcome indicators
  • development of strategies for the collection of data
  • gathering of data
  • analysis of data collected and the provision of feedback to the Steering committee and the Program Coordinator


  • Supervisors

Supervision is carried out jointly by one person from Children’s Aid Society and one from the George Hull Centre. This is to allow for the integration of child welfare and child mental health perspectives. The supervisors report both to the Steering Committee and their respective agencies.

•  Working group

The working group is made up of one representative of each of the four partner agencies, and includes the two supervisors referred to above. These persons are on the middle level of management in each of their respective agencies. The coordinator also participates in these meetings.

This group meets on an as needed basis. The working group is a part of and accountable to the steering committee.

The working group will be responsible for:

  • developing recommendations regarding policy and procedures
  • being available for debriefing after conferences
  • linking with the research team

•  Steering committee

The steering committee is made up of the working group as well as the director/branch manager of each of the partner agencies. The research team is also represented on this committee.

The steering committee is responsible for making decisions with regard to policy and procedures, for the appointment of staff, and for the fundraising and financial management of the project.


PROCESS:

Referral

The referrals are made by the C/CAS worker in consultation with their supervisors.

Preparation

The child welfare worker discusses with the client that their family has been suggested as appropriate for a FGC. If the client agrees to participate, the coordinator meets with them.

The coordinator explains the process, and asks the client who their family is. The coordinator also asks whether there are other people who the family feels it would be useful to invite to the conference. The coordinator gets the information on where and how to contact family members. The coordinator approaches all these people and invites them to the conference.

The coordinator prepares each person for the conference. Family members are encouraged to imagine what the conference might be like, to think about how they might feel, to plan what they would want to say and ideally to write this down, to reflect on how they may affect others at the FGC and how those persons might feel, and finally, to consider what they would want from the conference.

The coordinator makes every effort to include all in the family network, (even where there may be resistance from other family members), and to ensure that their views are represented, should they be unable to attend the conference.

The coordinator takes into account issues of abuse and develops a safety plan with those that are to attend the conference. Persons in the family who have been abused may be encouraged to invite a support person to the conference. Offenders or perpetrators of abuse in the family may also be encouraged to bring a support person. Support persons are there to enable the family member to express their views or have their position spoken to. Support persons can also assist when a family member is upset or angry by comforting them or taking them out for a break if necessary. A family member may be excluded from attending a conference or the FGC may be cancelled should there be threats of violence prior to or during the conference.

The coordinator in discussion with the family and the child protection worker decides which service providers (information givers) should attend and whether it is appropriate to have them all in the room at once, or whether it is better to have them come in and present one by one. Service providers are encouraged to share with the family the factual information they have gathered on the situation. Such information should highlight both the strengths that have been observed in the family as well as any concerns or needs that have been noted. The service provider should attempt to share their report in language which is easily understood, avoiding jargon and also avoiding any labeling. The service provider is asked to avoid making any recommendations to the family or saying how they feel the situation should be addressed. The coordinator reviews the report with the service provider before the conference and helps them prepare for the meeting.

The coordinator meets with the child welfare worker and preferably their supervisor to establish what risks to the child’s safety and well being need to be addressed by the plan developed at the conference. The risks needs to be described in behavioural terms that will be easily understood by the family. The child welfare worker must share these concerns with the client before the conference.

Any practicalities or procedures which would affect the implementation of decisions made at the conference should also be shared with the family beforehand (for example access may not be immediately increased depending on the availability of drives through the CAATS system; a child would not be placed with another relative until a home study has been completed.) Any legal requirements, such as those governing the frequency of contact with the family, need to be stated ahead of time.

A resource person may be invited to the Family Group Conference to speak to a theme that has been identified in the family such as addictions, sexual abuse, domestic violence. The resource person describes how such a problem might impact on a family, and what resources might be useful and available to this family. The resource person will not be provided with the specific details about the family, but speaks to the issue in a general way so as to avoid any unintentional directives.

The coordinator where necessary liaises with cultural consultants to ensure that the involvement with the family is culturally appropriate and sensitive. It may be necessary also to work with a translator.

The conference

The coordinator welcomes the family and service providers to the meeting, and people are introduced to each other. The opening is carried out in a way that is culturally and spiritually resonant for the family, and so may include a prayer, a song, a lighting of a candle etc.

The coordinator outlines the purpose and agenda of the meeting. Guidelines for discussion during the conference are discussed.

The service providers present their reports, with the family having the opportunity to ask questions of clarification.

If needed, a resource person makes their presentation.

The service providers leave the family to their private time to develop a plan. The coordinator will arrange with service providers who leave the premises a way of contacting them should the family require clarification on an issue when developing their plan.

The family are asked to decide what needs to be done to ensure the child’s safety and more broadly, family safety as well as to respond to the risks identified earlier. They should also work out who would do what, and how the plan would be monitored.

Once they have arrived at a plan, this is brought back to the coordinator, the child protection worker, their supervisor and other service providers where appropriate. The child protection worker needs to ensure that all the risks have been satisfactorily addressed. If this is not the case, the plan may not be accepted in totality. The family may wish to amend the plan at the conference, or may want to reconvene at a future date. There need to be decisions on who will monitor various aspects of the plan so that it is known that the plan is working, and what to do if the plan is not working.

Food, either snacks and/or a meal will be available and will again ideally be from the culture of those represented in the family group.

4. Post conference

The coordinator needs to distribute the plan within 10 days. Should the plan not be fully worked out, the coordinator may assist the family in finalizing the plan or in reconvening another conference.

The child welfare worker will work with the family as defined in the plan, though will also still need to have regular contact with the family.

Should the matter be before the court, the child welfare worker will ensure that the family’s plan is submitted to the court as part of the Plan of Care, stating clearly that this has been developed by the family and is supported by the Society.

A family group conference can be reconvened at a later date at the request of the family or the child welfare worker.


PRINCIPLES

Preamble:

Family Group Conferencing offers the family, their extended family and their significant others the opportunity:

  • to hear directly from the service providers their concerns about the safety and well being of the child;
  • to meet without the service providers to develop a plan of safety and well being for the child
  • to present the plan to the service providers.

Principles:

  1. Every child has the right to be raised in an environment of safety and well being.
  2. The safety and well being of the child can be assured through family participation in planning and decision making.
  3. Families, being the experts on themselves, are central to all planning and decision making.
  4. Families have under-used strengths and resources to solve problems for their children.


CONTACTS

•  Janice Jarmaine: Executive Director: Etobicoke Children’s Centre
416 240 1111(t) 240 7999 (f)

•  Daniel Bogue: Director of Prevention and Early Intervention services at the George Hull Centre
416 622 8833 (t) 6227068(f)

•  Sandra Goranson: Supervisor : CAST
416 9244646 X3701 (t) 342 2556 (f)

•  Ruth Tansony: Supervisor: Catholic Children’s Aid
416 3951421 (t) 395 1425 (f)

•  Jeanette Schmid: Program Coordinator c/o George Hull Centre
416 6228833X255(t) 6227068 (f)