Paul Nixon, Hampshire County Council Social Services Department, UK, trace the connections between the individual, familial community, professional, organizational and political issues affecting the practice and development of family group conferences in the UK. Presented at the "Building Strong Partnerships for Restorative Practices" Conference, August 5-7, 1999, Burlington, Vermont.


This paper will attempt to trace some of the connections between the individual, familial community, professional, organizational and political issues, that will impact on the practice and development of family group conferences in the UK.

Family Group Conferences (FGC) principles stem very much out of ideas about collective responsibility, mutual obligation and shared interest rather than a discourse that focuses exclusively on individual rights and competing needs. In examining the UK context in which they are being implemented, balancing the different and sometimes conflicting rights and responsibilities of children, their families and the community has been an enduring theme in FGC development, child care policy and practice and was a central concern of the 1989 Children Act (England and Wales).

The Children Act, arriving the same time as the New Zealand Children Young Persons and Their Families Act, embodied very similar principles, seeking to enable families to take up their responsibilities, enhancing participation and protection for children and young people and required that the provision of services should be delivered in a partnership with parents. The concept of ‘partnership’ was linked to liberal ideas about ‘best practice’ but was also influenced by the new language of consumerism in social care that occupied much of the discourse about public welfare services. The principles of participatory and inclusive practices have grown from both pressure from external user and community groups fighting for a say over services and from child care research that was highlighting deficits practice (Millham 1986, DH 1991). Inclusion as a principle has influenced business and management theories and as it has also been evident in the discourse on tackling social exclusion and in the devolution of powers to less centralized structures. It is manifest in explicit government intentions for the wider inclusion of citizens in welfare and economic policies, from Citizen Charters to Share holding democracies, that have emerged in the UK. The push for greater transparency and accountability for public servants is linked to the tenets of consumerism, choice and quality services. Partnership then has embraced notions of user control and choice, which has straddled both the left and new right political imperatives and built a ‘consensus’ that partnership is a ‘good thing’ (Rojeck et al 1988).

Applying and connecting up FGC principles to many areas of practice, policy and research must take account of the context within which they work. For different political groups FGCs, like the concept of empowerment, can potentially have both liberatory and regulatory functions (Baistow 1995). Within a context where resources and services are being cut, FGCs can quickly be reduced to a procedure or function that is concerned with ‘gatekeeping’, regulation or social control, instead of community building and participation through decision-making.

At a practice level, social workers have found themselves with principles, implicit in child care legislation (i.e. partnership and participation) which they were struggling to realise on a day to day basis. Paradoxically while the FGC appears to provide a format for these principles it can easily be quickly reduced by professionals to a method, ‘technique’ or ‘gizmo’ for professionals or their agencies to use on families lies, rather than reflect a set of values and principles that should in fact inform all our work with families and communities.

FGCs are still new and developing and have been transplanted and practiced in a variety of different contexts, adapted where local, regional and political issues are different. It is interesting to see this wide ranging applicability of the approach, which could imply that the principles apply well to most situations and family contexts.

Developing FGC connections in the UK

Family Group Conferences are relatively new in the UK and their influence on our child care policy, practice and thinking is just beginning. It is far from clear how FGCs will operate under the Children Act 1989 and there are uncertainties over how FGCs will impact on relationships between families and professionals or achieve better outcomes for children. Significantly, the FGC approach in the UK has been introduced as a good practice construct rather than a legal construct. This has stemmed from the desire to improve practice under existing legislation and has had critical implications for its development.

The history of child care services in the UK (and elsewhere) have been built upon changing assumptions about the rights of children, the responsibilities of the families and the role of the state in relation to the upbringing of children. The Children Act 1989 sought to ‘construct a new consensus’ (Parton 1991) on these rights and responsibilities and finding the right balance lies at the heart of the Act. Implicit in the Act was the intention to achieve ‘balance’ through more inclusive and collaborative practices with families, although agencies retained distinct powers through the courts. The legislation sought to influence not just practice but thinking about families, and it was anticipated that a ‘sea-change’ (Rowe 1989) in attitudes that would ultimately improve decision-making for children. The growing interest in FGCs as a model for partnership, underlines the frustrations at the inability of practitioners and their agencies to work collaboratively or manage the practice tensions between the role of families and the state in relation to children. Research evidence was showing that partnership approaches were conspicuously absent ‘on the ground’ (DH 1991, Thoburn et al 1995, Bell 1996) and interest in FGCs grew with the realization that the core principles and approach appeared to provide a way to engage families, that the Children Act had failed to deliver (Nixon and Taverner 1993).

In 1990 a group of New Zealand practitioners were invited over by Family Rights Group (an independent national charity working to improve law and practice relating to families) to talk about their experiences with FGCs and subsequently FRG undertook to develop the approach in the UK (Morris 1995). Through a series of training events, national newsletters and publications FRG began to disseminate ideas, and a number of projects started to emerge. The Family Rights Group had already lobbied influentially on the Children Act 1989 and saw the potential of the FGCs to help with the implementation of the legislation’s principles (Morris 1995).

National Pilot Group was established in 1992, connecting a small number of pilot projects together (4), to share advice and support with each other. Without this network the FGC projects would have struggled to come to fruition. The group shared methods, policy materials and practice ideas and was characterized by high levels of cooperation. The projects involved were initiated either at the ‘grass roots’ level or by management, but all were driven by individuals or small groups with a great deal of enthusiasm and determination to get things going (Marsh and Crow 1998).

Since the establishment of the first national pilot group for FGCs, interest in the FGC network has grown from 4 to over 60, although the actual practice of FGC remains very much at the margins of child care work (FRG 1999). There have been efforts to share and disseminate practice experience. Hampshire County Council Social Service Department has hosted two International Forums on FGCs in 1997/98 to develop local and international networks and to exchange ideas.

The Government and Department of Health have taken a watching brief and are wanting to see practice develop locally, rather than offer any national prescription or standards at this stage in the work.

Relative values and decision-making

‘Decision-making requires the skills of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the compassion of Augustine and the hide of a tax inspector. Making decisions proves to be something of a balancing act for professionals. Taking into account parental perspectives involves surrendering a degree of control to the powerless.’ (Cleaver and Freeman 1995)

Whether the politician, icons and the bureaucrat would together agree to a decision is doubtful. What the quote does show us though, are the complexities of decision-making. Perhaps more difficult still for UK professionals, has been handing these decisions over to families. While this would fit well with the philosophy of the Children Act, it does not match the procedures and practice that currently operate under the Act. FGCs may well provide a format for inclusion and ensure that decisions will be based on the culture, traditions and needs of that particular family, but there has been a slowness to embrace the approach. It is evident that FGCs tend to conflict with usual decision-making approaches rather than complement them. This is because usual models of decision-making are predicated on a culture of professional control and expertise, in which through the acquisition of specialist knowledge, professionals are believed to ‘know best.’ Consequently, greater importance is afforded to professional opinion about families, than families’ opinions of themselves, and the influence of the agency perspectives are legally mandated and sanctioned by society’s expectations (Ryburn 1991b).

The relationship state agencies have with the community is practiced through systems designed by professionals and physically and conceptually dominated by them. These require families to ‘fit-in’ to professional methods and forums, which conflict with the FGC philosophy.

While the inclusion of families doesn’t mean that professionals hand over their power, there is still great reluctance to use FGCs. In fact, in so many ways professionals retain power through systems, structures and control of resources, that effectively deny the full participation of families anyway. Even with the best intentions, the development of inclusive practices (at a service level) over decision-making will not in itself necessarily ‘empower’ families. The extent to which families are really included in decision-making will be shaped by the context in which the work is happening.

There are concerns in the UK that, in practice, FGCs have often been interpreted by professionals as an intervention of the last resort, used when all else has been tried, or employed as ‘rubber-stamp’ professional ideas. More often in the current political context, they are seen as a method to squeeze resources out of the families. A great deal of debate and training is happening in the UK to try move FGCs from this reactive or augmented role to one that is more central to practice and thinking.

Implementation in the UK has focused on winning over ‘hearts and minds’ of professionals rather than fundamentally looking at educating or changing systems. It is likely that current conflicts and disagreements about child care policy and planning can be reduced to differences in values about the amount of responsibility that should be given to families in decision-making processes in relation to their children (Ryburn 1997). The introduction of FGCs has heightened these issues, but when decision-making responsibilities have been given to families and communities there has been a high level of consensus over the decisions made, in both child welfare and youth justice settings (Marsh and Crow 1998, Jackson 1998). This may be because the decisions naturally take account of the whole family in context. Family structures and values, beliefs on collective responsibility will generate distinct patterns of parenting behaviour (Giovannoni and Becerra 1979) that will be apparent to each family, but perhaps less so to the professionals.

‘That was quite a good idea. Social services have been trying to sort it out for years and we know more than they do.’

‘In the past professionals have made a decision and you didn’t feel it was the right one. The family make a better decision ‘cos they have a larger picture. Social workers only have a small picture.’ (Family members quoted in Lupton et al 1995)

A key question in implementation was, as a practice construct could professional decision-making models and family decision-making models co-exist? Early implementation programs have done this, but the use of FGC has remained marginal to date. This perhaps reflects some of the conflicts inherent in using different approaches, side by side, that are based on quite different assumptions and values.

The original idea that families would make better decision-makers than professionals came from families/community, and yet it is professionals who have designed the service, driven it, constructed and inset the standards and in doing so may have, to some extent at least, colonised and diluted the original spirit behind FGCs. If we continue to assimilate FGC into the bureaucracy there is a danger that they become just another model for the professional agenda; an approach to put families through, in a different and unusual guise. More work needs to be done on changing the culture in professional agencies and fundamentally the system in which they operate, if FGC plans are to really reflect families’ culture, values and aspirations and not just ours.

Kinship ties and social networks

Most of the decisions about the care of children take place in their families. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it) when things go wrong, parent/s it are perceived as having failed in some way and are deemed incapable of making decisions. This is a ‘deficit-model’ that is built on assumptions of individual pathology, an inadequate knowledge base and negative cultural stereotyping. By contrast, the FGC seeks to involve wider family, and begins from a strengths perspective.

One of the main blocks to the use of family group conferences has been assumptions about the weakness of kin and community networks. This has been a major objection to the practical use of FGCs amongst professionals (Nixon et al 1996). In the UK recent research by the Office for National Statistics (1997) revealed that less than half of us now live in ‘traditional families.’ In spite of failing to analyse whose traditions this definition relies on, the survey did reveal a marked change in family composition and structure in recent years. However, despite (or perhaps because of) these changes families remain of central importance in people’s lives. Contrary to popular assumptions, family bonds remain strong, the report concluded. This is supported by earlier research of 13,000 Europeans of whom 96% placed ‘family’ at the top of their list of important aspects of life (Ruxten 1996).

The current stereotype of family, with parents and 2.4 children, is far from the reality for many of us and yet services are configured along this hegemony. Furthermore when families do not meet the stereotype they are often judged as developmentally disadvantaged from both professional and public groups alike (Addington 1984). What research has shown us is that it is the quality of relationships, not family structures, that are key to the well-being of children, yet professionals readily use assumptions and judgments on certain family types being ideal for children, when there is no evidence to support this (Schaffer 1990, Richards 1994).

FGCs in the UK have been hampered by professional concern about the lack of family commitment to involvement, at the same time research into FGC practice highlighted that FGC coordinators had more difficulty getting professionals to FGCs than family members (Lupton et al 1995).

‘There must be a difference in family decision-making as families know better. Family should be able to come up with a better plan, because of family ties and feelings.’ (family member)

Traditional interventions have tended to reduce the concept of ‘family’ or turn the focus on mothers and are likely to ‘blame the mother’ (Farmer and Owen 1995). FGCs by contrast accept a broader definition of family networks and start from the assumption that the family has something integral and of value to offer in decision-making. This is evidenced in the UK research which demonstrates that families are more broadly involved than in any other types of meetings (Lupton et al 1995, Marsh and Crow 1998, Smith and Hennessey 1998) and there are higher levels of agreements about plans.

The importance of kin networks have been highlighted in research, while at the same time those networks are constantly under used or ignored (DH 1991). In relation to fostering with relatives, Rowe et at found placements with kin to be more stable:

‘To our considerable surprise, our data shows that children fostered by relatives seem to be doing better in virtually all respects than those fostered by others.’ (Rowe 1984)

Fifteen years on a recent review of child placement by the Department of Health found that placement with kin was still greatly under used despite evidence on its value:

‘Fostering with relatives is seldom used …. This is particularly curious given that research has consistently found very positive outcomes for children fostered with relatives.’ (Berridge 1997)

A number of reasons could be proposed for this ‘curious’ reluctance to embrace extended family in the care of children. It may be that professionals see involving family as messy, time-consuming, complicated or unpredictable. Perhaps it could relate to some of the following factors:

    • professionals have less control over kin placements

    • more control over paid-for, foster/residential placement

    • assumptions of multi-generational family ‘deficits’

    • a lack of understanding of kin networks

The derogation of kinship in child welfare work has been accompanied by an elevation in the status of care offered by strangers. The government is pushing for adoptions to be provided quicker and in larger numbers. At the same time it appears that children’s kin networks are and remain the most neglected source of care and support for children.

Research in the UK has frequently shown kinship care to be very positive. For example, Berridge and Cleaver’s (1987) study into foster care breakdown showed kinship care offered more stability; Rowe et al (1984) found kinship care held qualitative advantages over ‘stranger care,’ particularly the role grandparents would play; Walton et al (1993) showed how focused efforts could restore children to kin networks, when placement with strangers was initially seen as the only alternative; Trent (1989) showed that even for children where adoption was considered the only viable plan, they could be restored to parents and other relatives. Moreover, in adoption placements, research has shown where children retain links with their families of origin the placements are less likely to disrupt and that children aided through retention of links are more likely to have a clearer self-concept (Ryburn 1995) and more positive self-esteem. In the UK the use of FGCs has meant that children were more likely to be placed with extended family and that placement was more likely to be stable (Crow and Marsh 1997).

The idea of building on social support networks is not new. In the UK community approaches were strongly advocated in two government reports (Seebholm 1969 and Barclay 1982). The practice of strengthening social supports as a means of reducing illness rather than avoiding stressors, or providing a buffer to individuals against the negative effects of crisis is already documented (Cobb 1976). Conversely, Moncher (1995) found strong links between social isolation and limited social ties with increased incidents of child maltreatment. The practice of family group conferences has meant that family connections have been strengthened and extended family members are far more likely to be involved in offering support to their kin than with traditional approaches. This was evident in a study by Marsh and Crow that looked at 80 FGCs in the UK where in 94% of FGCs, families offered some level of support, and in 31% of cases they offered to look after the children for at least some period of time (Crow and Marsh 1997).

‘My family don’t always keep in touch, but they came together because we were at crisis point. When they heard what was going on, they decided it had to be worked out.’

‘At first I thought it was a waste of time. I never thought all my family would turn up, but they did–it made me feel good.’ (family members in Lupton et al 1995)

The Division of Parts: Participation and Partnership

While the community places importance on their family and social networks, services have developed quite a different approach to problems experienced by family members. Cleaver and Freeman (1995) illustrate how ‘partnership’ is merely a word practitioners use:

‘To most parents it is apparent that professionals not only hold all the cards but control the rules of the game. The child protection system sets the style and pace of the investigation, makes judgments based on undisclosed criteria and decided on courses of action regardless of parents’ views.’

If families are excluded from decision-making processes affecting them, a lack of commitment to plans made by strangers (professionals) is likely. However, this is often misinterpreted by the professionals as lack of family commitment to their children (Rowe 1984, Millham et al 1986). The net effect is to create a cycle of mistrust and misunderstanding which has a corrosive effect on relationships between families and professionals. National research on social work has underlined how partnership and good outcomes are connected:

‘The most important condition for success was found always to be the quality of the relationship between the child’s family and responsible professional.’ (Messages from Research-DH 1995)

The enablement of social workers, paradoxically perhaps, may be intimately related to the enablement and inclusion of families, that will ultimately provide the common ground for partnership to develop. However contemporary social work roles tend to be fragmented rather than holistic, and it is holistic roles the are more likely to create inclusive practices. This new role for social workers is connected to the creation of social and health care ‘markets’ with the emergence of the de-professionalised care management role and growth of new approaches with emphasis on performance management and measurement. This process has involved the growth of a new ‘instrumental reason’ driven by ‘efficiency’ and the achievement of specific identified ends. This has replaced the ‘communicative reason’ characterising the caring, emotional elements of social work. The net result is the:

‘...distortion of the face to face interaction which lies at the heart of human caring.’ ( Blaug 1995)

The rise of ‘competencies’ approaches in social work training has produced divided and fragmented approaches to developing professional practice (Dominelli 1996). This has served to further separate and compartmentalize the social work task into the discreet measurable activities. This has had the effect of taking the heart out of holistic and integrated approaches to practice.

The net result of Care Management policies has been the ‘commodification’ of social work (Dominelli 1996). Social worker attention is now focused on performance-related, quantifiable and measurable product-minded outcomes, which are subject to rigid quality controls. The growth of procedure and lists of competencies define increasingly how they should act. Professional autonomy and flexible creative responses to problems are disappearing under a mountain of departmentally-generated policy and standards.

Defining Other People’s Problems

In defining the problems of others, Croft and Beresford (1988) identify the disabling effect of a social work model based on assumptions of professional control, identifying the ‘right’ solutions for ‘problem’ families. This leads to a culture of ‘us and them.’ As social workers are required to take on diagnostic roles, particularly with risk assessments, they are expected to predict behavior through identifying individual pathologies. However, there are real doubts over how far a ‘disease model’ approximates the problems of child abuse (Parton et al 1997) and how well this in fact enables social workers to predict with accuracy the behavior of others.

The way we understand and label problems are likely to vary greatly according to class, culture, religion, ethnicity and geography. We see the problems of others through our own values and beliefs and we legitimate our perceptions and call it assessment. This process takes up most of social workers’ time and could be described as ‘label intensive’ as it leaves little space for offering help and providing services. Most assessment interest from professionals relates to ideas about either family pathology or eligibility within agency procedure. So the current and prevailing models of assessment can be understood as focusing on expert ‘questioning’ or agency ‘procedure.’ Both these models rely on professionals or agency determining ‘need’ and what questions should be asked of ‘others.’

As professionals and agencies are seen as the legitimate definers of need and indeed the providers for those needs, it may be self-evident that professionals’ views of the problem of others will be profoundly influenced by their agency’s role. This leads us to a problem that has troubled philosophers for thousands of years. The way we see the ‘external world’ is inescapably linked to our own preconceptions and expectations, so paradoxically our statements about others are also statements about ourselves. This is known as the self-referential paradox and will inevitably help to construct the views of social workers undertaking assessments, as Ryburn (1991a) argues:

‘Every statement made in an assessment report by a social worker is at least as much a statement about that particular social worker, in her or his wider agency and function, as it is a statement about those who are being assessed.’

Research in child protection, where perhaps the most structured decision-making has taken place, offers little reassurance of a shared objectivity. The evidence suggests that there is little qualitative difference between families processed through the child protection system and those dropped off at an earlier stage (Giller at al 1992). Child protection registers the most standardized organizational measure available, revealing enormous variations in definition cannot be accounted for solely by demography or social problems (DH 1995).

As there has been little progress in constructing a clear, reliable, valid, agreed definition of child abuse, it is extremely difficult for practitioners to learn from research. The lack of definition means research findings are often misleading and cannot be easily generalised. Practitioners/managers/policy makers are then asked to address a problem whose size, prevalence, nature, significance remain undefined. Parton et al (1997b) argue:

‘If researchers are unable to agree about what constitutes child abuse, it potentially puts policy makers and practitioners in an invidious position of trying to identify, prevent and treat a problem whose nature and magnitude remain undefined.’

Indeed current obsessions with risk/risk assessment are not entirely motivated by concerns about the safety and well-being of children; they are just as likely to be driven by the need to provide mechanisms to ration resources and/or allocate responsibility subsequently blame when things go wrong. Furthermore assessment and investigation are dominating activity with correspondingly few resources or services being provided, this when it is arrangements and services that are most likely to help keep children safe.

Given our inability to achieve a robust objectivity surely we should involve users more than we do in defining their own problems and finding solutions to them. Furthermore we need to do far more to develop services that meet needs that are defined by children, their families and the community.

‘There should have been more emphasis on what was available rather than the bad side of the assessment.’

The way agencies use information is crucial. Open, honest language is needed to create a dialogue. However the legacy of exclusive social work has meant there has been a tendency for social workers to use language that is jargonised.

‘The information had no human side to it. It was all professional words. It would have been better to have an interpretation of her words in context. Words were bandied around and needed a human side to soften them.’ (family members in Lupton et al 1995)

Furthermore it is likely that family members have information that professionals never access.

‘Family members know more about their family than any professional can possibly know. They have a unique knowledge and understanding.’ (DH 1995)

Professionals can still dominate the decision-making by setting agendas and extensive ‘bottom-lines’ so changes are needed to help professionals ‘let go.’ In the study by Lupton et al 1995, 40% of professionals indicated to the family what they felt should be the outcome of the FGC even when they had been asked not to do this!

Legal Colonisation and Managerial Annexation of Social Care

There are inherent difficulties in providing sensitive and responsive services through complex bureaucratic structures. It is in this context that the proceduralisation of social work has led to rigid, process-driven practice, that has de-skilled professionals and marginalised families. In particular, current concerns in child protection studies are that children are put through a process or procedure, in which social workers are losing sight of the children’s needs (Audit Co Commission 1994).

In the UK in the 1970’s and 80’s there were a series of Public Inquiries into Child Abuse tragedies, that, chaired by lawyers, led to a plethora of legalistic and procedural responses to the problem of child abuse. However, these procedures were developed on cases where things had, by definition, gone wrong. The consequence was that the procedures became defensive and reactive in nature. The work became process- rather than needs-led and a procedural approach meant that interventions were perceived as harsh and bureaucratic. Quickly social workers found themselves caught on an intervention/non-intervention axis, with many being investigated with little apparent benefit and many other families receiving no help at all. A wedge has been driven between the community and state agencies that has had a corrosive effect on family/professional relationships. In turn families are now even less likely to ask for help when they most need it.

Research in the UK has shown this approach is producing little benefit for most children. A set of 17 studies for the Department of Health called Messages from Research (DH 1995) showed that social work had become forensic, focusing on incidents and evidence. However, the research also showed that serious harm to children rarely came from isolated incidents but was more likely to come from living in an environment of ‘high criticism and low warmth.’ Unfortunately this was the area that the procedural child protection system was least effective with.

Procedures in child protection work may make professionals feel safe. However, this ‘procedural correctness’ has paradoxically increased the likelihood of a procedural mistake (Parton 1997) as the systems become more complex. Moreover, as Dingwall et al comment, it is likely to effect the quality of decision-making for children.

‘The impact of proceduralism and legalism is to shift the focus of attention in a child protection case from taking the right decision to making a defensible decision.’ (Dingwall et al)

The questions FGC have made us ask are could the protection of children be better achieved by:

    • Better collaboration

    • More positive and inclusive services

    • Addressing the child’s context and environment

    • Providing services that generally enhance children’s welfare

    • Focusing on problem-solving and outcomes

This is not minimizing risk but placing it in context. Seeing the family as multifaceted with lines of strength and support rather than just focusing solely on deficits may well be more helpful to children. National (UK) research on FGCs has shown that children were considered to be better protected by FGC plans (none worse) and there are indications of reductions in re-abuse rates compared to other approaches (Crow and Marsh 1997). This may be because the FGC breaks the power of secrecy and allows families to use their knowledge and networks for the protection of the child.

As one family member told researchers:

‘Those of us who were in care are very protective towards the kids and we talk more without the professionals.’ (in Lupton et al 1995)

It is interesting that the family see themselves as protecting the children from the professionals.

‘Letting go’ of some control may be difficult for social workers operating in systems that seek to allocate blame (usually to social workers) if things go wrong. Social workers are being increasingly pushed towards social control, defensive and conservative practices and this climate limits innovation and creativity. This environment for the introduction of FGCs could be described as one of ‘high criticism and low warmth’ for inclusive practices.

Public, professional and political anxiety has served to increase external regulation in an attempt to constrain family and professional decision-making. This in turn reduces choice and decreation for those most involved with the problems. Public crisis of confidence over social work has led to the annexation of medical and legal professional approaches (Cooper 1994/5, Howe 1992).

Social workers find themselves increasingly operating in a domain where police, solicitors and the courts take over a central role in decision-making This has focused attention on the need for evidence and legal rights to intervention or non-intervention, rather than focusing on children’s needs.

‘ reduce the complexities to rights and their infringement may be the only way that the legal process can give the impression of dealing effectively with such conflicts. The suspicion remains, however, that the rights rhetoric is covering up vast areas of human experience which the law is ill-equipped to tackle.’ (King and Trowell 1992)

The complicated raft of professional decision-making meetings means that FGC plans can be diluted. Professionals don’t have to invest in the FGC process and consequently family decisions can be transmuted to suggestions, or ideas for professionals to use or worse ignore. If we impose the use of FGC via procedure there is a danger that FGC will become used as a gatekeeping system or an assessment ‘tool’ on families.

Being too prescriptive may limit creativity, so guidelines rather than procedures are being developed in the UK, but a lack of clear national standards may lead to uneven idiosyncratic practice.

‘Do we really count or will social services do what they want anyway? Do social services really want to listen?’ (family member in Lupton et al 1995)

Ironically, when families don’t carry out professionals plans they are labeled as dysfunctional, uncooperative or even dangerous.

The legal colonisation and managerial annexation of social work has moved those who are affected by the outcomes of decisions, even further away from the decision-making process.

Any attempts to achieve genuine partnerships by tinkering with or affecting piecemeal change is unlikely to be effective. While FGCs may offer an opportunity to reassert oringial social work values, the current obsessions with procedures and legalism may have ‘damaged the capacity of social work profession to think for itself’ (Cooper 1995).

Changing Organisations and Services

In the UK there has been a strong push, from research, to move services away from the reactive, investigative models of intervention, to ones that are more proactive and supportive to families. This has been understood as refocusing services from child protection to family support and mirrors very similar debates throughout the world with child care services. However, refocusing services to be more family-friendly and inclusive has been a major challenge for service providers. Because of anxiety, attempts at change have sought to maintain existing models of intervention while developing different but connected models, that are supposed to represent the family support aspirations of the Children Act.

The reality seems that this approach to refocusing has left policy makers and practitioners with a type of ‘double-vision.’ A twin-track approach has proved too costly to implement and has given confusing and often contradictory messages to families and professionals. Deciding which family should be put into which system moreover has, as implied earlier, been more than a little problematic.

Family support-type services need to start to flourish to set the right context for FGCs to work. Given the complex and longstanding nature of some family problems, it is likely that a range of services and networks will be needed to provide solutions. Multi-agency working and developing statutory and community partnerships have been key in addressing often complex and difficult problems. The greater say groups individuals have in the design and shape of services, the closer we move towards a democratisation of service provision. This needs to have a local development and address local contexts, as the Department of Health assert children’s well-being is best secured in context:

‘Protection is best achieved by building on the existing strengths of the child’s living environment, rather than expecting miracles from isolated and spasmodic interventions.’ (DH 1995)

In practice FGC plans often are more detailed and imaginative than professionals working in isolation, drawing on a wider base of information about their family. The key challenge for agencies is to try and meet requests and plans in a flexible and sensitive way. There is clearly a need to help organizations and services adapt to the needs of families.

‘The plan seemed imaginative and produced a range of ideas that social services would never have thought of.’

‘I felt the plan was more relevant and honest than many of the plans made by social services, as it came from the family not just agreed by them.’ (social workers in Lupton et al 1995)

A key practice issue for FGC in the UK has been the introduction of ‘independent’ coordinators. This has provided a facilitator outside of the statutory agencies, to run the conferences and is predicated on the idea that as independent they will retain a neutral position and won’t have an interest in influencing outcomes of the conference. This in theory at least will mean they are more likely to encourage each family to have more control over decision-making processes.

The provision of coordinators has varied across the UK, some operating from within social work agencies but outside the direct line of decision-making, others working completely outside any agency acting as independent community-based FGC workers. In Hampshire we have wanted to ensure that independence was as much a state of mind as status, so we have drawn widely from the community bringing in coordinators with other occupations such as marriage guidance counselor, artist, head teacher, typist, nurse, community worker, service user, biology professor.

There must be doubts an independence state of mind being brought by professionals with a background in social welfare with various allegiances to the agency function and culture. Moreoever, the collected and assumed professional wisdom from training and experience may make those who have worked consistently with families in crisis hold on to certain social work attitudes to families. In many ways coordinating FGCs may be understood better as art rather than science. Coordinators start with a blank sheet, rather than program or script and will work with families to fill the blank spaces thereby shaping each family’s FGC in their own way.

In developing FGC coordinator roles there seem to be some likely tensions between standards and flexibility. The key skills of coordinating–respect, facilitation, negotiation, organisation–are not exclusive to social work. At present in the UK there are no national standards for coordinators. There is no agreement that we even want independent coordinators and practice is developing locally to respond to local need.

The future location of FGC coordinators services is open to much debate. A popular model has been to place coordinators in voluntary, paid, but non-governmental agencies. As the work grows and develops there will be the temptation to locate the coordinators as part of the bureaucracy. This would seem undesirable given the constraints it would produce. However, placing it outside the statutory agencies would keep it independent but risk the marginalisation of a service that is ultimately dependent on state referrals at present.

Real power in organisations is often seen as placed in the hands of managers and resource providers who are removed from the domain of practice. If professionals are going to use FGC plans as the basis/focus of their work it is vital that agencies can reconfigure services to be more flexible and responsive. Much of the power to regulate services continues to derive from what we choose not to do, as much as those things we do, so ensuring FGC plans are implemented and services requested are provided, is one of the major challenges in introducing this style of work (Lupton et al 1995). Furthermore, if these organisational issues are not addressed families may be placed in an invidious position of having decision-making responsibilities without the power to influence the resources that the FGC relies on to be ultimately effective.

The role service users can have in shaping future child care policies and services is critically connected to the future development of FGC work. If families are given a greater say at a service level, this must be matched with giving them more influence over the type of services agencies provide. Equally if families are involved in decisions at a practice level, then it will be easier to involve them at a strategic and training level in organisations.

The FGC principles provide a model for involving users at a level of the department’s business. Moreover, because it is a positive model, we are more likely to continue an engaging relationship with families. If families are excluded in practice, they will almost certainly be excluded from policy and training programs, and indeed get the message that they are not able to be involved.

It is likely that service users will want to develop more family-friendly and family support-type approaches, that make sense to them and to the community. Involving the community in decisions about service priorities will invariably lead to questions about assumed sanctity of certain budgets.

Families have told us what they don’t want, which implies they still feel they are being expected to choose certain services. Social workers and agencies must continue to apply FGCs as an ongoing decision-making approach and not see the FGC as a ‘one off.’ This should increase the likelihood of plans being sustained and supported.

The systematic recording of FGC requests and non-available services should be mapped to create some kind of wish list defined by users that could help inform future services.

Finally, if agencies are really committed to the FGC philosophy, they should restructure organizational hierarchies, moving away from ‘top-down’ structures to ones that devolve powers and responsibilites to the front-line staff and those closest to the outcomes of decisions. This in turn should make agencies more accessible to the community and families. If managers are unwilling to let go of decision-making to their own staff, then it is unlikely they will be comfortable with enabling families to take up responsibility for decisions. The organisations should model the principles they espouse.

Wider Social, Political and Economic Effects on Inclusion

The context in which FGCs are being introduced will be key to the meaning that is attached to words like ‘responsibility’ and ‘empowerment.’ In the UK, the political denial of the links between poverty, social inequality and parenting problems have made preventative and inclusive social work difficult to realise. The social policies over 20 years have embodied an anti-collectivist approach which has sought to reduce the role of local authorities in communities, cutting public expenditure and services and introducing market principles into public policy.

As the welfare economy has contracted, the numbers of children and families in need have correspondingly grown. This has done nothing to improve the context in which family and community empowerment approaches are being tried. We must ensure that the rhetoric of family responsibility is not translated into a further reduction of resources from the state.

Social work practice and casework is still underpinned by positivist assumptions which view the problems of children and families as lying in individual pathology and failings. Built onto this is a resource gatekeeping function that underlines the fact that modern-day social work is increasingly moving towards a role that is residual and concerned with rationing and social policing. This is connected to the behavior of state agencies who can use FGCs, not as decision-making, but as a rationing approach.

Most of the families who come into contact with social workers live in poverty and research shows us poverty is the biggest risk in children’s lives. While attention is paid to ‘bad parents,’ the wider and often invidious act of poverty is ignored and its damaging effects on children. Inequality in the UK has grown significantly in the last 20 years (Kumar 1993). Cleaver and Freeman (1995) found that two-thirds of families caught up in the child protection process lived ‘on the margins of society’ and faced problems more extreme than the serious allegations with which they were confronted.

Families in the child welfare system often experience, day in and day out, restricted opportunities and reduced chances and choices over their lives. The restricted access to housing, employment, education, leisure, nutrition and health care mean that children and families experience virtually no chance to change the structural inequalities that affect them. In context the net effect on individuals and communities could be to produce a type of ‘learned helplessness’ (Seligman 1975) that makes their subsequent inclusion in decisions even more difficult.

Most children coming into public care have disrupted family relationships and experience poverty, oppression and lack of social support. Indeed research has implied that their needs related at least as much to material deprivation and lack of support as it did to the consequences of abuse and neglect (DH 1991).

As government social economic policies have deepened social divides, the accompanying ideological shifts have enabled the consequent social problem to be blamed on parental failure or the deterioration of family values. Social work alone cannot compensate for the gross inequalities that have been developed in the UK over the last 20 years. Time will tell us if New Labour, which has been infused with much of the New Right ideology, will significantly reverse this trend.

Wider issues of patriarchy, social class, racism and the impact of increasing social divisions, inequality and isolation in society for some groups have made the possibility of inclusion even more remote. If we really want to enhance the inclusion, safety, citizenship and dignity of children and families, then much wider social, political and economic changes are needed, far beyond the services we provide.

Conclusion - Shared Problems and Joined Up Solutions

I have tried in this paper to look at the context and connections that critically impact upon the practice of FGCs. There are a number of developments and changes that need to occur if the development of FGCs is to reach its potential. It is vital that the development of FGCs is not done in isolation from other systems but that all other policy and practice initiatives build from the same principles and values. If we restrict the inclusion of families and the community to particular areas of practice, it is likely that FGCs will remain a marginal activity and be seen as a method that practitioners use on families. There are a number of connected developments that need further attention if the FGC approach is to develop in a holistic and integrated way.

The role of service users and the community

To date the development of FGCs has been predominately professionally led. We must take steps to ensure that families, users and the community are involved in the design and development of the FGC approach. This means providing wide ranging representation on planning forums and ensuring communities have a voice. It also means giving communities more control over finance and resources to plan and provide services based upon these principles. By implication practice and policy developments must seek to develop partnerships that are local and owned by those involved. ‘Act small’ and ‘think big’ could be a statement that captures the local and grassroots nature of the work, if it is to retain its integral principles, keeping influence and development local and based in the community. More should be done in relation to FGCs to develop related advocacy networks and to involve users in creating information and providing training for statutory and non-statutory groups. Services users and community groups should have influence over defining what they consider to be good outcomes and what the key research and evaluation focus should be.

The role of social workers

Social workers need time to develop new/old skills of facilitation, negotiation, respect, if FGCs principles are to flourish into practice. More attention is needed on the role of social workers and what value they can bring to the FGC approach.

Involving social workers in the planning, implementation of FGC work will give them an investment in projects and would model the FGC principles. Practitioners working in hierarchical and disabling structures will not find it easy to practice principles and respect they don’t themselves receive. Using FGC principles to implement the projects and develop the work will get people involved and is likely to be the most effective way.

There are still a number of key practice questions about the amount and type/quality of information presented at FGCs, about what conditions make FGC most effective and where can the approach be further developed. It will be difficult for social workers to empower families if they are not empowered themselves.

The role of organizations and the state

How do we stop FGC becoming assimilated into a bureaucratic agency function/response? Placing coordinators in a voluntary organisation could be a mechanism to hold on to the integrity of the approach, but may further marginalize the work. Involving users in planning services/training/advocacy will ensure that the spirit and ethos of FGC which families are very positive about will be retained.

The extent to which good practice is attained will be absolutely contingent upon the extent to which families and communities are involved. Power-laden and hierarchical structures will do less to enable practitioners and families, those at the ‘grassroots’ who need to be in control of key decisions. Ultimately a wider social, political and economic change is needed if we are to ensure that the well-being and full participation of children and their families is achieved in all aspects of family and community life.


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