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‘Families and their networks are the most important influence on outcomes for children’

Putting family group conferences at the centre of children’s services gives better quality results and saves money, a senior social worker told a COMPASS Jobs Fair seminar in Birmingham.

08/04/24

‘Families and their networks are the most important influence on outcomes for children’

Mike Hayward, Principal Social Worker with Solihull Children’s Services told an audience at the recent COMPASS Jobs Fair that traditional beliefs are that agencies regulate risk, delivering top-down solutions with a narrow focus on the child and parents -- usually the mother.

In that scenario, professionals are the experts and it is professionals who define the rules of engagement – families have to fit in.

As a result, current systems produce blame and conflict, low participation and learned helplessness among families, practitioners and the children themselves. Procedures and processes are more important than people, quality and needs.

This leads to an inflation of risk, chronic anxiety, system overload – and children who become ‘lost in the system.’

‘We need an alternative,’ he said. ‘What if systems are built around families, not strangers? Communities rather than organisations? Family decisions, and not bureaucracy?

‘What if we took and prioritised children’s culture and identity rather than white male corporate culture?

‘Supposing we had a different belief system with children at the heart of the strategy for social and economic wellbeing? What if we invested in children and believed in long-term gains over short term risk?

‘What if we saw children, their families and communities as the experts and leaders?

‘Our thinking then would be influenced by family decision-making and working with family networks. Children’s voices and participation would be included. The organisational and practice culture would be better; it would mean better inter-agency partnerships and collaborative working.

‘The focus would be on restorative practice, an approach to safety, wellbeing and participation based on building, maintaining and repairing relationships. Its values, behaviours and methods would give people a common way of working.’

He said that current professionally-based systems are rational, rules-based and formal. This puts them in conflict with family-based systems, which are essentially relational, informal, dynamic, loose, and based on understanding. Bridging the gap means knowing how to connect with families, and understanding their networks and stories.

It means family-led decision making as a right, with collaboration and advocacy, dialogue, language and listening as the key components.

Family group conferences are the key to such working. They were first developed in New Zealand, as a response to questions about the large number of Maori children removed into state institutions; today FGCs are used in approximately 30 countries worldwide.

Upon referral, an independent, neutral coordinator is appointed to help families plan and think about the decisions that will need to be made.

The conference itself is in three stages: information sharing; private family time and agreeing the plan.

Mr Hayward said that the conference must be at the centre of the work – it cannot be an add-on. Other challenges include having effective links to other processes, and positioning children’s rights against adult family rights. Understanding the cultural context is crucial too.

He discussed an evaluation of 1500 families and 21 local authorities participating in family group conferences between 2020 and 2022. In this randomised, large- scale evaluation, a key finding was that children whose families were referred for FGCs were less likely to go into care and those that did go into care spent less time there.

Furthermore, family group conferences meant children were less likely to go to court for decisions about their care. Overall, practitioners were positive about their experience.

Also, family group conferences were found to be cost-effective, with a saving of £960 per child referred in the first year.

By comparison, he said, the cost of each placement for a child was £50,000-£60,000 – a figure he described as ‘frightening’.

In conclusion, he said in a family-led approach, restorative practice is the glue which binds working across agencies. ‘Good outcomes rely on the quality of service, not the number of agencies involved.’

Find out more about the Solihull Children's Services practice model at www.solihullcarejobs.co.uk

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