FAMILY GROUP CONFERENCING PROJECT
Building Partnerships With and Around Families
FINAL REPORT TO THE
NORTH CAROLINA DIVISION OF SOCIAL SERVICES
FISCAL YEAR 2001-2002
Dr. Joan Pennell
Principal Investigator & Project Director
With Teresa Turner and Jennifer Hardison
Assisted by Amy Coppedge
North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project
North Carolina State University
Social Work Program
Box 7639, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-7639
The North Carolina Family Group Conferencing (NC-FGC) Project started in the fall of 1998 and ended in the summer of 2002. Over this four-year period, the project promoted the use of family group conferencing (FGC) through training, evaluation, and publication. From the outset this initiative adopted a mission statement developed by its statewide advisory committee:
to use Family Group Conferencing in order to develop partnerships among families, neighbors, community members and leaders, and public agencies that protect, nurture, and safeguard children and other family members by building on the strengths of the family and their community.
To carry out this mission, the Project followed a "Partnership-Building Framework" that places the family group, that is, the family, their relatives, friends, and other close supports, at the center of planning. The framework and principles documents have guided every aspect of the project–planning, training, policy, and evaluation.
In accordance with its partnership-building framework, the Project brought together a spectrum of key stakeholders—family, community, government, and university—to guide its development. The Project was based at North Carolina State University, Social Work Program, and supported by social work programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Throughout these four years, the Project received funding from NC-DSS for training and evaluation. Funding for FGC implementation, however, was the responsibility of the participating counties.
While the mission remained constant, the Project’s objectives shifted over the course of the four years of operation from initiating to stabilizing the model. In the first year (1998-1999), the Project primarily focused on (a) developing its mission statement, protocols, and training plan, (b) orienting regions of the state to the model, (c) carrying out focus groups with diverse cultural communities in order to garner their advice on how to implement the model, and (d) initiating planning with the first four participating counties. These counties were based in or toward the western part of the state: Buncombe, Catawba, Cleveland, and Richmond.
In the second year (1999-2000), the Project continued to work on strengthening the capacity of three of the original counties (Buncombe, Catawba, and Richmond) and expanded into three new and more eastern counties (Brunswick, Pasquotank, and Wake). During this time, the training was further developed especially in regards to coordinator training, cross-county exchanges were encouraged, and county advisory committees established. The main challenge to model implementation was funding for FGC coordination. Nevertheless, conferencing was initiated, and data began to be collected from participants on the FGC process.
During the third year (2000-2001) work continued with six counties: Brunswick, Buncombe, Catawba, Pasquotank, Richmond, and Wake. Although interest in the model remained strong in the state, no new counties were added over the year because of funding difficulties at the local level. The moratorium on county expansion, however, had its benefits. The Project could focus on greatly refining and extending its training approach. Training now moved beyond orienting counties and providing initial coordinator training to offering more in-depth coordinator training and support and, equally important, preparing social workers on their role at conferences. By now, the evaluative feedback from FGC participants helped to inform the development of the training program.
In its final and fourth year (2001-2002), the Project maintained support of three counties (Buncombe, Catawba, and Wake) and extended into another six counties (Cabarrus, Cumberland, Durham, Harnett, Jackson, and Lincoln). The interest in the model, though, was far greater than these figures would indicate. In response to a spring 2001 NC-DSS call, 28 out of 100 NC counties stated that they were interested in looking at using the model. On the heels of this call, however, the state of North Carolina suffered funding cut-backs which were later severely exacerbated by September 11th economic reverberations. Without any new funding support from the state, many county DSSs were unable to participate in the Project.
Despite these budgetary restraints, the number of trained coordinators and the number of conferences rose in the state. Early successes in conferencing motivated counties to persevere in the initiative. With more systematic training in the evaluation and streamlining of the evaluation plan, counties more easily took part in the evaluation. Policy development was informed by evaluation data from FGC participants along with feedback from other key stakeholders (including child welfare workers, domestic-violence advocates, police, individuals receiving treatment for substance abuse, women prisoners who had killed their partner, and male batterers). At the end of the fourth year, FGC policies were finalized for submission to NC-DSS. In looking ahead, participating counties indicated that they would miss the training from NC-FGC Project; nevertheless, the majority planned to continue conferencing.
By the fourth year, the evaluation had sufficient data to provide useful information on the model’s implementation and particularly how family group were prepared for the conferences and how they took part in making the plans. The study showed that FGC coordinators in general were diligent in completing the preparatory tasks, and FGC participants were usually satisfied with these preparations. At the end of the conference, they reported that their conference was held in the right place, typically a church or community center, and they felt prepared for the event. Their main complaint about the preparations was that some other people—usually fathers, the other side of the family, or certain service providers-- should have been present at the conference.
During the conference, most thought that they had enough say and could get across their points as needed, but a minority thought they needed more say. In forming their plans, at times they wished that they had been given more information on resources and somewhat clearer presentations by child welfare workers. Contrary to common fears of manipulation by abusers during the family’s private time, they and the research observers reported that the most important decision strategies were consensus and following a trusted leader. At the end of the conference, participants usually liked the plan and felt motivated to carry it out.
At the end of the Project, counties were asked for their views on what it had been like to take part. In response, the interviewees stressed the following:
- The Project helped to promote strengths-based and family-centered practice across their agencies and solidified collaborations with other community organizations.
- The conferences benefited the children for whom they were held by decreasing child maltreatment and expanding placement possibilities.
- Conferences were held at minimal cost to Social Services.
- The training built understanding of the model and motivated Social Services and community agencies to support the effort.
- The main barrier to FGC implementation was paying for coordinators.
- Counties were confused as to when to use different models for involving families in service planning and needed a state plan that encompassed multiple systems.
Funding cut-backs along with escalating child protective services’ workload and worker turn-over adversely affected the capacity of North Carolina counties to provide resources for FGC implementation. At the same time, these same pressures highlighted all the more the necessity of utilizing a partnership approach to safeguarding children that joined together the resources of family groups, community organizations, and public agencies.
The federal review of the North Carolina child welfare system noted substantial progress in foster care delivery, child welfare training, and collaboration with other agencies. At the same time, the review stressed the need for improvement particularly in child protection, services to adolescents, and the inclusion of parents and teens in service planning.
The primary question at this juncture is not the "future of FGC in North Carolina" but more fundamentally about creating a range of practices that promote the voice of family and extended family to better the lives of their young relatives. The following set of recommendations has been formulated with this goal in mind:
- Developing and promoting a state plan for encouraging the voices of family and extended family.
- Adopting a clear set of policies for implementing models that involve family members in safe and effective ways and utilizing the expertise of child and women’s advocates in formulating these policies.
- Increasing service effectiveness by identifying key dimensions of family-involvement models so that these dimensions are deployed in particular contexts.
- Maintaining links with other reform efforts in human services and offering joint training.
- Providing additional funding and training geared to small, rural counties so that reform efforts can be fostered beyond the larger counties.