North Carolina State University
Social Work Program
North Carolina Family Group Conferencing Project


FAMILY GROUP CONFERENCING IN CHILD WELFARE
PRACTICE GUIDANCE
FOR PLANNING, IMPLEMENTING, TRAINING, AND EVALUATING
2002

This practice guidance document was developed in conjunction with
the North Carolina Division of Social Services.


Purpose of Family Group Conferencing

In child welfare, the purpose of family group conferencing is 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.


Description of the Model

Family group conferencing (FGC) is a decision-making process involving families, public agencies, and community participants. FGC is structured so that child welfare families can exercise a meaningful voice over their affairs. Emphasis is given to preparing family group members and professionals, weighting conference participation toward the family, respecting the culture of the family, and ensuring timely approval and implementation of plans. County Departments of Social Services designates an "independent" coordinator to organize and convene the conference. The coordinators are referred to as "independent" in the sense of not carrying the family on their caseload.

There are five basic stages to FGC: community involvement, referral, preparation, the conference itself, and implementing the family plan.

Community Involvement. At the initiation of the program, public agencies work with community partners and families to develop an implementation plan specific to the needs of the community and cultures within the community. On an ongoing basis, the program is strengthened by including a broad range of organizations in guiding, providing resources for, recommending referrals, and evaluating conferencing.

Referral. The referral stage usually involves social workers, in consultation with the family and their supervisor, making a referral to the FGC coordinator. In child welfare, cases are referred after clear concerns for the safety and well-being of children and family members are identified. Cases are not referred for the purpose of investigation or fact finding.

Preparation. During the preparation stage, the social worker, family, and FGC coordinator work together to plan for who will attend, when and where the conference will be held, lodging, travel, and a variety of other issues. Particular attention is paid to the safety of participants.

Conference. The conference itself has three basic phases: information sharing, family private time, and finalizing the plan. At the conference, the family group members identify their relationship to the children and their hopes for the session, listen to information from agency and community participants, and meet alone to discuss the options for planning. They create a plan and then present it to the social worker (and as pertinent to the situation, other mandated authorities such as juvenile justice services). There is often discussion and negotiation until a plan is created that the family members want and the child welfare worker approves.

Implementation. Implementation of the family plan is ongoing and happens with the support of family, community participants, and the public agencies. The public agency maintains its responsibility for monitoring the safety and protection of the children and family. As outlined in the plan or as needed, the coordinator may reconvene the FGC.


Definition of Terms

Family Group. The family group includes the immediate family, relatives, and other close supports who feel "like family." The family group members are the FGC participants who remain during the family private time.

FGC Coordinator. The FGC coordinator is responsible for organizing and convening the conference. The FGC coordinator does not carry other responsibilities in regards to the referred family.

Family Private Time. The family private time is the FGC period when the service providers, including the FGC coordinator, leave the room and the family group makes a plan on its own.

Family Group Plan. The plan is the agreement reached among family group members and authorized by the referring agency or agencies.

Support Person. The support person is an adult selected by a family group member to stay by them during the conference and provide emotional support. This person may be a relative, friend, or community member but is not the FGC coordinator or the referring worker.

Family Group Conference. A family group conference is a planning forum that places the family group at the center of the deliberations.

Community Panel. The community panel is a group of consultants to whom the FGC coordinator can turn for information about how best to work with the family.


POLICIES

I. Objective

  1. The objective of FGC is to provide a forum for families, kin, friends, service providers, and agency representatives to create plans that promote the health, safety, and protection of children and other family members.
  2. FGC does not remove or reduce the mandate of child welfare to protect children. FGC enriches the planning by encouraging input by family group members and community organizations.
  3. The FGC plan is integrated into the family services case plan.
  4. FGC is not a substitution for investigation or assessment and is not to be used as a fact-finding tool in the investigative process.


II. Planning

  1. County Departments of Social Services work with community partners to design a county plan for carrying out FGC.
  2. County Departments of Social Services and community partners establish a county advisory council to guide planning, implementation, and evaluation of the FGC program. These include children and women's advocates.
  3. The county plan includes the following:
    1. Membership on the county advisory council;
    2. Membership on the county community panel;
    3. Location and selection of FGC coordinators;
    4. Training of FGC coordinators, social workers, and other participating community groups;
    5. Funding for FGC coordinators, conferences, and plans;
    6. System of FGC referrals,
    7. Integration of FGC plans in service delivery;
    8. System for authorization of FGC referrals; and
    9. Evaluation of the FGC program.


III. Referrals

  1. County Social Services Departments determine the eligibility processes for families to receive FGC with the following guidelines:
    1. Any family is potentially eligible.
    2. FGC may happen at any time in the life of the child welfare case, but particularly at times when plans need to be made on critical issues such as those regarding:
      1. Family preservation,
      2. Child placement,
      3. Family reunification,
      4. Adoption,
      5. Development of service plans, and
      6. Case closures.
  2. County Social Services Departments determine the referral processes for families to receive FGC within the following guidelines:
    1. Participation in FGCs is voluntary. Primary caregivers and other family group members agree to take part in the FGC and agree to its primary purpose.
      1. If individual family members choose not to participate, the FGC coordinator may hold the conference in their absence or decide not to hold the conference. The FGC coordinator's decision is made in consultation with the referring worker and the family group members.
      2. If a FGC is not held, the Department of Social Services continues to provide its regular services to the family and does not penalize the family members for deciding not to have a conference.
    2. County Social Services Departments are to assess referrals for FGC on a case-by-case basis to decide whether families are best served by FGC or other interventions. Considerations are to include:
      1. Sufficient number of family members,
      2. Family situation, including safety of participants,
      3. Willingness of the family to participate, and
      4. Openness of the agency to consider the family plan.
    3. In crisis situations where an immediate response is required for the protection of children, the Department of Social Services takes action but may also refer the family for a FGC in order to resolve longer-term issues.
    4. In cases before the court, judges may offer the option of a FGC taking place prior to disposition. The child welfare worker makes the referral, with the family group members taking part on a voluntary basis. The family group plan is provided to the judge to consider in making the disposition.


IV. Preparation

  1. Thorough preparation is essential to successful FGC. Preparation activities by the FGC coordinator and family group members should address the following:
    1. Safety for all participants - before, during, and after the FGC.
    2. Invitations - who shall come to the conference.
    3. Identification of sensitive issues and how to discuss them at the conference.
    4. Where and when the conference will be held:
      1. A comfortable and neutral setting (usually not DSS offices),
      2. A time that works for the family, and
      3. A time that is not so late in the day that it hinders the FGC successful completion.
    5. Adult support persons for all members feeling threatened, particularly:
      1. Children and young people,
      2. Victims/survivors, and
      3. Perpetrators.
    6. Role clarification - planning so that all participants understand what their roles are and what is expected of them at the FGC.
    7. Food - what will be served at the FGC according to the family's wishes.
    8. Travel/lodging - particularly for family members who will come from far away.
    9. Traditions and ritual - opening, closing, and conducting the FGC in a way that fits with the family's culture.
    10. Interpreters - for families and service providers who speak different languages or who are hearing impaired.
    11. Special needs - wheelchair access, food allergies, developmental delays, etc.
    12. Guest speakers - from groups or agencies who might have some services or information to offer the family, but usually with whom the family is not already connected.
    13. Community panel - a body of consultants to whom the FGC coordinator can turn for information about how best to work with the family.
    14. Childcare - as needed.
    15. Anything else to help the conference go smoothly.


V. Roles in Family Group Conferencing

  1. Children:
    1. Children participate in the planning for the conference and attend the conference whenever possible.
    2. Children may attend on a full or partial basis.
    3. The social worker, FGC coordinator, and key family members make the decision as to how the children can best participate in the process.
    4. The plan for the children's participation is based on an assessment of their physical and emotional safety, their own expressed preferences, and their levels of maturity.
  2. Family group members:
    1. Family group members participate in the planning of the FGC and work with the coordinator on who should be invited, time and space of the meeting, and all of the other preparation issues.
    2. Family group members who feel threatened are encouraged to have supports at the conference. Children, who are victims/survivors and attend the FGC, must have a support person.
    3. Family group members have private time at the conference to consider the information shared and to make decisions about the family plan.
  3. FGC coordinator:
    1. The FGC coordinator's function is to organize and lead the FGC.
    2. The FGC coordinator works closely with the family in planning the FGC.
    3. The FGC coordinator consults with the community panel members to ensure attention to crucial preparatory steps and to become informed of available services and resources.
    4. The FGC coordinator invites the FGC participants and prepares them for taking part in the conference.
    5. The FGC coordinator attends the entire conference and waits in a nearby area during family private time.
    6. The FGC coordinator promotes decision-making but does not take part in the decision-making and has no stake in the final plan.
    7. The FGC coordinator provides each FGC participant with a written copy of the plan.
    8. The FGC coordinator's role is limited to the FGC itself; the FGC coordinator does not have any other role with the family (e.g., service provider).
    9. The FGC coordinator will organize and reconvene FGCs as requested by the social worker or by family members, or as stated in the plan.
  4. Social workers:
    1. The social worker participates in the planning of the FGC.
    2. The social worker attends the entire conference and waits in a nearby area during family private time or is available by pager or phone for a quick return.
    3. The social worker articulates concerns and provides information to the FGC participants relevant to the agency's involvement with the family.
    4. The social worker provides feedback to the family group members about their plan at the conference and is charged with:
      1. Authorization of the plan,
      2. Disapproval of the plan, or
      3. Negotiation until an agreed-up plan is reached.
    5. The social worker generally accepts the plan when it is assessed to meet the child's needs and be all of the following:
      1. Safe for all family members,
      2. Legal, and
      3. Possible given available resources.
    6. If uncertain about the plan meeting the above conditions, the social worker consults with the supervisor and other relevant service providers (e.g., schools, domestic violence).
    7. The social worker integrates the FGC plan into the Family Services Case Plan as documented in the DSS case record.
    8. The social worker helps with the resourcing of the plan and works to integrate supports from the public agencies, other community organizations, and the family's community.
    9. The social worker supports the efforts of the family and other service providers to carry out the plan.
    10. The social worker monitors the plan as it is carried out and continues with usual duties and responsibilities.
  5. Community participants:
    1. Community participants present information about resources in the community that may be helpful to the family and answer questions accordingly.
    2. Community participants attend the conference by invitation of the family and social worker.
    3. Community participants attend the first phase of the conference and are generally encouraged to return after family private time. Their attendance during the final phase is not mandatory.
    4. Community participants do not take part in the decision-making at the conference.


VI. Confidentiality/Privacy

  1. County Departments of Social Services determine any privacy policies within the following guidelines:
    1. Counties which use FGC coordinators external to County DSS agencies will develop a standing agreement, such as a memorandum of understanding, between the external coordinator and his/her agency and the Department of Social Services. This agreement will cover confidentiality issues for all conferences on which the external FGC coordinator may work.
    2. FGC coordinators get agreement from all FGC participants that the information shared at FGC will remain confidential except for:
      1. Threats by participants to harm themselves or others,
      2. Anything that would require a new report of child abuse/neglect or abuse, neglect, or exploitation of disabled adult, or
      3. General information that may be included in the written family plan that all participants receive after the FGC.
    3. Service providers, including social workers and agency representatives, respect families' privacy by sharing only information relevant to the purpose of the FGC.
    4. Service providers working for other agencies are bound by the confidentiality rules of those agencies. Potential barriers related to this need to be worked out on an individual basis (e.g., on substance abuse treatment).
    5. Evaluation activities respect the confidentiality/privacy of family group members.


VII. Safety

  1. The safety of children, family members, and all participants is of utmost importance at FGC. Therefore:
    1. The FGC coordinator undertakes a safety assessment of the referred family during the referral as well as at later stages in the FGC process. This safety assessment takes place separately with individual family members and includes but is not limited to the following:
      1. What violence has occurred and is occurring in the family? What is its nature, extent, severity, frequency, lethality, and impact?
      2. Do the victims/survivors want the perpetrators to be present at the FGC?
      3. What likely impact would participation in the FGC have on family group members with serious health and/or mental health issues?
      4. What other services (e.g., domestic violence, police, substance abuse) are involved with the family? Are these services aware of the situation and what interventions are they providing?
      5. The FGC coordinator helps the family plan for safety by: (a) having participants think through in advance how to present their views, (b) encouraging participants who feel threatened to select a support person and checking that the support person can fulfill this role, (c) strategizing on non-survivor participants raising safety issues, (d) identifying family group members who carry the most authority in the family and are willing to exert this authority in keeping abusive family members under control, (e) developing signals for identifying that tensions are high and that the FGC coordinator needs to step in, and (f) promoting planning on other safety measures.
    2. The FGC coordinator, in consultation particularly with victims/survivors, excludes or limits participation of some family group members. No victims/survivors are to be present together with perpetrators if the victims/survivors do not want the perpetrator present or if the involved service providers advise against the perpetrators being present.
    3. No FGC takes place in a way that violates restraining orders or other orders of the court. In cases where some family members cannot be present at the conference, the FGC coordinator makes arrangements for their input through letters, conference calls, or other means of non-present participation.
    4. The FGC coordinator consults with knowledgeable community panel members (e.g., child sexual abuse counselors, domestic violence advocates) on safety issues in organizing the conference.
    5. The FGC coordinator prepares the social worker to share the relevant family history and identify concerns, including safety issues, to be addressed in the plan. The history is shared with the family group but not with guest speakers who do not need to be made aware of the family's particular situation.
    6. The FGC coordinator and social worker make sure that the family plan addresses all safety issues raised at the FGC and that there is a mechanism in place for monitoring ongoing safety concerns.
    7. If the FGC coordinator, social worker, or family has concerns about violence at the FGC, then special arrangements are made, including but not limited to the following:
      1. Arrange for security at the conference,
      2. Call for a break at the conference,
      3. Postpone the conference,
      4. Cancel the conference, or
      5. End the conference.
    8. The FGC coordinator assumes responsibility for taking any of the above arrangements and does not place this responsibility upon a family group member, particularly victims/survivors, who might be blamed for the decision.
    9. The social worker is responsible for authorizing the plan. In reaching a decision, the social worker may consult on safety measures.


VIII. Training

  1. FGC training incorporates and supports the policies in this document.
  2. Training is delivered to County Departments of Social Services staff, community partners, FGC coordinators, and others relevant to the process.
  3. Training is focused on the following:
    1. Principles and practices of FGC,
    2. Community involvement and program development,
    3. Cultural respect,
    4. Role of the FGC coordinator,
    5. Role of the social worker,
    6. Power imbalance at FGC: domestic violence and sexual abuse,
    7. Evaluation of FGC,
    8. Group work and facilitation skills, and
    9. Preparation for FGC.


IX. Evaluation

  1. The research and evaluation activities are designed with the following guiding principles:
    1. The priority is the safety and well-being of participants.
    2. The procedures are to be culturally respectful.
    3. The procedures are to respect the confidentiality/privacy of participants with four exceptions: (1) the interviewee discloses information causing one to suspect the abuse, neglect, or dependency of any child under the age of 18 years which has not been previously brought to the attention of the Division of Social Services; (2) the interviewee discloses information causing one to suspect the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a disabled adult which has not been previously brought to the attention of the Division of Social Services; (3) the interviewee is threatening to harm him/herself or to harm someone else; and (4) the interviewee requests that the researcher assists with an urgent situation (e.g., a medical emergency).
    4. Where feasible and while maintaining confidentiality, the activities are to serve both FGC coordination and evaluation purposes.

Document author: Joan Pennell
Last revised: 16 November 2002
URL: https://www.cface.org/projects/family_engagement/ncfgcp/pracguid.php