Family group conference – embodying the social work of past and future

22 May 2017

Image: Tim FisherTim Fisher

What is fulfilling and exciting for a social worker? If I had to boil down a complex professional life into a few words then for me, hope, connection and the experience of change are all important.

Family group conferences (FGC) try to harness these three things by bringing a network of people together to problem-solve on their own terms.

I got interested in family group conference as a social work student, and my first family group conferences 12 years ago were for a small organisation called Family Circle (part of a pioneering Welsh charity called Tros Gynnal). Their office was painted bright colours and was plastered with a mix of music posters and philosophical slogans. The process can be as important as the outcome it said on the wall in front of me on my first day.

It was a good message – that how we go about doing something is just as important as getting the job done, especially if we want a good outcome when it comes to people’s wellbeing. 

Working there was a rich experience, not least because family group conference practice proved to back up both my hopes for it and the evidence base that extols its benefits (http://www.frg.org.uk/involving-families/family-group-conferences/fgc-publications-and-research). It seemed to me to embody social work of the past and of the future all at once: working with groups, belief in social change, while at the same time prioritising personalisation and the primary importance of recognising individual rights, identity and culture.

I read that the history of the model began in the UK when visiting social workers witnessed the use of family group conference in New Zealand, where it had been developed as a means of engagement and care planning used in partnership with the Maori Community. The FGC approach was introduced in the UK to children and young people’s social work services first – the latest figures show that some 84% of local authorities now offer a FGC service in their children's social work teams (Family Rights Group Survey 2015).

In recent years family group conference has been further developed as a way of working co-productively with vulnerable adults, their families, and their circles of support. 

The growing evidence base for its use with adults contends that FGCs:

  • Produce safe plans (Forsyth 2013)
  • Help individuals feel more in control and groups more resilient (SCIE 2012; Malmberg-Heimonen 2011)
  • Are restorative (De Jong 2012)
  • Can be more culturally sensitive (Forsyth 2013; Camden evaluation 2015)
  • Are valued by the people that use them (Marsh 2007; Camden evaluation 2015)
  • Produce personalised plans drawing on resources from family and friends (SCIE 2012; Forsyth 2013)
  • Can save agency resources (Marsh 2007; DayBreak 2011)
  • Build trust between agencies and service users (SCIE 2012; Schout 2016)

Our feedback in Camden is that FGC is useful and appropriate for our communities. We do more than 250 per year with a range of people. They’re free to access, the criteria for referral can be very broad, and for adults working with adult social care they can have a powerful impact (more info on what they are, how they work and some useful downloadable resources and films here: www.camden.gov.uk/fgc). 

A recent example sticks my mind, where an adult with a serious disability wanted an FGC, yet had no family members in the country. However, her local friend network and faith community were able to come together to make a tight support plan. We organised a family group conference with the person, her local network, and the family network abroad (via Skype). At this meeting, the family were able to play an active role in the conversation and an email group of communication was formed so that the family abroad could support the UK network and help put the plan into action. In this case, FGC was vital to put a sustainable plan in place to support a meaningful outcome.

In Camden this month we asked social workers and FGC organisers to talk about what they thought was important to carry out a good FGC. They started with relationships, the magic ingredient of FGC, and the basis for widening the circle of support for a person. It’s essential to be aware of the different relationships and potential power imbalances within the group of professionals and family members that make up the network they said. They told us that recognising the skills and competencies of the facilitator and the professional/social worker referrer is key. It’s also important to work within the values of FGC to adopt a strengths-based approach, both to inform and empower the network, whilst using the FGC model to mitigate power imbalances. An essential factor is the need for a clear purpose, for instance, ‘planning support and protection for an older person’. Last but not least, practical aspects of FGC like the community venue and food provided, give the meeting a different feel.

I think it’s encouraging to see how FGC is being used with adults, and a burgeoning UK Family Group Conference with Adults Practice Network shows that this practice is on the move in all kinds of areas including safeguarding, disability, self-neglect and homelessness. I am going to be facilitating a RiPfA workshop with Lydia Guthrie on this topic at the beginning of June – and I think that this is another good sign that this slow train is now picking up speed as a practice model for both the present and the future.

About the author

Tim Fisher is Family Group Conference Service Manager at Camden Council. He is a social worker working on developing FGC and has experience of related work on Personal Budgets, Advocacy and Co-production.    

Related resources

Family group conferencing with adults is the subject of an upcoming RiPfA Knowledge Exchange Workshop on 6 June. View event details.  

About Family Group Conference in Camden: http://www.camden.gov.uk/ccm/content/social-care-and-health/services-for-children-and-families/fgc/family-group-conference/

Share this page