In 1998, I attended a professional event in England where I heard a grandmother describe how terrified she was that county social workers were going to place her grandchildren in foster care because her daughter, a single mother, was suffering severe depression.
The grandmother poignantly described her family’s feelings of helplessness and desperation in the face of the power of government, however well-intentioned, to sweep into their lives and take away the grandchildren that they loved so dearly.
However, the skies suddenly brightened for the grandmother and her extended family when the county social service agency offered them the opportunity to participate in a family group conference or FGC.
Instead of the “system” and its social workers making decisions about children without their family’s involvement, family members were invited to develop their own plan of care for the children.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles rallied around the struggling mother and her kids.
In the FGC, they organized a structured schedule of visitation and family support at critical hours of the day that ensured the well-being of the children.
The plan they developed was sufficiently rigorous to satisfy the concerns that had brought about the threatened government intervention.
The FGC was first developed in New Zealand as a response to the Maori — that country’s native people — who were alarmed by the frequent removal of children from their homes in child abuse and juvenile delinquency cases.
Under an innovative 1989 law, before the courts can remove children from their homes, either for delinquency or child abuse, families must be given the opportunity to develop their own plan to keep their children at home.
The law’s most radical provision requires the authorities who convene the meeting to leave the room and allow the family to meet in private; informally called “family alone time.”
The net effect of this new law, according to former New Zealand Judge Fred McElrea, “was that many expensive institutions were able to be closed, and court sittings dealing with young people were greatly reduced.”
New Zealand has moved away from the idea that experts know best.
Rather, it engages families, empowers them to make responsible decisions and requires social workers to do things with families rather than to or for them.
Nor has New Zealand allowed professional social workers to limit which child gets a conference, resulting in more than 200,000 conferences since the law went into effect — in a country of less than 5 million.
McElrea pointed out that the outcome has realized “substantial savings—not only in dollar terms, but also in terms of the unintended damage that those institutions can cause.”
The New Zealand development of the family group conference has influenced practices throughout the world.
In the United Kingdom, the majority of local jurisdictions employ FGCs at times, though—unlike New Zealand—only in a few locales are they mandated for all children taken into care.
Daybreak, the leading FGC provider for children in the U.K., was one of the earliest adopters of the approach, and also pioneered family group conferences for vulnerable adults who have disabilities or who have experienced elder abuse.
As an independent agency organizing and coordinating the FGCs, Daybreak assists families in confronting the awesome power of the state, giving the lifeworld more influence in system decisions.
In the United States and Canada, FGC is usually called family group decision-making or FGDM.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, nearly half of its 67 counties have actively implemented FGDMs, signaling “a significant shift in how families are engaged in decision-making to resolve concerns.”
Community Service Foundation, one of the youth-serving agencies that my wife and I founded, provides FGDM services to several Pennsylvania counties.
Families who have had bad experiences with “the system” love FGDM.
An African-American grandfather from Los Angeles explained that he didn’t like social workers because,” he said, “of my past experiences with the Department of Children and Family Services and the way that they operate.”
After experiencing an FGDM on behalf of one of his grandchildren, he asked, “Who died in the Department of Children and Family Services and let them do something so terrific?”
A review of research by the American Humane Association reported that plans developed by FGDM in child protection “are more likely to keep children safe, result in more permanent placements, decrease the need for foster care, maintain family bonds and increase family well-being…for even the most challenging child welfare situations, including neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse and sexual and physical abuse.”
FGC’s have spread around the world.
Eigen Kracht Centrale is a Dutch social service agency that provides FGC’s using volunteer coordinators and translators to serve a diverse ethnic population.
The agency’s research has demonstrated that getting people to solve their own problems, although it costs money to convene the FGC, ends up costing the government less because people are more committed to doing things for themselves and to supporting plans that they themselves create.
When there is not an FGC, typically those cases cost about twice as much for the government as those for which there was an FGC.
Rob Van Pagée, founder of Eigen Kracht Centrale, is a fierce advocate for giving people voice and choice.
He remembers that when he was a young social worker, everything revolved around the professional, not the family.
“They were my families.
“They adapted to my way of working.
“They came to my office, at a time chosen by me.
“They learned my professional jargon.
“It was about my explanation of their problems.”
As Van Pagée came to recognize the shortcomings of the system, he embraced the New Zealand FGC and brought it to the Netherlands.
Studies in the Netherlands had shown that traditional child welfare interventions helped in only one third of the cases, while one third stayed the same and one third were actually made worse by the child welfare system.
A unique feature of the Eigen Kracht Centrale approach to FGC is the use of volunteer non-professional conference coordinators, independent of the professional social workers who are the case workers.
Even where professionals serve as coordinators, as in the case of our own Community Service Foundation, the staff are not county case workers and can act independently.
The critical issue is that we must never use case workers as conference coordinators because they are tempted to interfere — for much the same reason that Terry O’Connell created his restorative justice conference script — to keep police officers from intruding into the participants’ discussion.
In 2011 Van Pagée founded the European Family Group Conference Network to foster FGC in other countries in Europe.
Van Pagée says that FGC gives respect back where it belongs — to the families — who are willing and able to take responsibility for their problems.
Eigen Kracht Centrale has been innovative in its use of FGC, going far beyond child welfare cases to include any situation where people would benefit from bringing a group together to solve a problem — like the neighborhood FGC that helped an immigrant couple get their young children to regular dialysis treatment so that the parents could hold jobs.
In another instance an FGC and Real Justice conference were combined.
A father had murdered the mother of their two young children and was in prison.
The extended family was scheduled for an FGC to address the needs of the children, who had, in effect, lost both their parents.
The two sides of the family, however, were not emotionally ready to work together on the problem.
Instead, a Real Justice conference was held, focusing on the feelings and thoughts around the murder, using the scripted Real Justice questions.
Proceeding around the circle, everybody had a chance to express their feelings.
The family took a break for lunch, then came back and did an FGC about the needs of the children, which was very successful.
The uncomfortable feelings that the two families initially held had been softened by the Real Justice conference, so that they could collaborate in planning a caring future for their shared grandchildren.
In 2015 the Netherlands passed a law affirming the right of citizens to have an opportunity, when faced with imminent government intervention in their family, to make their own plan together with their network of family and friends.
Van Pagée argues that the success of FGC in the Netherlands has been a revelation for child welfare workers who were cynical about families and thought that it was going to be hard to get families to come to FGCs.
The reality, he said, is that the child welfare system itself has been a bigger problem for FGC than the families.
“Many social workers feel they need to control safety issues.”
When he taught FGC to social work students he faced a great deal of opposition.
He says that people become social workers to save people, but they must now send a different message.
“It’s not us who can help you, it’s you that can help you.”
The family is a robust institution.
Yet in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world, families face difficult challenges and crises.
In many places governments intervene in the problems of troubled families.
But there are limits to what government can do.
Of course, there are financial limitations.
But there are also limitations inherent in the roles that professionals can play.
We reach those limits when we try to do things to families and for families.
In a new reality we must recognize that the best results are achieved by helping families help themselves.
What benefits people most is when they can rely upon their own family power.