Table of Contents
Family group conferencing (FGC) is a restorative practice that has been explored as a means of facilitating participatory resolution of family issues related to child protection. The FGC focuses on the involvement of the family in child welfare planning and promotion of child well-being. Family group conferencing was first legislated in New Zealand in the late 1980’s as a replacement of the European-based approach to child welfare, as the later methods alienated these children from their families. Family group conferencing has since been adopted in different countries and has had numerous positive outcomes which are inclusive ensuring stable placement of children with their families without endangering them. Also in some cases, FGC has been shown to have additional benefits by reducing family violence (Pennell 2006). As FGC is mainly used to address difficulties faced by children and youth within the family context, it is important to explore adherence of children’s voice in the program. Thus, this paper focuses on the professional perspectives of children’s voice within the FGC.
Theoretical review of the family group conference
Research proves that collaborative effort between professionals and family members yields best outcomes in children well being. Family group conferencing is viewed as an essential approach to fostering positive working relationships amongst the stakeholders of child well-being. Additionally, this approach is evidenced to be of great importance in juvenile and delinquency prevention (Nixon, Burford, Quinn, & Edelbaum 2005).Family group conferencing involves the coming together of the child’s immediate and even extended family, their friends and professionals to decide on what should be done to improve the child’s welfare. These various groups that interact with the child on different levels come together to determine how they can offer support to the child with challenging behavior (Kirby & Laws, 2009). These meetings are usually held where there is doubt in the adequacy of parental care for the child, which is typically evidenced in child’s behavior that warrants state intervention measures such as legal action.
Although children are increasingly been involved in the FGC, there is neglect in the provision of professional support for both children and their families in the making of important decisions (Laws & Kirby 2007). The involvement of the state and professionals in the family group conferencing has been perceived by some to be disempowering to the families. However, in many cases, professional advocates are involved in assisting the children to express their views in the FGC’s.Family group conferencing, therefore, presents a great platform for children to voice their opinions and actively participate in the making of important decisions in their lives. The main reason behind the development of the FGC was to reduce state over involvement in the family and to provide professional support to enable families make sound decisions regarding their children’s well-being (Kirby & Laws 2009).
Family group conferencing is currently being implemented in many developed countries as part of the child protection system. The most desirable feature of this program is its empowerment of family members to utilize their abilities and skills in the improvement of child’s welfare. Family group conferencing also reduces direct statutory intervention in families but instead fosters the development of positive working relationships between families and professionals to ensure child protection. Additionally, since FGC child welfare plans are made up and implemented by the family, they are more likely to be realistic and have a higher chance of success as these plans are owned by the family members who have the child’s best interest at heart. Also, most of these plans involve the placement of children with their families rather than in foster homes as such they do not result in child alienation (Kirby& Laws 2009).
Family group conference refers to a meeting that includes a child’s immediate and extended family members and friend to discuss future arrangements of the child’s placement about their wellbeing and safety. These meetings usually happen after the family is referred to the FGC team these referrals are usually made by the child’s social care panels. The FGC meetings are focused on informing the stakeholders in childcare; who are inclusive of the children their immediate and extended family and their friends; of the identified child welfare concerns. These meetings aim at empowering these stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process and come up with a plan that will ensure the child’s safety against the concerns (Kirby& Laws 2009).
Stages in the FGC process
All families have unique characteristics, cultures, and beliefs. The FGC meetings provide a platform for the meeting of these family members and friends to come up with the best possible intervention for these children by employing their skills and problem-solving abilities. The FGC process has four major stages; these stages are inclusive of a formal meeting where professionals discuss the childcare concern issue with the child’s family and friends, this is followed by a private family time. During this family time, the family meets and draws up a plan to address the raised issue, the plan is later presented to professionals who evaluate the plan and confirm that the concerns expressed have been and that the child is no longer at risk (Family Rights Group 2004).
Before the beginning of the FGC meetings, preconference preparations are made.These preparations include making decisions on which family members to include in the meetings, obtaining their contact details, planning on suitable time and venue for the meetings, identification of issues that may affect the process of the conference and also deciding how much information will be disclosed to the different parties in the conference. These preconference preparations are usually made by the meetings facilitators and the family. In the first stage of the family group conference, the participants in the conference attended a meeting with the child and the facilitators and professionals such as advocates who represented the child’s perspective in the issue (Family Rights Group 2004).
In these meeting, the facilitator explains their concerns on the child’s welfare and safety to the family members and friend present in the meeting. The child’s primary caregivers are also given a chance to explain their view of the matter and their current status regarding care of the child. At this stage, the professionals are tasked with the role of explaining the current scenario and express their concerns for their child’s security. The professionals are expected to possess excellent communication skills and express their concern in a transparent manner. They are also required to exercise patience with their audience as child care is a sensitive topic that could evoke reactions such as anger and defensiveness amongst the family members. The primary objective of this stage to ensure that all the participants in the decision-making process are all on the same page on the existing situation (Department for Education and Skills 2006)
In the second stage which is the private family time. The facilitators and professionals are excluded, and the family members are given their own private time to analyze the matter and come up with an action plan that addresses the issue of concern and provides a means of ensuring child protection. The role of the facilitators in this stage was to assist in drafting questions that would guide the family discussions and obtain responses on how the different child care concerns should be provided. The family members select a scribe amongst themselves to document the family decisions on how to handle the raised concerns. The facilitators and professionals typically do not attend these family private time meetings unless requested by the family to facilitate the discussion or provide support to the family through the meetings. Even when present in the meetings, these facilitators and professionals are expected to refrain from participating in the deliberations. (Family Rights Group 2004).
After coming up with a plan, which is the third stage of the FGC program, the plan is evaluated by the professionals who read through it to ensure all child safety concerns have been addressed. The facilitator then meets with the family to select a family contact person who will be in charge of the plan’s implementation.The plan’s implementation is then monitored and reviewed with the assistance of the referrer although most of the responsibility of implementing and monitoring the plan falls to the family group. It is important for the family to take charge of most of the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the plan so that they may develop a sense of ownership in the plan and thus be more responsible and motivated in ensuring the plan is well adhered to, and the child’s welfare is improved. Professional monitoring is also conducted, and in the instances whereby there are child protection proceedings, it is carried out within the monthly core groups. The FGC provides a review chance within a period of three months whereby the family group may reconsider the plan if is not working (Department for education and Skills 2010).
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Underpinning legislation for children’s rights
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides important guidelines about family justice. The articles focus on the importance of inclusion of children’s voices in the solving of family problems. Articles 18and 19 advocates for the consideration of child’s best interest when parents and the state are making decisions. The articles also emphasize on government protection of the child from violence and any form of abuse. Article 39 elaborates that special support should be provided to assist any child who has experienced violence to recover from the experience. Article 20 and 21 explain that if the child’s parents are unable to take care of their children. The state should provide assistance to the child and see to it that they find care and in case the child is placed away from home the government should continually review their progress, and according to article 34 the government is mandated to provide protection from sexual abuse to the child (UNICEF 1989).
Children’s participatory rights
According to the UNICEF’s convention on children rights, children have a right to participate in the making of family decisions. Children are autonomous individuals with rights to participate in decision-making about their welfare. “When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.” (UNICEF 1989, Article 12). Understanding of children’s individual needs and rights is a fundamental aspect in recognizing and advocating for children’s rights to participate.
UNICEF’s article 12 applies to all children capable of making their own opinion whether or not the child can verbally communicate their views. Younger children and the children living with disabilities express their views through nonverbal actions such as through paintings and drawing, playing, body language and facial expression. According to research findings, infants and toddlers express themselves in a complex language that can be interpreted by experts. As such, there should neither be age restrictions on child participation and nor should children with disabilities be excluded from participating in the making of decisions on their wellbeing. Experts should be instead sorted to read and interpret and include views these children who are verbally unable to express themselves (Lansdown 2010).
All children are entitled to their views, their views should not only be listened to but should be given serious consideration in the decision-making process with reference to their age and maturity level. Unlike age, which is determined by the child’s date of birth, maturity is greatly influenced by the child’s experiences and their social and cultural environment. As such, a child at a younger age may be considered mature, as they possess the ability to assess situations and understand the implications of making a particular decision (Hallett & Prout 2003). The fifth article in the UNICEF’s convention on children rights encourages the provision of parental guidance to children as they develop until they are at a point to properly apply their rights (UNICEF 1989, Article 5).
The combination of the fifth and twelfth article provides a deeper understanding of children’s right to participation. There are four primary levels of participation. The first is to obtain information on the existing problem, the second and third level is to be allowed to freely express one’s perception on the issue and have their opinion seriously considered respectively, and the final stage is to become a major partner in the making of the decision. Article 12 emphasizes on the first three levels of participation while Article 5 further elaborates the status of children in the decision-making in relation to the adults who are responsible for their care. Article 5 highlights on the provision of advice and guidance to the child participating in the decision-making process by the caregiver about the child are increasing capacities to exercise their rights. Article 5, therefore, allows the participation of children in the fourth level of involvement by emphasizing adult support to enable child to exercise their right ( Lansdown 2010).
Changing views of children
The historical and societal definition of children has had an enormous impact on the extent to which their rights, interests, and needs have been put into consideration in the formation of programs and policies to cater for these requirements. There is no universal definition of childhood rather its definition is a socially constructed concept. The extent to which children are involved social participation particularly decision making is dependent on the societal perception of children. The social perception of children is constantly changing as people are becoming more aware of children’s rights, the need to lift their status and for their need to have their views seriously considered. Although the responsibility to make decisions on their behalfs still falls on adults particularly their caregivers, there is an increased awareness to allow children to participate in the family group conferences and for serious consideration to be given to their perspectives in the decision-making process (Boxall, Morgan & Terer 2012).
Children need a safe and secure environment to exercise their right to participate in making decisions that significantly impact their lives actively. Some adults still contest children rights as they view them to provide an enabling environment for children to deliberately defy societal rules and become rude and arrogant to their caregivers. These adults perceive advocacy for child participation in decision making to be an interference with their family and customs. Contrary to these beliefs the children’s participatory rights aim to promote individual child autonomy while still recognizing their need for care and protection from their caregivers. In order to change these negative perceptions on children’s rights public education, debates and campaigns need to be held so as to educate the public toward the importance of these rights and have them comprehend the application of the rights. Further, for the child’s voice to be recognized and considered there needs to be a great culture change and change in societies perception children (Prout 2000).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child supports child participation rights by advocating that children be viewed as crucial agents in their lives and be given a platform to be vigorously involved in the making of decisions on their welfare despite their temporary state of immaturity. Children’s viewpoints have often been ignored this is majorly due to the cultural perception of children. Research in social science is constantly challenging the societal norms of children’s capacities. For instance, according to the societal norms, children could neither be reliable witnesses nor have their own perspectives. This is greatly changing as according to research children have their own perceptions and are able to make personal decisions, as such children’s voices are being increasingly listened to and considered (Boxall, Morgan & Terer 2012).
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Listening to children voices
According to previous researches on outcomes of children participation and the impacts of providing opportunities for children’s voices to be heard, it has emerged that children have their own unique perspective on matters affecting them. These opinions have previously been ignored in decisionmaking. Research has shown that even toddlers and mentally impaired children to have their own perspectives despite their inability to verbalize them. Listening to children requires careful observation of the children’s behavior, understanding what makes them happy, sad, disappointed or withdrawn and their level of independence. To understand the voice of children, one must put themselves in their situation and also both listen and observe the child (Prout 2000).
Research conducted on children within the family, the legal system, school and social welfare systems have shown surprising results on children’s capacity to understand their situation and express themselves. Children and youth’s life experiences and perspectives on life have a significant variation to those of adults as such; these perspectives should be considered in the making of policies regarding this population. According to Jamison and Gilbert (2000), facilitation of children voices in policy making has several benefits which include; getting to understand children better, hearing their suggestions on possible ways to solve the problem and the impacts of the problem-solving method applied on the children. As such, children’s diversity should be appreciated, and they should be provided with more opportunities to participate in providing solutions to problems affecting them. Additionally, adults involved in developing policies and programs for this group should consider the changing society of today and not be rigid and overly insist that their childhood experiences of being heard be replicated in today’s society.
Capturing of the children’s voices in the FGC
Children have a crucial role to play in the making of decisions about their care, as they are the ones who will be directly impacted by these decisions. The role of the professionals in the FGC’s is to consolidate and represent the child’s views in the matter and thus facilitate the consideration of their opinion in the decision-making. Although a family supporter may be chosen to represent the child’s view in the FGC, a professional or advocate is better placed to express these views in a manner that will enable them to be considered in the decision-making. Family group conferencing are intricate meetings as even though children’s views may be represented, their participation is minimal (Laws & Kirby 2007).
Studies have shown that children benefit from the involvement in the making of these crucial decisions regarding their lives and that they want to be involved in the making of these decisions. Provision of adequate support and professional assistance is thus of great importance in the enabling the children to participate in the decision-making process. The advocates facilitate the children to bring out their voice that is different from that of their family members. The supporters enable the children to understand the questions asked and answer them in a way that clearly depicts their view on the matter. Advocates spend a lot of time with the children doing various fun activities with them so that the children learn to trust them and fully open up to them about their views (Laws & Kirby 2007).
The children’s voice is thus captured through their own expression on their views of the matter then represented in FGC by the advocate or family supporter. Although family supporters may do just as good a job as the professional in representing the child, there may arise incidences of loyalty conflict, which may bias the family supporter unlike for advocates who have no conflict of interest in the case and thus professionally present the child’s view on the issue. Additionally, family supporters may not want to leave the meeting with the child when the child is supposed to leave as these family supporters have a personal interest in the proceedings of the meeting and may thus not be able to accord the child the required attention and support (Laws & Kirby 2007).
These FGC meetings address family conflicts regarding child care and custody, which is a very sensitive topic to the child. Therefore there exists a risk of potential damage to the child resulting from seeing their family members’ conflict about their care. Additionally, these children may feel threatened by possible consequences of participating in the FCG’s. As such, these children may not be allowed to witness the entire meetings but rather just go in when needed further, younger children; usually below ten years; are exempted from attending these meetings although their views are still represented (Laws & Kirby 2007).
Child participation in the FGC process
Since the establishment of the family group conferences in the 1980’s, there have been significant adjustments in child incorporation in decision-making. According to a review of the FGCs in 2012, there is tremendous support for the use of FGCs in making family decisions on childcare. The guidelines on the FGC programs emphasize on the presence of the right people during the FGC meetings and the representation and consideration of the child’s voice in the decision making even though the child may not be physically present (Verhellen 1997).
Benefits of children participation in the decision-making process
Involvement of children in the FGC’s respects their autonomic rights and increases their commitment and involvement in ensuring their well-being. Participation in decision making boosts self-esteem promotes a feeling of belonging to the children. Further through taking part in the FGC’s children get to learn and understand their rights and become more empowered on how to protect themselves from abuse. Additionally, the children develop confidence and self-advocacy skills through participating in the FGC’s (Lupton & Nixon 1999). However, care should be taken during the meetings to prevent the child from developing a false sense of security, which may make the child rebel against their caregiver and even the entire community (Manion & Nixon 2012).
Roles and attitudes of participants in the FGC
There are three main categories of participants in the FGC program; these are inclusive of family members, the child or youth whose welfare is the focus of the discussion and the professionals involved in the meetings. The family is inclusive of the extended family and may include close family friends in some instances. The experts included may be professional advocates for children’s rights, and social workers involved with the case. These professionals are sent representatives from different agencies that are concerned with child care, or they may be higher by an agency to offer specific advice on the case (Huntsman 2006).
The general attitudes and perceptions of the FGC program are discussed in various literature. According to research, most family members find the FGC experience satisfying and felt more empowered as they felt that their opinions were heard and respectably considered in the decision making process. The FGCs were shown to have additional benefits in strengthening family relationships. The inclusion of family members in the decision-making process was found to facilitate the establishment of a plan that focused on better outcomes for the child as the family members showed high commitment level (Rasmussen 2003).
Additionally, FGC was shown to significantly reduce family conflict and foster healthy working environments between families and child protection agencies. Studies also found some family members to have reservations about FGC participation these were centered on some Family members feeling pressured to participate or uncomfortable with the presence of professionals. Further, some members felt like not all the important family members had been invited and the domination of the discussion by a few members and parents being least confident about the FGC process were also identified as some of the reservations about FGC (Huntsman 2006)
Children and young people
The participation of children in the FGC has evoked various reactions ranging from supporting the involvement of children in the family decision making process to excluding them. In various states children, participation is determined by the child’s age in some place children acquire the right to be heard by the age of seven while in others they acquire it at twelve years. Younger children may also be allowed to participate if analyzed by a professional to be mature enough to participate. There is also a shift towards inclusion and professional representation of toddlers and mentally challenged children who may be unable to verbalize their opinions.
The views of children desirability in the FGC meetings are varied with some expressing the presence of the children helps the family to focus as they can see the person who will benefit if they make a good plan focusing on the child’s well-being. Contrary to that some adults felt like asking children to participate in family decision-making was placing a heavy burden of responsibility on the children. Additionally, parents felt that the presence of children would sway the family group to prioritize the needs of the children over the family needs and that the decision made will be focused on what is right for the child rather than what is good for the family. According to studies, there is insufficient evidence on children satisfaction with their voices being heard in the FGC and program has been viewed by some as disempowering to children (Huntsman 2006).
Most professionals who have participated in the FGC programs express confidence in the conferences as a means of ensuring child protection. They also agree that in many cases positive child protection plans have been provided through the FGC and this has improved professionals practice. On the contrary, some professionals have expressed doubts in the adherence of the plan recommended through the FGCs. Others argued that the program over emphasized on family empowerment to make the decisions and this could have detrimental effects on the child’s safety (Huntsman 2006).
Additionally, there are significantly low rates of family recommendation to the FGC programs by the professionals though; these professionals maintain a positive attitude on the effectiveness of the program in improving child security. This is attributed to the fact that the number of professionals who have actually participated in the program is small and that there only exists a limited number of studies performed on these programs. Social workers have also been described as reluctant to cede the decision-making power the family. In regards to making a joint decision with the family members, social workers have expressed fear of being held professionally accountable if any harm comes to the child (Huntsman 2006).
Role of the facilitators during the FCG meetings
The primary role of the facilitators during the meetings is to ensure organization of the meeting, and that objective of the meetings were achieved. The facilitators are charged with the responsibility to find an appropriate venue for the meetings and that the participants attend the meetings within the scheduled time. The facilitator is expected to communicate the meeting place and scheduled time for the meeting to the members before the meeting day. During the meeting, the facilitator is expected to clarify content being discussed in the meeting so that all parties present may be able to understand the discussion. Also, it is the facilitator’s duty to ensure dialogue in the meetings, ensure that all parties get a chance to present their views and prevent domination of the discussions by one party (Heino 2003).
Challenges to implementation of FGC programs
Although FGC programs have been proven to have high chances of success in improving child welfare, some factors challenge the successful implementation of these programs in child protection. These challenges are inclusive of the low rates of family referrals for the program. Many factors have to be considered before families are referred to the FGC programs. The referral pathways are narrow as they can only be made by specific professionals. Further, there are incidences of family resistance to the program which occur mostly as a result of lack of knowledge on the benefits of the program and inadequate provision of training for community service representatives on family referral processes and how to meaningfully participate in the FGC’s. Concerns have also been raised on ensuring confidentiality of information discussed during the FGC meetings. Additionally, lack of elaborate plans on the follow up of implementation of FGC and insufficient long-term research documented on FGC programs makes it difficult to draw a definitive conclusion on the FGC programs (Boxall Morgan &Terer 2012).
Outcomes of FGC
Pennell and Buford (2000) conducted a study to evaluate the results of FGC programs. In the study, 28 families that had been through the FGC program were included. Follow-up interviews and reviews of child protection services files to check for reported incidences of child abuse were some of the indicators used to measuring the impact of the program. The number of reported child abuse cases in these families one year prior and a year after the family group discussion conferences were held was compared to a control group of 31 families which did not attend the FGC’s (Pennell& Burford 2000).
The study found that there were higher child abuse cases reported in the year before the conference and that in comparison with the control group there was a significant decline in the reported child abuse case in the year after the conference. Additionally, 66% of the interviewees agreed that the FGC program was beneficial as it strengthened positive family ties. The study concluded that family group conferences were an important tool in the welfare of children as the study found that there was less abuse in the families that went through the program and that the children were being accorded better care (Pennell & Burford 2000).
An independent evaluation conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology on an FGC pilot program implemented in New South Wales by the department of family and community services in 2012 found the FGC pilot program to have several short-term positive outcomes for the families and professionals who were involved in the program. These outcomes were inclusive of high satisfaction levels in the organization of the meetings, particularly how the FGC facilitators address issues of child security and barriers to effective communication this, in turn, resulted in the establishment of positive working environments between the families and the professionals. The study also found that the child care plans developed from the FGC meetings were realistic and had clearly set goals and were thus easy to implement. Additionally, according to the study, the families felt more empowered by being major stakeholders in child protection, and as such, almost all the families has implemented more than fifty percent of the actions towards goal achievement by the time of the review (Boxall, Morgan &Terer 2012).
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Outcomes of including children voices in the FGCs
The concept of creating spaces for children participation in making important family decisions is centered on the provision of environments in which children can freely express themselves. The inclusion of children’s voices in the FGCs means ensuring that they are provided with a safe environment to express their views which are seriously considered by the adults responsible for the decision-making process. The inclusion of the child’s voice is important because it makes the child feel more empowered and there is a higher likelihood that the decision made will be more child-friendly and be in the child’s best interest. Further, according to Brown (1995) “The decisions that are made in the absence of children will affect their emotional and physical well-being yet are be made by parents who have a diminished capacity to differentiate their personal needs from their children’s needs”.
According to research conducted by Boxall, Morgan, and Terer (2012) on the outcomes of child voice inclusion in FGC, child participation was found to accrue significant benefits although there were also a few negative outcomes. The study focused on the FGC programs where children were encouraged to physically participate in the meetings, and those unable to attend physically had their opinions represented by professionals and family supporters. There was 35% child participation in the conferences. The positive outcomes of the high rate of child participation were inclusive of high satisfaction levels on the plan selected as 89% of the professional found the plan to be centered on the children’s best interest .The plan was also shown to meet 94% of the baseline requirements. On the downside, some professional found child participation to stall the conference process and that in some instances the children were exposed to information that could negatively impact them.
The Nordic research report of 2009, sort to explore the FGC process in social work.With focus on the position of the child in the FGC.The study’s main aim was to explore the child’s situation prior to the implementation of the FGC program, provide an analysis of the child’s situation after the program and determine how the perspective of the child is realized in the program. The status of all the children included in the study prior to the initiation of the FCG program was challenging; the children were generally in need of security and better care. The study found that the FGC changes the situations of the children for the better. According to the research the most of the issues pointed out by the children as their major issues of concern were what adults didn’t consider to be important. The study found these children’s worries to have decreased substantially after the FGC program (Heino 2009).
The Nordic report also revealed that some of the children viewed the changes in their situation to be specifically due to the FCG program while others thought that the changes were independent of the conferences. The children shared the same impression that the information presented by the professionals at the meetings was not representative of their views. Most professionals in their description on children’s views portrayed the children to be depressed and burdened with worry. This portrayal does not depict trust in children’s capacities and abilities to participate in family decision making. The research found that for childrenspersepective to be considered, their requires great changes in the societal perception of children. Children should be viewed as autocratic individuals capable of making informed decisions and professionals should thus refrain from portraying children as vulnerable and overly dependent people, but rather they should recognize children’s strengths and represent their unbiased views (Heino 2009).
Barriers to children participation in decision-making
Although the UNICEF’s 12th article on the convention of children rights clearly states that children have an official right to be involved in the decision-making process, several barriers hinder children participation. These barriers are rooted in the community’s view of the cultural, legal, political, economic, and social positions of children in the community. Most communities view children as vulnerable and dependent on adults for provisions of all of their needs including the need for protection. In many communities, adults make decisions on behalf of the children and a child who presents a different opinion from the adults is perceived to be challenging the authority of the adults. This referred to as the paternalistic model of childcare, which assumes that adults know what is best for children and therefore should make the decisions on behalf of the children (Verhellen 1997).
Children have neither a legal right nor economic power to vote, and as such, they cannot express their views through voting. Further, in many communities children are perceived to be naive people who need to be nurtured. They are also viewed to be easily corruptible and swayed. Most adults’ perception of children’s decision-making capacities and abilities is poor. Additionally, children may not be entirely comfortable in participating in the meetings, as they may feel threatened by the consequences of engaging. Children may also be barred from taking part in the FGC because they do not understand the discussions as such it is the role of the professional to explain them comprehend what is being discussed and professionally present the children’s view without bias that comes as a result of the paternalistic model (Verhellen 1997).
These assumptions on children’s capacity to participate in making their welfare decisions result in further marginalization of children’s voices. There also exists potential risks in children participation in the meetings as though they may be allowed to express their views during the FGC meetings; their opinions may be misunderstood or overlooked in the decision-making further undermining their rights in the decision-making process. Although family group conferences have the potential to facilitate children’s involvement in the decision-making process, they may have an adverse impact of marginalizing the child’s voice and make them feel vulnerable and invisible especially if their opinions are not considered when making the final decision. Additionally, children may be exposed to troubling facts during the meeting which may result in erosion of their relationships with their parents (Rasmussen 2003).
Recommendations for increasing meaningful children participation in the FGC’s
For meaningful child participation in the FGC’s to be achieved, several cultural adjustments need to be made and adults need to regard children as a autonomic individuals capable of making their own decisions. Further, children participation in the FGC meetings should be voluntary and their informed consent must be obtained prior to their involvement in the FGC’s. Safety should also be guaranteed to the children and they should be assured that no harm will come to them from opening up on their views. Additionally, the people in charge of supporting the child through the process; whether a family supporter or professional advocate; should provide a conducive environment where the child can freely express their view (Heino 2003).
These advocates should listen to the child, consolidate, and represent the child’s view without bias. They should also assist the children to understand the proceedings of the meetings and explain the questions addressed to the children in a simple manner that enables the child to comprehend and provide a response that reflects their views on the issue. Additionally, the family supporter or professional should maintain close ties with the child throughout the meeting proceedings and even afterward to provide emotional support and guidance to the child and a
Statutory responsibilities of child protection agencies
Currently, more legislations are being made towards empowering families to make their own problem-solving solutions. There is also increased awareness of the child’s right to participate in the making of family decisions concerning their welfare. These are strong forces that are driving the formation of policies encouraging the involvement and participation of all family members in the decision-making process. Respect for individual autonomy is being widely encouraged especially among the children, youth and disadvantaged. This shift advocates for social inclusion whereby all diverse cultures are appreciated and valued in the decision-making process. Also, family members in the FGC programs are allowed to make their own plans as it is believed that people are usually more committed to the implementations of plans they made (Heino 2009).
Effects of the FGC programs on family attitudes to child protection agencies
Evidence suggests that families have a general preference for FGC program rather than other traditional case planning programs. According to research the incorporation of FGC as an important tool in solving family problems has been shown to constantly improve the relationship between families and child protection agencies. This is because families feel more empowered as they are allowed to actively participate in making the decisions that will positively impact them. The FGC provides the families with an opportunity to draft a plan that when implemented will provide care and protection for the child (Heino 2003).
Previously the relationship between the families and child protection agencies was contentious as these agencies workers used to make most of the child care decisions which often resulted in the alienation of the child from their family and placement in foster care. Parents and the families felt unheard and without say in the making of these decisions and this has resulted in contentious nature of the relationship between these two parties. Family group conferencing has been identified as an important tool in fostering the development of good working relations between the families and the agencies and thus facilitating the achievement of good outcomes for the children(Rasmussen 2003).
Family group conferences have facilitated the involvement of the families in the making of child welfare decisions resulting in fewer children being admitted into foster homes but rather children being retained within their kinship ties. Retention of the children within their families has proven to be economical for the child protection agencies as they do not have to incur the costs of supporting the children in foster homes. Additionally, establishments of good working relationships between families and child protection agencies have resulted in the significant reduction of child abuse risks. However, studies have found that plans for children placed in family care may not be efficiently implemented due to the lack of funding to sufficiently implement these programs as such recommendations have been made for the provision of social, professional and financial support to these families (Rasmussen 2003).
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Preferences of the FGC versus traditional family child protection methods
Traditional child protection methods involved the analysis of the situation of concern coming up with a child care plan and the implementation of this plan by the child protection agencies. The child care professionals acted on their intuition, and the views of the child’s parents and relatives were seldom included in the plan formation and decision-making process. As such the families and child care agencies had an opposing relationship. The social workers were greatly disliked by family members and as such received very little cooperation from them.The rivalry between these two groups was a major limiting factor to the achievement of success in child protection programs (Family Rights Group 2004).
According to studies done, most parents and relatives would like to be involved in the synthesis of plans towards improving the welfare of their children. The family members generally prefer family group conferencing in the establishment of child protection plans as through this model they can actively participate and use their abilities to create these child protection plans. Family involvement in the decision making process elicit feelings of empowerment and fairness in the child protection agencies and enables families to establish trust in these agencies. This provides a conducive working environment and ensures better care is accorded to the children. Children’s also prefer the FGC as they are allowed to express their opinions and contribute to the decision-making process. Although, studies have shown that many children do not usually feel that their perceptions are adequately presented as often the picture portrayed about children does not focus on their capacities to participate in the decision-making process (Department for Education and Skills 2010).
Adoption of FGC as a national practice for children and family for service practitioners
Empowerment programs such as FGC for solving family problems are usually short-lived as such these program policies need to be institutionalized. Three types of mandates have been identified for FGC use. These mandates are the legal mandate, procedural and permissive mandate. The statutory mandate requires the passing of the FGC into law. The procedural mandate involves the use of the program by authorities as a policy, and the permissive mandate involves the convincing relevant parties and professionals about the benefits of implementing the FGC program on their local systems, this is also referred to as the best practice mandate. Although children and their families have a legal right to participate in the making of important family decisions, the extent of their involvement is highly reliant on the agencies that are tasked with their implementation (Huntsman 2006).
In countries such as New Zealand, where the legal mandate is used in the implementation of the FGC program, there is wider use of the program. In England and whales, FGC practice adoption is in the best interest mandate and as there is no legal requirement for its adoption. Some researchers such as Adams and Chandler (2004) campaign for the legal adoption of FGC nationwide and that parents and children be involved in the decision-making process. These researchers argue on the positive outcomes that have been experienced in other countries as a result of the incorporating the FGC practice into law. In contrast Brown (2003) argues that incorporation of the program into the pre-existing and overly dominated professional systems will greatly limit its potential in family problem solving and child protection. Brown argued that the FGC program should instead be used in the best practice mandate in the discretion of the professional to problem-solving tools (Huntsman 2006).
Good practice is an essential requirement of all social work services as such the adoption, and use of FGC should be in the mandate that provides the best outcomes in solving family problems and safeguarding their welfare. Other than FGC benefits in child protection, and formation of good working relationships between the caregivers and social work professionals, FGC has an additional advantage in the reduction of costs incurred from foster care programs. Since the program’s main aim is to have the child be taken care of by the family members, fewer children are admitted to foster care thus reducing state expenditure on foster care. Additional costs such as lawyer and court fees are also cut down as decision making for child’s care in the program is by family members and friends. Another advantage of children being placed under family care is that research has shown these children to perform better in school, have high self-esteem, more adjusted to the community and significantly less likely to involve themselves in criminal activity when older as compared to their counterparts in foster care. However, although the FGC program may prove cheap, implementation of the plan may fail due to failure of provision of the promised resources to help the family carry out the plan (Huntsman 2006).
Review and evaluation of FGC programs
There exists a knowledge gap in the evaluation of the effectiveness of FGC programs in comparison with other traditional problem-solving methods.Only a few comprehensive program evaluation research have been conducted on the impact of family group conferencing as an effective problem-solving tool. Of these few available studies, none has been done to provide a comparison of the effectiveness of the FGC program as compared with other traditional family problem-solving methods. As such it is uncertain whether the implementation of the family plans produces better long-term results in improving child’s welfare as compared to other problem-solving models (Ashley.& Nixon 2007).
In social work practice, more time and resources are often spent in the assessment of the scenario planning and implementing the intervention. The reviewing and evaluation of the impacts of social work programs is often neglected as such only little information is available on the effectiveness of previous FGC programs in improving child welfare. More resources should be mobilized so as to provide a meaningful evaluation of the success, challenges, and recommendations of previous researches so as to provide room for the implementation of evidence-based practice in social work (Ashley.& Nixon 2007).
We can do it today.
Family group conference programs have been proven to have numerous benefits in improving child welfare. These programs have also been shown to have additional benefits as they incorporate the family’s and even the child’s view in the planning for child protection and security. With the increasing awareness of children’s rights, there is an upward shift towards ensuring that children’s rights to participate in family decisions affecting them are respected. In the FGC program attempts to achieve this have been made by providing children with a chance to take part in the making of these family decisions regarding their care and protection.
Meaningful child participation in the FGC can only be achieved when adults consider children as partners capable of their own perceptions and experts in making life decisions affecting them. Child autonomy and right to participate in these decisions should be respected, and children’s unique perspectives on their care should be understood and put into consideration in the decision-making process. Additionally, unbiased family supporters or professionals should support these children in expressing their views on the matter. The barriers to recognition of children’s capacity to participate in decision-making processes are rooted in the social and cultural perception of children, awareness programs debates, and public education campaigns should thus be carried out to catalyze the recognition of children as autonomous individuals.
There is evidence that greater child protection and a deeper understanding of the problem from the child’s view can be obtained if children are actively involved in the decision-making process. All children have a right to have their opinions on their care heard and considered during the decision making process. Including children has shown to provide better outcomes for children and reduce state expenditure on the support for a foster family. Additionally, most of the child care plans from the FGC programs are focused on retaining the child within their family as such the child does not lose their cultural identity. More studies need to be done to compare the outcomes of the FGC program in improving protection to the traditional methods, and more awareness should be created on child autonomy so as to increase their participation space within the family group conferences.
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