Re-imagining family group conferencing ‘outcomes’
Mitchell, Mary Alice Scott
Family Group Conferencing (FGC) is a family led decision-making approach where practical plans are made by the family to keep children safe and improve their quality of life. FGC has attracted worldwide interest from policymakers, researchers and practitioners for its potential to: involve families in the decision-making process in child and families social work; keeping children safe within a culture of co-operation between the state and families. There is significant empirical research about the impact of the FGC process on families, and its immediate outcomes but less is known about outcomes in the longer-term. This thesis reports on the findings of a retrospective qualitative study, which sought to understand the contribution FGC makes to longer-term outcomes for looked after children at risk of being accommodated, and their families. Eleven FGC examples were studied across five local government areas in Scotland. Each example includes the perspective of different stakeholders in the process including: looked after children, their parents and extended family (n=32), and professionals (n=28) involved with them. Criteria for case selection included: the child and family had originally been referred to FGC service because the family social worker considered the child was at risk of being accommodated; the stages of FGC had been achieved and a family meeting had taken place at least one year prior to the data being collected; the age of the child who was the focus of the meeting was over eight years old wherever possible; and the core family members were prepared to be involved in the study. Individual, joint or group interviews were conducted to provide multidimensional perspectives of the FGC phenomena. FGC service documents (n=94) were also analysed, providing data of social activity that occurred prior to the study. This study challenges current outcome focused paradigms, arguing for a more complex and nuanced understanding of outcomes in child welfare, where the child and family, alongside professionals, are valued in the identification and measurement of outcomes. Evidence from this study highlights the need to accept two sets of outcomes when considering FGC contribution: personal and professional. The identification of outcomes in this manner supports three interconnected issues argued throughout the thesis in relation to contribution. Firstly, process matters to the service user and his/her experience of the service and opinion of outcomes. Secondly, what professionals do and how they do it is important to the outcomes of families requiring support - relationships and practice are therefore central concerns in understanding how and why families achieve (or not) longer-term outcomes. Finally, who defines outcomes and to what purpose is significant when conceptualising outcomes. The study draws on empowerment, recognition and partnership theories to better understand FGCs contribution to longer–term outcomes for children and families. The study found the FGC process contributed towards building service users’ capacities to reflect on their own and acknowledge others’ experiences and situations. Feelings of increased confidence, self-respect and self-esteem, derived from the FGC process, contributed towards improved social relations and a sense of control over their own lives. This increased capacity can support family members to manage future crises and conflict if they arise. FGC offers professional and service users an opportunity to reframe unhelpful attitudes towards each other. In the longer term this can contribute towards families reduced need for social work services and/or improved working relationships between social work and families. This study has significance for all professionals working with looked after children and their families; contributes to the theoretical knowledge applied in social work practice; and is applicable when considering the implementation and impact of child welfare policy in Scotland and internationally.