Family Group Conferences and the early help story
Tim Fisher and Becca Dove
As systemic, relational practice becomes more common place in Children’s Services, and asset-based community thinking starts to enjoy a renaissance, an important shift is happening in early help in Camden.
We are starting to acknowledge where and how early help happens organically – person to person, family to family, neighbour to neighbour - and to better understand the formal early help support offer within this context.
Our hypothesis is that there might be a need for bridges to help us make that transition in how we think about early help. To do this we use Family Group Conferences (FGCs).
A FGC brings a family together to make decisions about issues that a parent or young person is facing. The intention is to encourage families to address their own problems by creating a network of support that builds resilience and strengthen relationships. They are well known in child protection and featured in the Research in Practice Leaders Briefing: How do you know if your early help services are working?
More than 90% of local authorities use FGCs as they recognise that the best place for children is with their family. Where possible, social workers can use an FGC to instigate conversations and to minimise risks not just for the family but for the wider community.
When you speak to someone who took part in a FGC invariably the first thing they say is that it was very helpful. It is also common for people to say that it would have been even more transformational to have it sooner.
Since 2016, Camden has facilitated more than 750 FGCs, including 3000 hours of discussion and collaboration, with more than 5000 Camden residents young and old. Early help FGCs are used to help prepare families for the end of a formal early help service and make sure the family feel safe and secure on their onward journey. It is used as an option for families ending their time with social care and help complex networks find solutions; Camden mum Faye’s early help story powerfully illustrates its value.
In March, the Early Intervention Foundation worked with us to begin to understand the wider impact of FGCs in an early help context. Initial journey mapping shows 79% of families stay free from further intervention twelve months after completing their FGC. Over 80% of families in Camden say they feel more in control and better able to cope with future issues six months after their FGC, and 98% said their early help FGC had happened at the right time.
In Camden there are explicit common values between the FGC model and Camden’s Resilient Families approach. The family and community role here is significant, and FGC is particularly helpful in bridging the often difficult space between formal or ‘delivered’ early help, and people looking after each other to ‘help early’.
FGC remains a vital instrument for children and families at the edge of care. But when families are saying ‘if only we could have had this earlier’ it feels disingenuous not to acknowledge it, and try to move FGC further upstream where it could be equally helpful, if not more so in preventing escalation to statutory intervention.
There is something special about the power of communities to effect helpful change. There is room for community-led early help and formal early help to co-exist quite happily. Widening the FGC circle to include early help may lead to more families feeling strong in their own networks and communities, as it has for Faye and her daughter. A re-authoring of the story we tell ourselves about early help might be a place to start.
About the authors
Becca Dove is the Head of Service for Early Help Family Support and Complex Families for the London Borough of Camden. Becca has over 18 years experience in the field of child and family services, and was previously Assistant Director of Commissioning at Bedfordshire County Council. Becca was a national Sector Specialist for families, parents and carers at the Centre for Excellence in Outcomes, is an accredited parenting practitioner and Family Group Conference Coordinator.
Tim Fisher is a service manager at the London Borough of Camden working across the Supporting People directorate services to develop restorative practice, he has been involved in Family Group Conferencing for more than 12 years. A current member of the national accreditation of FGC projects development group, he is a qualified social worker with MA research on direct payments and time spent at the NSPCC developing in-depth assessments of children returning home from care.