Conversations with parents about Family Group Conferences

By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council

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Most parents will be reluctant to have a Family Group Conference or to convene a Family Meeting. This should not be surprising. It is surprising that anyone agrees to them, ever!

There are usually three objections.

Firstly, there is no reason to be concerned for their child as the concerns identified by the Local Authority are no longer relevant, exaggerated, or untrue. Some parents will minimise or deny the concerns. Secondly, whether the parents accept the concerns or not, many of them feel apprehensive about inviting their family into a dialogue for various reasons, not least, feelings of embarrassment and shame. Thirdly, some parents will claim that they don’t have any family and friends who could be included. 

These legitimate reasons are why ‘involving a network will usually require skilful use of authority and persistence on the part of the professionals’ (Turnell, 2013: 14) and ‘intersecting measures of coercion, vision and conversation’ (2013: 49). I will explore each of the three reasons in detail and explore how these can be overcome.

1. Denial of concerns: These are typical within child protection and exist on a continuum from full acknowledgement to complete denial. It is worth noting that there are ‘many strong social and interactional pressures that make denial a compelling response’ (Turnell and Essex, 2006: 26). Attempting to prove a parent incorrect often evokes greater resistance from them, therefore this can be counterproductive.

Denial disputes can often escalate to a point where enormous amounts of professional time, resources and energy are poured into them’ (2006: 8). Our impulse to engage in denial disputes derives from the belief that the main precursor to change is for the parents to admit responsibility and accept they have a problem. The logic follows that a failure to grasp this as a precursor renders any other endeavours to help useless, and thus the parents untreatable. There is no doubt that acceptance of a problem is a key factor in the change process, however, it is not always necessary, and sometimes safety for the children can still be created.  

Therefore, the first step in such instances is to demonstrate empathy and understanding for parents’ position. We don’t need to agree with them, but we can at least take the time to understand their perspective and how they have formed their views. This involves being curious, asking clarifying questions, and summarising back to them our understanding of their position. Often, but not always, this interpersonal act in itself softens the parent’s denial and creates an openness to discussing their problems. Secondly, we invite them into a conversation about the concerns the Local Authority might have. We can explain that they don’t need to agree, but we are opening space in the conversation where multiple perspectives can be considered. Thirdly, we ask them about what they would like to happen. Often, parents will answer this question by stating that they don’t want social care to be involved. We can agree on this as a mutual goal and offer a solution that would help them achieve this – a family meeting.

A family meeting is a chance to bring together friends and family to demonstrate that:

  • a) The parents have support; we explain that social care is often worried when parents are looking after young children without much support because it is exhausting, tiring, and demanding, but also because problems might go un-noticed. The type of problems that we would be worried about. It would also show that if the past problems come up again or the denied problems do exist there are friends and family who would notice and help. 
  • b) Even if they don’t agree with the concerns, you explain that if you could go back to your manager and state that you’ve had a meeting with the parents and their family to discuss the concerns, but also all of the strengths and demonstrate that there is a network, even a small network of people around the parents who are aware of the concerns and will help (in any which way), this will alleviate the concerns of your manager (and children’s services). This also means that in the future, if another referral is received, the social worker can see that there is a plan in place to help the parents and might be less inclined to get involved again. In other words, it could deter future involvement.
  • c) If there was an established network of family and friends, then children’s services could feel less worried because the parents have the help they need, and if the children are worried or scared for whatever reason, there are people who will listen and help the parents to resolve their problems or seek professional help, including from social care. 

2. Apprehension about inviting friends/family: This is an understandable reaction. You only need to reflect for a moment on how you would feel at the prospect of inviting your friends and family around to discuss a problem you’re experiencing, especially a personal one that induces feelings of shame, to appreciate how daunting that would be. It takes tremendous courage to open a dialogue with friends and family. Often, parents will express relief afterward. The experience lifts the burden of shame. Sometimes they find they have more support than they realised, but hindsight, unfortunately, isn’t available at the point of deciding to agree to a family meeting. You can only empathise with them about this, and again reiterate that although this may be uncomfortable, it is one very effective way to work towards social care not being involved with their family.

In families where our involvement is statutory, for example, child protection, pre-proceedings, or in care proceedings we can stipulate, through ‘skilful use of authority’ one minimum requirement. To demonstrate their commitment to addressing the concerns and hopefully come out of child protection/pre-proceedings we request that they identify at least 5 people and agree to a attend a meeting. Of course, we can’t compel a parent to do this, therefore it still needs to be encouraged with tact and empathy for their position to maximise the probability that they will be willing to attend such a meeting. In my experience, it is very rare that parents will not want to do this. Indeed, if a parent doesn’t wish to engage in this process, I often take that personally to mean that I have not been sufficiently understanding or persuasive enough.

One way I justify being persistent on this issue with parents is that I believe that when we can bring families and their networks together, we have access to individual and collective strengths that if capitalised on, can be the most effective, powerful and ethically sound intervention available to us within social work. We, therefore, in my opinion have a duty to convey this to them.

3. No friends or family:  In some instances, parents will claim to have no friends or family they could invite to a meeting. By stipulating a minimum requirement of 5 people to attend a meeting parents are often able to identify some people.

For some, however, we need to help them identify friends or family. We should not automatically view this as a problem, rather an opportunity to have a conversation. Questions that we can ask to facilitate this conversation include:

Who are the people that have stuck with you at your best and worst moments in your life? Who have you relied on in the past when things got really tough? What did they do for you? When you had good/bad news who have you contacted? If you need someone to care for the kids, who would you ask? Who knows the most about you on the mothers side? Who knows the most about you on your father’s side? Who in your life, if they were here right now would make your life more comfortable, can we contact them? Who is the most important person in your life today? When you have a bad day, who do you contact? Who do you go to when making important life decisions? If you did have people to support you, what would they do? Does it make any sense to you why my manager would want you to do this? What might it mean to him/her if we found some people to support? (Questions from Andrew Turnell and Sarah Brandt, 2015)

By Richard Devine (20.08.21)

If you have found this interesting or useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join a growing community of 230+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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