Family Safety Conferencing
Hi Friends and happy new year to you. I hope you've had a nourishing and restful Christmas and new year break.
I've had a lovely holiday with family and friends and am now back at work and getting myself ready to fly to Japan tomorrow. I've been working in Japan for the past four years and this year, am going to be leading a workshop on facilitating family safety conferences. I spent considerable time in 2013 developing materials on the "how to" of family conferencing and the process of facilitating family safety conferences. I've had the privilege of doing some of this work collaboratively with some valued colleagues (Eleonora De Michele, Catherine Bettison, Heather Meitner and Philip Decter) and I'm very excited about the work that I/we have created.
The written material is way too detailed for a blog offering, but I wanted to offer a small sample here. If anyone is particularly interested in family conferencing, you are welcome to send me an email and I'd be happy to share more of the family conferencing work.
I've developed an overview of family safety conferencing and detailed exploration of role of the facilitator, comprehensive agendas for both assessment and safety planning conferences, and family booklets to help everyone prepare for the conferences. The part that I would like to share today though is my articulation of the key principles that underlie the facilitation of family safety conferencing:
1. “Nothing about us, without us”
Child protection agencies have enormous power to intervene in the lives of families and in the parent-child relationship. While this statutory power needs to be exercised if a parent is unable or fails to protect their child from preventable and significant harm, I believe that child protection agencies have a responsibility to ensure that this power is exercised in ways that are respectful and preserve the dignity of family members. Family safety conferences are designed to foster inclusiveness and collaborative decision-making, so that the strength, capacity and empowerment of parents and families is enhanced rather than undermined by the involvement of child protection agencies. The expression “Nothing about us, without us” captures this commitment to ensuring that any planning about the family is done with the family.
2. Facilitating a family safety conference involves facilitating a change process.
Family safety conferences are opportunities for family members, safety network members and professionals to meet together to identify the dangers for the children and to work out realistic and meaningful solutions. This is a change process, which may require that family members make significant changes in the way they are living their lives. Facilitation is the key that helps people make the shifts that are required in a change process: understanding the need for change, visioning a different future and acknowledging that real change requires changes in their own thoughts, attitudes and behaviours.
The power of facilitation in helping people move through the change process is in the power of the question. Facilitation is a questioning approach that is focused on helping people to thinking through where they are, where they want to go and how are they going to get there. According to Stuart Smith (Core Team Facilitator with Leadership Strategies, Inc.):
“Facilitation is the key because it is based on the power of the question. And the power of the question is what makes things happen. People can handle change, even if it is thrust upon them if they can answer fundamental and meaningful questions for themselves:
· “What’s it all about?” – What is the nature of the change; why do we need to change?
· “What’s in it for me?” – How will this affect me; what do you need me to do; what risk do I face and what are the benefits?
· “How will you help me?” – What do I need to know; how can I get help; how can I be successful?”
3. Effective facilitation focuses on outcomes, process and relationships.
An effective facilitator of family safety conferences has to focus on three equally important and inter-dependent dimensions of the meeting:
4. The problems are usually complex and there are usually multiple (and different) views.
In situations where family safety conferences are held, there are usually a range of factors that can make it difficult for the group to meet and talk together about the problems and work together to create solutions. The problems or perceived problems within the family are usually complex and there may be very different views about the problems held by professionals and family members, or by different professionals or different family members. There are often strong emotions associated with the harm or perceived harm to the children and the removal of the children from the family’s care or the fear that this may happen. And there may be other complicating factors that make it difficult for people to focus on the issues, such as substance use, mental illness, trauma or extreme stress. In situations where some or all of these factors are operating, it’s amazing that any type of collaboration is possible at all!!!
Having a facilitator who is focused on the group process and on assisting everyone to work together effectively is essential in these complex and contentious circumstances. A skilled facilitator can make the difference between a breakdown in communication and the development of a collaborative solution (for example, a case plan or safety plan).
5. Families are resourceful and can significantly contribute to the solutions.
Effective facilitation starts from a position of equal respect for all participants, which means that family members are viewed as being resourceful and being able to significantly contribute to the solutions. The facilitation of family safety conferences is based on a belief that best outcomes for children are more likely when families and their networks are able to meaningfully participate in decision-making about their children’s safety, care and wellbeing.
Family safety conferences can be held at each stage of the casework process, whenever critical decisions need to be made. The role of the facilitator is to ensure that the structure and process of the family safety conference allows the family (and safety network) to participate to the greatest possible extent.
6. Facilitating FSCs involves managing authentic conversations
As discussed in principle 4, it is common for participants in family safety conferences to feel and express strong emotions, such as grief, anger, despair or frustration. While this can be difficult to manage, I think that expressing strongly felt emotion is a legitimate and necessary part of people being fully present to the situation and being open to the process of change. What is important is that the expression of emotion doesn’t highjack the conference or get in the way of people being able to work collaboratively. So effective facilitation of family safety conferences involves allowing for and acknowledging the importance of authentic conversations, while ensuring that this happens in ways that are respectful and that enable the group to remain focused on working toward the desired outcome.
7. Facilitation involves both high support and high challenge for the participants
Facilitation of family safety conferences involves simultaneously being able to offer high support and high challenge for the participants. If you are only offering support, participants may walk away feeling well supported and listened to, but without having been challenged to reflect on their assumptions or focus on the need for change. If you are only offering challenge, then participants may feel as if their views and positions are not understood and may get stuck in defensiveness and not be willing to shift. To create a space where participants can speak honestly about their own positions and remain open to hearing the views of others, facilitators need to offer a blend of high support and high challenge. Jenny Rogers describes this in her “Support and Challenge Matrix” below.
8. The use of an independent facilitator may be ideal, but is not always possible.
Most facilitation models or programmes recommend the use of an independent facilitator to establish neutrality in the facilitation role. However, in our busy and often under-resourced child protection agencies, the use of an independent facilitator is not always possible. Some child protection jurisdictions have organised their resources so that they have a team of facilitators whose primary role is to facilitate family safety conferences. Other jurisdictions have a system where team leaders or supervisors or senior practitioners can facilitate family conferences for other teams. But whatever the system that is operating in your jurisdiction, sometimes the caseworker or supervisor working with the family are the ones who need to facilitate the family safety meeting or conference.
In addition to this resourcing issue, the “Partnering for Safety” approach is by its nature a conferencing approach, which means that caseworkers are frequently holding meetings with small or large groups of family members, safety network members and other professionals in the course of their day-to-day work. While the use of good facilitation skills makes an enormous difference to the outcomes of these meetings, having independent facilitators for all of these meetings is just not possible.
So it is important that caseworkers and supervisors develop the capacity to be able to step into the facilitator’s role for cases that they are working with.
Here are some tips that can help in these situations:
In situations where the complexity of the child protection concerns or the contentiousness of the case makes it particularly difficult for caseworkers to work collaboratively with the family, then it is worth doing whatever you can to procure an independent facilitator.
9. Preparation, preparation, preparation!
Good facilitation is all about preparation: Preparation of the agenda and the conference process, but also preparation of the participants. In terms of the preparation of participants, it’s the role of the facilitator to make sure that before the conference:
In relation to the final point above, there are times when family conferences are called for the purpose of sharing critical information, but if the conference has been called for any other purpose, then it’s important that any contentious information is shared beforehand. This increases the likelihood that during the family safety conference, participants can focus on creating solutions and finding collaborative ways forward, rather than getting stuck in arguing about the past or reacting to new and challenging information.
As mentioned above, it is the role of the facilitator to make sure that this preparation of participants has happened before the family safety conference. If the facilitator is someone other than the caseworker, then they might not do the actual preparation themselves (although this might be the case), but they will need to follow up with the caseworker or supervisor to make sure that someone has done this important preparation.
10. Involve the children in Family Safety Conferences.
The question is not whether children and young people will participate in family safety conferences, but how will they participate. Participation can occur on a continuum from the child/young person attending all of the conference and sharing their views, right through to not attending and having someone else share their views.
In family conferencing models around the world, there is a range of opinions about the age at which a child might attend a family conference. In the Partnering for Safety approach, our view is that if the child is old enough to understand the purpose of the family safety conference and wants to attend, then they are old enough to attend. Children and young people might attend all or part of the conference (as long as they are physically and emotionally safe in doing so) and this is a decision that needs to be made jointly between the parents, the child/young person and the child protection agency.
11. Family Safety Conferences are part of the overall case process
Family safety conferences are not one-off events and they are not separate from the case planning process. They are purposeful meetings that are held at critical planning and decision-making points within the casework process to involve family members and their networks in assessing and planning for their children’s safety and wellbeing. The casework that happens before, during and after family safety conferences has a significant impact on whether or not the family safety conference has a successful outcome.
Wishing you all the best in your work with families,
 Rogers, J (2010). Facilitating Groups. Open University Press, McGraw Hill.