Struggling families find hope in support network

Review reveals the “positive” impact of Family Group Conferencing in Sunderland


For those families at risk of breaking down, a programme designed to bring together a trusted support network ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children is having a positive impact in Sunderland, study finds.

Family Group Conferencing (FGC), which originated in New Zealand in the 1980s and is now used in 140 UK local authorities, looks to improve the social support networks of parents who are involved with children’s services, to reduce child abuse and neglect and uphold a child’s rights. Strengthening social support networks allows families to collaborate, co-produce solutions to their difficulties and adversities, and develop plans to safeguard children.

Together for Children (TfC), which provides children’s services on behalf of Sunderland City Council, commissioned the University of Sunderland to review the effectiveness of its own FGC.

Academic Sarah Martin-Denham interviewed dozens of families to gauge their views on how the service has impacted on their lives, and her report identified overwhelming support for FGCs.

“Overall our study found that for the majority of service-users, FGC was an effective intervention and had a positive impact on the lives of parents, and families, reducing the level of need and service response,” says Sarah.

FGC is supported by an independent coordinator who helps the family prepare for the process. The group could include family members, friends, close work colleagues or trusted community members.

The participants involved detailed a range of issues as reasons for being involved with children’s services from substance misuse, mental or physical health, domestic violence, neglect and financial struggles.

Following the FGC, parents and extended family members shared many ways they had received ongoing support. They mostly described practical support that alleviated pressures, either with day-to-day tasks or checking in on their mental health and wellbeing. One mum said her friend helped her in many ways:

“She helped me decorate the house. She’s helping me
with my daughter’s headlice. She helped us clear the back garden. She’s really hands-on. Once when she came for a cuppa, she started washing my dishes.”

Her father also helped the mum draw up a repayment plan for debts she had accrued:

“We worked with budgeting to get on top of my arrears, to figure out where we could pay for things, get bills paid off. I can say that my arrears are nearly fully paid off, and I’ve still got a roof over my head.”

Sarah, the Programme Leader and Academic Tutor for Postgraduate Certificate National Award for Special Educational Needs Co-ordination (NASENCO) at the University of Sunderland, said: “Those parents I interviewed felt more families could benefit from FGC, and the approach should be offered as soon as families become involved.

“Some of those interviewed felt empowered by the experience, it brought them closer together as a family and improved relationships. Our study also showed that consideration must be given on how best to capture the authentic voice of the child in the FGC.”

While most families engaged with their FGC plan, the study found that some did not always adhere to the plan directly.

However, Sarah says: “Although they did not always need to access this support, they overwhelmingly reported that being aware of the availability of extra support was crucial to how they managed and, in some cases, overcame their adversities.”

Keeley Brickle, Family Group Conference Team Manager, said: “The purpose of a Family Group Conferencing is to include the child’s wider family network in a meeting where the family and friends make a plan about the future arrangements for the child, which will ensure they are safe and that their wellbeing is promoted. It is felt that the earlier the FGC service can work with the family, the better it is, and we have recently been piloting taking referrals from universal and self-referrals from families through EHAAT.”

The report – Family Group Conferencing: A thematic analysis of families’ perspectives – recommendations are intended to guide Together for Children in commissioning decisions for FGC and to direct future training needs within the organisation.

Karen Davison, Director of Early Help, added: “Our own internal data supports the findings of this research. Family Group Conferencing is a very effective intervention for our families. We are already exploring the use of FGC for lower-level issues such as bullying and poor school attendance, empowering families to find solutions of their own.”

The recommendations have also been shared with the Department for Education, which funded the review.

They include:

Recommendation 1: For Together for Children to continue to fund Family Group Conferencing, recognising that this approach enables parents and families (involved in child protection services) gain increased levels of social support as a protective factor for child safety and wellbeing.

Recommendation 2: To explore the feasibility of offering targeted FGC to families where there are early concerns.

Recommendation 3: To develop creative approaches to engage children in the FGC so that their voices are authentically represented in the outcomes and decisions, and to recognise that for some children, this will include opportunities outside of the FGC itself.

Recommendation 4: To provide an independent referee/advocate on the day of the FGC to give impartial support, manage any hostilities, and ensure all support network members (including children) have their voices heard.

Recommendation 5: To make it explicit in the child and family ‘guide to our service’ on the TfC website that the FGC coordinator is independent of the referring service in children’s services

Recommendation 6: To further develop mechanisms for reviewing and reporting FGC impact on preventing further engagement from children’s services, where child protection concerns exist by robustly tracking the approach on the child and family.

Recommendation 7: To review family time arrangements following changes agreed on a FGC plan to determine possible adaptations for such arrangements following SGO placements and family time meetings.

Recommendation 8: To provide core training for workers in children’s services and ongoing continuing professional development (CPD) regarding the causes, prevalence and impact of adverse experiences on children and parents.

Recommendation 9: Promoting a positive understanding of children’s services workers to counteract the negative stigma associated with children’s services involvement in family matters across communities.


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