NOW, THIS IS FAMILY ENGAGEMENT!
Waves of change have weakened the influence of family in today’s society, yet family remains the most critical component of our social fabric. Primary learning begins within the home environment, and as families support their child’s education and the learning process, they are vital partners in the school community. A new approach for working with families seeks to strengthen this fabric by enlisting the collective power of families and their communities of care to address their own issues and solve their own problems.
Beginning in New Zealand in 1989 in the youth justice and child welfare systems, Family Group Decision Making (FGDM – sometimes referred to internationally as Family Group Conferencing or FGC) operates according to the premise that the direct involvement of a family group works better to solve a family’s issues than the efforts of professionals alone to solve those issues for people. A key ingredient of an FGDM meeting is “Family Alone Time,” when the family is left alone, without professionals in the room, to devise plans to solve their own issues. These plans are then evaluated by professionals for legal and safety concerns.
A Conference Coordinator, usually independent of the referring social work or other agency, may work with a family through three stages:
- Referral and preparation, in which the coordinator meets with the referral source, immediate family, extended family, professionals who can provide information, guidance and resources and other involved community to plan the conference.
- The conference itself, which may take several hours to conduct, in which the family produces a plan for how to solve a problem, care for a child, or support a family member in need.
- Monitoring and followup, during which the family takes responsibility to carry out its plan and may reconvene to evaluate and update the plan over time.
The FGDM conference meeting also has three major components:
- Information sharing, during which the professionals help frame the legal and professional concerns, offer resources that might be available to help the family, and provide information that may be of use to the family to arrive at a successful plan.
- Family alone time or private time, during which all the professionals actually leave the room, and the family meets to develop its own plan to address the issues of concern. This is the most time-consuming portion of the FGDM.
- Presentation of the plan, during which the professionals return and the family outlines the plan they have developed. Professionals may request clarification, but if the plan meets all the legal and safety concerns, it will be approved and become the service plan for that family.
FGDM or FGC affirms family power and recognizes their potential to solve their own problems. It places families in the driver’s seat, and guides them through. The conference coordinator ensures that the family has a safe and supportive environment within which they can assert their influence, demonstrate full understanding of the scope of concerns and work in a solution-focused manner.
Adaptable to school settings, problems can be identified, fully understood and solved in lieu of academic performance, attendance, disruptive behaviors, discipline, and so forth. This approach can aid in the prevention of suspensions and expulsions of children from school, thus avoiding interrupting the learning process of students who desperately need the access to a quality education. Moreover, FGDM is a restorative practice.
If there is a more effective, promising or exemplary engagement strategy, by all means utilize it. However, if you see promise in this group work with families, plan to engage them with cultural competence and build their capacity to effectively utilize ‘parent/family power’ in EVERYONE’S best interest.