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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 22, No. 2
April 2017

How CFTs Contribute to Decision Making
A Conversation with Holly McNeill

Child and family team meetings (CFTs) are a key part of child welfare practice in North Carolina. To get insight into how CFTs contribute to decisions about children and families, Practice Notes spoke with one of their most ardent supporters, the NC Division of Social Services' Holly McNeill.

How do CFTs add to decision-making in child welfare?
CFTs are great for deciding the "how" of an issue. In child welfare there are a lot of non-negotiable topics, such as drug treatment, safe discipline of children, supervision of children, etc. These are vital to the safety and well-being of children.

The power of the CFT comes from allowing families to choose how to fulfill these non-negotiables. Consider a parent who needs substance abuse treatment. A CFT could help them decide which program is right for them, who will help with transportation, who can assist with child care while they're in treatment, and who can help support them and hold them accountable as they get treatment.

Too often agencies have the mentality that if situation "X" arises, the response must be "Y." CFTs help us avoid this mistake. CFTs let the family craft solutions that are feasible for them while fulfilling the agency's non-negotiable need to ensure child safety.

But do important child welfare decisions really get made in CFTs?
Sure! Especially in agencies that fully embrace CFTs and are committed and invested in the process. These agencies use CFTs to help keep kids out of care, have parents help choose where their children are placed, or make parents comfortable with their child's care so they can focus on their own needs (e.g., substance abuse or mental health treatment).

Naturally, CFTs are less helpful in agencies where they are doing them in name only. When agencies aren't doing the needed preparation or they aren't truly open to the family creating their own solutions, workers do not see results and therefore may see the whole CFT process as a waste of time.

What about CFTs and key "small" decisions?
CFTs are great for helping parents work out the details of meeting a larger goal, such as who will help with transportation or child care, or how they will maintain communication with their child while they are separated. They can also help family and friends rally to support the child, such as helping them participate in a sport after school. CFTs can also help youth build support networks as they prepare to age out of care. Youth need to know who they can call on for advice on laundry, grocery shopping, and car repairs.

Tell us about a time when a CFT decision led to a positive outcome.
Three boys with mental health issues were coming into care just before Christmas. The extended family was fed up with the boy's parents but agreed to a CFT. They told us they would keep the boys through Christmas and then they could be placed in foster care. We explained that due to their issues, the boys would need to be placed separately, in group homes. The family asked to discuss this privately.

When we came back they said they would keep the boys and had worked out which family member would take each child and how they could maintain visits between the boys. It was a great solution for these boys. Just after Christmas one of the family members had already gone to court and been granted legal custody of the child she was caring for.

Are there things that get in the way of making decisions in CFTs?
Difficult family dynamics can be an issue. This could be a family member who dominates or bullies, people who can't be civil to each other, someone who doesn't want someone else there, someone being unwilling to own up to an issue due to fear of judgement, etc.

Relying on the fundamentals of CFTs is the solution. By adequately preparing everyone, pre-discussing needed ground rules, making people comfortable, clearly defining the decision to be made, and having a good facilitator, we can help ensure the meeting is a productive decision making tool.

Benefits of CFTs

Research has shown CFTs benefit children and families. For instance, CFTs and similar family decision making processes are linked with:

  • Increased likelihood the child will be reunified with parents or placed with relatives (Hall, et al., 2015; Pennell, et al., 2010; Wang, et al., 2012).
  • More frequent contact between children and their families and better quality relationships between children and those family members (Hall, et al., 2015).
  • Increased parent and youth satisfaction with the process (Hall, et al., 2015).
  • Lower levels of anxiety for the youth (Hall, et al., 2015).
  • In a study in Washington, D.C., when family team meetings occurred within 72 hours of an emergency removal, children were more likely to be placed with family and more likely to exit care through either reunification or placement with relatives (Pennell, et al., 2010).