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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 2
March 2003

Child and Family Team Meetings in North Carolina

Editor’s Note: In this issue of Practice Notes we use “child and family team meetings” and “family conferencing” interchangeably as generic terms referring to family-centered meetings. When we use the generic term “family conferencing” we are NOT referring to the family group conferencing model.

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In North Carolina and other parts of the world, an increasing number of child welfare agencies are using family conferences to help them achieve safety, well-being, and permanency for the children and families they serve. This article will explore why and how this approach to working with families emerged and inform you about the challenges and rewards experienced by those who are conducting these meetings in North Carolina today.

Definition and History

Child and family team meetings are structured, facilitated meetings that bring family members together so that, with the support of professionals and community resources, they can create a plan that ensures child safety and meets the family’s needs.

The first form of child and family team meeting to arise was New Zealand’s family group conferencing model. The model was created as a response to a concern that Maori children were overrepresented in both the juvenile justice and child protection systems, and out of a desire to minimize unnecessary governmental intervention. Further, Maori people felt excluded from planning for their children, although their cultural tradition held that the nuclear family, clan, and tribe should be involved in decisions about children.

In 1989, a few years after the practice was introduced, New Zealand made family conferencing mandatory for all families with abused or neglected children (Florida, 1999a; Pennell, 1999).

New Zealand’s inspiring approach to empowering families and communities to address social problems was quickly adopted—and adapted—internationally. Today, different forms of family conferencing are used in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada (Florida, 1999a).

As the use of child and family team meetings grew, so did the number of contexts in which they were used. For example, family group conferencing (FGC) has been used not only in child welfare, but to address concerns such as youth crime, school suspensions, juvenile delinquency, adult crime, reintegration of offenders into the community, and neighborhood conflicts (Pennell, 1999). Various models of child and family team meetings resulted when the original New Zealand model was applied in different legal, systemic, and cultural contexts. Some of the most well-known models in use today are family group conferencing, team decision-making, the family unity model, and family group decision-making. For an North Carolina-specific overview, see the table "Some of the Child and Family Team Meeting Models Used in North Carolina."

Commonalities

Despite differences, most models of family conferencing share the same underlying solution-based, family-centered beliefs, beliefs North Carolina has been emphasizing in its child welfare system for a number of years. These include the following ideas:

  • Everyone desires respect
  • All families have strengths and can change
  • Families are the experts on themselves
  • Families, with support, can overcome the challenges they face
  • To maximize family strength and problem-solving capacity, meetings should include extended family and supportive non-family members

The strengths orientation of family conferencing is based on the belief that family strengths are what ultimately resolve issues of concern. The N.C. Division of Social Services’ Children’s Services Manual (1998) explains this philosophy: “Strengths are discovered through listening, noticing, and paying attention to people. They are enhanced when they are acknowledged and encouraged. People gain a sense of hope when they are heard. They are also more inclined to listen to others. Whereas advice can seem disrespectful, listening and suggesting options provide choices. Choices empower people.”

Many experts and experienced practitioners are convinced that the professionals involved in child and family team meetings, especially conference facilitators, must hold and act on these strengths-based, family-centered beliefs if conferences are to be successful.

Family-centered beliefs are also expressed in the general structure shared by the different models of family conferencing, most of which contain the following steps:

  • Prepare for the meeting
  • Bring the family and its supporters together with professionals
  • Ask the family what it wants to work on
  • Explicitly inventory family strengths that relate to the present concern
  • Explore family needs
  • Select a goal
  • Develop a plan

These common components of family conferencing are depicted in the figure at right, “Structural Overview of a Child and Family Team Meeting.”

Some models also require that each meeting provide families time to be alone together, without the presence of the facilitator or other professionals, to develop a plan that protects and cares for their children and addresses their needs.

The beliefs underlying child and family team meetings are also reflected in the fact that families are strongly encouraged to have input into the selection of the individuals invited to the conference. In some models, it is stipulated that the family and its supporters must account for 50% of those participating in the conference; this ensures that the family does not feel outnumbered or intimidated at the meeting. Most models also suggest conducting meetings in a location that is comfortable, accessible, private, and feels safe for the family.
Other common elements of family conferencing models include a requirement that meetings be coordinated and facilitated by competent and trained individuals, and that the facilitator and others make the necessary advance preparations (Morton, 2002a).

Effectiveness

As we have said, the child and family team meeting is a family-centered strategy to support and empower families and communities to fix the problems they face. But does this technique work? Does it improve child and family outcomes in the communities where it is used?

According to some researchers, it does. Pennell (1999) writes that limited studies of the family group conferencing model suggest it:

  • Reduces child maltreatment
  • Reduces domestic violence
  • Decreases disproportionate numbers of children of color in care
  • Promotes well-being of children and family members

The practice of family conferencing may also improve the performance of child welfare agencies in other ways. According to DeMuro and Rideout (2002), authors of the family conferencing model used in the Family to Family initiative, their team decision-making process teaches agencies and practitioners how to:

  • Improve the child welfare decision-making process
  • Improve child safety outcomes
  • Increase cooperation among families, foster families, providers of services, the community, and caseworkers
  • Decrease the length of time children stay in foster care
  • Improve child welfare’s relationship with the broader community

Some observers are less confident in the effectiveness of family conferencing. Morton (2002b), for example, decries the fact that research done thus far has said little about the characteristics of the specific families participating in family conferences. Without this information, he argues, we cannot empirically say for whom this practice works.

Other research indicates that child and family team meetings can be challenging to implement. For example, a July 2000 report on an evaluation of Oregon’s Family Decision Meetings found that involvement of parents in the process of deciding whom to invite to meetings was inconsistent; just slightly more than 50% of family members reported knowing they could invite others besides family members.

Not surprisingly, the same study found that often professionals were overrepresented at meetings. It also found that one third of family members interviewed were not at all satisfied with the plan or were only satisfied with some of it, which suggests a lack of meaningful family involvement (Florida, 1999a).

North Carolina

In North Carolina the use of child and family team meetings varies a great deal from county to county across the state. Because state policy requires the use of community assessment teams for families with children in foster care, every DSS has some experience with family conferencing-style meetings (NCDSS, 1998). Some agencies, however, have more extensive experience. Buncombe County DSS, for example, has been actively engaged in child and family team meetings for nearly ten years.

Becky Kessel, a program administrator at Buncombe County DSS, explains that family confer-encing got its start at her agency in the early 1990s as a facet of a grant from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. The “treatment teams” that were part of this effort meshed easily with the emphasis that Families for Kids put on community involvement when it came along in the mid-1990s. Likewise, Buncombe’s treatment teams fit well with System of Care’s emphasis on interagency collaboration and wraparound services when that initiative appeared in 1997. Family conferences in Buncombe are now called “child and family teams.”

Experience led Kessel’s agency to change not just the name of the teams, but the way they are used. “Early on the teams were more foster care-focused,” she says. “Now child and family team meetings are also held on the front end, at the start of our relationship with families.”

Kessel says that the agency hopes applying this strategy on the front end, as they are doing as part of the MRS effort, will help uncover solutions that will solve family problems and prevent children from entering out-of-home care.

A Key Point

It is important to understand that family conferencing as it is practiced in North Carolina today is a flexible, versatile tool. This versatility is reflected in the fact that in many counties, who attends a family’s meeting and who facilitates it varies from meeting to meeting, depending on the situation and the needs of the family involved.

For example, early in an agency’s involvement with a family, family conferencing may take the form of an MRS-style child and family team (see Child and Family Team Meetings and MRS) and perform the function of a community assessment team. At this stage, especially if there are no serious safety concerns, the family and other agencies present often have a significant amount of input into the development of the family’s plan.

A subsequent meeting might be more closely patterned on the family group conferencing model, which involves more extensive preparation time. This enables the family and facilitator planning the meeting to invite a wider range of supportive individuals. (It should be noted, however, that regardless of where you are in the life of a case, if circumstances require it, these meetings can be pulled together in a very short time, making them very effective tools for addressing family crises.)

If things do not go well with the implementation of the plan and the children are in danger of being placed in foster care in the near future, a meeting might be held that more closely resembles the team decision-making model. At this point, although there is still strong encouragement for input from the family and other participants, DSS may take a more central role in the development of the plan.

If things deteriorate further and the children are placed out of the home, in future meetings DSS will be even more directive because of the responsibilities placed upon it by statutes and the court.

In this example, we have associated these four successive meetings with different models of family conferencing. Yet in reality the agencies and family members involved would not experience these meetings as different models or approaches, but as incarnations of the same meeting, adapted to fit the changing needs of those involved.

Depending where you are in the life of a case, each meeting has a slightly different focus, yet it retains the same basic structure and purpose: producing a plan that will guarantee the safety of the children involved and either preserve or reunify the family in question.

To Learn More

Consult the following resources to learn more about this topic:

• Casey Foundation’s Team Decision-making model

http://www.aecf.org/initiatives/familytofamily/tools.htm

• Description of family group decision-making models

http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-10/man/CSs1201cYP-03.htm#P208 _22728

• North Carolina State University’s Family-Centered Meetings Project

http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jpennell/fcmp/

• Family group decision-making bibliography

http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jpennell/fgdm/bibliog.htm

References for this and other articles in this issue