2003 Jordan Institute
8, No. 2
Child and Family Team Meetings in North Carolina
Editors 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 familys needs.
The first form of child and family team meeting to arise was New Zealands 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 Zealands inspiring approach to empowering families and communities to address social problems was quickly adoptedand adaptedinternationally. 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."
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:
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 Childrens 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:
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.
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:
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:
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 Oregons 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).
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, Buncombes treatment teams fit well with System of Cares 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 Kessels 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 familys 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 agencys 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 familys 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 Foundations Team Decision-making model
Description of family group decision-making models
North Carolina State Universitys Family-Centered Meetings Project
Family group decision-making bibliography