Family group conferencing: Following the evidence can keep children with their families
This week, Foundations published findings from the first randomised control trial (RCT) of family group conferences (FGCs) in the UK and the largest RCT of FGCs in the world. A family group conference (FGC) is a family-led meeting in which the family and friends network come together to make a plan for the child. This might mean extra support for the parents to continue safely raising their child or identifying relatives or friends who can step in as the child’s kinship carer. They are used in children’s social care in the UK and internationally. At Foundations, family group decision making is an area of focus within one of our new strategy’s key priority areas: strengthening family networks.
We worked with Coram to evaluate the impact that a referral for FGCs at pre-proceedings stage has on child outcomes. Pre-proceedings is the stage when a local authority has concerns about the care of a child and are working with the family to ensure all possible steps have been taken to avoid the need for care proceedings. The findings provide high-quality causal evidence that the use of FGCs at the pre-proceeding stage can keep children with their families and out of care. This is a landmark evaluation both in terms of its findings and because of what it means for evaluating impact in children’s social care in the future.
The new findings from our trial on FGCs show that over 2,000 children per year could avoid going into care and instead safely remain with their families if FGCs are rolled out across England. Our cost-analysis demonstrates that this can also save public money to the tune of £150 million within two years. The results from this study provide the most robust evidence to date of the positive impact that FGCs at the pre-proceedings stage have for children and families in England. There is still more work to be done to address evidence gaps on the effectiveness of FGCs at different points in the children’s social care system, for example as part of targeted early help, or support provided for a child in need.
Interventions and programmes which are widely used and promoted in policy should be evaluated for impact to ensure that they offer the best support for children and families. At Foundations, our mission is to generate and champion actionable evidence that improves services to support family relationships. We have a commitment to only say things work if they have evidence of impact and the best way to establish this is by experimental methods such as Randomised Controlled Trials and quasi experimental designs, which establish whether interventions, rather than other factors, are the cause of outcomes and are making a difference for children and families.
This is a landmark evaluation not only because of the information it provides about the impact of FGCs, but also because it shows that it is possible to evaluate impact using RCTs in children’s social care. Although RCTs are common in other fields, this is a relatively new approach in children’s social care and this trial paves the way for future research of this kind, which will strengthen our knowledge about what works to improve child outcomes, and will enable us to make the case to local and national government for interventions that are most likely to make the most difference to improving child outcomes.
If we are to improve outcomes for vulnerable children through better interventions, programmes and services, we must act decisively when we have high-quality evidence of what works. Despite statutory guidance recommending the use of family group conferencing since 2014, too often FGCs are not provided or happen too late to divert children away from the care system, as highlighted in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We should be using Family Group Conferences in more local areas. Now we know that Family Group Conferences are a cost-effective intervention which can keep children out of care, local authorities should introduce them at pre-proceedings stage, where they are not currently doing so. Let’s use these findings to follow the evidence!