Family Group Conferencing findings: reflections and insights from Coram & Daybreak

Written by Emily Blackshaw (Coram) and Karen Brown (Daybreak)

Family Group Conferencing findings: reflections and insights from Coram & Daybreak

Following the publication of the results from the largest randomised control trial (RCT) of family group conferences (FGCs) in the world, Foundations’ evaluation partner Coram reflects on the experience of doing the research. Practice Lead, Daybreak, gives insight into how and why FGCs are a critical tool for working with children and families to make a difference.

Emily Blackshaw – Lead Quantitative Analyst, Coram

In 2019, Coram undertook a large scale RCT on the impact of Family Group Conferencing (FGC) at the pre-proceedings stage in collaboration with Daybreak and funded by Foundations – What Works Centre for Children & Families. We set out to answer the question, ‘how effective are family group conferences when it comes to improving outcomes for children?’

Children’s social care can be a challenging environment in which to undertake research, with complex interventions and a lack of research infrastructure and resources. Research using randomised controlled trial designs present additional challenges including demanding logistics, ethical considerations, the time and expense involved, and the need for controlled intervention delivery. When carried out well, RCTs can provide a stronger evidence base as to causal relationships, such as whether a particular intervention leads to certain outcomes, than alternative research methods.

To carry out this RCT, sufficient time at the project outset was essential. It enabled us to identify and overcome logistical challenges by seeking advice from experts, piloting approaches with stakeholders, and planning robust data cleaning mechanisms. It also allowed the team to engage in a rigorous and deliberative ethical review process. We want to note that this research would not have been possible without the efforts of hundreds of professionals across Daybreak, Barnardo’s, and the 21 local authorities that took part. In particular, our analysis was dependent on data leads from these local authorities providing administrative data on a child’s legal status and living arrangements for up to 18 months after they were randomised into the study.

The findings from the trial show that children whose families were referred for an FGC at pre-proceedings were significantly less likely to be in care 12 months later than children whose families were not referred for an FGC (36% compared to 45%). Referred children spent less time on average in care, and their cases were less likely to go to court. We also found that FGCs could lead to substantial cost-savings for local authorities, estimating a saving of £960 to local authorities per child in the first year, or £13,365 over three years. 

With careful planning and consideration of logistical and ethical issues, our study has demonstrated that high-quality research using a randomised-controlled design is feasible in social care settings and can provide useful, actionable evidence on children’s outcomes.

Karen Brown – Chief Operating Officer, Daybreak

Daybreak had the privilege and pleasure of working as the Practice Lead in collaboration with Coram, Foundations – What Works Centre for Children and Families, and 21 local authorities on this large-scale RCT. The findings clearly speak for themselves and evidence how we currently underutilise our greatest resources: families and community networks.

I have been involved with FGCs since 2004 and have embedded, developed, led, and managed several FGCs, and Mediation and Advocacy Services within local authorities, and now within the voluntary sector.  Through monitoring and evaluation, we have been able to evidence the difference FGCs make when offered at the right time in a child or young person’s journey. Robust preparation, excellent quality practice standards, and full exploration of family members (maternal and paternal) and community members are key to pathway planning for children and young people.  A clear understanding of what the concerns are, what needs to change and why, and contingency planning is as fundamental to successful engagement and outcomes as fully utilising the family’s strengths and resources.

Daybreak’s position is that the FGC service offer should be an integral part of every social care continuum pathway planning, case discussions, supervisions, and several other forums, including Legal Planning Meetings, Resource Panels, Early Help Panels, to name a few. FGCs widen children and young people’s safety network and provide a holistic view of their lived experiences, with their voices, wishes and feelings kept at the forefront.

A consistent message we receive back from families is: ‘Why were we not offered this process earlier?’ Through thorough family exploration we were able to increase father’s participation in FGCs from 45% to 75%, which resulted in them being more proactive not only in their children’s lives, but within statutory decision meetings too.

The RCT evidence is powerful and clearly shows the difference FGCs can make in children remaining within family care if embedded in all local authorities, as should be the case. At Daybreak we believe that FGCs are a solution-focused tool that can be used in a variety of settings including adult social care, youth offending, placement breakdowns, part of exit pathway planning, early help, homelessness, prisoner families and within health services.

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