A large-scale evaluation of the impact of introducing Family Group Conferences (FGCs) at the pre-proceedings stage in England. The evaluation included a randomised controlled trial (RCT), process evaluation and cost analysis. FGCs are family-led meetings which bring a network of family and friends together to make a plan for a child, supported by an independent coordinator. This project was supported by the charity Daybreak, who trained and supported local authorities to deliver FGCs, as well as leading some themselves.
The objective of this evaluation was to understand the effect of referring families for a FGC on the likelihood of children entering care, as well as other outcomes for children and families entering pre-proceedings., The study also aimed to understand how FGCs were delivered, for example identifying the barriers and enablers to successful implementation, as well as determine the cost benefits of implementing FGCs for local authorities.
How we went about it
The evaluation involved a large-scale randomised control trial whereby individual families entering pre-proceedings were randomly allocated to be referred to a FGC or receive service-as-usual. In total, over 2,500 children in approximately 1,500 families took part in the study. To understand what happened to these families, local authorities were asked for information about the children, including whether they became looked-after, their living arrangements, and whether court proceedings were issued or not. The analysis then looked at how these outcomes differed between the families who were referred to FGCs compared to those who were not.
To explore how FGCs had been implemented, a mixture of interviews, focus groups and surveys were used to understand the experiences of families, social workers, and staff from local authorities and Daybreak. Finally, local authorities were asked how much it cost them to deliver FGCs during pre-proceedings so that the cost-benefit could be determined.
The randomised control trial found that children whose families were referred for an FGC were:
- Less likely to be in care one year later (36%) compared to those not referred (45%). This difference was statistically significant.
- Had spent significantly less time in care 6 months later (87 days, on average) compared to those not referred (115 days, on average). However, this difference was not significant at twelve months.
- Less likely to have had care proceedings issued (59%) compared to those not referred (72%) by the end of the reporting period. This difference was statistically significant.
However, there were no statistically significant differences in whether children’s living arrangements had changed or how included parents felt in planning their children’s care. None of the outcomes were significant at 18 months.
The findings of the process evaluation indicated that families did not feel as though the FGC made a major difference to their outcomes, instead viewing FGCs as a small part of a larger picture of services. In contrast, most local authorities expressed a view that the introduction of FGCs had made a difference to how they worked with families. Covid-19 proved the biggest challenge to implementation. However, aside from this fidelity of the model and adherence to standards of good practice in delivering FGCs were generally high. From the cost analysis, it was concluded that FGCs were cost-effective, resulting in a net benefit of £960 per child in the first year after entering pre-proceedings due to the lower likelihood of entering care.
- The use of Family Group Conference at pre-proceedings stage can keep children with their families and out of care: 12 months after the Family Group conference, children were less likely to go to court, less likely to go into care, and to spend less time in care when they became looked after.
- Family Group Conferences can save public money: This study found Family Group Conferences to be cost effective, despite higher-than-expected costs due to COVID-19, with a saving of £960 per child referred in the first year. This is likely to be an underestimate because the costs in this study were higher than normal6. We estimate that if Family Group Conferences were to be rolled out across England, 2,293 fewer children would go into care in a 12-month period, which would save over £150 million within two years.
- We should be using Family Group Conferences in more local areas: We know that Family Group Conferences are a cost-effective intervention which can keep children out of care, therefore local authorities should introduce Family Group Conferences at pre-proceedings stage, where they are not currently doing so.
- High-quality delivery of Family Group Conferences is central to their effectiveness: Implementation quality must be maintained if the effects seen in this study are to be replicated.
- Family Group Conferences should be accompanied by a range of other effective support to keep children safe in the long-term: Family Group Conferences are unlikely to be a sufficient intervention to keep children safe on their own and should be provided alongside ongoing high-quality support which meets the needs of the child and family.
- There is a need to undertake further research into 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.