Power, families and social workers

| 19th November 2018
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Maori traditions offer restorative justice model for healing family conflict.

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At a community hall in Camden, North London, a group of people settled down to a very personal discussion – the acknowledgement of domestic abuse among family members and how to deal with it.

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The meeting focussed on Aruna, her 3-year-old daughter Rubi, and Abhik, Rubi’s father.

The event was among many similar family meetings organised by independent coordinators from Camden Family Group Conference Service. The aim of these family group conferences is to rebalance power between social work professionals and families by involving extended family and giving everyone a voice.

Maori practice

Aruna said: “The domestic abuse was on the table for discussion from the start of the meeting, that it was bad for the child and for our family. 

"My family raised their concerns with what had happened and also were able to make it clear that they were not going to accept any type of abuse. It was import­ant for me that both sides of the family accepted what had happened and also that it was wrong.”

This way of working, developed over the last 20 years, draws on the experience of New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori people. Back in the mid-1980s, social workers in New Zealand began to react to concerns from the Maori community, members of which were alarmed at the high proportion of their children in care, the removal of those children to non-Maori institutions and carers, and the abuse that numbers of their children suffered.

Maoris pointed to their own long-established practice of holding family network meetings to discuss and resolve problems faced by children and their families in the community.

A crisis in social work services in New Zealand led to the Maori practice being examined and then adopted in a radical piece of legislation in 1989. Since then, the situation of New Zealand children (of any community) facing harm or exclusion from their home has had to be considered in a family group conference.

Shifting power

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This conference has to happen before the matter goes to court, and it will only go to court if it remains unresolved. The practice has now spread to many other countries, including Britain.

The experience of employing this model, supported by research, is that solutions are created and rooted in the families, often using their own resources but also deciding what help they want from statutory agencies.

This has made the solutions more enduring and sustainable than solutions decided upon by professional social workers, even when they have discussed them with the immediate family. The presence of professional social workers makes it tempting for families to put responsibility onto them: the absence of professionals sends a positive message to the family that they can make good decisions and that they have the opportunity to do so.

Working with families through family group conferences and seeing the use of the model develop has been exciting.

For us as social work professionals it has felt so much more positive than working from a position of traditional professional power.

Restorative justice 

Nearly every family group conference results in the family using the model and making a plan. Invariably their plans are agreed. Families professionals had been despairing of coming up with imaginative and lasting solutions.

The family–professional relationship changes, and that has proved creative. Family group conferences are a part of the approach that is so successful in restorative justice conferences.

The key ingredients are honesty, clarity, participation (by children and the wider family) and empowerment. Decisions are made by family members on their own.

Communication and resolution is so often the experience for families and professionals when using family group conferences to work on difficult issues including child abuse and neglect.

Maori families have long known that the key thing to do in such challenging situations is to meet together and talk. Some prominent Maoris knew this when the white and non-Maori social work profession in New Zealand was in crisis in the mid-1980s, and an inquiry chaired by a Maori judge led to a radical change in practice.

Building community 

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block describes some essentials that are relevant to how family conferences are structured.

He stresses the value of getting together and not just talking about concerns; that community is built by focusing on people’s gifts rather than their deficiencies; and that labelling people diminishes their capacity to fulfil their potential.

Why might this be relevant to Resurgence & Ecologist readers? Well, we think the experience of using family group conferences is exciting and contains much good news about the potential of changing the power relationship between authorities and people.

Family group conferences are built around a different power structure, and it is through greater equality in the power balance between families and professional agencies that the dialogue and agreements are achieved.

Further, the outcomes are nearly always good and constructive and much more creative than those often reached when a social worker and a family meet in an atmosphere of criticism and distrust.

Planning the future 

Using a family group conference to achieve a decision about children is an alternative to more traditional ways of working, though the great majority of referrals come from a local authority statutory agency.

The conference is held in a neutral venue that the family finds acceptable. According to the Family Rights Group, in 2017 84 percent of local authorities referred families for family group conferences.

In the Netherlands, the principles behind the conferences have been taken further. There, the initiative for a family group conference does not have to come from a statutory agency: legislation now enables any family member to request one, which the local authority must pay a local service to provide.

Family group conferences are also available to address homelessness, difficulties arising from mental health needs, the future of prisoners about to be released, and the difficulties arising from disabilities or ageing.

A family group conference about a child is not about his or her problems to date. It will need to recognise these, but key to the whole process is that the family network is invited to plan for the child’s future.

Transformative process

One of the testaments to family group conferences is that the families who partici­pate often become advocates for the process.

In Camden, people have joined a Family Advisory Board, whose members advise on publicity and process. They are also involved in meeting new families who are thinking about whether to agree to a family group conference. Their position is that they have been there, and it works. 

For people like Aruna, the family conferences have proved constructive and even transformative. Since the family group conference, she says her family find it easier to cope, talk and plan for Rubi’s best interests, which Aruna described as “the most important thing”.

She continued: “Through the family group conference we got to understand each other more, and that includes the social worker. We got stuff done and it also improved relationships and our confidence for the future.”

Key principles

Information from social workers about their concerns must be clear and precise.

- The child’s extended family network (relatives and significant friends) is involved in the process.

- The key part of the process – and the part that makes it fundamentally different from simply consulting with families – is private family time. The family network meets without the social worker to make a plan for the future that deals with the social worker’s concerns. Thus the power balance between families and professionals changes.

- The family plan is accepted unless a professional shows that it puts a child at risk.

- Everyone, including children, should have a voice.

- Family group conferences are convened only when a family agrees – they should not be imposed on families – and they are organised by an independent coordinator.

These Authors 

Andrew Papworth and Tim Fisher are former and current manager respectively of Camden Family Group Conference Service, a part of Camden local authority. The latest edition of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine is out now!

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