Over the past two decades in the UK and elsewhere, the importance of involving children, young people and parents in social work decision-making has been increasingly recognised. When enabled and supported to take part, children, young people and parents can play an essential role in the planning and delivery of services. Improved engagement and participation allows parents, children and young people to have a meaningful influence on decision making about their lives (Kennan et al. 2016; McDowall 2016), and helps relationship-building between families and professionals (Stabler et al 2019).
Nevertheless, in numerous research studies, parents and children have reported feeling stressed, marginalised and oppressed by the child protection process (Corby et al 1996, Cossar et al 2011, Appleton et al 2016, Gibson 2014, 2020, Muench et al 2017, Diaz 2020). In my own recent research, based on interviews with 52 parents and 40 children in two local authorities, most agreed that child protection conferences (CPCs) in particular were oppressive (Muench et al 2017, Diaz 2020). These negative feelings towards CPCs discourage parent and child participation in them and impact negatively on opportunities for building positive working relationships with social workers. These findings echo those made previously over many years (Corby et al 1996, Cossar et al 2011, Appleton et al 2016, Gibson 2014), suggesting that despite the best efforts of many, the child protection process and CPCs in particular are not helpful for families.
The focus of the CPC often means social workers and other professionals talking about how the child is at risk. Towards the end of the meeting, there is often a kind of vote (only for professionals) to decide if the child is ‘at risk of significant harm’. Inevitably this process involves a lot of negative information being shared about parents. This can lead to feelings of shame and being blamed, and hampers efforts by social workers to develop trusting relationships (Diaz 2020).
Perhaps this would be more acceptable if we knew with any confidence that CPCs were at least effective in keeping children safe. But there is no published research to show that CPCs safeguard children.
An alternative could be to hold Family Group Conferences (FGCs) instead. FGCs are generally better received by parents, can help engage families more effectively in decision making and ultimately lead to less antagonistic relationships. FGCs have the potential to lead to shared dialogue between families and professionals, enabling the different expectations of professionals and family members to be combined and given equal weight (Mitchell 2020).
Evidence about the effectiveness of FGCs and other participative is in fact equivocal (Nurmatov et al 2020). However, there is no evidence that such family meetings increase the risk of harm to children (e.g., leading to subsequent child protection referrals). The mixed evidence on outcomes can be explained by the mixed quality of delivery and if so, this further demonstrates the importance of facilitating FGCs effectively so as to maximise family participation (Nurmatov et al 2020).
My recommendation is that we bring wholesale practice of child protection conferences to an end and implement the wholescale use of FGCs instead.
- Appleton, J.V. (2015). Working alongside one another. Child Abuse Review. 24 (5).
- Corby, B., Millar, M., & Young, L. (1996). Parental participation in child protection work: Rethinking the rhetoric. The British Journal of Social Work, 26(4), 475-492.
- Cossar, J., Brandon, M. and Jordan, P. (2011). ‘Don’t make assumptions’: children’s and young people’s views of the child protection system and messages for change. Norwich: Office of the Children’s Commissioner, CRCF.
- Diaz, C. (2020). Decision making in child and family social work: perspectives on participation. Policy Press.
- Gibson, M (2018) The Role of Pride, Shame, Guilt, and Humiliation in Social Service Organizations: A Conceptual Framework from a Qualitative Case Study, Journal of Social Service Research, 10.1080/01488376.2018.1479676, 45, 1, (112-128),
- Kennan, D., Brady. B., and Forkan, C. (2016) Exploring the Effectiveness of Structures and Procedures Intended to Support Children’s Participation in Child Welfare, Child Protection and Alternative Care Services: A Systematic Literature Review. Galway: The UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, The National University of Ireland, Galway.
- McDowall, Joseph. (2016). Are we listening? The need to facilitate participation in decision-making by children and young people in out-of-home care. Developing Practice. 44. 77–93.
- Mitchell M., (2020) Reimagining child welfare outcomes: Learning from Family Group Conferencing. Child & Family Social Work. 2020;25:211–220. https:// doi.org/10.1111/cfs.12676
- Muench, K., Diaz, C. and Wright, R. (2017). Children and parent participation in child protection conferences: a study in one English local authority. Child Care in Practice 23 (1), pp. 49 – 63.
- Nurmatov, U.et al. (2020). Impact of shared decision-making family meetings on children’s out-of-home care, family empowerment and satisfaction: a systematic review. Project Report. [Online]. London: What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. Available at: https://whatworks-csc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WWCSC_Family_Group_Conferencing_Report.pdf
- Stabler, L.et al. (2019). Shared decision-making: What is good practice in delivering meetings? Involving families meaningfully in decision-making to keep children safely at home: A rapid realist review. Technical Report.