For anyone else wondering what this tweet was all about, here’s what we’ve made of it so far.

Family Group Conferences (FGCs) are family-led planning meetings. Their use is well established in child protection as a way of enabling families to make their own safe plans for children where possible, before plans are otherwise imposed on them (eg. in child protection conference or court care proceedings settings). Government guidance recommends councils offer them to children on the edge of care but stops short of saying they have to – Court Orders Guidance page 16. Practice varies from council to council. See Family Rights Group Advice Sheet.

The What Works Centre (WWC) is a government funded body working alongside (Cardiff University based) CASCADE on behalf of the DfE, to make children’s social work policy and practice decisions more evidence based. See here. They say they are reviewing existing evidence, (against high research standards), pulling it together accessibly, identifying gaps, and developing research (and research tools) to meet those gaps. (The Family Justice Observatory has a similar function for family court decision making).

The concerns – A group of academics with experience of FGCs have written an open letter to the WWC asking them to re-think aspects of new proposals with the DfE to develop and test a form of FGC for families on the edge of care. Specifically, they point out that it’s unethical to randomly allocate the families of vulnerable children on the edge of going into care to either getting the benefit of an FGC or going without one. They also say the narrow focus anyway on testing ‘what works’ in terms of the number of care proceedings avoided by an FGC misses, and sidelines, the intrinsic value of FGC’s as a fundamentally ethical way of working with families in its own right, regardless of outcome (or at the very least testable more by satisfaction of families).

The twitter dialogue – As so often a cross-silo dialogue was quickly lit at twitter. This helpfully distinguished between trialling FGCs as a tool to promote family-led decision making against other ways of involving families, and families who are effectively side-lined from decision making, depending on what is routine social work practice in the relevant councils taking part:

There were also questions on the ethics and viability of an RCT (randomised controlled trial) in respect of informed consent and legal duties at the point of pre- proceedings meetings and care proceedings, and the role of (automatic) legal aid solicitors on behalf of parents at both stages:

And, tangentially, as to the basis upon which some councils but not others will be privileged with large amounts of tax-payer/ government funding:

The actual proposals – Dove-tailing 22nd May WWC and DfE press releases, Announcing the Supporting Families: Investing in Practice programme‘ and ‘£15 million investment to help keep families safely together – Up to 40 new areas will benefit from £15 million to expand promising innovative approaches to keeping families safely together‘ explain that the

joint DfE and WWC initiative will test out the possibility of rolling out both FGCs and Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC’s) to up to 40 local authorities while conducting rigorous research into their effects.

The DfE release links to detailed information about the wider innovation programme and how councils can apply to take part. The WWC release links to their own 2nd April review of a Dutch randomised controlled trial of FGCs in child welfare, concluding it’s important but tells us little more than that we need to research ‘whether they work’ in the specific UK context. What the WWC don’t link to or mention, is their 10th May 2019 press release, An innovative and large scale evaluation, on their dilemmas about trying to use what are widely considered to be the gold evidential research standard (RCT’s) in these contexts, and their decision to compromise with a “pragmatic stepped wedge” trial instead, which we assume will apply here. [*UPDATE 07.06.19: See comment from Professor Kate Morris below for confirmation that the ‘pragmatic stepped wedge’ does not in fact apply to the WWC proposals for evaluating FGC’s as we speculated here (and that the WWC have been in touch)]. Whilst the focus isn’t the ethics, they do say:

The ‘gold standard’ way of doing this kind of thing is with a randomised controlled trial (RCT) in which families, or perhaps social workers, receive either the business as usual model, or the new one, in a way that isn’t biased, and where it’s chosen by the flip of a coin rather than by someone’s judgement. That’s clearly not appropriate here, where each of the three models requires whole system change, and buy-in from across children’s services – something that wouldn’t be possible if some social workers were still doing things the old way. This is not just a problem for colleagues trying to make the programme work, but for us as evaluators – we can’t make major changes to a programme, just to incorporate the evaluation of that programme.

That’s why we’ve been working for the last five months with Leeds, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire, as well as officials from the DfE, to develop a pragmatic alternative to an RCT which lets us maximise what we learn from the evaluation, while not getting in the way of delivery. What we’ve settled on is a “pragmatic stepped wedge” trial – one very much shaped by our LA partners – in which the order the 20 partner authorities receive the new model will be randomly selected – so one might start in September, another six months later, and so on, like in the diagram below. This isn’t as ‘pure’ as an RCT, but it better reflects the design of the programme itself.

It seems possible that that those posing the questions may (like us) not have seen this, [* UPDATE AS ABOVE] although they may now have seen it, since an innovation programme email update sent out to subscribers yesterday had a little extra bit within the usual updates on projects saying as follows:

The largest evaluation ever done in the world. Read about how the WWC will conduct the largest evaluation of its type ever conducted in children’s social care anywhere in the world here. The evaluation will involve 20 local authorities over several years, and involve a ‘pragmatic’ alternative to a randomised control trial.

This seems a bit of an odd way to reply to a call for dialogue (and again risks the possibility that those asking the question won’t see it). Particularly given WWC’s strong ethos of engaging with the sector from the outset. [* UPDATE AS ABOVE]. It would be interesting to hear views on the ‘pragmatic stepped wedge’. Also, to hear WWC’s views on the need for evaluations of FGCs in an edge of care context to keep sight of the value of FGCs in themselves to families and as an ethical way of practising. This might be lost in a rush to measure efficacy in terms of reducing care numbers. The former President has helpfully summarised the context of (broadly) rising care numbers, declared (then undeclared) a crisis and an apparent growing consensus that pre-proceedings practice may hold the key to resolution in A research based future, a speech given recently to NAGALRO, with links to some key research.

We think both the 22nd May press releases slightly mis-characterise FGCs. FGC’s don’t just involve families in decision making or even put them at the heart of it – families actually run their own conferences. Social services are not present and have no role, other than to make the referral, setting the key questions to be answered by the family in a written plan [eg. Can we support this mother to keep care of the child and how? And/or if not who might step in from the family network to care, with what support?]; and in setting any safeguarding bottom-line non-negotiables [eg. the plan can’t be one that allows the child to come into contact with X/ be left unsupervised with Y]; and in responding to a family’s written requests within the plan for statutory support to enable it to work [eg. to fund a rehab place or DV course /pay a kinship fostering allowance etc].

And while the programme and press releases are about both FGCs and Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs), there are no proposals to evaluate FDACs, citing 2018 research as high strength evidence showing a positive effect on family reunification. The menu in the ‘evidence store’ makes clear there is no plan to re evaluate FDAC efficacy or set up a randomized control study to see whether children of parents with substance misuse problems are removed more or less often than those not offered FDAC. Nor is there any plan to subsume it within other ways of promoting reunification generally or where substance misuse applies. They will be testing FDAC only to the extent of seeing if further improvements can be made. By contrast, we’ve not found a review of existing evidence on FGCs at WWC, and the menu in the WWC ‘evidence store’ makes clear that the intended review of FGCs starts from the premise that they are subsumed within a wider study of ways of involving families in decision making.

The DfE announcement specifically says that the new programme of funding for roll out across a further 40 councils will be modelled on [as opposed to rolling out and testing existing] Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) and a programme known as Family Group Conferencing.

Given this, and recent WWC reviews of the ‘signs of safety’ approach to Initial Child Protection Conferences (ICPCs), we also speculate whether we might be heading for a trial of more family-led ICPCs and fusion of FGCs and ICPCs?:

The Transparency Project welcomes comments on this post and invites guest posts here as a public forum for furthering dialogue and exchange of views. (We don’t ourselves hold any particular view on this topic.) 

Image of family tree thanks to Pixabay.