Family-Engagement Strategies in Child Welfare International Review: Annotated Bibliography

Introduction, Principles and Processes

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The Contexts


The Studies


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Methods of Review


Team Member Bios





Holland, S., & O’Neill, S. (2006),
‘We had to be there to make sure it was what we wanted’: Enabling children’s participation in family decision-making through the family group conference.

Childhood, 13(1), 91-111.

The article represents findings from a small, qualitative study of family group conferencing in Wales. The research explored the notion of empowerment of children and young people within 17 family meetings. Twenty-five children and young people were interviewed within one month of their meetings, and 13 were re-interviewed six months later. Participating adult family members, social workers and coordinators were also interviewed. Although young people positively commented on their participation in the family meetings, the authors argue there are both risks and benefits for children and young people associated with taking part in family meetings. The risks include children or young people not being listened to, their participation being tokenistic and their exposure to family conflict. The young people differentiated between being listened to and feeling influential. While almost all felt they were listened to, only half felt influential after the family meeting. The families reported feeling a sense of “togetherness” once they had reached a plan. The authors found a different prioritization of the purpose of the family meeting: While the adults tended to prioritize practical matters, the young people tended to prioritize bringing the family together and having an opportunity to confront family members and their behavior.

Keywords: child participation, qualitative, child welfare

Holland, S., & Rivett, M. (2008).
‘Everyone started shouting’: Making connections between the process of family group conferences and family therapy practice.

British Journal of Social Work, 38, 21-38.

This article represents findings from a small, qualitative study of family group conferencing in Wales. The research explored the therapeutic and emotional aspects of the family group conference, and the findings are discussed in relation to the similarities and differences between family group conferences and family therapy sessions. Twenty-five children and young people were interviewed within one month of their conferences and were re-interviewed six months later. Participating adult family members, social workers and coordinators were also interviewed. The authors suggest that although no overt attempts are made to facilitate therapeutic change within a family group conference, the data indicate that it can be one of the possible consequences of the conference process. Family group conferences were found to have strong emotional elements during the meeting process, with therapeutic elements for many participants. A small minority did not experience the expression of raw emotion as helpful. The authors conclude that there is potential value in cross-fertilizing ideas across the family group conference and family therapy areas.

Keywords: Wales, United Kingdom; U.K., qualitative, process evaluation

Berzin, S. C. (2006).
Using sibling data to understand the impact of family group decision-making on child welfare outcomes.

Children and Youth Services Review, 28, 1449-1458.

This article examines the impact of family group decision making on child welfare outcomes. Using California's Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Project Evaluation in Fresno and Riverside Counties, this research used an experimental design, with children randomly assigned to either family group decision making or traditional child welfare services. The researchers used sibling data to bolster the sample size. The outcomes analyzed included child maltreatment, placement stability and permanence, collected from administrative data. The research found no significant difference between the outcomes measured for the treatment (N = 209) and control groups (N = 119).

Keywords: quantitative, experimental design, child welfare, outcomes, siblings, california, united states, placement stability, permanence, child maltreatment, random assignment

Connolly, M. (2006).
Up front and personal: Confronting dynamics in the family group conference.

Family Process, 45(3), 345-357.

This article briefly describes the development and practice of family group conferencing as a family-centered legal process in New Zealand. It then examines the findings of a qualitative study exploring the dynamics emerging from family group conference practice from the perspective of the coordinators who convene them. Coordinators in four focus groups participated in a guided discussion across three broad areas: experiences of coordinating conferences and changes in practice over time; practice issues (e.g., what made conferences go well or poorly); and the coordinators’ perceptions of family and non-family participation and influence with respect to the family group conference process. The research indicates that there are benefits in creating a climate of honesty with families, creating the potential for families to deal honestly with the issues. The research indicates that private family time has the potential to promote within-family challenge and self-regulation. The article discusses professional power dynamics and suggests that professional conflicts have the potential to divert attention from family-led processes. It argues that skilled facilitation is needed to ensure that the process is family-led and focused on the child’s needs.

Keywords: New Zealand, child welfare, child safety, role of coordinator, qualitative data

Gunderson, K., Cahn, K., & Wirth, J. (2003).
The Washington State long-term outcome study.

Protecting Children, 18(1 & 2), 42-47.

This brief article summarizes a long-term outcome evaluation of family group conferences in Washington state. The evaluation involved analysis of administrative data of 70 family group conferences. Conference plans identified the following formal supports: mental health services, substance abuse treatment, behavioral interventions and housing resources. The families also provided a significant amount of support, including transportation, home improvement help, supervised visits, respite care, long-term placements, and financial, emotional and cultural support. In the family group conferences examined, most families identified a placement plan. When comparing the pre-conference and post-conference data, children were more likely to be living with their parents and less likely to be living with other family or nonrelatives after the conference. The children also had stable placement and a low rate of rereferral for abuse or neglect over time.

Keywords: Outcome evaluation, Washington, United States, U.S., quantitative, child welfare, substance abuse, neglect, permanency, placement

Haresnape, S. (2009).
The use of family group conferences by black minority ethnic communities.

London: Family Rights Group.

This is a literature review of the dynamics of family group conferencing with black and minority ethnic communities, paying particular attention to the interaction between services and different ethnic groups and highlighting potential barriers to effective engagement. Not strictly an empirical evaluation of the use of family group conferencing with minority groups itself, the review compares recent research evidence from Britain with the original family group conferencing model developed in New Zealand and highlights how family group conferencing could be made more accessible and beneficial for minority communities, particularly in cultural sensitivity. It provides a foundation for the use of future research on the using family group conferencing with British minority communities and indicates issues which need to be taken into account when developing a program for using family group conferencing in this context. The appendices of the review also give structured guidelines on how to implement a successful family group conferencing model when dealing with minority communities.

Keywords: UK; child welfare; black and minority ethnic; literature review

Sundell, K., Vinnerljung, B,. & Ryburn, M. (2001).
Social workers' attitudes towards family group conferences in Sweden and the UK.

Child and Family Social Work, 6, 327-336.

This study examined attitudes of social workers about family group conferencing and compared them with actual numbers of referrals to family group conferencing made by social workers at pilot sites in the United Kingdom and Sweden. Attitudes in Sweden were sampled twice, a year apart, while attitudes in U.K. sites were sampled once. Despite high levels of reported positive attitude toward family group conferencing in both countries, only 42 percent of social workers initiated at least one referral over an 18-month period. The authors speculate that the lack of association between attitudes and referrals may reflect workers' reluctance because they distrust extended family, fear losing control or fear they will be blamed if something goes wrong. The authors caution against explaining workers' reluctance as simply the result of discretionary power or “street level bureaucracy'” and encourage more substantive examination of the complex dilemmas and demands made on social workers by the public and their employing organizations.

Keywords: child care; child protection; family group conference; quantitative data; social workers' attitudes; UK; Sweden

Slater, C. M. (2009).
Second chances: Youth justice co-ordinators’ perspectives on the youth justice family group conference process.

Doctoral dissertation, University of Auckland. New Zealand. Available from University of Auckland Library,

This New Zealand study examined the process of youth justice family group conferencing in terms of what was working well and areas for improvement. Interviews were conducted with 19 coordinators who had at least 12 years of practice and 4 focus groups with a total of 27 coordinators who varied in experience. The participants emphasized that the Children, Young Persons, and their Families Act of 1989 provided the philosophical framework that guided practice. They reported that conferencing worked well for the majority of youths but that the approach was often ineffective with recidivist young people who had multiple and complex needs and who needed longer term interventions for themselves and their families. Repeated conferencing with the same young people led to discouragement for the youths, their families and communities. The respondents also identified a number of best practices for family group conferencing in youth justice, including involving the victims in the process and ensuring good preparations. They recommended enhanced training for coordinators, agency leadership and police and better professional communication and collaboration.

Keywords: New Zealand, youth justice, delivery system, implementation stage, program evaluation, process evaluation, qualitative data

Sieppert, J., & Unrau, Y. (2003).
Revisiting the Calgary project evaluation: A look at children’s participation in family group conferencing.

Protecting Children, 18(1 & 2), 113–118.

This brief article re-analyzes children’s participation data from an earlier formative evaluation of a pilot family group conference project in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Based on nonparticipant observation with 13 children, the study found children’s levels of participation varied greatly between different family group meetings. The authors emphasized that attendance is not equivalent to participation and the meaningful engagement of children in family group conferences and follow-up meetings can meaningfully add to the development of a plan and its monitoring. The study found that some family members and professionals inadvertently mitigated children’s participation in the meetings. The authors concluded by suggesting that how children are included in the family group conference process must be better understood and addressed.

Keywords: Alberta, Canada, qualitative data, child participation, process evaluation

Brown, L. (2007).
The adoption and implementation of a service innovation in a social work setting – A case study of family group conferencing in the UK.

Social Policy and Society, 6(3), 321-332.

This article draws on previous research by the author and uses the conceptual framework of innovation in public sector settings to consider the development of family group conferences in the United Kingdom. These prior studies used mixed methods and occurred between 1999 and 2001. The data come from two surveys and a series of case studies of a limited number of local authorities. The key features emerging from this study included the low use of family group conferencing services and the commonality of experience between implementing family group conferences and implementing other innovative approaches in the public sector. The analysis arrives at an understanding of the barriers to using family group conferences. The author suggests that these barriers are connected to the complexity of implementing innovative ideas in a highly proceduralized setting. Ways forward are identified, and these include identifying incentives to change, adopting change management techniques by implementers and taking seriously the resistance that staff concerned with child protection will present, perceiving the use of family group conferences as too risky.

Keywords: U.K., United Kingdom, England, child welfare, child well-being, developmental, program evaluation, qualitative case study, qualitative data, quantitative data


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