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





Pennell, J. (2006).
Restorative practices and child welfare: Toward an inclusive civil society.

In B. Morrison & E. Ahmed (Eds.), Restorative justice and civil society [Special issue]. Journal of Social Issues, 62(2), 257-277.

Given that federal reviews of child welfare in the United States have found that involving families in decision making is related to stabilizing children’s placements and promoting children’s well-being, a North Carolina study examined the extent to which inclusive participation was achieved at 27 family group conferences held to address child welfare issues. Three indicators of participatory decision making were assessed: 1) greater attendance of family group members than service providers was assumed to reflect a stronger family voice at the deliberations; 2) family group members’ satisfaction with the process and outcome was assumed to reflect consensual decision making; and 3) democratic decision processes used during the family private time were assumed to reflect inclusive participation. The study found that all three indicators supported that family group conferencing promotes participatory decision making: 1) the 221 family group members outnumbered the 115 service providers; 2) the family group members were largely satisfied with the conference process and its resulting decision; and 3) the most influential decision processes during the family’s private time were consensus, inspiring (following a trusted leader) and bargaining. Far less common were ordering, voting, avoiding and manipulating. Satisfaction with the resulting plan, but not the process, was lowered when bargaining was employed. Conferences with inadequate preparations were more likely to result in manipulation taking place during the family’s private time.

Keywords: U.S., North Carolina, child welfare, family participation, developmental stage, program evaluation, process evaluation, qualitative data, quantitative data

Walton, E., McKenzie, M., & Connolly, M. (2005).
Private family time: The heart of family group conferencing.

Protecting Children, 19(4), 17-24.

This article briefly discusses family group conferencing with particular reference to private family time. It reports on a study that merges data from four care-and-protection coordinator focus groups in New Zealand (N = 29), and a questionnaire that was administered to all coordinators (74 percent response rate, n = 37). The study examined current family group conferencing practices relating to private family time. Findings indicate that coordinators were generally positive about private family time, seeing it as providing an important opportunity for the family to self-regulate and self-monitor. There are also indications that even when the participants in a family group conference cannot reach agreement, it nevertheless can provide healing within a family system. Although family group conferences in New Zealand require that families be provided with private family time, this research indicates that it is not always provided consistently and that there are signs of professional discretion.

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

Sundell, K., & Vinnerljung, B. (2004).
Outcomes of family group conferencing in Sweden: A 3-year follow-up.

Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 267-287.

This article reports on an evaluation of an early trial of family group conferences in 10 local authorities across Sweden. A comparison was undertaken between children involved in family group conferences (N = 97) and a random sample of children receiving traditional child welfare services (N = 142), following them over a three-year period, post-conference. At the three-year follow-up, 69 percent of the family group conferencing group had been the subject of at least one new child maltreatment report and 60 percent were substantiated. Out of 57 percent of the comparison group with at least one new report, 40 percent were substantiated. Both groups had low levels of rereporting by extended family members (11 percent). On average, the family group conferencing children received more services and were more often placed in foster or residential care. They also had more previous child protection investigations than did the nonconference group (71 percent versus 51 percent) and social workers rated the family group conferencing cases as more serious than the comparison group. Data analysis found that during the follow-up period, social background and problems had a significant effect on continued child protection contact. Further, the model of family group conferencing as compared to conventional child protection interventions had a significant effect on continued child protection involvement but accounted for only a small part of the variance, from 0 to 7 percent. In terms of the process, the family group conferences were well-attended by family members (75 percent) and children's participation in the conferences was high, with 41 percent of children 9 years and younger and 94 percent of children over 10 years participating, The children reported that their views were respected (77 percent), expressed satisfaction with the plan (89 percent), and preferred family group conferencing as an effective solution-focused method (86 percent).

Keywords: Sweden, child welfare, child safety, outcome evaluation, quantitative data, quasi-experimental design

Marsh, P., & Walsh, D. (2007, January).
Outcomes of family group conferences: More than just the plan?

Retrieved December 9, 2008, from

This local evaluation report maps the perceived and desired outcomes of a family group conference service against the “Every Child Matters” overarching outcomes framework for children’s services in the United Kingdom. In addition, it compares the predicted and perceived outcomes of 23 family group conferences, as identified by the family groups and various professionals. The report suggests that families and professionals all perceived “a remarkable degree of successful outcome,” with “remarkably similar” judgments as to the extent of effectiveness. However, it also suggests that around one in three of the actions agreed on for services were not carried out. To address this, the authors suggest a need for greater review of plans during the plan implementation period. In particular, they argue a need for the family to review plans and to potentially lead this review. Such a process would support the adoption of the principles of the family group conference within the plan implementation period, including “the commitment to partnership working not just to partnership based decision-making.”

Keywords: U.K., United Kingdom, Kent, child welfare, child well-being, delivery system, implementation stage, program evaluation, process evaluation, qualitative data

Titcomb, A., & LeCroy, C. (2005).
Outcomes of Arizona’s family group decision making program.

Protecting Children, 19(4), 47-53.

This article provides a very brief overview of a three-year process-and-outcomes evaluation for the family group decision making program in Arizona. The evaluation found more positive outcomes for children and families who were involved in the program than those in the comparison group during the six-month following period. Although a similar trend was found after one year, it was not statistically significant. The evaluation found children whose families had been involved in family group decision making had decreased rates of resubstantiation (in the six months following the meeting) and families were more actively involved in decision making. Families involved in the program expressed high rates of satisfaction in the process and those involved in the meetings expressed high levels of confidence in the child’s safety subsequent to the meeting.

Keywords: Arizona, United States, U.S., process evaluation, outcome evaluation, child placement, child welfare, child safety

Holland, S., O’Neill, S., Scourfield, J., & Pithouse, A. (2004).
Outcomes in family group conferences for children on the brink of care: A study of child and family participation: Final report.

Cardiff, Wales: Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences.

This study reports findings from a small but in-depth qualitative study of family group conferencing in Wales. The research presents findings on the general process of the family group conference and, in particular, explores the role of the child in the process. 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, and 96 interviews were undertaken overall. The authors suggest that the family group conference provides the potential to democratize family decision making, reducing power differences between professionals and family and within families. The research, however, found that in a number of ways, professionals in practice retained some control over the decision-making process and that there was a demand for this from families. Interestingly, the study found that the use of private family time had a mixed response from families – half indicated they would prefer a professional remained throughout the entire meeting. Positively, men attended the conferences, and most children felt they had a say during the meeting. Some children, however, felt disempowered by family arguments during the conference, and a small number felt they were not heard. The authors suggest that the family group conference, while having a critical role in the making of practical decisions, has emotional and even therapeutic benefits as it provides an appropriate platform for the confrontation of issues. They note that issues of confidentiality and disclosures require careful planning by the facilitators. Overall, almost all family members preferred the family group conference to other social service meetings they had experienced. The report provides the source data for a set of further articles that explore particular aspects of the family group conference (see Holland & O’Neill, 2006; Holland & Rivett, 2008; and Holland, Scourfield, O’Neill, & Pithouse, 2005).

Keywords: United Kingdom, U.K., Wales, child participation, child welfare, qualitative

Weisz, V., Korpas, A., & Wingrove, T. (2006).
Nebraska family group conferencing: Evaluation report.

Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, UN-L Center on Children, Families, and the Law, Nebraska Court Improvement Project.

This report presents the results from four evaluations of Nebraska's use of family group conferencing, including separate process evaluations for child abuse and neglect and for status offense and delinquency cases, an assessment of relationships between family group conferencing characteristics and participant perceptions, and an outcome evaluation for the use of expedited family group conferences in situations of child abuse and neglect. The use of expedited family group conferencing grew out of the project's three-year experience and was initiated for situations involving a child's removal from home. Referrals for expedited conferences were expected to be made immediately after the removal and were to occur within one week but no longer than 30 days from the removal. Expedited conferences aimed to focus on the immediate placement of the child but avoid addressing allegations of abuse or neglect because allegations had typically not been adjudicated. Both regular and expedited family group conferences averaged about eight family members in attendance and received overall high levels of reported satisfaction from professionals and family, including young people. Somewhat lower satisfaction, but not statistically significant, was reported by families who had family group conferences in cases associated with neglect, where there were larger numbers of people at the meeting, including other family, and in meetings that lasted longer. Similarly, lower satisfaction (not statistically significant) was reported by attorneys in attendance in cases involving sexual abuse. Outcome evaluation showed that there was no difference between expedited family group conferences and a comparison group in time before discharge from the system. There were, however, significant differences in where children were placed. At the time of the follow-up, children whose family conference occurred within 30 days (for abuse and neglect cases) were more likely to be living with relatives or be back with their parents than were children in a randomly selected comparison group of non-family group conference children.

Keywords: expedited family group conferences; quasiexperimental design; child protection; qualitative and quantitative data; US

Harris, N. (2007).
Mapping the adoption of family group conferencing in Australian states and territories.

Adelaide, Australia: Australian Centre for Child Protection. Retrieved December 9, 2008, from

This paper draws on a literature review of articles and studies carried out in Australia through 2006 and from 18 interviews conducted with managers or conference facilitators from states across the country. While the New Zealand model is used and adhered to in places, the author reports that the use of family group conferencing in Australia varies. Family group conferencing is not offered routinely to families and varies in the power given to families to make decisions (e.g., in some jurisdictions the plan can be amended and in others, the statutory child welfare workers are not obliged to implement the plan). The author concludes that overall, family group conferences in Australia serve a different function than in New Zealand, where they occur within child protection structures. Australia’s implementation is seen to “fall far short of the systematic empowerment of families that has been envisaged in New Zealand” (p. 28).

Keywords: Australia; literature review; developmental stage

Horwitz, M. (2008).
Family conferencing as core child protection practice.

Unpublished manuscript.

The Connecticut state child protection services agency has adopted a family conferencing program designed to increase both family engagement in case planning and kin involvement in planning for and supporting families. The program integrates family conferencing into core practice by requiring all child protection workers to make efforts to convene and facilitate conferences for families on their regular caseloads. This study analyzes data from 2,076 family conferences held during 2006-2007. The most common reason for convening conferences was to support child placements with parents or kin, underscoring the role of these meetings in reducing stranger foster care. The majority of conferences (88 percent) resulted in kin agreements to help parents and children, with emotional support (75 percent), transportation (44 percent), emergency respite (35 percent) and providing a home to a child (32 percent). When more parents and kin attended the meetings, there were more offers of help, longer meetings and more placement offers; and longer meetings were positively associated with more kin offering to assist a family. These associations suggest that it is useful to work toward maximum attendance at family conferences and to allow adequate time for the meetings. For more information on this manuscript, please contact the author at

Keywords: United States, U.S., Connecticut, child welfare, child protective services, child placement, family participation, family conference, implementation stage, program evaluation, process evaluation, quantitative data

Barnsdale, L., & Walker, M. (2007, March).
Examining the use and impact of family group conferencing.

Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Stirling, Social Work Research Centre.

This review of research and practice in family group conferencing is composed of two distinct but complementary parts: a review of the international literature and a qualitative study of the views and experiences of 28 service providers and academics within the United Kingdom. The review locates current U.K. practice in a historical and international context and places practitioner experience and insight within lessons emerging from research, finding corresponding views from both sources. The study reviews the evidence of the effectiveness of family group conferencing, concluding that while it is clear that the process promotes family and child participation, there is less evidence of plan implementation and long-term positive outcomes for children. The review ends with a series of recommendations for the development of family group conferencing in Scotland, linking these to current policy drivers for change in children’s services. It supports the development of family group conferencing in Scotland, recommending that attention be paid to the “fit” between family group conferencing and current core service provision. It advocates that a number of small, well-designed projects be funded to undertake both process and long-term outcome evaluation.

Keywords: quantitative; experimental design; child welfare; outcomes; siblings; California; United States; US; placement stability; permanence; child maltreatment; random assignment


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