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





Nixon, P., Burford, G., & Quinn, A. (with Edelbaum, J.). (2005, May).
A survey of international practices, policy & research on family group conferencing and related practices.

Retrieved December 9, 2008, from

This report summarizes responses from an online survey of international practices, policy and research efforts on the use of family group conferencing and related practices. Carried out in early 2004, it summarizes in thematic form the responses from 225 respondents in 16 countries.

Keywords: family participation, child welfare, children’s mental health, education, youth justice, delivery system, qualitative data, quantitative data

Walker, L. (2005).
A cohort study of ‘ohana conferencing in child abuse and neglect cases.

Protecting Children, 19(4), 36-46.

This study reports on the outcomes for 33 families who participated in ‘ohana conferencing and 27 families who did not. In Hawaiian, ‘ohana means family. ‘Ohana conferencing refers to family group conferencing within native Hawaiian traditions. This study included child protection cases in which parents voluntarily agreed to foster care. Originally, a social worker selected families to participate in the process, but in August 2004, Department of Human Services policy began to allow families to request conferencing. The family works with service providers to construct a plan when there is a report of child abuse and neglect. After being accepted by the social worker, the plan is agreed on by the family and the state. This study reviewed department case files and conducted interviews to gain information on the experiences of families who participated in ‘ohana conferencing and those who did not. Findings show families who participated in ‘ohana conferencing report higher satisfaction with government process and child protective services, as well as fewer court appearances and out-of-home placements.

Keywords: United States, U.S., Hawaii, child welfare, child placement, implementation stage, program evaluation, quasi-experimental design, qualitative and quantitative data

Staples, J. (2007).
Knowle West Family Group Conference Project: Evaluation report.

Bristol, England: Barnardo’s/Knowle West Neighborhood Renewal

This report looks at the experiences of those participating in family group conferences delivered by the commissioners of the report, during 2005 to 2007. Participants who gave consent were interviewed by telephone post-conference; there were some 70 respondents. The evaluation captured data from the original referral and then set the later outcomes against the original referral data. The evaluation sought to arrive at both findings about the effect of the service and recommendations for service development. Respondents positively rated the service and a majority said that their situation had improved following the family group conference. The respondents cited improved family relationships and improved home-school relationships as outcomes, alongside predicative commentaries that suggested that the family group conference prevented further breakdown of the family situation. Unanticipated outcomes included the surprise of professionals at the capacity within the family for support, enhanced self-esteem of participants and increased knowledge within and about the family.

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

Northwest Institute for Children and Families, & Catalyst for Kids. (2007, May).
Finding our roots: Family group conferencing in Washington.

Seattle, WA: Author.

The Finding Our Roots program gave family group conferences to children ages 10-18, as well as quarterly permanency team meetings. The study gave priority to children of color, as they are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. For instance, 8 percent of the children in King County, Wash., are African-American or Native American, but they make up 33 percent of children removed from their homes. The 550 meetings held averaged 9.8 participants, with greater participation from the maternal family. Service provider attendance averaged at 3.5 per meeting. Through the conferences, nearly all children and youth gained closer and more positive relationships with their families and communities and an increase in supports.

Keywords: United States, U.S., Washington, child welfare, child permanency, program evaluation, process evaluation, qualitative data

Connolly, M. (2006).
Fifteen years of family group conferencing: Coordinators talk about their experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand.

British Journal of Social Work, 36(4), 523-540.

This article represents a small qualitative study examining the experiences of care and protection coordinators who have been convening family group conferences since the early years of the New Zealand legislation. It explores early perceptions of the legislation, what first attracted the coordinators to the role and what keeps them in the job. In particular, the study explores the practice tensions that rest within family-centered child protection models, and the ways in which family group conferencing practice has developed in response to modern imperatives, including fiscal pressures. It found that small and subtle changes in practice can shift the emphasis from family-led to more professionally-driven processes. The author also notes the tensions that can exist when managing the family support and child protection functions of a family group conference. The study reinforces the importance of providing professional staff with both an early training foundation and ongoing training to best facilitate strengths-based policy and law.

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

Thomas, K. L., Berzin, S. C., & Cohen, E. (2005).
Fidelity of family group decision making: A content analysis of family conference and case plans in a randomized treatment study.

Protecting Children, 19(4), 4-15.

This article reports on a substudy of case plans from a randomized assignment of cases to family group decision making approaches in two California counties between April 2000 and October 2002 and compares the conference plans from those meetings between counties and to one county’s sample of case plans developed through traditional case planning mechanisms. The two counties’ use of family group decision making was thought to be comparable because they each took a slightly different focus on the use of family group decision making, with one using private family time and the other emphasizing professional facilitation of discussions throughout the meeting. A content analysis of the plans addresses the extent to which the plans developed through family group decision making processes reflected family group decision making values, examines the differences between the two counties and compares these conference plans with case plans developed through other means. Starting with the categories of the language used in the plans, the roles of participants in plan activities, identified methods for carrying out the activities in the plans and references to the family’s religious or cultural heritage in the plans, and refining them as they went on, the researchers report important differences between the plans in the two sites and differences between plans developed through family group decision making and those developed through traditional case plans. They report that conference plans captured many of the goals and philosophies of family group decision making and traditional case plans did not, even though social workers in both places had been trained in family group decision making philosophies. While conference plans relied more heavily on professional case management solutions at the one site than at the other, the family group decision making plans at both sites indicated greater mobilization of family, community and nonprofessional resources than did the traditional case plans. The authors offer a number of reasons why case plans are more dominated by professional influence, including that the case planning methods themselves do not incorporate family engagement values and principles, the case plan reporting format in each county lent itself to “cookie cutter” text instead of the type of language that families use to make plans, the possibility that workers’ interpretation of confidentiality policies may limit their inclusion of extended family and workers are simply unable to exert the kind of effort that holding a family meeting generates because they have too many constraints on their time and energy.

Keywords: US; randomized control trial; qualitative case study; case plans

Edwards, M., Tinworth, K., Burford, G., & Pennell, J. (2007, March).
Family team meeting (FTM) process, outcome, and impact evaluation phase II report.

Englewood, CO: American Humane Association.

This evaluation of the Family Team Meeting Program at the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency focuses on the use of family meetings to rapidly mobilize the family group at the time a child enters placement. Of the 649 children entering foster care between Jan. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2005, 70 percent were members of a family participating in a family team meeting. Using a pre-post design, two comparison groups and interviews, the study reports significant increases in the rate of foster care placements with relative families and significantly higher rates of reunification at discharge for children whose families participated in a family meeting, as compared to children whose families did not. Moreover, no differences in safety, as measured by recurrence of substantiated maltreatment, were found between children whose families participated and those who did not. Stakeholder interviews replicated the findings of the first year evaluation by affirming the value of family meetings and stating that parent rights were being protected. Supporting the latter assertion, no parental appeals of hearing results had been lodged and upheld. Interviewees overwhelmingly endorsed principles of family engagement through family team meetings. The researchers note that after the family plan has been developed, concerns remain about the ongoing engagement and participation of family and community members in implementing and revising the plan and concerns about the extent to which the plan informs the ongoing service plan.

Keywords: U.S., Washington, D.C., child permanency, child placement, child safety, delivery system, developmental stage, outcome evaluation, quasi-experimental design, quantitative data

Pennell, J., & Burford, G. (2000)
Family group decision making: Protecting children and women.

Child Welfare, 79(2), 131-158.

This study of family group conferencing in Newfoundland and Labrador was conducted in 1993-1996, in three culturally diverse regions: Inuit, rural and capital city. Over an approximately one-year period, family group conferences were convened for 32 families, with 472 participants at their conferences, of whom, 384 were family group members and 88 were service providers. An average of one year after their conferences, 115 out of the 384 family group members were interviewed. Whether the plans were completed in their entirety or in part, the majority of the interviewees reported that the family was better off because of the family group conference. In particular, interviewees thought the family was better off because the conference strengthened positive relationships and enhanced their sense of being family. In addition, interviewees reported that children from the project families suffered less maltreatment and had better parenting. A review of child welfare files found a reduction in indicators of child maltreatment and domestic violence for the 32 project families and a moderate increase for the 31 comparison families. After the conference, child protection workers were less likely to make emergency visits to project families than to comparison families because they knew the project families better. The number of child placements stayed relatively constant for the comparison families and fell for the project families. Small in number but nevertheless troubling, children and youth abusing mothers appeared to persist for project families and rose for comparison families. Mother abuse was linked with child self-harm (i.e., self-mutilation and attempted suicide) for both groups. Family group conferencing plans became quickly dated in especially chaotic family situations.

Keywords: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, child welfare, domestic violence, family violence, developmental stage, program evaluation, quasi-experimental design, qualitative data, quantitative data

Weigensberg, E. C., Barth, R. P., & Guo, S. (in press).
Family group decision making: A propensity score analysis to evaluate child and family services at baseline and after 36-months.

Children and Youth Services Review.

This study draws on data from a national survey in the United States (National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being) to evaluate the impact of family meetings on services for children and their families. The survey does not differentiate between meeting types, and accordingly, uses family group decision making as a generic term to encompass various models of family involvement. The database consisted of 36 months of data, representing 3,220 children referred because of child maltreatment and living at home during the initial interview. Within this sample, a subgroup of 325 children had received a family meeting during the initial placement or planning assessment process. To construct a comparison group of non-family-group-decision-making cases, the authors used propensity score matching to mitigate the influence of possible selection bias. The analysis reveals that a significantly higher percentage of cases which had experienced a family group decision making meeting were initially connected with some services, in particular, parenting services, children’s counseling services and mental health treatment for parents. After 36 months, the differences between the comparison groups had faded and were no longer statistically significant. While the authors acknowledge what appears to be a positive “boost” on the front end, they caution interpretation of the findings at 36 months as there is no indication in the database about whether the family meeting was a one-time event or if professionals remained engaged with families.

Keywords: United States, U.S., child welfare, family participation, delivery system, child well-being, developmental stage, outcome evaluation, quasi-experimental design, quantitative data

Koch, M., Hilt, L., Jenkins, L., & Dunn, T. (2006, November).
Family group conferencing: 45 children a 12 month study.

Presentation at the World Forum: Future Directions in Child Welfare, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

These study results are summarized in a slide presentation; no written report was prepared. This study involved case file analysis, family group conference coordinator feedback, information technology tracking of new intakes and data on legal status of children, placements of children and whether the files were open or closed. A thematic review of families’ plans was carried out to analyze what family supports were included. Forty-five children of 24 families who participated in family group conferences between April 1, 2004, and March 31, 2005, were included. The presenters reported post-conference increases in the number of children living with their family of origin, the number of aboriginal children living in their communities and being served by aboriginal agencies, and increases in participation of extended family and community members in planning for at-risk children and implementing plans, connection with family and extended family, connection or reconnection with community cultures and practices, paternal family involvement and active and meaningful participation of children. The presenters also report decreases in adversarial environments among the family and professionals involved and costs for children in care.

Keywords: Canada, British Columbia, child welfare, qualitative, quantitative, indigenous, aboriginal, cost analysis


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