Understanding the commonalities among the various practice models for family meetings underscores the value of an approach that explicitly increases family involvement in child welfare decision-making.
Clear distinctions exist among these various models that require policymakers and practitioners to make choices when designing or implementing a program. Nevertheless, the shared characteristics among the most common approaches far outweigh their differences. Clearly, one basic assumption is that all families can harness their strengths to enter into partnership with formal child welfare agencies and courts for decisions that protect and nurture children.
By bringing families ?to the table,? each practice model maximizes the family members? abilities to support each other, solve problems, and improve outcomes for children.
Shared beliefs and values that recognize and build on the strengths of family and community.
Each of the family meeting practice models are rooted in values that require child welfare agencies to interact with families and communities in mutual respect. The following highlights critical common beliefs and values:
Common Beliefs and Values of Family Meeting Approaches
All families have strengths.
- Families deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
- Families can make well-informed decisions about keeping their children safe.
- Families are encouraged and supported to make decisions and plans.
- Outcomes improve with families involved in the decision-making process.
- A strength-based approach is used instead of a deficit-based model.
- A team approach is more likely to produce positive solutions for change.
- All team members and agency staff should be open and honest with the family.
- Families define their members, and may extend beyond the primary birth family.
- Plans are individualized to meet the unique situations and needs of the families.
- Solutions can be non-conventional and creative.
- If child abuse or child neglect are involved, the child welfare agency approves the plan based on safety, permanency, and stability for the child(ren).
- Family plans are enhanced when meetings are used throughout the case life.
There are expectations that child welfare agencies will improve and change frontline practice as a result of implementation.
In most child welfare systems across the country, efforts are underway to move toward a practice model centered on the family and its strengths. The family meeting is one powerful strategy to accomplish this. In implementing strength-based, family-centered values, family meetings can assist workers to change how they engage families as partners. Each model outlined in this paper recognizes that the child welfare agency must listen to and respect how the family defines itself, its culture, and its community. Further, each model supports a shift in conventional power dynamics. The power shifts from being exclusively held by the child welfare system and the courts to being shared with the family and, in some instances, with partners in the community.
The "family team" is defined as broadly and inclusively as possible and the selection of the team includes input by family members.
Coordinators and/or facilitators encourage broad membership on the team. Team members include parents, children, extended family members, and support persons as defined by the family. Some approaches explicitly include community members, foster parents, and service providers who are currently working with the family as well as those who could be helpful in meeting the family?s needs. Families participate in the negotiation process to determine team membership. Working together with the family, public agency case managers or workers can suggest ?family team members.? Families are particularly encouraged to bring extended family (however they define family) and support people to the meetings. Particular attention is paid to the wishes of those who were abused and/or neglected, including children.
Some practice models have a clearly designated team coordinator and/or facilitator. Coordinators and/or facilitators conduct extensive preparation work with families and exercise caution when conducting meetings, particularly if a history of domestic violence or sexual abuse exists and the offender is present. Coordinators or facilitators can veto the attendance of specific individuals at the meetings who may pose safety issues to the group.
Coordination and facilitation of meetings by competent and trained individuals is a vital component of all practice models.
The coordinator plans and arranges the meeting and the facilitator guides the meeting forward. Clear guidelines are available within each practice model regarding who will fill the role(s) of coordinator and facilitator. Coordinators and facilitators receive extensive training, including: formal education and certification; extensive training prior to undertaking their roles; and/or initial training followed by ongoing training, consultation, and support.
In each approach, a standard process exists for the coordination and facilitation of meetings as well as for individualizing meetings to the unique needs of the families. During meetings, facilitators maintain group cohesion by guiding the work forward and managing any conflict. Core skills and competencies are needed for facilitators, including the ability to establish trust with all parties, recognize family strengths, and communicate needs and concerns in objective and useful ways. Facilitators are able to engage diverse groups of people and ensure that each feels heard. Most importantly, facilitators balance the needs of all parties while remaining focused on the child?s safety and well-being.
Advance preparation and planning is essential to the success of each meeting.
The coordinator and facilitator prepare as many family members and service providers, to the extent possible, before the meeting. The child welfare caseworker and the facilitator review the family history, the reasons for child welfare involvement, and relevant case records. In addition, the child welfare agency or the court?s non-negotiable issues are determined and clearly communicated to both family members and service providers.
The meeting place is selected to support families in decision-making
Finally, the meeting place is designed to provide an environment that is supportive of families in the decision-making process. Other important considerations for choosing a meeting place include privacy and security. In other words, the meeting location is ?neutral? whenever possible, allows all participants focus on the family meeting without interruptions, and is safe for everyone involved.
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