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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 2
March 2003

Tips for Implementing Successful Child and Family Team Meetings

Editor’s Note: In this issue of Practice Notes we use “child and family team meetings” and “family conferencing” interchangeably as generic terms referring to family-centered meetings. When we use the generic term “family conferencing” we are NOT referring to the family group conferencing model.

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Some North Carolina county departments of social services would like to be more involved in child and family team meetings but have questions about how to begin and concerns about the possible costs—financial and otherwise—of doing so. In an effort to address some of these concerns, Practice Notes spoke with several people with experience in this area, including Billy Poindexter, a child and family team meeting facilitator in Catawba County and a trainer for N.C. State University’s Family-Centered Meetings Project. We hope the following will answer some of your questions and convey the benefits of this important strategy for engaging families.

1. Where shall we begin?

Begin by learning about the different models of family conferencing and about how this strategy is being used in North Carolina. To find out these things, consult the resources listed on page 6, ask your CPR, contact a county DSS currently using family conferencing, or consult N.C. State University’s Family-Centered Meetings Project (919/513-3828; amy_coppedge@ncsu.edu).

2. What about cost?

To conduct effective child and family team meetings, agencies must have access to trained, neutral facilitators. When agencies hear this, they may ask: “Where will we find these facilitators in our community and where will we get the money to pay for them?”

While having contracted facilitators is ideal, many of the agencies practicing family conferencing in North Carolina have found meetings facilitated by professionals working for DSS or another participating agency can be quite successful.

The key, according to Poindexter, is training: “Your facilitator must be trained, he must be committed to the philosophy, and he must stick to the structure and his role in the meeting.” In Buncombe County, if the neutrality of the facilitator is questioned during a meeting due to conflict of interest, another meeting participant will step up and facilitate; thanks to the training that is part of System of Care, many human services professionals in the community are trained to facilitate these meetings. In other counties, to avoid conflict of interest a supervisor from one unit will facilitate another unit’s meetings.

3. What about training?

Although developing an adequate pool of people trained to facilitate child and family team meetings may seem daunting at first, it all begins with one person. Once you have a trained facilitator, he or she can train and mentor others. Don’t hesitate to recruit facilitators from outside your agency—good family conferences often include participants from mental health, juvenile justice, schools, etc. If you are starting from scratch and no one in your community has facilitation training, consult some of the resources listed under question one, above.

4. What about time?

Agencies sometimes wonder, “Will the time required to prepare for and hold these meetings overburden my agency and hinder its ability to serve families?”

Concern about time is always valid when considering implementing a new intervention or procedure, admits one administrator we consulted. “Yet family conferencing makes the whole case planning process more efficient. It is well worth the investment.”

Having facilitated over 200 meetings, Billy Poindexter admits that using this strategy does take time: he estimates that for every action team meeting (as they are called in Catawba County) he spends 5 to 6 hours of preparation time prior to the meeting, 2 hours per meeting, and 2 hours of follow-up time. Yet this expenditure more than makes up for itself, he points out, if the meeting is successful and there is no need to place the child in foster care or go to court. In addition, these meetings allow workers who attend to have required contact with collaterals, children, etc. “Family meetings,” Poindexter says, “reduce tensions, foster cooperation, and reduce the overall time families are involved with us. Given all these benefits, we’ve really not found the time needed to hold family meetings to be a sacrifice.”

5. What about family engagement?

The biggest challenge faced by many agencies using family conferences is ensuring adequate family involvement, which can be defined as active family participation in the planning and implementation of meetings. The danger, says Poindexter, is an under-involved family, which can lead to a deficient plan that overlooks hidden family and community resources.

Families tend to face two hurdles in this area. The first is the fact that for many of the families involved with child welfare, social isolation is already an issue, so they are sometimes hard-pressed to identify supportive friends or community members to invite to meetings.

The N.C. Division of Social Services suggests that family conferencing itself might be a solution to this problem. Its Children’s Services Manual (1998) notes that the process followed in these meetings tends to counter the families’ isolation, and that by respecting and involving families, it encourages them to form important links with their communities.

Another hurdle may be a family’s preconceptions about DSS, based either on prior experience or DSS’s reputation. Poindexter explains that a family that’s been involved with DSS for years may expect to be told, “This is what the plan is, and this is what you must do. Now do it.” Given this expectation, the family is not likely to be very invested in either creating the plan or carrying it out.

“A neutral facilitator and a good meeting,” Poindexter says, “can really make a difference in the family’s level of investment.”

6. Will the family meeting produce a realistic, acceptable plan?

This is a common concern for those beginning child and family team meetings. Some worry that if “family alone time” is used, the family’s plan will not adequately address child safety and the other challenges facing the family. First, it is important to recognize that because of its mandates, DSS maintains veto power over any plan. Yet agencies in North Carolina and other states that have experience with family group conferencing models have found that a majority of family-developed plans can be approved by the agency (NCDSS, 1998).

7. Are there special considerations we should take into account?

Although child and family team meetings are productive for virtually all families, in some cases agencies will find they must deviate from the meeting model they choose in order to avoid traumatizing or re-traumatizing family members and to ensure the safety of all participants. For example, if domestic violence is a serious concern for a family, agencies sometimes have the offending partner send a spokesperson or attend the meeting via speaker phone. If it seems possible that the battered partner will decide during the meeting to leave home, agencies sometimes make sure a police officer is available to accompany her to get her things.

The same holds true when it comes to child sexual abuse—in most cases, the perpetrator should not be present at meetings concurrently with the victim children. This can be accomplished by having children meet with the group and then depart prior to the offender’s arrival, or if necessary by excluding the offender altogether.

References for this and other articles in this issue