Supporting people to lead the change they want to see in their lives

Sean Ahern
Sean Ahern, London Borough of Camden
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Family Group Conferencing is an inclusive approach to supporting people to take the lead on planning their care and support, alongside their chosen network of family, friends, and other people that matter to them. This approach is widely recognised and used in children’s services, and now adult social care and mental health services are starting to harness the benefits too. Sean Ahern, Family Group Conferencing Manager for Camden Adult Social Care, explains why this way of working can be helpful in supporting people to live the lives they want to live. 

Family Group Conferencing was originally developed with and by the Māori Community in New Zealand. Since 1992, the approach has been used in the UK in children and young people’s social work services.  

I have been championing Family Group Conferencing since I began my social work career twelve years ago. I quickly saw how powerful it was in bringing people together around a person they know well and providing an opportunity to make the decisions about how to support them to live well.  

When the adult and their chosen network have a space to tell professionals what they will do to address concerns together, the dynamic changes and meetings are effectively turned on their head. If we recognise that adults and their chosen networks are the experts on their own situations and what matters to them, we can better build plans that support their strengths, and achieve good outcomes. 

When the Care Act 2014 was implemented in 2015 it was hoped that it would lead to a significant change of approach in social work from a care management approach to a strengths-based approach. This shift that Family Group Conferencing provides towards supporting adults, their networks, and families to find solutions to their problems reflects the Care Act’s objective of preventing, reducing, or delaying the need for adult social care services, making it a valuable tool for any social care team.  

What happens at a Family Group Conference: 

We try to make this a special day. For one, we always share food. This has its origins in the Māori tradition of coming together, sitting in a circle and eating together. The very action of sharing food breaks down barriers immediately. It encourages dialogue and allows people to feel more relaxed. 

A Family Group Conference is a special meeting to support people who draw on services to make their own decisions. The meetings are facilitated by a Family Group Conference Coordinator, who is independent of the family and of the organisations involved. It usually takes place in a neutral venue. The Family Group Conference Coordinator prepares all attendees for the meeting, this includes professionals, and the people chosen by the person at the centre of the Family Group Conference. 

The Family Group Conference has three parts:  

  1. Information giving: This is the part of the meeting where the person at the centre of the Family Group Conference talks with the professionals about their situation, problem or decision to be made. Together with their support network, they consider what they can do to change things. The referring professional and Family Group Conference Coordinator come to this part of the meeting, and all are supported to engage in conversation.  

  2. Private Time: This is the part of the meeting for the person at the centre of the Family Group Conference and their support network, this can include friends, family and advocates but not the professionals. The network considers the information shared in the first part of the meeting and works to agree a plan together to decide who will do what and what support will be needed. 

  3. Family Plan: This is when the professionals and Family Group Conference Coordinator come back into the room and listen to what the plan or decision is. The Family Group Conference Coordinator will write the plan down and make sure everyone has a copy. 

*(In Adult Family Group Conferences, ‘family’ means anyone in the social network that the adult considers to be important to them and the topic of the meeting. This could also include friends, neighbours, and carers.) 

A life-changing meeting  

Michaela, who has personally experienced the positive impact of Family Group Conferencing, now shares her insights into the process. Facing a range of complex health needs, she, being closest to these challenges, discovered new and practical solutions with the support of her chosen network. Reflecting on her experience, she comments: 

“It is all about how to try and help you get the best of life. I had the occupational therapist there, the social worker, and somebody from the sensory and hearing team.  Everybody is there trying to work out a plan. It was important that my family was there, they are important to my care and to my life. It was good for them to be empowered because they got to be listened to as well as me.   

I had some anxieties before the Family Group Conference.  My main thing was about seating, because I can’t sit in a normal chair, so the thought of being different – maybe everyone else sitting at the table and me sitting alongside the table didn’t sit well with me.   

Whoever came up with the idea of sitting in a circle is brilliant because straight away I relaxed, as soon as I saw that my chair was part of a circle and not separately from everybody, I felt comfortable.  

Since the conference, so much has happened. I’ve already had people in measuring and planning bathroom, so I know that’s going to happen.  I’ve got my wheelchair now since the conference and that’s been a big help because now, I can go out.  The other day I was able to go out and buy a gift for my friend – go to the shop for the first time.    

The Family Group Conferencing was really good because all the professionals were there, they were working together, and what normally happens is that professionals don’t work together, and that makes a massive difference because you have a team of people behind you rather than just you dealing with this person and that person – I think the biggest difference it that I don't have to keep repeating my story, so it just made it a much better experience. It is life changing.   

I think out of Family Group Conferencing not only will my life be as it was, I’m actually going to end up being better than I was.  So, my life is changing as we speak.”  

This is just one example of how embracing Family Group Conferencing is making real differences to people’s lives, to learn more visit the Family Group Conferencing (opens new window) website.  

In Camden, we use Family Group Conferencing regularly now. It is used widely in Camden through adult social care, mental health teams, Camden Carers, GPs, complex care nurses, mental health nurses, environmental health, and housing officers – and anywhere where there is a prevent and delay situation really. Rather than the doing to a person the focus is on how we could do with the person.   

By giving the person at the centre of the Family Group Conference the opportunity to make their own plan of how to manage their life, we are truly sharing decision making and giving agency back to the people we work with. 


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