Using Family Group Conferencing to Achieve Permanency for Youth

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					                                   American Humane

      Using Family Group Conferencing to Achieve
               Permanency for Youth

Lisa Merkel-Holguin, MSW,                             be just as challenging a period for family
Kathleen Tinworth, MS, Anita                          members and other care providers as
Horner, BA, and Leslie Wilmot,                        it is for youth (Charles & Nelson, 2000).
MSSW                                                  According to Erik Erikson, adolescence is
                                                      a period of identity versus role confusion.
Lisa Merkel-Holguin, MSW, is the                      In this period, there is a focus shift from
director of the National Center on Family             “what is done to us” to “what we do.” It
Group Decision Making at American                     is the critical stage when a youth begins
Humane; Kathleen Tinworth, MS, is a                   to create an individual philosophy of
former research associate with American               life, fed by life experiences and current
Humane; and Anita Horner, BA, is the                  relationships. Although youth launch
manager of practice advancements at                   into a greater degree of independent
American Humane and formerly was                      thinking and personal autonomy, it is
an FGC supervisor and coordinator in                  also essential that they have healthy,
Colorado. Leslie Wilmot, MSSW, is the                 stable, and meaningful relationships
director of child welfare training and                that will support their successful passage
professional development at American                  from adolescence into adulthood
Humane. The authors can be reached at                 (Harder, 2002). It is through having a                              lifetime family, informal but substantive
                                                      connections with other caring adults,
As the number of youth, aged 12 to 18,                and supportive communities that
living in foster care increases and the               youth are able to move into healthy and
number emancipating from the child                    productive adulthood.
welfare system without permanent
connections expands (Adoption and                     Youth in foster care
Foster Care Analysis and Reporting
System (AFCARS), 2004), it is critical to                Given that the adolescent stage can
review new strategies for achieving the               be a tumultuous experience for any
highest degree of permanency for young                young person, imagine the increased
people. This article will discuss family              complexity and vulnerability for those
group decision making, particularly                   living in foster care. According to 2004
the family group conferencing process,                AFCARS data, almost 40% (118,996)
as an effective approach to creating                  of children entering foster care were
permanency for youth in foster care.                  between the ages of 11 and 18; and of the
                                                      280,000 children exiting out-of-home
Adolescence                                           care, approximately 22% (61,513) were
                                                      between the ages of 16 and 21. Whether
  Many youth experience adolescence                   they are ready for the responsibilities
as a chaotic period filled with self-doubt            of adulthood, it is estimated that more
and self-discovery. Adolescents no longer             than 20,000 youth age out of foster care
want to be treated like children, yet have            at their 18th birthday (AFCARS, 2004).
not fully acquired the skills necessary to            Another essential demographic to
achieve self-sufficiency. Adolescence can             identify is that children and youth of

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color are disproportionately represented               Courtney and Dworsky (2005) found
in the foster care system, making up                 that transitioning youth, who chose to
approximately 60% of the entire foster               remain under the care and supervision
care population. While not exhaustive,               of the child welfare system beyond the
cumulatively the following studies                   age of 18, experienced better outcomes
illuminate the significant issues that               than those who chose to, or were forced
young people in foster care experience,              to, leave care. Youth who had left care
and demonstrate why new approaches                   were 50% more likely to be unemployed
to working with youth are essential to               and out of school than those who stayed
achieving positive outcomes.                         in. Youth who left at 18 were half as
                                                     likely as those still in care to be enrolled
   Westat, Inc. conducted a national                 in school or a training program. About
project in which 810 former foster youth             14% of those who left reported finding
in eight states were surveyed. The survey            themselves homeless. Of the young
found that 46% still lacked a high school            people who left care, 11.5% reported
diploma. On top of this, two and a half to           sometimes or often not having enough to
four years after exiting care, 25% of the            eat, compared with less than 4% of those
youth had been homeless for one night                who stayed in care.
or more. Just under half (49%) of the
youth were working, and only 38% had                   In a recent study on the transition of
maintained employment for over one                   foster care youth to emancipated adults
year. Only one in six could fully support            (Garcia, Sivak, & Tibrewal, 2003), a
himself. Thirty-eight percent of the youth           pervasive sense of uncertainty was found
had been diagnosed with emotional                    among youth, highlighting the need to
disturbances, and 9% experienced                     devote serious attention to promoting
physical health problems. Despite these              and planning their lifelong connections.
circumstances, 42%, including three-
fifths of the young women, had already                  A historical and prevalent drawback
had a child (Cook, 1991).                            for older youth in care has been that
                                                     “children often languished in foster care
  More recently, a study released by                 for years, drifting from placement to
the University of Wisconsin’s Institute              placement, or remained in the uncertain
for Research on Poverty (Courtney and                limbo of the foster care system, until they
Piliavin, 1998) found that 12 to 18 months           reached the age of maturity, at which
after exiting care, 12% of sampled youth             time they ‘aged-out’ of the system with
had been homeless and 22% had lived in               little support or emotional connections”
four or more places, often temporarily               (Charles & Nelson, 2000, p. 7).
at one friend’s house or another. The
study found that 37% of the youth still                Historically, age 18 has been legally and
lacked a high school degree, 39% were                culturally defined in the United States as
not employed, and 19% had not held a job             the beginning of adulthood. Once young
since exiting foster care.                           people reach this age, they are allowed
                                                     to vote and enlist in the military, and
  Of the 100 former foster youth surveyed            many leave home for college or move
in Clark County, Nevada, 18% had slept               out on their own. The Children’s Action
on the streets since leaving care and 19%            Alliance (2005, p. 8), however, reminds
had slept in homeless shelters. As in other          us that, “while eighteen may be the age
studies, Clark County former foster youth            of majority, nationwide families are
also reported frequent troubles with the             experiencing a trend towards longer
law, with 41% having spent time in jail              term responsibility for young adults
since leaving care (Reilly, 2003).                   older than age 18, including continued

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financial dependency and remaining at              the possibility of a strong relationship,
or returning to the parents’ home.”                but not necessarily a physical placement.
                                                   They suggest that “while the opportunity
  Beckman (2004) reported on a national            to live in a nurturing family relationship
survey conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry             is ideal, factors related to the teen,
and Associates which indicated that                adult, or both sometimes make this
Americans believe that on average, young           goal impossible or inappropriate. These
adults are not ready to be completely on           potential permanency relationships
their own until age 23. A third of survey          should be evaluated on their merits as
respondents did not consider them ready            well as those that offer actual placement.”
to be completely on their own until age
25 or older. These beliefs have been              According to Charles and Nelson
backed by scientific                                                  (2000), the concept
research that has                                                     of permanence is not
found that structurally,          Some youth may refuse               clear-cut for youth.
the brain is still                                                    Some youth may refuse
growing and maturing           adoption, want to live with            adoption, want to live
during adolescence.              caring families without              with caring families
Some scientists say              necessarily terminating              without necessarily
that brain growth
matures at age 20;
                               parental rights, or aspire to terminating parental
                                                                      rights, or aspire to
others consider 25 the             independent living.                independent living.
age at which brain                                                    Foster Club (www.
maturation peaks.                                           , a
                                                                      website for foster
Permanency for youth                            youth to express themselves and connect
                                                with other foster youth as well as locate
  For the purposes of this article,
                                                resources and information, recently
permanency for youth is defined as
                                                posted an excerpt from the book “On
“reaching the highest degree of physical
                                                Their Own” (Shirk & Stangler, 2006).
safety, emotional security, and legal
                                                Anonymously, several foster youth
permanency that can be reached within
                                                responded to the story of “Monica,” a
the context of a family relationship”
                                                youth from the book who was stepping
(Frey, 2004, p. 23). And that highest
                                                out of the child welfare system and into
degree, depending on individual
                                                independent living for the first time.
circumstances, “might be achieved
                                                Taken from the non-archived message
through reunification with their family
                                                boards of, the
of origin, adoption or guardianship by a
                                                following comments from current
family known to the youth, or adoption
                                                and former foster youth are unedited
or guardianship by another family not
                                                and help to illuminate how young
yet known to them” (Frey, p. 23). In some
                                                people themselves view “the system,”
cases, permanency will not be achieved
                                                transitioning to independent living, and
at the legal level as the above options
                                                permanency, as well as their feelings
suggest but through connections with
                                                about connections and family.
caring, committed adults who do not
assume a legal relationship with the              One youth commented, “A part of me
youth. As Lewis and Heffernan (2000,              wants to leave the system so that I will
p.147) state, it is important to possess          at last be ‘normal,’ but my better part
the awareness “that permanence is a               know that I’m not really ready to leave
relationship, not a place,” recognizing           yet. There is still so much that I need to
that some potential connections offer             learn and I need support with. Maybe

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  I’m just afraid of the unknown.” (age 20,              outcomes of child welfare systems.
  in foster care more than 3 years)                      However, the success of actualizing these
                                                         outcomes is tenuous (Garcia, et al., 2003).
  Another wrote, “I think that once you’re
  old enough and can decipher good and                      One of the biggest barriers to the
  bad judgment. I think all youth should                 achievement of permanency for youth
  be involved in planning their case,                    is the prevailing myth amongst child
  not just in the decisions on whether to                welfare service providers that older
  go home or not. I also think that they                 youth are not interested in forming or
  should make these decision carefully                   strengthening connections to adult
  because the grass is not always greener                support and that there are few families
  on the other side. Who’s to say once your              interested in committing to youth.
  back at home and things aren’t going the               Contrarily, Charles and Nelson (2000,
  way you planned, then what? You could                  p.8) documented that “youth have
  already by‘then have forfeited a lot of the            told us again and again that being an
  protection and the benef its that being in             adolescent doesn’t mean they don’t want
  foster care offers.” (age 23, in foster care           to be adopted or find a permanent family
  more than 3 years)                                     connection. These youth want the long-
                                                         term stability they feel a family will bring
  “I think that once you get close to                    even as adults.” Family and community
  eighteen you start thinkin about whats                 ties do not end at adulthood. Such
  goin to become of you. and the only                    connections serve as lifelong support
  thing that comes to your mind is goin                  throughout the years, particularly
  back home, you think to your self that                 through tumultuous life changes and
  it wasn’t that bad and thats where you                 important turning points and events.
  belong...i know i did.” (age 18, in foster
  care more than 3 years)                                  For youth aged 11 and older, the
                                                         challenges of responsive support,
  “I know how it feels to want to go home.               service provision, and achieving timely
  No matter what your parents have done                  permanency often have continued to
  to you, they are still your parents and                confound those charged with their
  there is a bond. I still do not think that a           care. Youth permanency has been
  foster child of any age should be allowed              negatively affected by inadequate
  to decide to return to their biological                resources, complex needs, poorly
  family. You are in foster care for a                   selected and improperly trained foster
  reason! Also, everyone I know who has                  parents, caseworkers failing to address
  gone home from foster care after being                 permanency issues early and frequently,
  released or aging out has just messed                  fractured family relationships, and
  up everything that they had going for                  beliefs that it is almost impossible to find
  them. I aged out on may 9 and started                  adoptive families for older children and
  college immediately. I had a chance to                 that youth do not want to be adopted
  go home once and I thank God that I did                (California Permanency for Youth
  not take it or I would never be where I                Project, 2005).
  am today...” (age 19, in foster care 1 to 3
  years)                                                   Similarly, on a national scale, Winkle,
                                                         Ansell, and Newman (2004), in their
Barriers to achieving permanency                         review of states’ child and family service
for youth                                                reviews and program improvement
                                                         plans, identified the following resource
  Attaining children’s safety, achieving
                                                         barriers to youth permanency: a gap
their permanency, and promoting
                                                         in youth-focused services (34 states
their health and well-being are desired
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were rated as inadequate to nonexistent             this approach, permanence may be
on this resource); lack of placement                defined by the committed connections
resources; and gaps in training for                 made with family, kin, and others in the
staff and foster parents (87% of the                youth’s network, instead of or including
states reviewed identified the need                 placement.
for specialized training in assessing
youth needs and understanding                      Permanency planning for youth should
adolescent issues). These challenges             be “youth-driven, family-focused,
result in youth lacking family ties and          culturally competent, continuous,
connections, meaningful relationships,           and approached with the highest
and permanent families, and ultimately           degree of urgency” (National Resource
pose significant risks to youth in terms of      Center on Family Centered Practice
delinquency, substance abuse, violence,          and Permanency Planning and Casey
and a decrease in school achievement             Family Services, 2004, p. 1). Additionally,
and employment.                                  permanence should “bring physical, legal
                                                 and emotional safety and security within
Permanency planning for youth                    the context of a family relationship
                                                 and allow multiple relationships with
  The process of identifying possible            a variety of caring adults” (National
permanency resources for youth has               Resource Center on Family Centered
typically occurred through general               Practice, p.1). It is shortsighted to view
recruitment. This approach is system-                                  permanence as a
driven and passive,                                                    single connection,
as it focuses on                                                       a traditional family,
submitting basic                It is shortsighted to view             or a straightforward
information about              permanence as a single                  relationship. Like
the child, along with                                                  all family dynamics,
the child’s picture,          connection, a traditional
                                                                       permanence is multi-
to adoption agencies         family, or a straightforward faceted and specific
and websites. This                      relationship.                  to the development of
approach is dependent                                                  both the young person
on receiving responses                                                 and the “family.” What
from interested                                                        may serve one young
parties, and the process repeats itself          person may not be suitable, appropriate,
indefinitely until a permanent family is         or wanted for the next.
found or the youth ages out of the system.
                                                   Planning for lifelong permanency
  A preferred approach, especially               can and should begin in the earliest
with this population, is child-specific          stages of out-of-home care. Ignoring
recruitment, which strives to be a               the importance and timeliness of these
youth-driven process. While the term             concerns can lead to a further disservice
child-specific recruitment has many              of the young people traditionally
interpretations, American Humane                 sidelined in the child welfare system.
defines this to mean an approach where           The effects will last beyond adolescence
the youth is proactively involved in             and into adulthood, pointing to the
the process of achieving permanence,             professional responsibility of both child
starting with the diligent search and            welfare agencies and the community at
continuing with determining what level           large to ensure that young people develop
of permanence is desired by the youth            permanent connections.
and choosing who will be a part of his or
her permanent support network. With                Increasingly, based on the positive

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evaluative results, family group decision            family members, serve to monitor the
making (FGDM) is being implemented as                plan; the family group can reconvene as
an approach to create plans in a specific,           needed to modify the plan. In the United
relevant, and meaningful way to achieve              States, the most common FGDM practice
permanency for youth in out-of-home                  model implemented is the family group
care. Crucial to working with adolescents            conference (FGC).
through FGDM is the principal belief that
every young person deserves permanent                  Family group conferencing was first
connections. Youth participation in                  legislated in New Zealand in 1989 under
planning and identifying people in their             the Children, Young Persons, and Their
own networks through FGDM positions                  Families Act. This act entitled families
them as leaders and guides of their own              and other significant caring persons
futures. Through FGDM, youth and their               to have a voice in creating plans for
familial and informal support networks               their children and young people who
are empowered to create plans that                   came to the attention of the child
capitalize on their personal investment              welfare and youth justice system. New
and responsibility for the young person’s            Zealand’s government, with this act,
future success.                                      was acknowledging “that their practices
                                                     toward children and families were not
  The remainder of this article provides             culturally appropriate” (Burford and
an overview of FGDM, uses a case                     Hudson, 2000, p. xxiii).
example to illustrate the application
of the family group conference (FGC)                   The overrepresentation of minority
process, summarizes the research                     children in nonrelative or kin foster
on FGC and youth, and discusses                      homes was one of the main issues that
issues communities can consider in                   led to this act. This occurrence was of
implementing this process with youth.                great concern to the Maori people, and
                                                     they worked with the government to
Family group decision making overview                have a key role in decision making and
                                                     planning for the safety and permanency
   Family group decision making (FGDM)               of their children, through the use of
is an innovative approach, with an                   family group conferencing.
increasing body of evidence for achieving
child and youth safety, permanency,                  FGDM: thinking broadly
and well-being (Merkel-Holguin, Nixon,
& Burford, 2003). FGDM is an umbrella                  Lohrbach (2003) describes FGDM as
term for a number of processes that                  a partnership-based practice where
position children, youth, and families               information exchange, consultation, and
as leaders in decision making. Through               involvement in decision making are basic
FGDM processes, children, youth,                     to participation and to clients’ rights as
families, their support networks, and                social work participants and as citizens.
community members develop plans
                                                       Burford (2004) furthers the concept,
to resolve the issues endangering their
                                                     focusing on youth and families
young and adult family members, and
                                                     as architects of civil society and
then the public agency representatives
                                                     social inclusion when using FGDM.
agree to the plan’s action steps and
                                                     “Partnership practice that widens family
authorize necessary resources (Merkel-
                                                     members’ civic engagement requires
Holguin, 1998; Pennell & Anderson,
                                                     getting beyond mere coordination
2005; Wilmot, 2000). Public agency
                                                     and integration of services and the
representatives, in partnership with
                                                     customizing by professionals of

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plans around the identified risks                      Specifically, one study by the
and assessed needs associated with                   Northwest Institute for Children and
particular individuals and clients, to               Families looked at placement and
engaging consumers, their caregivers,                relationship outcomes for youth (11
and service providers at every stage,                to 18 years old) placed in group care.
including needs assessment, program                  They found that 81% of youth felt safe
design, goal setting, implementation,                in the family group conference (FGC)
governance and evaluation” (Burford,                 process, 87% of case plans identified a
p. 80). These concepts are particularly              recommendation for permanence, 34% of
relevant to an adolescent population, as             youth returned home or were placed with
during these formative years, concepts               kin, and a majority of youth moved to less
of ethics, community involvement, and                restrictive placements within six months
civic responsibility and both tested and             and remained in them at 12 months
developed.                                           (Gunderson, 2005).

  Merkel-Holguin                                                      Velen and Devine
expands the concept                                                 (2005) evaluated the
of social engagement,                   Family group                permanency needs of
focusing in particular                                              children in Phoenix
on youth involvement         conferences are dependent and Tucson, Arizona,
in the FGDM process.               on availability and              who were in out-of-
She contends that            participation of family and home care for five
FGDM “provides the                                                  years or longer, and of
opportunity to teach
                                    kin as defined by               children identified as
young children, at a                     the family.                free for adoption but
young age, the value                                                without an identified
of civic participation”                                             adoptive family. Of
(2004, p. 157). Not only                                            these youth, their
does FGDM provide opportunities for             average age was 13.78, they had an
youth to become involved and engaged            average of 8.94 placements, and 62% were
in civil matters, but “when children and        children of color. The results of this study
young people take part in the process,          appear to support FGDM as an effective
and observe the important adults in             method of addressing disproportionality
their lives positively and humanely             and permanency issues, as plans were
participating in difficult deliberations,       developed for all 100 children in the
they are better prepared to become              study, including 68 permanency plans.
citizens contributing to civil society.”        At the time of this report, 17 children had
                                                achieved permanency.
Research on FGCs and youth
                                                Illustrating the family group conference
  While limited, the research and               process to achieve youth permanency
evaluative results on convening family
group conferences for older youth in               Family group conferences are
care illustrate the effectiveness of this       dependent on availability and
approach for this population of young           participation of family and kin as defined
people. These results can also be used to       by the family. What does this mean for
inform programmatic development for             children for whom it has somehow been
family group conferences.                       determined that there are no family
                                                members or kin located or available? If
                                                the child is in placement, reunification is
                                                unlikely, and no family or kin have been

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identified to participate in planning for                   often can assist in determining
the child’s future, it is usually determined                who is important to the youth.
that an FGC cannot occur, and general                   •   Reviewing all existing files, past
recruitment efforts will likely be initiated                and present, to identify relatives
in the attempt to achieve permanence.                       and other significant people from
However, this does not have to be the                       the youth’s life (this includes
case.                                                       anyone who may have been
  Those who are most likely to                              considered unable to be a part of
experience the circumstances described                      the youth’s life in the past).
in the last paragraph are youth who                     Preparation for the family group
are 12 years of age and older (Garcia,                conference begins by working with the
et al., 2003). Often, it is more difficult            youth and family to determine who
to achieve permanence for youth with                  will attend the conference, what the
no identified potential kin placements.               objectives will be, where and when it
In recent years, more efforts have been               will be held, what food will be served,
made to actively involve youth in working             what traditions or ceremonies will
to achieve permanence, with some child                be incorporated, and if the youth
welfare service providers developing                  would like to have a support person at
youth-centered processes to achieve                   the conference to support his or her
permanence. Family group conferencing                 participation.
provides the opportunity for a youth-
centered process to occur.                              Preparing specific participants for their
                                                      roles at the conference is integral to the
  Family group conferencing (FGC)                     success of the FGC. The coordinator’s
as the primary method of the child-                   preparation with the youth includes
specific recruitment process starts with a            reviewing the steps of the FGC process,
thorough, diligent search that includes:              the youth’s role, the objectives to be
                                                      discussed, the youth’s expectations and
  •   Working with youth to determine                 how to manage them, and how the youth
      who was or is important, and with               would like to be supported before, during
      whom the youth wants to have                    and after the FGC, and helping the youth
      connection. This process should                 understand that it may take more than
      occur many times, using various                 one FGC for a permanent plan to be
      methods which encourage the                     developed and that FGCs can continue to
      youth to remember different times,              be held until permanence is achieved.
      places, and people who have played
      roles in the youth’s life. The more               When preparing the family and other
      people who can be identified as                 significant people, the coordinator
      potential participants in the FGC,              reviews the steps of the FGC process,
      the greater the resources for the               any information they may need to know
      youth.                                          about the youth’s circumstances or
  •   Accessing any known family or                   needs, their roles in the FGC, and the
      kin, and past or present caregivers             objectives for the FGC. Preparation of
      of the youth to gain information                the service providers includes clearly
      about others who have or have had               defining how the FGC is being used
      a significant role in the youth’s life.         as a primary method of child-specific
      Family or kin and caregivers can                recruitment, stressing the importance of
      act as historians for the youth, and            providing thorough information about

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the child’s needs in relation to achieving             conferencing in that it recognizes the
permanence, the steps of FGC process,                  vital role that young people should
any information they may need to know                  play in charting their own permanency
prior to FGC, their roles in the FGC, and              planning process.
the goals for the FGC.
                                                         As communities implement family
  During the actual family group                       group conferences for young people
conference, it is vital that the coordinator           in foster care, practice dilemmas have
conveys the following information to the               emerged that require careful thought
FGC participants:                                      and deliberation by various stakeholders,
                                                       especially the young people who this
  •   The definition of permanence,                    process is aimed at helping.
      what the youth’s current status
      is regarding                                                   How do the
      permanence,                                                 concepts of youth-
      and the need for             Given that in many             driven practice and
      the highest level                                           family-centeredness
      of permanence
                                  instances, youth in             intermingle or
      achievable for this       foster care have been             interconnect with
      youth;                       disconnected and               the FGC process? In
                                                                  other applications of
  • The possibility               separated from their
      of more than one                                            FGC, the process is
                              immediate and extended              espoused as family-
      FGC, with the
      group meeting as         family system, how does            driven: one that is
      often as necessary         the concept of a youth-          not controlled or
      to develop a plan                                           dominated by any
                                   driven permanency              one family member.
      that best meets
      the youth’s needs;
                                 planning process fit in          It is the coordinator’s
      and                        with the FGC process?            responsibility to
                                                                  work with all family
  • The importance                                                members, including
      of continuing                                               children and youth,
      the diligent search and FGC             to engage them in participating. While
      process through reconvening until       an individual family member cannot
      permanence is achieved.                 bar the participation of others, she or he
Future directions                             can raise concerns for the coordinator
                                              to explore with others. If safety concerns
  Sheehy, et al. (2000) suggest that          exist, then the coordinator, who is the
meaningful engagement of youth in             guider and protector of the FGC process,
identifying and establishing connections      will employ strategies to bring all voices
with family and other caring adults           and perspectives to the FGC with the
increases the likelihood of creating          safety and well-being of all participants
permanent relationships. Undoubtedly,         being paramount. However, existing
family group conferencing not only            interpersonal or interfamily conflicts or
engages young people in a process             an individual’s current connection with
that rebuilds their family and social         the extended family does not serve as
support network, but also serves as a         the basis for excluding individuals from
platform to elevate youth and the broader     participating in an FGC.
family voice in decision making. The
slogan, “nothing about me, without              Translate those underpinning values
me” embodies the spirit of family group       and practices to FGCs where youth

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permanency is the purpose. Given that              planning processes that privilege service
in many instances, youth in foster care            providers as decision makers, often at
have been disconnected and separated               the exclusion of young people and their
from their immediate and extended                  extended family system. It debunks the
family system, how does the concept of             myth that young people in foster care
a youth-driven permanency planning                 have no connections or relationships
process fit in with the FGC process? Does          with their family and kin members.
the youth become the gatekeeper of the             However, the equation can only be
FGC, deciding who is invited, including            altered if active and constant diligent
family members, service providers,                 search strategies and family engagement
friends, and others? Or, does it remain            processes are implemented throughout
the coordinator’s responsibility through           the social work process. This results in a
diligent searching, exploration, and               process, like FGC, that positions family
ongoing dialogue with the youth to                 and young people in the position of
identify the broadest network possible?            primary decision makers, with service
The latter embodies the idea that endless          providers playing a supportive role.
possibilities, resources, and solutions
exist when the broadest family group is               Are there any intentional or
assembled, while allowing one person to            unintentional by-products from convening
limit participation may likely undercut            FGCs to achieve youth permanency? The
the purpose. Balancing the youth’s                 purpose of family group conferences
autonomy, thinking, and desires within             – to establish a process where the family
an FGC framework is a proposition                  group makes decisions and creates
that requires open communication                   specific case plans -- should not be
and substantial skill. In addition, these          overshadowed by any other benefits
concepts highlight an important debate             that can be gleaned from the process.
about the perceptions of young people’s            Undoubtedly, while not the primary
rights and autonomy within the context             intention, FGCs can result in rebuilding
of their families.                                 of family relationships, restoring hope for
                                                   young people and others in the family,
  Is preparation a cornerstone of youth            illuminating the care and concern family
permanency family group conferences?               members have for one another, creating
Because relationships between young                family harmony, and supporting identity
people and their family members may                development and cultural formation for
have been strained, fragmented, or                 youth. However, the FGC process, even
nonexistent, shortcuts in sufficient               in the youth permanency application,
organizing and preparation of the                  should not be significantly altered to
extended family, community, and youth’s            achieve these by-products. Embedding
social support network will likely result          solution-focused questions and dialogue
in an FGC that is heavily dependent on,            into the FGC preparation process can
dominated by, and driven by service                support FGC participants in harnessing
providers. While service providers have            their strengths, protective capacities, and
the critical role of illuminating the most         “outside the box” thinking in crafting
vital issues for the youth and identifying         plans. However, in some communities,
resources that can be leveraged in the             while unintended, the information
family’s plan, their presence or input             sharing process has become overly
should not supersede the youth and                 facilitated and multi-faceted, becoming
family’s level of involvement in planning.         the “focus” of the FGC, and mirroring a
Family group conferencing has the                  therapeutic intervention rather than a
potential to restructure standard case             decision making construct. It begs the

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                                  American Humane

question of whether or not these guided,             Conclusion
and sometimes lengthy, discussions
result in control being absconded by                    Undeniably, there are too many youth
service providers and others.                        living in, or emancipating from, foster
                                                     care who lack permanent connections
   Are FGCs a moment in time, or an                  and relationships that will support them
ongoing process? The decisions made                  as they transition into adulthood. The
through family group conferencing                    evidence that has been gathered to date,
processes, and for that matter, other                coupled with the child welfare field’s
case planning mechanisms, are serious,               espoused philosophical shifts, indicate
life-altering, and intense, and often                that now is the time for new vision and a
have a powerful and unpredictable                    new approach to permanency for youth
ripple effect not only for the youth and             in foster care. Family group decision
his or her immediate family, but also                making processes, and in particular,
for their generations to come and the                the family group conference process as
broader community. Depending on a                    illustrated herein, provide a potential
number of factors, including the quality             avenue toward achieving positive
of the preparation, the young person’s               outcomes for these young people and
involvement in organizing the process,               their families.
the family’s connectedness and harmony
before the FGC, and the complexity                   References
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