Family Group Conferences on the map in Flanders

Jun 08
2012

At shiftN we have been working a lot on issues surrounding the ‘socialisation’ of care, away from dominantly expert-driven care model (tied to very specialised residential care infrastructures) to a more involving and empowering way of providing care in patients’ natural environments. Hence our interest in developments such as Family Group Conferences which mobilises patients’ social networks as key drivers in the healing process. On March 16 2012, the ‘Hoger Instituut voor Gezinswetenschappen’ (Higher Institute for Family Studies) organised a one day workshop on Family Group Conferences (EKCs: “Eigen Kracht Conferenties”). The event was co-hosted by the Flemish Support Office for ‘general social care’ (‘Steunpunt Algemeen Welzijnswerk) and EKC.be, a non-profit association which facilitates the organisation of family group conferences in the Flemish region. shiftN’s Kim Becher was there and summarised his observations in a short report.

The concept of Family Group Conferences originates from New Zealand and is grounded in the Maori culture. In the 80’s, the New Zealand welfare system was confronted with a disproportionately high representation of Maori children in social and mental care. Following the recommendations of the Maori Advisory Board, the State broadened the definition of the family according to Maori Traditions, initiating a process which sought to enhance parental responsibility and participation. Using this model led to a significant reduction in the number of children being received into care. The concept was so successful that many other countries, including Australia, Canada, Sweden, South Africa, France, USA, Holland and the UK, adopted the process.

In Family Group Conferences, the decision making process is left to the family network, defined broadly, including children, parents, extended family and even significant friends and neighbours. The extended network elaborates a plan, without interference of professionals, which facilitates the care and protection of the child (or children) in need. An independent coordinator assists the family network in getting the process on the rails. Professional workers are only involved in giving information at the beginning and at the end of the process, assessing the plan’s safety, legality and feasibility.

Jo Vandeurzen, Flemish Minister for Welfare, Public Health and Family, joined the conference to express his support for EKCs, stressing that they are in line with Flemish policies, in particular the need for community centred care and empowerment of families. In his view, specialised care threatens to make people feel dependent and give up control over their lives. Vandeurzen also pointed to the current context of budgetary problems and the increasing number of people who are looking for help. ‘Eigen kracht conferenties’ (EKCs) can be organised at relatively low cost and have proved to produce major benefits in terms of prevention.

However, the model hasn’t caught on in Flanders yet. The Flemish are reputed for their aversion of washing their dirty linen in public and for relying on professionals to assume the task of repairing problems within families, whereas family group conferences rest on two basic paradigm shifts: “widen the circle” and “leave command in the hands of the client system and not of experts”. While traditional care focuses on the nuclear family, pioneers of EKCs considered that, in stead of using only the capabilities of the ‘diseased’ family, the circle should be broadened as much as possible to healthy influences. For one, young people with problems get a huge boost from experiencing support by a large network of family and friends. Also, families don’t think in terms of sectors, their plans are ‘integrated’ automatically. On average, 80% of the engagements will be accounted for by the family network and 20% by professionals.

Experiences in New Zealand and the Netherlands have shown that the outcome of the process is not so much determined by the nature of the problems faced, but by the ability to deploy the capacity of a family network in finding solutions.           

Rob van Pagée, who has been involved in the introduction and development of Family Group Conferencing in the Netherlands and now plays an advisory role to his Flemish counterparts, explained that getting the circle together can be a challenge in some cases, but the biggest obstacle is the mentality of professionals, who are too much endowed with the ‘help virus’ -as van Pagée describes his own experience as a social worker. According to van Pagée, Family Group Conferences are more than just a new model for youth care, they are a different way of structuring the decision making process around children. In his view, EKCs should be approached as a civil right, as is the case in New Zealand, where families are given the right to develop and implement their own plan before professionals are allowed to step in.

Jo Voets, pedagogical director at ‘Bethanië’, an Observation and Treatment Centre for children with emotional and behavioural problems, elaborated on the idea that EKCs could be seen as a counterforce to our current society model, in which the locus of control is systematically placed in the hands of external entities (child psychiatrists, youth judges…). Problems are pathologised, care is formalised and made subject to protocols. The notion of the ‘Active Welfare State’ has caused a shift in education towards economic performance, whereas the real pedagogical duty of society should be to help youngsters achieve autonomy. Professional carers must accept that they don’t control the outcome of the process, but this principle runs counter to the dominant managerial logic, in which accountability is paramount. As the last speaker, Hans Van Ewijk, put it: “For the past 200 years, we’ve had a social question. Industrial society needed well trained youngsters, which led to the discovery of all kinds of problems. We’ve increasingly been focussing on small details and lost sight of the greater whole. Maybe we are entering a new phase, in which social capital and not money is the most important thing.”

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