Family lives reflect on ESRC Knowledge Exchange Seminar: Models and practices for engaging with families, relational networks and communities (15.01.16)

Widening the circle: Sharing power with families and open dialogue explored at ESRC Knowledge Exchange

Practitioners, social workers and children and family service leads recently gathered at the University of Birmingham for the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) and Family Potential: Centre for Policy and Practice Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar, titled: Innovative models and practices for engaging with families and relational networks – taking the agenda forward. The event was attended by projects funded by the Improving Futures programme.

The seminar was the last in a series of three that explored national and international approaches in social care and aimed to facilitate a conversation between academics and practitioners. In particular, the seminar aimed to explore whole family approaches that are “truly democratic in terms of sharing power with (and within) family and social networks”. The first speaker, Tim Fisher, Family Group Conference (FGC) Service Manager at the London Borough of Camden, outlined the role of FGCs and explained that they were spaces for service users to repair relationships, develop resilience and participate in decision making. FGCs are led by family members with support from qualified social workers and independent coordinators. In these conferences families are able to discuss issues pertaining to a child or adult and the mix of viewpoints and experiences are utilised to find a positive way forward. Fisher shared his key learning point from FGCs, which was to ‘widen the circle’ of support for affected adults and children to deliver the widest breadth of support. In relation to Camden based FGCs, Fisher reported that 95% of FGC participants felt more in control of their lives after completing the process.

Professor Kate Morris from the University of Sheffield spoke about FGCs, social work and learning, in particular reference to a systemic change programme in Leeds funded by the Department for Education. The project is the largest restorative justice project of its kind in the UK, and Professor Morris spoke about FGCs blending with other support models to increase participation and citizenship from affected families. Professor Morris noted the shift in the social worker perception of FGCs, and said that social workers tend to now see them as a better way of working and that initial uneven take up of the conferences had ceased. They found that social workers valued having the space and resources to plan ahead and help reconnect families. Professor Morris noted that the independent co-ordinators are integral to the process as they could assist families in navigating the family support system to ensure they get the right support.

The next speaker, Emeritus Professor Peter Marsh from the University of Sheffield, spoke about assessing the FGC model, which he stated was a ‘decision-making’ model and thus difficult to adequately quantify. Professor Morris stated that a long-term study of FGCs was welcome but that it would not likely happen in the near future due to the need to evaluate hundreds of families over a sustained period of time. Funding was a key issue, Professor Morris noted, stating that research and development studies for health receive £3,400 per year per staff member, whereas social care members only receive £25 per year per staff member.

Later in the day Annette Weatherell and Trina Robson from the Love Barrow Families organisation delivered a talk on co-production, community and safeguarding in relation to their work with families who have multiple and complex needs. The organisation’s representatives stated that they had found success with hard to reach families by being mindful that rigid tick-box and assessments practices had not engaged these families and that a more open, democratic approach was required – what they termed the ‘magic dust’. Love Barrow Families situated themselves at the heart of a highly deprived community in Cumbria and became known locally as a place that would help with any family problems. The organisation cited a developmental psychology tool called the Zone of Proximal Development as key to their work on a co-production theme.

The next speaker was Mark Hopfenbeck from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  Hopfenbeck delivered an overview of the ‘Open Dialogue’ initiative – a radical relationally-focussed approach in mental health developed in Finland which is garnering interest and implementation worldwide, stating that it was “taking the agenda forward in mental health practice”. Hopfenbeck explained that Open Dialogue recognised psychotherapy in a social network context, noting that mental health was a relational problem that required family support for a person to recover and stay healthy.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School outlines the guiding principles of the Open Dialogue approach, namely:

  1. Immediate help
  2. Family/social network perspective
  3. Flexibility and mobility
  4. Responsibility
  5. Psychological continuity
  6. Tolerance of uncertainty
  7. Dialogue (& Polyphony)

It was explained that, using these guiding principles, a person experiencing mental health problems can receive true person-centred care in a space of openness and authenticity, with the long-term hope being that mental health shares parity of esteem with physical health.

Yasmin Ishaq from Kent County Council, Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust delivered a talk on a practitioner’s perspective of Open Dialogue, noting that biomedical intervention had its place within a recovery model that should also focus on psychological repair and resilience. Quoting the New Economics Foundation, Ishaq said that “relationships are the immune system of society”, and drew parallels between this and the relational and network-based approach of Open Dialogue. Practitioners are welcome to follow the UK-based developments of the Open Dialogue approach.

Presentations, learning materials and other resources can be found on the Family Potential website.

This blog was written by Family Lives.

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