Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) is a process by which families participate in planning the best course of action for their children during a comprehensive meeting that is facilitated by a caseworker. Jennifer Cox is the KidsPeace Family Group Conferencing Coordinator and Facilitator in Duncansville, PA, who directs these meeting for families in Blair County. Following the assumption that families know their children the best and are therefore best suited to set and attain goals with their children, county agencies refer families with at-risk children to participate in FGDM. The meeting includes the child, family members, caseworkers and other adults who care about the child and are committed to finding the best solutions to address concerns; thereby, maintaining the child safely in his or her home. The family, along with professionals, provides information (Strengths and Concerns) throughout the first part of the meeting, but the family group meets in private to actually develop the plan of action and gain commitment from all attendees to follow through and ensure success of the plan.
KidsPeace in Duncansville has been extremely successful with FGDM, and hopes to be expanding the program to other counties. Recently, Director of the Family Unity Project Jim Nice, who has introduced FGDM to 33 states, visited the Blair County Implementation team and met with Judge Jolene Kopriva, county workers, and KidsPeace Family Group Conferencing Coordinator/Facilitator Jennifer Cox. After the group meeting, Mr. Nice, who has co-authored two books on the subject, sat in on an actual FGDM meeting conducted by KidsPeace.
Mr. Nice wrote a report following his day with the KidsPeace facilitated FGDM meeting and had kind words for Jennifer and the KidsPeace approach:
I had the honor of being invited to observe a Blair County family conference. It was held at the Valley View Park in Altoona on Saturday afternoon, June 27. Jennifer Cox had worked with a young woman living at a treatment center, who was transitioning from high school into college, emancipating into adulthood, away from her family and needing help, support and friendship. She invited those close to her and her family. Her father, who had not been in her life since she was a child, responded positively as did her friends. Her maternal family did not participate, related to issues involved with her being in treatment. She decided to have a conference with those that would participate. She chose the park on a beautiful early summer day.
She needed help. Blair County helped her do FGDM, careful that she understood the process, was free to decide to move forward with it, and prepare her and all those invited for the event. Her father came early and spent some time with her. They all gathered at the reserved park pavilion. Jennifer and Shari McConnell (of KidsPeace) had arrived early and prepared the pavilion for the conference and provided refreshments. I admired their flexibility, patience and respect and that of her county caseworker, Melissa Stump. They were helpful through every step of the conference. Some guests arrived late. The family decided when to wait, when to start. The noise and the wind made things clumsy, but they did it very well.
After the strengths and concerns were listened to and recorded in phase one, those of us who were not in the family group retired under a tree on a nearby hillside. When we were called back to listen to their plan, Jennifer and Shari carefully learned what had been decided, with close attention to details, before asking Melissa for the agency support. She was careful to understand the plan. She gladly gave agreement and support to what had been decided. Attention was paid to a follow-up to assure the plans were working.
There was clearly sadness that often goes with major changes in life, especially in troubled and difficult times. I also sensed in this young woman some hope and reassurance from having people who love and care for her gather around to help. As I left that night, I admired the county, Jennifer, Shari, Melissa, and those who work with her at the center, for helping her a gather those who love her, to help her through these times.
These words of praise are especially precious since Mr. Nice is considered to be the person who introduced FGDM to the child welfare system. He has been a teacher, CPS caseworker, family therapist and parenting educator, as well as a consultant to the Child Welfare League of America, National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges, University of Iowa, University of Washington, University of California, Davis, Iowa State University, Eastern Kentucky University, and the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in rural Polk County in Oregon and worked for Oregon’s Children’s Services from 1981 to 1994.
Thanks to KidsPeace’s success in Duncansville, we have been awarded a contract to provide FGDM in Schuylkill County. We hope to eventually grow our programming to many other counties in PA and eventually to other states that provide funding for this type of initiative, which focuses on family strengths, keeps families together and gives them the tools to address concerns and make home a safer, more empowering environment for all family members.