Using family Group Decision Making
to make home-based services more possible

By Jason Raines

A common problem faced by parents, families and community members is the desire to help but the inability to do it alone. For many years, if parents were not able to care for all the needs of their child, government agencies became involved in the child’s and family’s life. The Family Group Decision Making program gives parents and families a different way to help meet the child’s needs. Family Group Decision Making is different from other programs and current home care support options because it empowers family members to create a plan that provides for the child’s needs in the current home setting.

In the past, when governmental agencies performed the vital role of keeping the children safe from harm, this critical job was often done outside of the child’s home and away from the child’s family. This often caused trauma and unintended harm to the child. The separation from the family often created a situation in which the family blamed the governmental agency or treatment provider for removing of the child from the home. This complicated treatment and delayed renunciation with the family. The Family Group Decision Making program allows families to provide for the child without unintended trauma or disruption to the child’s social setting. 

The Family Group Decision Making model can be used to make a child’s step-down from a group home or residential treatment facility more successful. Discharge planning typically focuses on setting up clinical services like medication monitoring or therapy. Often little thought is given to how the child is going to get to those appointments. Family Group Decision Making assesses who is going to be able to take the child to the appointment. In the case of Therapeutic Staff Support, (TSS), plans are made to ensure the child is there when the TSS worker comes. When the family makes the plan, they may need to identify five different people who will be taking the client to appointments depending on the day of week. Likewise, there might be multiple people ensuring the child is taking prescribed medications correctly and on time.

The Family Group Decision Making process begins with an agency (juvenile probation, a county human services agency, a school district or a nonprofit) recognizing a child’s needs are not being met. In counties using the model, the agency makes a referral to the county Family Group Decision Making team. A resource coordinator who has been trained in the model reviews the child’s file and begins the process if more intensive services are needed. The coordinator (with the approval of the parents) searches for any distant family members and family friends who are interested in being part of the plan. The coordinator arranges a time and place that works best for all the family members to meet. The arranged time is normally in the evenings or on weekends when the most members of the family can attend.

The meeting normally takes place in a neutral location such a community center or a religious institution’s community room. The belief is that when the family feels comfortable, they are more willing to listen and work together to meet the child’s needs. Locations such as the child’s home or a county office are too emotionally charged to have the level of open communication needed to form a workable plan. All family members and friends attending need to feel they are equal contributors and are fully empowered to make a difference in the child’s life. Having a meeting in county office gives more of an authoritarian feel, rather than creating a positive environment.

A meal, brought to the meeting location by the Family Group Decision Making team, is served at the meeting before the planning part begins. Sharing a meal together helps build a friendly, peaceful atmosphere before the difficult issues are raised. After the meal, the representative from the county agency shares the issues that need to be addressed to keep county agencies from taking action. The list of issues is written on a white board or flip chart so the family can review them later. Once the issues are outlined for the family members and friends, the county representative and the Family Group Decision Making facilitator and coordinator leave the meeting room, allowing the family and their friends to talk in private about the issues listed and any other family concerns that need to be addressed helps to make the plan successful. The facilitator and the county representative often wait outside of the meeting room for hours as the people inside try to work out a plan that address the listed issues.

When the family believes they have a plan that will address all the outstanding issues they ask the facilitator and county representative to return to the meeting. The family reviews the plan in detail listing who will do what, when and how. If the family’s plan addresses all the issues, then the county representative will agree to the plan instead of taking further action. If the family has not addressed all the issues to the country representative’s satisfaction, the county representative indicates which issues are still in need of a better plan. The family will meet a second time behind closed doors. This continues until all the items are addressed or they reach an impasse that prevents a workable plan. A county agency monitors the plan to ensure the family is following through and all the issues are being addressed.

Family Group Decision Making has a long history of yielding positive results. The model originated with the Maori tribe in New Zealand. The members of the Maori tribe were becoming concerned about the number of children from the tribe being fostered in nontribal member families. The tribe felt the ethnic, cultural value and wealth of the tribe was being lost. To stop children from being removed from the Maori tribe, they developed what would later become known as Family Group Decision Making. The goal of the Maori tribe was for the child to be cared for within the tribe until the parents could care for their children on their own. The outcomes were so successful that New Zealand passed a law requiring the model to be used in their country. The Family Group Decision Making model started in Pennsylvania in 1999.

More information on the Family Group Decision Making model is available through the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center at http://bit.ly/106O3qW.

Jason Raines is the program director of the Inventor Center at KidsPeace in Orefield, Pa., with more than 10 years of experience in the nonprofit world treating children. Jason also services as the vice chair of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Citizen Review Panel, Northeast region of Pennsylvania, and is an adjunct professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.