Family Group Decision Making: An Innovation in Need of Court Partnership?

Lisa Merkel-Holguin, MSW
American Humane Association National Center on Family Group Decision Making

Summary: The author describes the premise and practice of family group decision making.


For over a decade, family group decision making (FGDM) has been taking the child welfare landscape by storm. This system-reform effort has been adopted in over 35 states and 22 countries. Some of the indicators of FGDM’s success (e.g., involvement of parents and children in case planning) are being measured in the Child and Family Services Reviews, the part of the Fostering Connections legislation that enabled a grants program to further study FGDM. Additionally, the support of FGDM by various Court Improvement Projects has spurred child welfare agencies toward its implementation.

Complementing these phenomena is the growing research and evaluation that categorizes FGDM as a promising practice, one that overall compares favorably to achieving child safety, facilitating timely permanency, and addressing disproportionality and disparities that plague numerous systems that work with vulnerable populations.

FGDM is based on a very simple premise: Children and their parents are nested in a broader family group of people to whom they are connected through kinship and other relationships. Agency decision-making practices that are planned and dominated by professionals and focused narrowly on children and parents can deprive those children and parents of the support and assistance of their family group—and can deprive agencies of key partners in the child welfare process. FGDM processes are not conflict-resolution approaches, therapeutic interventions or forums for ratifying professionally crafted decisions. Rather, FGDM processes actively seek the collaboration and leadership of family groups in crafting and implementing plans that support the safety, permanency and well-being of their children.

During this landscape change, community innovation has resulted in child welfare agencies implementing a plethora and continuum of approaches to engaging families in decision making. Rapid case planning conferences or team decision meetings, family team meetings, child protection mediation, and family group conferences are just a few of the models that dot the terrain. And, while there are some similarities in the various approaches, families, agencies, community-based partners and courts experience them and their intersecting role in them to be vastly different. There is a growing recognition of courts as vital and critical partners in establishing and implementing FGDM, as well as supporting the adherence to fidelity of the approach. Without legislation (such as New Zealand’s Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act of 1989, Netherlands recent legislation 2011, and the legislation in some Canadian provinces), this reform hinges on all agencies that have a role in child welfare banding together to reshape how decisions are made. Certainly, child welfare agencies cannot implement this without active court partnerships.

With the evolution and multiplication of approaches, and to create a framework by which processes can be categorized as FGDM, American Humane Association’s National Center on Family Group Decision Making worked with the national and international FGDM community to create a clear definition of FGDM, and established it to have five core elements. If fidelity has occurred, these core elements can support the court in having confidence in the process, and provide the court with additional information in its decision to accept (or not accept) the plans that emerge.

  • An independent (i.e., non-case carrying) coordinator is responsible for convening the family group meeting with agency personnel, and creating an environment in which transparent, honest and respectful dialogue occurs. In addition to actively seeking and engaging the family group, during the FGDM conference, the coordinator ensures that the agency’s concerns are fully articulated to the family group in language that is understandable. Families and system professionals are mutually accountable to one another and the process, thanks to the role of the coordinator who invests sufficient time in relationship-building.
  • The child protection agency personnel recognize the family group as their key decision-making partner, and time and resources are available to convene this group. In the quest to “find family,” the coordinator likely has canvassed social networking sites, conducted case mining, talked with the parents and children to define “who else is part of the family” and completed reverse phone look-ups. These activities leave “no stone unturned” and typically result in a very widened net of caring and concerned family. In FGDM processes, family members typically outnumber professionals of those in attendance. The implementation of this core element results in the identification of kin resources, and can decrease future contested hearings around children’s placement. In addition to investing time in preparing family for the FGDM process, the coordinator notifies the court, all attorneys and advocates about the family’s decision to participate. The coordinator explains the FGDM principles and process to all of these individuals, as well as sharing the child welfare summary of information. This information helps the attorneys better advise their clients both before and after the meeting.
  • Family groups have the opportunity to meet on their own, without the statutory authorities and other non-family members present, to work through the information they have been given and to formulate their responses and plans, allowing them to apply their knowledge and expertise in a familiar setting and to do so in ways that are consistent with their ethnic and cultural decision-making practices. This core element results in unique plans that reflect the family group’s strengths and protective capacities. FGDM plans that appear to reflect a cookie-cutter approach, or that do not harness the family group or the community’s informal resources, were likely not developed by the family group.
  • When agency concerns are adequately addressed, preference is given to a family group’s plan over any other possible plan. What is important for the court to know is the following: It is the Coordinator’s responsibility to engage the family group and statutory agency representatives in a flexible, negotiation process where the family group’s plan is reviewed after private family time. Attorneys, CASAs and other advocates can be present during the plan finalization stage of the family meeting. And, plans are finalized collaboratively and accepted only when the agency’s concerns have been adequately addressed. Attorneys and CASA volunteers can review the plans developed in the family meetings before any court proceedings. If they  agree with the plan, they may advocate for the plan with the court. If an attorney and his or her client have concerns about a plan and how it impacts their legal interests, these can be presented in court. A CASA volunteer can do likewise if they are concerned the plan is not in the child’s best interest. Consensus between the family group and agency is reached over 90% of the time, so it is likely that the plan presented to the court represents agreement between these groups. This should translate to the agency and family group working together toward collaboratively implementing the plan. If the court does not agree with the plan as presented, it is suggested that they recommend a rapid reconvening of the family group to address the court’s concerns, with another hearing scheduled shortly thereafter.
  • Referring agencies support family groups by providing the services and resources necessary to implement the agreed-upon plans. In assisting family groups in implementing their plans, agencies uphold the family group's responsibility for the care and protection of their children, and contribute by aligning the agency and community resources to support the family groups’ efforts. Don’t be surprised to see unconventional community or family resources as part of the plan, and be ready for more members of the family group to want to appear in court in support of the plan developed.  

I often think that if a child in my family network had come to the attention of the public child welfare system, I would want the opportunity for my family to lead the creation of the solution. We’ve done it hundreds of times before at the kitchen table.

American Humane Association established its National Center on FGDM in 1999 as a vehicle for promoting and supporting this system reform. The mission of the center is to build community capacity to implement high-quality, effective FGDM processes that are philosophically congruent with the central values and beliefs of this approach. We have and continue to create cutting-edge resources, provide training and technical assistance to over 300 communities in more than 35 states and three other countries, hold an annual conference, conduct research and evaluation, and support numerous communities to implement this system reform. Please visit for more information.



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