Working with families in challenging situations
Whilst the Leeds commitment to working restoratively with families was undertaken at a broad city-wide level and cascaded down to individual practitioners, we also recognised that the way in which some of our processes and procedures were set up was inhibiting restorative approaches. This was particularly true of child protection conferences and complaints procedures; two aspects of work in which emotions and tensions between families and services can run particularly high.
For child protection conferences, we recognised how overwhelming it can be for families to attend, and considered how we could make the experience less daunting and more restorative. We started with simple things like removing tables, which acted as barriers between professionals and families. We also recognised that attendance at conferences can be daunting for families, and they can often feel outnumbered and be faced with people they have never met before, so we explored ways of reducing attendance by having one person who could represent a number of related teams or services, and starting each meeting with introductions so that practitioners could explain their roles.
However, the main change we made was to introduce meetings between the Conference Chair and the family prior to the meeting. This helped to build a relationship with the family, and offered them the opportunity to put their views across in a less daunting arena than a conference, as well as ask any questions they had about the process and what the conference would involve; this allows the Chair to address any misconceptions about the purpose or potential outcomes of the meeting, and ensures that families have access to all the relevant information. Feedback from families indicates that these meetings are helpful in reducing anxiety, encouraging contributions in the meeting and enabling parents to think about what they may want to see on the plan. Focusing on relationships and ensuring that families have a voice in the process also extends to children and young people – for 2018-19, 778 children and young people were supported by an advocate to share their views and ideas.
In relation to complaints, traditional complaints processes and procedures are written with an underlying assumption of escalation, and lengthy timescales are prescribed for responses; for example, up to 65 days to respond to a complaint at stage two. The process can also be very impersonal – complaints are submitted in writing, and complainants may hear nothing until the lengthy deadlines have expired. During this time, and in this silence, perspectives can become entrenched, resentment can fester and relationships with families can be damaged.
Working within the statutory guidance for complaints, Leeds identified two points at which there could be opportunities for restorative conversations; before the official complaints process has begun, and between stages one and two. Leeds wrote into its procedures that at these points, families will be offered the opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with a Team Manager, Service Delivery Manager or Head of Service. This gives people a chance to have their concerns listened to and responded to in person, rather than through an impersonal letter.
In the first year that this approach was rolled out with Team Managers, escalations between stage one and stage two decreased by over 40%, which represents a considerable cost saving on the use of independent investigators. Of more importance though, from a restorative perspective, is that over 40% more complainants were listened to and were happier with the outcome of their complaints. This can have a positive impact on future relationships between services and families, and ensures that any areas for practice improvement highlighted by complaints can be addressed more quickly.