Safeguarding adults: Mediation and family group conferences

Mediation or FGC? Methods and processes

Key messages from policy and research

Mediation and FGCs are both ‘family-led’ approaches that:

  • are based on the principle of empowerment and focus on problem-solving rather than blaming
  • involve a competent, trained mediator or FGC coordinator who helps participants to find solutions to the issues that divide them
  • involve the vulnerable adult in the process, sometimes supported by an advocate
  • can be used to promote the needs and interests of the vulnerable adult
  • normally involve the extended family, friends or community members
  • encourage coordination among professionals from several disciplines.

Practice points

FGCs may be more beneficial where:

  • the aim is to mobilise and remobilise an adult’s extended social network to help the participants find solutions to specific questions or problems
  • a formal protection plan is needed.

Mediation may be more suitable where:

  • the aim is to reduce conflict, rebuild trust or improve communication between family members
  • an adult lacks capacity and needs an advocate as FGC ‘private family time’ tends to exclude advocates
  • a legally binding agreement is appropriate.

The FGC is a family-led decision-making process, whereas mediation frequently includes family but may be wider, for example mediation may be used to resolve trust issues between a person and their service provider. In mediation there is a dispute that needs to be resolved, and mediators help participants to settle their differences. FGCs are always concerned with planning ahead.

Mediation and FGCs are not mutually exclusive, and may be used separately or together to achieve the most effective outcomes. For example, where the specific aim is to reduce conflict, rebuild trust or improve communication between family members, mediation may be more suitable. An FGC could then be used to develop a long-term care plan that reduces demands on the family by making full use of all appropriate support services.

If there is significant and long-standing resentment between social workers (or other agencies) and the family – and this has led to an almost complete breakdown of the relationship – an FGC is unlikely to be appropriate. This is because it might be difficult for participants to cooperate. Mediation could be used to rebuild trust and cooperation between the family and social workers so that an FGC can be attempted. The independence of mediation and FGC services is always important but particularly so in cases involving such conflict. Where there are legal issues that need to be resolved, mediation offers greater flexibility than an FGC and the mediator’s facilitative approach helps to keep participants focused on outcomes that a court is likely to find acceptable.

Referrals are normally made to FGC services by professionals – usually social workers. In mediation the parties often contact the mediation service themselves and may have no involvement with outside agencies. Mediators, unlike FGC coordinators, can give high-level information about the law.

In FGCs, family members have private family time to discuss the issues without any professionals or the coordinator being present. In mediation, the mediator is present throughout the entire process. In some circumstances, the mediator may take the participants and any advocates into separate rooms. This is known as ‘caucusing’.

In adult welfare FGCs, the referring agency is normally required to agree a plan whereas in family mediation the parties typically make their own agreements without reference to other agencies. In the context of child protection – and potentially in adult protection – in England and Wales, FGCs are usually seen as a way to avoid court proceedings. Mediation has the potential to resolve issues and agree the detail of care plans between the family and the social care service, avoiding the need for a court case (Ministry of Justice 2011).

There is little research to show when mediation or an FGC is most beneficial in adult safeguarding, and there is a clear need for further pilots of mediation and FGCs that are openly evaluated, so that other social care services and providers can learn from them (Ogilvie and Williams 2010; Wallcraft and Sweeney 2011; Wilson et al 2011).