3.5 Family Agreements Good Practice Guidance

AMENDMENT

This guidance was amended in February 2019. Reference to Family Group Conference was replaced with reference to Family Network Meetings.

1. Introduction

Lessons learnt from Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) have highlighted significant inadequacies of Family Agreements in regards to keeping children safe. SCRs such as Child T / Child K 2011 SCR and Child D 2011 SCR, as well as case audits have served to highlight the following issues concerning the use of Family Agreements:

1.1 There have also been situations where parents have signed Family Agreements and it has only come to light during the SCR, they are unable to read.
1.2 Knowing how much weight is placed on Family Agreements by Children's Services and Core Group members, families may sign a Family Agreement even when lacking the intention or ability to adhere to them.
1.3 When faced with the possibility of losing their children, the majority of parents will sign a Family Agreement, even if they have no intention of following the terms of the Agreement.
1.4 Often, victims of domestic abuse are made to sign Family Agreements; it is unrealistic to expect someone who is a victim of domestic abuse to be able to control their partner's movements or actions. If they were able to do that, they would not be in that position in the first place. As a result, assuring professionals that the children will not have any contact with their partner or ex-partner is often ineffectual.
1.5 Family Agreements are rendered ineffective because of the impact of factors such as mental health difficulties, learning difficulties, substance misuse and domestic abuse.

This guidance is aimed at supporting staff in the appropriate use of Family Agreements and to avoid drift towards their inappropriate or dangerous use.

2. What is a Family Agreement?

A Family Agreement (also commonly known as a Written Agreement or Working Agreement) is an Agreement developed with the family to outline realistic expectations that Children's Services have to ensure that a child is kept safe from a specific risk.

A Family Agreement is both a formal record of an Agreement to cooperate and an essential working tool in safeguarding children. It is not legally binding and only applies when all parties agree and sign up to the actions recorded.

Family Agreements do not constitute an arrangement for partnership working, instead Family Agreements are merely a means of outlining an expectation of parent(s) or carer(s) made by Children's Services in order to inform them and other agencies of a specific risk or concern and how to act in the event that expectations outlined are not be met.

The standard template should always be used and should be signed by all parties as the document does not constitute an Agreement unless all parties agree and sign up to the actions recorded.

3. The Purpose of a Family Agreement

Family Agreements are used to;

  • Provide family members and professionals with clarity about the detail of what they have agreed or are being required to do;
  • Crystallise what has already been agreed or particular aspects of it;
  • Clarify the aim or goal of work/planned actions;
  • Clarify timescales for work/planned actions;
  • Establish clarity about the consequences of success and failure of planned actions;
  • Clarify what the contingency plan(s) is/are.

4. When to Use Family Agreements

There are a number of situations when it is necessary to record an Agreement between a parent/carer, Children's Services and other parties. Family Agreements might be appropriate in the following scenarios;

  • During a period of assessment;
  • During the section 47 enquiry stage and prior to Initial Child Protection Conference;
  • In respect of unborn babies, whilst assessments are in progress and prior to a Pre-birth Conference or;
  • In response to a new identified risk and as evidence of risk management planning as an immediate response to a new identified risk.

The Child Protection (CP) Plan, Child In Need (CIN) Plan, Looked After Child (LAC) Care Plan and other statutory plans should be, and remain the core document for managing risk. Therefore any Family Agreement should be integrated with the plan at the next available meeting / review and become an integral part of the statutory plan.

The statutory plans set out clearly the expectations, roles and responsibilities and desired outcomes to be achieved. These should be developed in partnership with parents, children and professionals and Family Agreements should be developed in the same manner.

A Family Agreement should only be used while the case remains open to children's social care.

5. When Not to Use Family Agreements

Where significant concerns have been raised about the welfare of children, it is not appropriate to use Family Agreements to monitor risk. A Family Agreement is a piece of paper and cannot make parents comply.

To coerce individuals to behave in ways which they are reluctant/refusing to; (Coercion is sometimes required and appropriate but should be pursued in other more effective ways). Family Agreements cannot be used as an attempt to put controls around a situation which has been out of control. For example, where ongoing concerns have been raised about parents' capacity to promote and safeguard the welfare of their children, support should be provided where appropriate and Family Agreements must only be used to outline the clarity expectations of the Local Authority.

Although Family Agreements can be used as evidence of compliance or non-compliance in Court Proceedings, they cannot be used to reassure concerned professionals and managers that a concerning situation is being appropriately addressed.

It is not appropriate to use Family Agreements in situations where a previous Family Agreement has been reneged upon or when other attempts at control (legal orders, child protection planning) have been sought but not obtained. In these circumstances, a Family Agreement could provide a dangerous illusion of compliance.

Where arrangements for a child on a Care Order to be placed with a parent are underway, a Family Agreement is not appropriate. Schedule 3 Assessment must be completed and signed off by the Strategic Manager for the Service, before the child is placed.

Where a relative is being considered as a possible Connected Carer for a child, a Family Agreement must not be used to regulate the placement of the child. Initial Viability (Schedule 4) Assessment (IVA) must be completed jointly by the child's social worker and the Connected Persons Team social worker. The IVA must be signed off by the Fostering Service Manager before the child is placed. Family Agreements may be used to outline expectations of the local authority after the assessment has been signed off and placement agreed.

6. What Must Be Done Before a Family Agreement is Put in Place

The social worker must have a full and open discussion of the issues that are of concern with the family members/parents/carers responsible for the child. The parents or carers should be genuine partners in the process of drafting the Agreement and should be enabled to suggest and develop solutions of their own with guidance from the professionals involved. The social worker must provide clarity about the Local Authority's expectations.

Where the family's first language is not English, an interpreter must be present and the Family Agreement must be translated in the family's preferred language. Family members or friends should not be used to interpret or translate. Where the parents/carers are unable to read and write, a Family Agreement is not appropriate. A Family Agreement must only be put in place where it is clear that the parents/carers are likely to comply and have an understanding of the concerns and the Local Authority's expectations.

The social worker must:

  • Explain specific concerns and why a Family Agreement is required;
  • Explain to parents/carers that the Family Agreement will be time limited;
  • Explain the intervention provided or to be provided by the Local Authority and other agencies;
  • Seek parent's and carer's understanding of the concerns and the intervention to be provided;
  • Explain to parents and carers the purpose of the Family Agreement and seek their understanding of it as well as their roles;
  • Explore the parents/carers willingness, confidence and capacity in the proposed Agreement:
    1. Do they want to do it?
    2. Do they think it will work?
    3. Do they have the resources to make it work?
    4. What support might be needed to make it work?
  • Be clear about the 'minimum' expectations that the local authority has and what needs to happen if these can't be agreed;
  • Discussion of all aspects of what might go into the Agreement should be undertaken with parents and carers before anything is committed to paper;
  • Decide what parents/carers are committing to, not just family members; include any input/support which professionals are going to provide as well as expectations of family members.

7. What Should a Family Agreement Include?

Family Agreements must include:

  • A concise statement of context and causes for concern;
  • The outcomes to be achieved;
  • The actions that need to be taken to in order to achieve the outcomes;
  • The expectations of each of the parties to the Agreement including professionals, parents and other parties;
  • What are the contingency plan/consequences should identified not co-operate with the Agreement;
  • The process for reviewing how the Agreement is working, its success and how it needs to be updated;
  • When the next core CP; CIN or LAC Review or any other meeting will consider the Agreement with a view to integrating it into the appropriate statutory plan;
  • A brief record of discussion / process by which the Agreement, has been achieved;
  • A record of the client's views and any concerns raised by the parties about the content of the Agreement.

Other professionals involved must be provided with a copy of the Agreement to ensure that they can also monitor and report concerns to the local authority.

Please note that any expectations of parents have got to be clear and measurable. Avoid phrases such as, 'To ensure that they keep their child safe at all times'. This is not specific and does not clarify what expectations the local authority has.

8. What Makes a Good Family Agreement

Family Agreements must be;

  • Actions must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited);
  • Evidence based – Agreements should be clearly informed by identified needs and risks with clear focus on agreed actions for change and improvement;
  • Explicit about the relationship with existing statutory plans – e.g. CIN / CP / LAC Plan / Pathway Plan for Children Social Care as well as Family Network Meeting Plans;
  • Produced in an appropriate format, to meet the communication needs of the family/carers - i.e. plain English, preferred language, Braille; audio recorded etc.;
  • Treated as a live working document and should state the mechanisms for monitoring and review; and incorporate the space for recording the monitoring, review and progress reporting / version control;
  • Balanced - clarify everyone's full undertakings;
  • Clear about their aim/goal;
  • Clear about the consequences of failure to deliver on the child's outcomes; for family members and professionals;
  • Clear about contingencies;
  • Written in clear language without jargon or acronyms. Treated review and progress.

Family Agreements are only effective if they are monitored rigorously, breaches dealt with quickly and the specified consequences of compliance or non-compliance implemented. The Family Agreement must be treated as a live working document and should state the mechanisms for monitoring and review; and incorporate the space for recording the monitoring, reporting, review and progress.

The Family Agreement must be signed by all parties and copies must be given to all parties as soon as the agreement is signed. The detail of the agreement must be shared with partner agencies involved with the family or child. Quite often, partner agencies are in a position to monitor compliance with the Agreement.

Family Agreements should state that they are not legally binding but provide the basis for practitioners and families to work together to bring about the changes which are necessary to meet the child's needs and/or prevent the child being at continued risk of harm. Family Agreements should clearly state the possible outcomes if the plan for the child is not adhered to.

The Agreement stands from the time it is signed by parent or carers. All parties may wish to obtain legal advice; this should be undertaken within five working days. Parents have the right to involve an advocate in any meeting where a Family Agreement is made.

Family Agreements must be countersigned and dated by a Team Manager.

If for any reason an address must remain confidential and not put on the Agreement document, it should read 'Address is confidential and kept on Children's Services files'.

10. Failure to Co-operate

All parties should abide by the actions agreed.

Children's Service's has a responsibility to inform carers of the consequences of not adhering to the agreement. Any failures or breech of the Family Agreement must be followed up and the specific consequences of non-compliance implemented.

Equally Children's Services and other parties to the agreement also have a responsibility to comply. Parents and carers should be informed of their right to complain if agency representatives fail to adhere to actions they have agreed to.

11. Involving the Child or Young Person

Consideration should be given to sharing the Family Agreement with the child or young person so that they can be clear about what has been agreed. It may also be appropriate for a young person to contribute to creating the Agreement and to sign the Agreement.

12. Reviewing the Family Agreement

Any Agreement should be subject to review; this may be possible through core group, statutory or Child's Plan review. Where particular actions are no longer required or where new actions are indicated the Family Agreement should be re-written.

All Family Agreements, including amended ones, prepared in a case, should be sequentially numbered for ease of reference.