The best solutions to family troubles come from the families themselves.
That's the philosophy behind Family Group Decision Making, a program of The Village Family Service Center that serves dozens of families every year.
"Family Group Decision Making is strength-based, and we believe families know best how to handle their own situations," said Pam Olson, a program facilitator in the Minot office. The goal, she said, is to "empower families to realize that even when things are tough, they have so many strengths to draw on."
Pam Olson, left, and Kim Massine, facilitators in the Family Group Decision Making program, look over a program brochure in their office at The Village Family Service Center in Minot,Oct. 29.
The idea behind the program is basic. It is important for families to talk, but with today's busy schedules, fewer families are gathering for meals or finding other times to converse. The family consultations facilitated by The Village are like sitting around the dining table to discuss, debate and connect with each other.
"Generally speaking, we get a lot of good responses. We have a lot of happy people, and they are always glad they did this," Olson said.
Research on the program indicates that children are less likely to suffer abuse or neglect or be placed in foster care once families complete the program. Research shows living arrangements for children become more stable. Participants report an increase in family connection, communication and problem-solving ability.
The Family Group Conference model was developed in New Zealand. The program started in North Dakota in 2006 with a Bush Foundation grant. It now operates with funding through the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Families may be self-referred or referred by social services agencies, schools, attorneys or others.
The Minot office offers the program in the counties of Bottineau, Burke, Divide, McHenry, McKenzie, Mountrail, Pierce, Renville, Ward and Williams.
The issues that bring families to the program relate to the welfare of children. Purposes for calling a conference have included developing a plan to:
keep a child in the home, decrease unruly behavior, improve grades and improve relationship between the child and parents.
make the family unit more functional, improve communication and decrease conflicts.
support a child's special dietary needs due to rare disease.
support a mother with mental health issues to keep the home safe.
assist divorced parents to co-parent successfully.
assist a teen with sobriety after completing a substance abuse program.
The program has served to reduce the need for foster care, re-unite families following a foster-care situation, and help youths transition after aging out of foster care, Olson said.
Statewide, 86 families accessed the program for the year that ended April 30. During that time, there were 61 initial conferences held with families and 41 follow-up conferences. Olson said some families did not go to conference, but they may have been referred to other types of family services.
The program is free to families. Families select the locations, and facilitators set up the meeting with the participants to make it as convenient as possible for families to come together.
Kim Massine, a facilitator in the Minot office, said she and Olson strive to work within the families' time frames for scheduling, bringing people together as soon as it can be arranged.
Family members living out of the area can participate by phone or Internet conferencing or by submitting written comments using forms provided by the program. The families decide who is invited to participate. Some families have wanted extended family members or friends involved. Groups have been as large as 18.
The process starts with a pre-conference meeting to determine whether a conference would be helpful and and to identify the purpose.
At the conference, a family identifies concerns, shares expectations and examines potential resources with the help of a facilitator and possibly other professionals. The family then is left alone unless there is a safety concern to draft a plan. Once completed, the facilitator and any professionals return to hear the plan and witness as family members sign it. If the family can't decide on a plan, the facilitator can assist in refining a plan so it is acceptable. The facilitator later prepares a printed copy to give to each participant.
"It's important for them to know that they are empowered to be able to help themselves," Olson said. "This program is so important to help people know that as hard as it gets, you are stronger than you know, and so is your family."
Families can get so caught up in what is wrong that they don't see what they are doing right, she added. Just the ability to recognize a problem and be willing to work on a solution indicates strength in the family, she said.
More information about Family Group Decision Making is available online at (www.thevillagefamily.org) or by calling 852-3328.