Bright Idea: Professionals Take a Back Seat in Family Group Decision Making

Photograph of a smiling family.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.” That vision of silent leadership can be found in Family Group Decision Making, or FGDM, an evidence-based practice that empowers young people and their “family group” to make sound decisions about the youth’s safety, living situation and general well-being.

FGDM enables families—and other important people in a young person’s life—to share decision-making power and resolve issues. For example, if a young person is having problems at school, or suffering from mental illness, substance abuse or maltreatment and lacking support or a stable environment at home, FGDM may help widen their network of support and increase their options for safety and well-being. Youth workers who use the practice at Youth Service Bureau, a social service nonprofit in State College, PA, say the balance of power and buy-in FGDM provides makes everyone involved more likely to follow through and make positive changes. In the end, that means fewer youth going into the child welfare system or back to the streets.

“We keep decisions with the family – professionals can't know them as well as the family knows itself. We try to keep the other concerned agencies involved but not too involved.” says Vanessa Baronner, director of Burrowes Street Youth Haven, Youth Service Bureau’s basic center program, and FGDM facilitator.

FGDM works best if the group is motivated to take action. Sometimes, families need conflict management before undergoing FGDM. And FGDM is not appropriate if there is an unresolved court proceeding related to abuse and neglect that could eventually wipe out the group’s decisions.

FGDM is centered on a half-day group-decision-making meeting. Here’s how the whole process works:

1.   Preparation

2 to 3 weeks

Youth Service Bureau’s FGDM coordinator starts the process by recruiting “family group” members. The family decides on the size and composition of the group, which can range from 6 to 21 people—related and unrelated—who care about the young person. Most often children younger than eight do not attend, but families often find creative ways to make sure their voices are heard, such as letters, videos or an adult spokesperson, says Dave Vactor, currently Youth Service Bureau’s stewardship coordinator who coordinated FGDM sessions for ten years.

Vactor recommends casting a wide net and including people with diverse perspectives and roles in the young person’s life, such as teachers and people from their place of worship.

Next, the coordinator meets one-one-one with each person, paving the way for a productive meeting where everyone has a shared purpose.

2.   The Family Group Meeting

3 ½ to 4 hours

The FGDM session is typically held in a neutral place, like a community center, library conference room or church – never in a family member’s home. The coordinator is present, along with another FGDM facilitator who knows very little about the situation. The reason for this is to maintain balance and fairness, and so that the professionals do not appear to take sides. The day unfolds in three stages:

Information sharing

1 hour

Participants brainstorm strengths and concerns. Counselors may share information and resources. For example, if group members ask about ways to find positive role models for the young person, the counselors might mention the mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Family time

2 hours

The professionals leave, and the family group shares a potluck or provided meal while discussing “What, Who, and When”: What needs to be addressed? Who will be involved? When will it start happening?  The answers lead to a family group plan that they will put in place after the meeting.

Vactor says families usually do a good job of staying on track during these two hours because they have a shared purpose. The facilitator and coordinator check in from time to time, offering support if the group gets hung up.


30-45 minutes

The group presents its plan to the facilitator, coordinator, and the person who referred the family for treatment (often a child welfare or juvenile justice professional).  The referral source may ask questions or request clarifications. The family may, if they need it, ask for more discussion time without the professionals present.

3.   Follow Up

1 year

If families received supportive services before the meeting, they continue to do so. The facilitator and coordinator encourage families to include in their plan ways to measure success.  Some families meet once a month, some have a therapist review the plan at regular intervals, and others designate someone as a “family group monitor.” In addition, staff from Youth Service Bureau call each family after three months, six months and one year to collect outcomes data.

Learn more about FGDM

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