Profiles in Permanency: Family Group Decision Making with the Winnebago Tribe

The National Quality Improvement Center for Adoption and Guardianship Support and Preservation (QIC-AG) is a five-year project designed to promote permanence when reunification is no longer a goal and improve adoption and guardianship preservation and support.  For more information about this project, please click here.

Writer, April Dinwoodie, is profiling each of the eight projects that are overseen by the center for The Chronicle of Social Change. Today, she explores the work being done by The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska to utilize Family Group Decision Making (FGDM), adapted to reflect the Ho-Chunk cultural beliefs and practices. The hope is to improve permanency and well-being outcomes for young people 12 to 18 years of age who have a court ordered non-reunification permanency goal.  

Before going deeper into the intervention and the work with this site, it is important to understand more about The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska (Tribe). The Tribe is federally recognized and its 5,285 enrolled members are decedents of the Ho-Chunk people of Wisconsin. Many tribal members live on or near the reservation which overlays portions of Nebraska and Iowa.

Due to realities such as inter-marriage, influences from other cultures and removal of children, today, the Winnebago people represent a diverse array of cultural and religious backgrounds. The Tribe is currently undergoing an intentional renaissance to revitalize the Ho-Chunk language and culture – FGDM, as an indigenous model, honors that effort. To learn more about the Winnebago Tribe, click here.

In the FGDM process, a trained coordinator (who is independent of the child welfare case) brings the family together to create and carry out a plan that will ultimately achieve permanence for the child. From the outset, it is understood that the families will lead the decision-making process, and that the statutory authorities will agree to support family plans that adequately address agency concerns.

FGDM processes are not conflict-resolution approaches, therapeutic interventions or forums for ratifying professionally crafted decisions handed down to families. Rather, FGDM is a deliberate practice that restores the balance of power to the families. The FGDM process is designed to serve children, their parents, and a broad “family group” defined as people to whom the child is connected through kinship or other relationships.

The Tribes’ FGDM intervention targets children who are experiencing challenging emotional, behavioral or mental health issues that might impact their movement to permanence through adoption or guardianship. These “focused services” are designed with a two-fold purpose: to meet the emotional, behavioral and mental health necessities of children whose current needs are hindering permanence, and to enhance the capacity of each family to meet the needs of their child and, ultimately, become a permanent resource.

The roots of FGDM reach back to indigenous practices of the Maori people of New Zealand, and honor the inherent value of invoking family groups in making decisions about children who need protection or care.

The Winnebago Tribe chose the Maori version to implement because previously, the Tribe did not have a recognized, culturally competent, family engagement practice to promote decision-making related to permanence. Adaptions to the model were made to reflect the Ho-Chunk culture and language of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska that enabled the implementation of a culturally relevant permanency practice. FGDM training is provided to the Winnebago Tribe by the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Denver.

Professional coordinators deliver the FGDM curriculum. The role of the FGDM coordinator is clearly delineated in the four-stage framework and various processes of FGDM. The first set of processes is focused on the family’s referral. The second set of processes is focused on engagement, including assessing whether the family group wants to have a conference, and if so, preparing the family, and the providers that support them, for that group conference. This step ensures that all prospective participants are well-informed and have the information pertinent to the decision-making process.

A typical family group conference can average 22-35 hours of preparation. The third set of processes occur during the actual family group conference(s), during which the family is given a period of private family time to develop an action plan addressing the specific needs of their child or children. The initial conference typically lasts an average of three to six hours, with a meal provided during the private family time. The family group conference can be convened in any location where the family is comfortable meeting together. The final set of processes occur after the initial family group conference, and are intended to support the family in ensuring follow-through and revisiting the action plan. Each of the FGDM components must be delivered with fidelity; however, FGDM is not a “manualized” intervention. The FGDM model can be implemented by trusted community members who have been trained to coordinate the FGDM processes.

The intervention is being evaluated using qualitative methods to examine the processes by which the Winnebago members add meaning to the FGDM practice through the infusion of cultural roles, vales and ceremony. The Winnebago Tribe hopes to achieve the following short-term outcomes through FGDM:

  • increase knowledge of Winnebago-specific permanency pathways
  • increase families’ knowledge of permanency options
  • increase the number of children who achieve permanence
  • increase children and families’ protective factors

As of October 2018, 12 families met eligibility requirements with three engaging in FGDM and the Tribe expects to serve 20 families through FGDM in FY 18/19. A detailed evaluation report is planned for September 2019.

To learn more about the QIC-AG’s work with The Winnebago Tribe of Wisconsin, check out the full profile online. In future columns for The Chronicle, I will continue to describe the different interventions being tested at the other seven partner sites in more detail.

Started in 2014, QIC-AG is funded by the Children’s Bureau and through a five-year cooperative agreement with Spaulding for Children, and its partners The University of Texas at Austin, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

April Dinwoodie is a transracially adopted person and a nationally recognized thought leader in foster care and adoption. Dinwoodie’s podcast “Born in June, Raised in April: What Adoption Can Teach the World!” helps to facilitate an open dialogue about adoption, foster care and family today. She is the founder of Adoptment, a mentoring program that matches foster youth with adopted adults, and is retained by clients, including the QIC-AG, to help raise awareness of their work to support children and families.   

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