Version 3: 9 December 2020 (PDF version)

 

Elaine Dibben, CoramBAAF Adoption Consultant 

Agencies will already have a clear process for managing their panel meetings, and CoramBAAF is aware from training events and practice forums that whilst these processes tend to follow a similar pattern, there are also agency variations. In considering the process for holding a virtual panel, agencies have needed to revisit and refine their panel processes to allow for the differences in holding a virtual meeting to be addressed. There are a few overarching messages which have been shared with us that are worth considering:

  • There was considerable planning needed prior to holding the first virtual panel, with IT support being essential, but over time agencies have adapted well to using virtual panels.
  • There are bound to be some technical difficulties, so it is important to stay calm, be patient and try to keep a sense of humour when things do not quite work as planned.
  • Virtual panels require a lot of concentration, and in video conferencing, looking at a screen for long periods of time will be tiring for all involved, so it is important to factor in reasonable breaks for panel members, advisers and minute-takers who are involved in the meeting.

The following suggestions are intended as a guide only, and can be adapted to suit each agency’s requirements.

Setting the agenda

  • Set a realistic agenda that allows for technical hitches, reasonable breaks for panel members, and that gives time for reflection on the learning between cases and at the end of the panel meeting.
  • Allow extra time for all cases being heard, particularly if applicants and carers are participating.
  • Allow breaks between each case to allow panel members to take a comfort break, get a drink and have time away from the screen/phone.
  • Some agencies have decided to limit the number of cases they hear to a maximum of four, or to hold more frequent half-day panels, and have adjusted payments to panel members where this means shorter agendas.

Before the panel

  • Paperwork should be sent to panel members electronically or by post, and should be received at least five working days in advance of the meeting. NB: Royal Mail has stated that timescales for Special Delivery have been altered, and there may be some delays in postal delivery as the Covid-19 measures progress, so this needs to be taken into account when setting timescales. Discussion will be needed about how to manage any additional paperwork that becomes available or is requested after this time so it can be sent to panel members securely in advance of the meeting, or if there are occasionally documents that have to be shared at the panel meeting, that time is built in for these to be read on screen and reflected on.
  • To assist the panel Chair in preparing for the meeting, some agencies have been asking panel members to prepare their views on the applicants’ strengths and/or their questions in advance of the meeting, and to send them to the Chair. It can be helpful to set a limit to the number of strengths, issues or questions being sent by each panel member. Panel Chairs will then be in a position to prepare a list of strengths and questions to ensure that the panel is focused on the key issues prior to the meeting. This does not prevent further discussion of the issues at the beginning of the panel meeting when the prepared strengths/questions are shared with all members. It can be helpful to note in the minutes that all panel members contributed to the questions, to evidence their participation in the process.
  • If applicants/carers have chosen not to attend the virtual panel, then the panel adviser or administrator could ensure that the strengths and questions are sent to the social worker so that they can share the applicant’s/carer’s responses at the meeting. However, wherever possible, applicants and carers should be encouraged and helped to attend so that they can make a full contribution and be part of the meeting.
  • Panel members and others attending the meeting should be reminded of the need to charge their laptops, tablets or phones prior to the meeting, if they cannot be used while plugged in.

The panel meeting

  • Panel members should be advised to log in 10 minutes before the panel is due to start to allow time for the panel adviser, panel administrator or panel member to resolve any “hitches”.
  • The panel Chair will then either collect the strengths and questions from panel members, if these have not been submitted before the panel, or go through the prepared list of questions from those submitted in advance, inviting any significant amendments or additions.
  • There should be consideration of how the details for the conference call or video conference will be shared with the applicants (and social workers) so that they do not join before the panel discussion has been completed. Usually, the panel adviser would take responsibility for the panel operation (unless IT help has been made available) and would invite them to join or contact them and advise them when the panel is ready for them to join.
  • Where there is an appropriate facility available, some panel Chairs are meeting with applicants/carers prior to them joining the panel to introduce themselves/share areas of discussion. This is best practice and should be part of the process where possible.
  • When applicants and/or social workers join the virtual panel, the Chair should invite each panel member to introduce themselves and their role. Where the facility is available, panel members would then be asked to mute their audio feed while questions are asked. Some panels have also found it helpful on video conferences for panel members’ video feeds to also be switched off so all involved can focus on the primary speakers – the Chair, social worker, applicants/carers and, if required, the panel adviser. (Experience has shown that people will, without realising it, be fidgeting, moving about or looking around, which can be distracting to others.)
  • Although most panels would usually have panel members asking questions of the social worker, applicants or carers, agencies initially reported that in virtual panels, it was more straightforward for the Chair to ask all the questions of the applicants and social workers, as agreed with panel members. However, over time, as people have become more confident in the virtual environment, many have now reverted back to all panel members being involved in asking questions.
  • Some conference facilities include the option to record the meeting. This can be a helpful back-up for the minute-taker, but all participants in the meeting should be made aware that the meeting is being recorded and should give their consent. A protocol should be put in place for the recording to be deleted once the minutes have been completed.
  • Once the questions have been asked, in some agencies the Chair may ask applicants/carers to leave the meeting, while others would invite them to remain and be present for the panel discussion. This may depend on whether there is third party information to be discussed or concerns that are felt to need further clarification with the workers. Some agencies ask social workers to also leave at this point; others invite them to stay and hear panel deliberations.
  • Panel members can then re-join the discussion with their video and/or audio if they were switched off, and the panel Chair will facilitate a discussion leading to the making of a panel recommendation.
  • Some agencies then invite applicants/carers to re-join the meeting, while others ask the panel Chair, panel adviser or social worker to contact them and share the panel recommendation and reasons.

Case study

Adoption Counts set out their expectations of how a video conferencing meeting will run, which are shared in their information leaflets for social workers, applicants and panel members.

During the panel

  • Be aware of your surroundings. If in a shared space, please use headphones to maintain confidentiality. Do not have any confidential or inappropriate items visible to the camera.
  • Panel discussion will be managed in the same way as present; however, there are some additional disciplines to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
  • When speaking, please be aware that people will be listening via headphones, so state your name and speak clearly and slowly. This will assist other people on the call, particularly the minute-taker.
  • Please avoid speaking when someone else is speaking. If you have any additional questions or comments, wait for an appropriate break in speech to speak.
  • The Chair will call you by name to introduce yourself.
  • The Chair will call on each panel member individually to give their strengths, vulnerabilities and questions. Questions will be submitted prior to the panel, but the Chair will check in with panel members to ensure there is nothing extra to add. The Chair will ask questions on behalf of the panel.
  • The Chair will then call on each panel member one by one to give their view of the match and reasons.

After the panel

  • Time should be allowed at the end of the meeting for reflection and a debrief for panel members.
  • The panel adviser should ensure feedback is sought from the presenting social workers, and applicants/carers. Some panels have found that the level of feedback has decreased now that they are not handed to those attending at the panel meeting. Some agencies are exploring the use of online forms/survey responses to try to improve the response rate.
  • Minutes should be circulated and approved in the usual way by all panel members and signed off by the Chair for consideration by the agency decision-maker.
  • Whilst panel members will not have any travel expenses, some may incur costs for use of telephone conferencing, which they should be able to claim for.
  • The panel Chair and panel adviser should consider whether any changes need to be made to the process as a result of the feedback.
  • Fostering Network published a helpful blog from a panel Chair after her first virtual panel, which may be of interest: https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/blogs/alfie-cross/conducting-virtual-panel-meetings

Involving applicants in a virtual panel

  • The social worker for the applicants and/or panel adviser should discuss with applicants and carers how they want to be involved in the meeting. Where possible, this would be helped by having an information leaflet that can be shared with them.
  • Panel leaflets for applicants should be updated to reflect expectations of the virtual panel meeting, the process and the practicalities of the method being used to host the meeting and, if possible, include a couple of accounts from carers and applicants who have attended a virtual panel.
  • Particular thought should be given when the panel is considering a Standards of Care report, a deregistration, or a recommendation that applicants are not suitable to foster or adopt, on how the applicant or carer will be supported by their social worker before and after the panel, and how the panel recommendation will be shared with them.

As some of this early feedback below shows, some applicants/carers wanted to be involved in a virtual meeting, while others preferred their social worker to represent them.

We did offer to include the adopters, but I think they were stressed enough already and were confident that the social workers could represent them well.

We completed an approval with the applicants on the call (that bit was good but not brilliant, but they were pleased to still be involved).

The positive was that the adopters/applicants still felt that they were part of the process. Not sure how the applicants would be supported if it was a more difficult application or match.

One foster carer, who doesn't like talking in groups, found the experience difficult. The support and skills of her supervising social worker were important in helping her find her voice.

The carers were connected persons who, whilst doing well in caring for their grandson, didn't feel confident in being part of panel discussions using this medium (teleconferencing). Their social worker rang them beforehand to gather any views they wanted to put forward and presented these.

As applicants and carers have become more familiar with being involved in interviews and meetings using virtual platforms, they have become increasingly prepared to participate in virtual panels where they have been given the right support to do so.

The following reflections from a prospective foster carers and adopters and approved adopters and foster carers who attended a virtual panel during the last few months highlight what helped them to have a positive experience, despite any technical hitches or drawbacks.

We both agreed that the virtual panel was a success; although we had some difficulty logging on to begin with, once it was up and running the whole process ran quite smoothly. The joining instructions could have been a little clearer but other than that no further comments.

(Foster carer review)

My personal feedback from the virtual panel was excellent, but I think this was led by the preparation beforehand to underpin the confidence which I felt sitting in the comforts of my own home. Secondly, I believe the Chair was excellent in that he projected confidence and an air of calm which helped me to relax; he did not seem judgemental or intimidating. Therefore, I believe the key to future virtual panels is preparation and confidence in the equipment that you possess and the panel appearing non-judgemental and reducing the fear and anxiety that could exist. I think the feedback from the Chair was very helpful and the conduct is a skill and comes from experience, I suppose. I also believe that the fact that only one person asked the questions but there was an awareness of the source of the questions was important. As I had been in the process for such a length of time, I was more aware of processes and information. I was prepared for the panel because I ensured that I read and understood my report and its contents. I think making notes of the panel members and who they were was helpful because you have an awareness of their background and possibly why they would be asking such questions.

(Prospective foster carer)

We felt fully prepared and well supported for our panel meeting by both social workers. We were in regular contact before the day and the way that panel would run was explained clearly so we were fully aware of the process. It was a good experience and it ran smoothly, we did however miss the face-to-face contact where you can build a rapport with people.

We were made to feel at ease as soon as the meeting started and we were welcomed by each individual panel member. The individual introductions gave us some context of each panel member, which was nice. The questions asked were what we expected them to be and we feel they were relevant and appropriate for matching panel.

We thought hearing the panel recommendation directly from panel members was a really positive part of the panel. It was lovely to hear the individual recommendations from each person. Everyone’s comments were lovely and it was a nice way to bring the meeting to an end.

(Adopters at matching panel)

We felt well prepared and felt that we knew what to expect. Virtual panel was a good experience and similar to “real panel”. Having more than nine people meant we couldn’t see everyone on the screen all the time and sometimes couldn’t see the person asking the question which was a little frustrating, but did not cause us any real issue.

We were made to feel at ease and the panel members were welcoming and friendly. The questions were along the lines that we were expecting and seemed entirely appropriate and relevant and we had a very positive experience hearing the panel members giving their recommendations individually and very much welcomed hearing the lovely feedback that they had about us.

(Prospective adopters)

We felt well supported and prepared. We knew what type of questions we might be asked and we had all the relevant training and an understanding of the process. We found it not too different from the adoption approval panel we had face to face. The Zoom platform worked very well and the panel hearing was well prepared and chaired. The panel members were very professional and courteous. Being at home feels probably more comfortable anyway but we felt at ease. The questions were all relevant and we feel that panel take their job very seriously. All we did was answer questions honestly and truthfully rather than thinking about a right or wrong answer. Everybody was approachable and the process was very well explained by the Chair. It was good to hear the reason for the decision from each member.

(Adopters at matching panel)

This has been a learning situation for all involved, and we will continue to gather further feedback from agencies about what has worked well or what challenges those involved have encountered and resolved.