At Canterbury Oast Trust, a small social care charity in Kent, chief executive Joanne Creighton holds informal Q&A style sessions where families and carers discuss the charity's work.
Creighton meets the relatives and carers of the people the charity supports at quarterly focus groups, usually attended by 10-15 people. Creighton's predecessor launched the groups four years ago and Creighton has developed them further since joining in 2014.
Only she and her chair of trustees attend, because, as Creighton explains, "we want parents and families to feel this is a free space to talk openly and in confidence, without risking offence to the staff who provide the day-to-day care to their sons and daughters." She adds: "It is also a good opportunity to share their views informally at the highest level. Our message is, 'you can speak freely', and, fortunately, people do... The atmosphere is always relaxed and non-judgmental; there's a lot of trust between us."
So what are the most vital questions that families and carers should ask support providers? One, Creighton replies, is: "How do you view family engagement?" As for how organisations engage people, she adds: "You need to know where it begins, where it ends - what the objectives are. Is family involvement constructive or combative?
Canterbury Oast Trust, launched in 1985 by parents unhappy with the options open to their learning disabled sons and daughters, supports just under 100 people and runs a range of training programmes. Creighton's brother has a learning disability and of her 11 trustees, six are siblings or parents. She adds: "I have the perspective of a sibling as well as a CEO and believe it's vitally important to involve families and encourage partnership with parents."
While organisations like Canterbury Oast Trust reflect the positive approach that exists, families are too often sidelined in social care, which, at the best of times, is a complex system to navigate.
Services are meant to be boosting the involvement of families following the abuse at Winterbourne View hospital near Bristol in 2012 (the government's programme of action after Winterbourne included a call for "greater involvement of service users and their families." But there can be a gap between theory and practice, as campaigners regularly point out.
Right now, however, social care funding is in crisis and a big question mark sits over the implementation of the Care Act (legislation which sets out what people who require social care support can expect). The Local Government Association has warned that councils are "on the brink of failing altogether...facing the prospect of court challenges."
The need to unpick how to go about getting high-quality support has never been more important. So if you are eligible for social care, how do you and your family know which organisation is right for you?
If you are entitled to help, there are two main options - you can either choose a support provider organisation, or directly employ a personal assistant (PA). Other alternatives include assistive technology, or combining a range of different support options.
These are among the issues spelt out in our new guide at VODG, Top ten tips when choosing a support provider. The practical resource also demystifies topics likes the Care Act - under which people are assessed for support eligibility - and includes a jargon buster that puts social care terminology into plain English.
The guide is based on the experience of our members, all social care organisations, and includes a comprehensive list of questions to consider when choosing a provider.
One first step is to give some good thought to how you want to be supported. This might sound obvious, but once you have a personal budget to choose the support you want - employing a PA or buying support from a provider, or a mixture of options - it might be tempting to rush into a decision.
When you meet potential providers, note your first impressions. Initial conversations indicate future relationships - how easy is it to talk to staff, for example? Do they return your calls when they promise to? They should recognise that you are the expert in your - or your relative's - support needs and offer the opportunity to talk to others they support, or their families.
It is also important to check how your support will be developed. Ask what happens about holiday arrangements, both for the staff member and for you or your relative. You might want to choose another support worker for when your usual member of staff is on holiday. These kinds of issues are important when you are drawing up the support contract.
Other things to check include the price, what this includes, and how your support will be monitored and changed. For example, your care provider should review your support, sometimes called a person-centred review, at least once a year.
Most high quality providers involve people in the staff recruitment process, so you have a say in who supports you. How will your views be listened to and acted upon? Will you help draw up the job description, or join the interview panel? It is wise to check if staff training complies with, or exceeds, legal requirements, and who pays for it.
As well as ensuing that the provider will make sure you are safe and have a right to complain, it is important to know how you can end your agreement. What's the process for ending the contract; is there a notice period or an exit fee?
If social care providers enable families to make the right choice, and families feel able to challenge them with well-informed questions, there is less risk of a mismatch between provider and person and therefore less chance of a breakdown in support.
What's more, says Joanne Creighton at Canterbury Oast Trust, there are clear benefits for organisations that enable constructive dialogue with families: "From the providers' perspective, it's important to look at all of the 'reference points' of the people you care for. To get a full picture of how best to support someone, you have to recognise and understand all the individuals and circumstances that influence them. Forging good, reciprocal relationships with families is obviously hugely important in that regard."
As Creighton says of her focus meetings: "The groups are invaluable - there is nothing else that gives you a better insight into an organisation - it's like looking at your place anew from the opposite end of the telescope."