The government’s latest report from the Troubled Families Unit – a series of 16 interviews with families that are troubled – has further lifted the lid on the problems families face. The Troubled Families programme is an extension of policies implemented under the last Labour government through family intervention projects. The scale of resources government is investing – £448m – is not to be sniffed at in these austere times, even if the cash comes with strings attached through a payment-by-results system with councils having to stump up 60 per cent of the cash and government rewarding them with the other 40 per cent once they’ve delivered on their stated outcomes around improving attendance, reducing antisocial behaviour and tackling worklessness.
The PBR outcomes the government is focusing on are about tackling the behaviour of children and young people in and out of school. However, putting a brake on truancy or offending behaviour while meeting a public concern will not in itself deliver on outcomes for children such as improved cognitive development or health or improved learning outcomes which will support long-term social mobility that is a coalition objective. The research shows that a major driver of some of these particularly cognitive outcomes is income inequality.
As Louise Casey’s report shows, in the worst cases children and young people’s behaviour is the tip of the iceberg with disturbing histories of sexual and domestic abuse and other trauma just below the surface. Troubled Family keyworkers can drive forward joined-up programmes of support and action on these issues but this will require specialist resources: police need powers backed by cash to be able to remove perpetrators of domestic abuse from homes; victims of domestic abuse and their children need back-up from refuges and other services, including the welfare system, to get their lives back on track.
The target to deal with these families in a parliament is certainly ambitious – and we’re concerned that government is not joined-up enough to make this work. It’s not just about specialist services to complement the troubled families work. We know from our own work that money matters for disadvantaged families too. Welfare changes will cut family budgets drastically. Local housing allowance reductions and the benefit cap will mean more families forced on the move. Housing transience is a danger to child safeguarding and the ability of services to effectively support vulnerable and troubled families. And these families will also need support from universal services which are in the austerity firing line. Labour should be challenging government on these issues as well as interrogating the data from local authorities to see if the families they are filtering into the system match the funding framework and assumptions of what government says a troubled family is.
Looking to the future, the likes of Graham Allen MP are persuasively showing the way. We need true early intervention policies to break the cycle of disadvantage. The potent mix of poverty and disadvantage can only be broken with a holistic approach that tackles problems at the earliest opportunities. For us that means programmes to tackle perinatal depression even before babies are born to vulnerable mothers. Research unveiled at Family Action’s recent perinatal conference shows that children of mothers with maternal depression in pregnancy and after birth are more likely to exhibit violent and antisocial behaviour as teens. Family Action’s Perinatal Project running in west Mansfield, Hackney, Norfolk and Oxford uses volunteer befrienders to support vulnerable and socially isolated pregnant women and new mothers to bond with their babies. Services like these which improve mother-baby bonding and reduce isolation are vital to give children the best start in life and combat early problems.
While we recognise the value of the troubled families programme it is essentially a crisis intervention. To help keep families out of trouble in future we need to see a commitment to the step-change that families need.
Anthony McCaul is senior media and campaigns officer for Family Action, a charity which works with disadvantaged and vulnerable families across England
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