Why are we still making the case for supporting families at the earliest stage possible in order to prevent their problems escalating?
In recent years, successive governments have launched reviews and drives to stimulate provision of early and preventative support to families. Think: Sure Start, parenting programmes, the Respect agenda, Family Intervention projects, Troubled Families initiatives and more.
Just recently David Cameron gave a speech (ahead of the planned launch of the Government’s Life Chances Strategy in the spring), in which he talked about addressing some of the social problems associated with poverty. He highlighted those affected by addiction or poor mental health and stressed the importance of improving family life and of developing resilience as well as offering the right support to those in crisis.
Despite all this rhetoric and talk of action there is something still amiss. Increasing numbers of children are being removed from their families and these families are often those affected by parental substance misuse (including alcohol misuse) or by parental mental health problems.
Families with these problems make up significant numbers of those in receipt of social care services. 20-50% of children subject to a child protection plan are affected by parental substance misuse. At least one in 11 children are thought to be living with problem drinkers and in a class of 26 children, six or seven will live with a mother with mental health problems.
The increase in the use of the ‘heavier end‘ of child protection measures and care proceedings could signify different things. It could be seen as a good thing and that the increase is due to better identification of children at risk and of steps being taken to protect them. It could be seen as symptomatic of more risk averse social work and family courts, intervening more robustly to avoid accusations of having failed to protect a child.
Or it could be seen as a failure to support families early enough, that somehow all these drives have not successfully reduced the numbers of children growing up in adverse circumstances.
There is the view that there is a failure to support some with obvious needs, for example mothers whose children are taken from them through care proceedings who go on to lose further children to the system. It may be seen as symptomatic of poverty, worsening in the face of austerity, as studies suggest that the greater level of inequality within a society the greater the level of social problems including mental illness and substance addiction. Or, as seems likely, it is due to a combination of all these things.
This is complex and confusing terrain where finding the right approach is very easy to say and clearly extremely difficult to do.
Professionals need help and support to develop the right knowledge, skills and attitudes to prioritise children’s needs, understand and engage effectively with adult family members and respond appropriately in these complex situations.
Many parents in these circumstances will want to do the best for their children and, with support, can look after them well. Too often however, fear and stigma prevents some families from coming forward for support and some who do find it are discouraged by the fragmented, inaccessible services they find. At the same time, the knowledge and confidence of children’s services practitioners in dealing with mental health or substance misuse issues is highly variable.
To help professional carry out this complex work JKP / NCB have published A Practical Guide to Early Intervention and Family Support: Assessing Needs and Building Resilience in Families Affected by Parental Mental Health or Substance Misuse. This is the third edition of Building Resilience in Families under Stress.
In it we explore the application of the concept of resilience in work with families, encouraging careful analysis of the interaction between risk/vulnerability and resilience, to give practitioners a dynamic, pro-active approach. Different models, tools and practice examples are used to offer a practical framework for statutory and voluntary agencies to work positively with the child, family and wider networks.
One commentator said we need “paradigms that emphasise families’ capabilities rather than their deficits and workers’ abilities to cheer on change and encourage hope”. Our book sets out in concrete terms how to give such approaches their best chance of success and ensure that when early intervention proves unsuccessful in individual families, it informs decisions based on confidence that the family has been given the best chance possible through effective professional responses to their needs.