Diplomatic initiative

Family mediation has not been universally welcomed as a means to
effect reconciliation between parents and young runaways. Alex
Klaushofer examines the arguments.

For service providers looking for new strategies with which to
tackle the challenge of youth homelessness, family mediation
services are the latest big idea. Although they have been promoted
by homelessness agencies in the voluntary sector for some time, the
idea of using a professional mediator to negotiate the breach
between parent and child is gaining currency as local authorities
around the country are setting up new services as part of their
homelessness provision.

In part the growing popularity of family mediation is due to a
recognition that the causes of homelessness are complex, and are as
much about individuals’ responses to difficult situations as
the lack of money to pay for accommodation. A change in perception
of the homeless themselves, as people with their own families and
social networks, rather than alienated outsiders, has led
professionals to turn their attention to family relationships as a
possible solution. Last November, official sanction for the trend
came from a report on young runaways published by the
government’s Social Exclusion Unit,1 which argues
that family support services are an effective way of dealing with
the conflicts that cause young people to leave home.

The extra burdens placed on local authorities by the
Homelessness Act 2002, which came into force last July, have also
contributed to the rise in family mediation services. The extension
of the priority need category to 16 and 17 year olds has meant
that, for some councils, the numbers of young people they have a
duty to house has risen. And as all councils are looking for new,
effective ways of combating homelessness as part of the homeless
strategies they are required to produce by July this year, some are
turning to family mediation.

Harrow Council is an enthusiastic advocate of family mediation.
The housing department has experienced a fall in the number of
cases it accepts as homeless due to parental exclusion. This has
been attributed largely to the success of the mediation service it
offers to all families presenting as homeless – 156 in 2001-2,
compared with 238 the previous year when there was no such service.
Since September, it has been offering a mediation service
specifically for single young people up to the age of 21. “The
majority of the cases are straightforward,” says housing assessment
manager Laurence Coaker. “Mum and dad are fed up with living at
home with the applicants. Too much noise, music, and that sort of
thing, have caused the breakdown in the relationship.” If the
reconciliation can’t be achieved, he says, at least the
service can “try to get over the message to the young person that
it’s probably better to stay and leave home later in a
planned manner”.

But some organisations working with young homeless people
question how useful such professional intervention can be. “There
isn’t a lot of evidence around to say that family mediation
work is always that successful,” says Martha Kelly, head of
services at the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. “It’s
often about the poverty and deprivation that the family is
experiencing. How can mediation resolve that?”

Hard evidence on the effectiveness of family mediation services
is certainly difficult to find. The Young Runaways report cites
individual case studies where services have been used, rather than
offering any more comprehensive research. Further enquiry to the
Social Exclusion Unit elicited the response that “many basic
psychology texts emphasise the need to get families talking”.
Housing charity Alone in London, which pioneered family mediation
schemes in youth homelessness, bases the need for such services on
research it conducted in 1996 which found that two-thirds of
homeless young people gave family breakdown as a cause. Although
the charity conducts annual service appraisals using groups of
young people, producing hard figures is not possible, says
spokesman Mark Forrester. “Our whole focus is on practical and
emotional support. How can you quantify the emotional side of
things? There are no hard outcomes that we can quantify,” he

Other concerns include the fear that in some cases family
mediation services could actively do harm. “Families don’t
always tell the truth – they will say they want to have them back,”
says Kelly. “Our evidence from young people is that they
can’t go back home, that there is abuse.” National homeless
charity Shelter is concerned that making family mediation a first
port-of-call when young people approach councils may introduce an
element of compulsion, which could prove counter-productive.
Spokesman Matt Cornish, who cites the new service at Harrow as a
source of particular concern, says: “It’s acting as an extra
hurdle which will drive people away and stop them from accessing
the services they need.”

But advocates of family mediation argue that recognising the
limits of what it can achieve helps guard against possible dangers.
“In some cases, parents don’t want to know at all. We have to
deal with that with the young person; it involves coming to terms
with it,” says Forrester. When returning home is not possible,
Alone in London offers housing advice and shared accommodation.

Martine Osmond, a senior practitioner at Checkpoint, a family
mediation service for the Children’s Society based in
Torquay, Devon, sees mediation in a modest light. “I’m not
here as an expert on a family,” she says. “A good mediation is when
the family themselves come up with the solutions – they need
someone objective to guide them through the process.” But while she
thinks mediation plays a valuable role in keeping channels of
communication between families open, she feels that longer term
support services for families – of which there is a shortage in her
area – are also needed. “My work is only crisis work. It’s
quite short. In an ideal world I’d like to be referring that
family for ongoing support,” she says.

Nicola Bacon, director of the homelessness charity Safe in the
City, which works with 13-18 year olds in London and has been using
family mediation for the past five years, argues that local
authorities need to think through their new provision if they are
to use family mediation services successfully. “They need to set
them up properly, fund them properly and realise that they are a
more substantial service than they might realise at first glance,”
she says. With councils under pressure to demonstrate that their
services are producing concrete outcomes, targets are one danger.
“It’s a bit unwise, really,” says Bacon. “If they’re
going to set targets, they need to do so on the basis of

Targets will be a key performance indicator for Charnwood
Council in Leicester, as it tests its pilot family mediation
service due to start this spring. Out of the 80 cases they expect
their mediation worker to see in the scheme’s first year, 10
will be expected to return home. But Charlotte Jones, the
council’s Housing Strategy Officer, says that since the
service will be provided by the Bridge, an independent housing
advice centre, there will be no pressure on young people to return
home. “If we were providing it, that would be a danger. The service
will be completely independent, so the outcome will hopefully be
the best outcome for the young person,” she says.

1 Social Exclusion Unit,
Young Runaways, SEU, 2002, see


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