Parenting orders are controversial, but used correctly there is evidence that they can make a difference to families. DIANA GOLLOP reports
People need to understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to their local community, they can’t just get away with that. On the other hand, if we are going to solve this problem realistically we need to give some support and help. So that is the balance that we are trying to achieve.”
Parenting contracts and orders embody the carrot and stick approach to tackling antisocial behaviour outlined in Tony Blair’s speech detailing his Respect agenda last September. This approach – and details on the use of these measures – was further fleshed out in January in the government’s Respect Action Plan.
Parenting contracts and orders were fi rst introduced in 1998. A parenting contract involves a voluntary written agreement by a parent in relation to the supervision of their child. Parenting orders are court orders which demand attendance at a parenting programme lasting up to three months. They can also contain specific requirements – such as ensuring the child does not truant – which may be enforced for up to 12 months.
Initially only available for use by youth offending teams (Yots) and the courts, the power to impose orders was extended in 2003 to local education authorities in an attempt to curb problems at school. Now the government intends, through the Police and Justice Bill, to extend the power to schools, community safety offi cers and housing offi cers. A new trigger of “serious misbehaviour” will also be added to that of exclusion from school, so that an order can be made before a child is excluded.
And there is evidence that parenting programmes work. An evaluation of the Youth Justice Board’s work in 2001 showed that parents reported “significant positive changes in parenting skills and competencies”. It added: “At the very least, the parenting programme might have helped to ‘apply the brakes’ on a sharp downward course for young people.”
Yet there is a downside to the renewed focus on these formal parenting interventions too. Jan Fry, director of external relations at parenting support charity Parentline Plus, says the cost of
giving compulsory orders rather than appropriate help at an earlier stage is massive, and proves the budget is skewed towards punishment rather than prevention.
“Historically, where orders work well is where parents are desperate for help and Yots gain their trust. But where parents are made to feel it’s a punishment – that they have to go, or else – it’s
much harder to get them on side,” Fry warns.
Isla Downey, parent support co-ordinator at Wessex Yot in Southampton, endorses the need to place more emphasis on pre-emptive action. She believes that everyone could benefit from the
support and advice parenting programmes offer, “whether their kids are kicking off or not”.
“Some parents have been asking for help for ages but don’t get it until things go seriously wrong,” Downey adds. “Social services need better training in this area. The emphasis is all on the
child and not on giving the parent the appropriate skills.”
There are also concerns about the focus of many of these orders. “Parenting orders are too often ‘mothering orders’, with mothers seen as responsible for children’s offending, leaving fathers
out,” points out Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute.
MacLeod is worried that extending the number of professionals able to apply for parenting orders could lead to them becoming the “easy” option for frontline workers, in spite of the government’s other efforts to offer help before a situation becomes serious.
Parenting support on its own is less likely to produce results than a package of support for children and families, she warns. If parenting support becomes completely identifi ed with “failing” parenting, parents will want to steer clear, making prevention harder.
It seems the balance between carrot and stick may be even more difficult to realise than Blair imagined.
Joanne Merriman has two teenage children and was given a parenting order in Southampton last year. “I was given a parenting order after my daughter had been in court about four times, for a couple of minor graffiti offences and a fight.
I have a son who has grown up to be a decent young man – I know I’m a good parent. But my daughter’s a bit wild. Even so, she stood up in court and said ‘it’s not my mum’s fault’.
I was furious with the magistrates – they haven’t got a clue about what it’s like to live on a council estate. They made a judgement about me and I wasn’t the one who had committed a crime. Why didn’t I get a good behaviour order for my son?
At first I was horrified by the idea of the parenting group. I thought it would be full of the kind of parents you see on Trisha. But our group was good. Mostly it confirmed that I was doing the right
things, but it did offer support. If you don’t have people to talk things over with, it can help. But it only works if the parent is ready to take on board what they’re saying. You’ve got to be able to take a step back and look at the situation clearly – it depends on the individual.
My daughter is still emotional, but things are better. I have learned the most just through listening to her and the parenting group gave me a hand with that – it’s quite psychological.
When you first make a parenting contract you go to a meeting to sort it out, but the people there aren’t in touch with what it’s like for a lot of parents. I’m hoping to be a volunteer at these
meetings and I think I’d help because I know how it is being in that situation, raising teenagers on an estate. I’ve been there. I’m also hoping, partly as a result of the programme, to do more youth work.
(Names have been changed)
➜ Crime and disorder reduction partnerships issued 1,296
parenting contracts and 537 parenting orders between 1 October
2004 and 30 September 2005, an increase of 322% and 135%
respectively on the same period the year before (Home Office
➜ Local education authorities issued 3,465 contracts and 201
orders on truancy grounds between 2 April and 31 July, and 127
contracts and no orders on exclusion grounds (Department for
Education and Skills figures).
➜ In a 2002 evaluation of its parenting programme, the Youth
Justice Board found convictions among children whose parents
attended a parenting scheme fell from 89% in the year before
attendance to 61.5% in the year after (Youth Justice Board,