Many programmes providing support for children and families target their resources at geographical areas with the highest levels of deprivation. While this can be an effective way of locating services where they are particularly needed, and avoiding the potential stigma associated with targeting individual children and families, it is important to remember that there are also many families living in difficult circumstances outside of such designated areas, and find ways of identifying and reaching them.
The research highlights the importance of agencies working together at both strategic and practice level to address the range of hardships faced by families living in poverty. Children’s services alone cannot provide all the help needed. Families may need advice on debt, help with housing, opportunities for adult education and assistance with benefit entitlements and/or finding a job, as well as childcare facilities and leisure opportunities that are accessible and affordable. Given the impact of poor housing on family life, housing needs should be systematically incorporated into local children’s plans.
The link between poverty and child mal-treatment
While many poor parents bring up their children well and safely, the research illustrates the greater potential for child maltreatment when families live in very stressful circumstances. The impact of poverty was also highlighted in a Commission for Social Care Inspection report on meeting the needs of parents whose children are placed on the child protection register (CSCI 2006).
The way in which services are offered to families, and the nature of the relationship with the service provider, proved to be a key factor in parental satisfaction. This reinforces the importance of treating families with respect, and of finding ways to offer help that strengthen them.
The role of family networks
The key role played by relatives, especially grandparents, in mitigating hardship for families experiencing poverty suggests that assessments of need should pay particular attention to the availability of social supports and family networks. Greater use could be made of family group conferencing to draw on such support. But while good support networks were shown to ameliorate poverty, poverty also made such networks harder to maintain – especially when family or friends lived at a distance.
Recommendations from this study include extending eligibility for benefits such as free school meals, social fund grants and subsidised school activities to include families with an income below an agreed threshold, as well as those receiving means-tested benefits. Low income families could be provided with cheap or free public transport, and “passports” to allow children to access leisure facilities they could otherwise not afford.