by Jadwiga Leigh and Lisa Warwick
Adults who find they are struggling to parent often come from disadvantaged backgrounds and find themselves in situations where they face a number of different social, emotional, environmental and health related challenges. Collectively, these factors can affect their ability to be, what social care services may refer to as, ‘good enough parents’.
Research and experience has taught us that if the parents’ issues are left unresolved, then it is less likely that they will be able to make the positive changes required and parent to the standard expected by social care professionals.
This was made apparent in a recent Panorama documentary, “Addicted: Last Chance Mums”, which followed the lives of two women receiving treatment for drug and alcohol addiction at Trevi House. Trevi House, a residential rehabilitation unit in Plymouth provides women with the opportunity to rehabilitate whilst their children remain in their care.
The Trevi team pride themselves in working closely and intensively with women who have suffered significant trauma. With a 60% success rate, Trevi House has, for 25 years, managed to give women an opportunity to break the cycle, keep families together and significantly reduce referring local authorities’ spending on foster care services.
Trevi’s impact is not only impressive statistically but also on a personal level as both the women in the documentary talked candidly about their past lives and the gratitude they felt for the support they received from Trevi.
Despite their testaments, Trevi House and others services like it, are struggling to stay open. Hannah Shead, CEO, believes that referrals from local authorities are low primarily because of the cost to fund Trevi placements. At present, local authorities nationwide are under huge financial strain, which means referrals to residential rehabilitation projects, such as Trevi House, seem unaffordable.
The average cost of a placement at Trevi House can be anywhere in the region of £1,570 per week for one mother and child. With most placements lasting from 12 to 24 weeks, a small family can cost a local authority between £18,840 to £37,680.
However, the number of children becoming looked after has increased steadily over the last nine years. On 31 March 2017 there were 72,670 looked after children, compared to 59,000 in 2008. Figures from the Children in Care in England: statistics briefing show local authorities in England spent an estimated £2.5 billion on the main looked after children’s services in the 2013/14 financial year.
Most of this (55%) was on foster care services (around £1.4 billion) and children’s homes (46% – £0.9 billion) with the average cost of care per child calculated at circa £36,524 per annum. Given these circumstances, projects such as Trevi seem a much more viable option.
Yet, it would seem that programmes such as PAUSE, which received £3million innovation funding to expand nationally, is a far more preferable option because it prevents birth mothers’ repeated involvement with family courts.
In recent years the number of infants removed at birth has increased markedly in England, as a result of policy emphasis on swifter removal of children from situations of harm and reduced community support services for struggling families.
PAUSE, which states it aims to break the cycle of removal by giving women an opportunity to develop new skills for a more positive future, is only offered to women who have had two or more children removed.
A recent evaluation commissioned by the Department for Education’s Innovation Fund found PAUSE to be an “extremely effective programme that has a positive and significant impact and saves money”.
PAUSE saves money because it argues that, without its intervention, the women it has supported so far would have likely had 27 more children taken into care per year and this would have cost over £1.5 million a year to the tax payer.
It is hardly surprising that PAUSE would appeal to struggling local authorities but what is concerning is the amount of money being invested into a programme that only saves money after children have been removed from the care of their birth mothers.
It doesn’t make sense that services like Trevi, which offer women the support they require so that they can remain with their children, are struggling to survive.
Whilst, admittedly, there is no guarantee that every family at Trevi will complete the programme, not giving women the opportunity to turn their lives around could lead to what Karen Broadhurst and colleagues have called ‘collateral consequences’: the compounded grief a parent feels when their child is removed; the social and legal stigma associated with a court-ordered child removal and the welfare penalties a parent incurs once their child has been removed.
So, surely the time has come to take full advantage of services such as Trevi? Investing in rehabilitative parental support not only prevents parents from suffering further hardship but it also has moral financial benefits for local authorities and the government which are struggling to spend their limited resources wisely.
Jadwiga Leigh is a social work lecturer at Sheffield University. She tweets @jt_leigh
Lisa Warwick is a research fellow at the university of Birmingham. She tweets @LisaWarwick