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A local study commissioned by Barnardo’s has revealed how
vitally important it is for families who are having difficulty to
be part of a local network of support. Owen Gill explains the

At the end of the 1990s, social services departments were being
required to “refocus” their energies away from child protection
investigations and towards providing support for families in

More recently, welfare professionals assessing and working with
families and children have been required by government guidelines
to adopt an “ecological” approach. This necessitates attention
being paid to the family’s social integration and their sources of
support outside the immediate nuclear family.

Both of these changes in approach need to be underpinned by an
understanding of the wider patterns of support that exist or fail
to exist in the lives of families in difficulty. And yet in the UK
there has been very little work that has tried to understand the
nature of these wider support systems.

This is surprising because in the US there has been nearly two
decades of research looking at the social networks of families in
difficulty and trying to understand neighbourhood patterns of
connection and support that are protective of the welfare of
families and children.

The findings of this body of research are complex but in broad
terms they produce powerful evidence of the importance of network
support for families. They also produce some evidence of the
relationship between the nature of links between families in the
neighbourhood and the extent of child mistreatment in the area.

Recently, we have completed action research in a small
neighbourhood of one of the Bristol estates. This area of about
1,100 households has many of the characteristics of public housing
at the present time, in particular a high proportion of lone
parents, an unbalanced age structure, a disproportionate number of
children and economic marginalisation. The area was also identified
by professionals as producing a high number of child welfare cases.
Mapping of child protection cases showed that this was one of
several local neighbourhoods that had clusters of child protection
cases. It was also an area which produced professional concerns
about the breakdown of the family and what was seen to be a major
problem of the isolation of young lone parents.

The purpose of our action research was to move beyond the
anecdotal and explore in detail the patterns of informal support
that exist for families in the area, identify those families that
fall outside these patterns and work to develop contact between
parents in the area. We started our work with detailed
tape-recorded interviewing of a sample of 62 main carers of
children under eight in the area. We asked about residential
histories, patterns of contact with family, neighbours and
professionals and about different aspects of support including
advice about children, relationship advice, general practical help
with children, and help with children in a crisis.

In all but one household in the sample, the person who
identified themselves as the main carer was the mother. Thirty
eight of the households were dependent on income support, 24 were
lone parents.

In general terms, the interviewing produced little evidence of
the breakdown of wider patterns of kin support – the opposite was
in fact the case. The large majority of mothers had very regular
contact with their own family, particularly their own mothers. And
when we asked about specific areas of informal support, kin support
across the generations was by far the most important. In large part
this was related to the proximity of many of the parents to their
own parents. As one of the parents told us: “People grow up around
here and have their own children here and their own parents are
here and so everyone has lived here for 10, 20 and 30 years and it
is one of those areas where you grow up and have your children
here. Certain people just never move away.”

The same patterns of contact across the generations were evident
with the 24 lone parents in the sample. Contrary to the notion of
the isolated lone parent they were closely linked to patterns of
kin support with their wider family. Also, although relationships
might be difficult with ex-partners, more than half of the lone
parents said they received support from the ex-partner’s parents.
As one of the parents told us: “Yeah, his mum’s quite good. Well,
she wants to see her grandchildren.”

Thus, although the parents and the grandparents of the children
in the area are all part of the generations which have seen massive
divorce, separation and lone parenthood, there is a strong
resemblance between the findings of this study and an earlier
generation of community studies of the central significance of
family and kinship. Even in this highly pressurised neighbourhood,
strong patterns of family support, primarily for women and by
women, were the dominant characteristic.

However, alongside these dominant patterns there were a minority
of families who had far fewer ties to the area and were moving
frequently. Of the 62 families, we defined 13 as being frequent
movers in that they had moved three or more times in the past five
years. And for some of this group, the patterns of movement were
much more extreme. One of the parents told us that she had moved 14
times in the previous five years and another told us that her
family had moved 10 times.

Often these families were also the ones who expressed the
highest needs for extra support and expressed the most significant
levels of difficulty in their families.

In the interviews we had a number of questions about how
families made contact with others in the area when they were new.
The answers showed that some of these parents experienced real
difficulties moving into an area characterised by already existing
strong patterns of kin links. For instance, a lone parent with four
children who was new to the area told us: “I don’t get to know them
that well, they’re really funny. So I don’t really know what
they’re really like. You walk out in the street and they’ll give
you a funny look. I don’t know why. It’s like I got two heads or

It is, of course, over-simplifying the complexity of the area to
say that there were two distinct communities, the one long
established with intricate patterns of kin support and the other
more transient and far less linked into patterns of support. But
our evidence points to the real issues faced by new vulnerable
families moving into the area

This in turn raises important questions about “community-based”
services and area-based initiatives to support parents. If the most
vulnerable parents are also often the parents on the move, then how
do support services link with these families and develop a
continuity of contact? Also, can initiatives be developed which
mean that another move to another estate is seen as a less obvious
response to difficulties. A crucial task for any community-based
family support initiative, such as those that occur in family
centres, may be to identify the families who are frequent movers
and offer work, which will mean they are likely to stay in the area
long enough for connections and patterns of support to develop.

This may be even more significant as far as children are
concerned, where networks of familiarity and consistency of
schooling are crucially important.

Also, when we talked to parents about the levels of extra
support they needed, it was typically not the young lone parents
who indicated the highest stated needs for more support. The
parents who said they needed significantly more support tended to
be the older parents and the ones who had had another child after a
long gap. It was clear that this not only put stresses on the
families but also had implications for external networks of
support. For instance, one parent who had had another child after a
long gap told us: “We used to take our children to school together.
I did have friends then, but like I said they’ve moved on. They
haven’t got the same interests as I’ve got now because I’ve got a

If developing an “ecological” perspective is to become a reality
then two things need to happen. First, there needs to be more
research at a neighbourhood level to understand patterns of support
and who falls outside these. We already have a mass of hard data
about deprivation on an area basis. This needs to be balanced by
more accounts of informal structure. Secondly, welfare
professionals need to develop some of the skills of the
anthropologist as they work with families in their local area. They
need to know what are the normative patterns of support in the
areas in which they work and also which families fall outside these

Owen Gill is a regional anti-poverty scheme co-ordinator
for Barnardo’s. Family Support: Strengths and Pressures in a
“High Risk” Neighbourhood
by Owen Gill, Christine Tanner and
Liza Bland is available price £10 from Barnardo’s Childcare
Publications 01268 520224.



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