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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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