Time for a reality check

At last, we have proposals for a dramatic increase in the scope of
support offered to parents and children. The breadth of the green
paper’s vision is inspiring. No one knows better than a social
worker that vulnerability in a family does not start with the first
injury to a child, or the first incident of unmanageable behaviour,
or when a teenager falls pregnant.

But what does the green paper aim to achieve by widening the net of
family support? Does it intend purely to widen the immediate
benefits of that support, or to prevent problems in later

At various points in the paper both aims can be seen. There is no
doubt its authors wish to create a better chance in life for all
children. And elsewhere much is made of evidence that shows that
many young people who suffer significant harm or go off the rails
have experienced problems earlier in childhood. Does it matter,
when both aims are laudable?

It does, because one is realistic and one is not. There can be no
doubt that more family support will help more children be happy and
secure, with confident and competent parents. But when it comes to
reading statistics in reverse, there must be doubt. It is one thing
to identify a proportion of young offenders who displayed behaviour
in early childhood that their parents found hard to control. It
doesn’t mean that if you identify young children with that
behaviour, you will succeed in cutting youth crime.

But if you plan to identify and track such children, with the
implications for civil liberties and stigma that implies, you
surely need hard evidence that you can prevent serious harm by
doing so.

The paradox is that the green paper is being perceived by
politicians and the media as a plan to prevent abuse and other
social problems. Yet its proposals for family support deserve
support in themselves, because they will improve children’s lives,
not because of what they may prevent. At last such proposals have
political and public support. Whether that support will melt away
when it becomes clear that political and popular aims cannot be
met, remains to be seen.

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