No help until it’s too late

Too many parents find that getting help for their troubled
teenagers is almost impossible. Will the government’s
promises meet their needs? Rachel Foggitt reports.

The green paper Every Child Matters puts parents and carers at
the heart of children’s services. It emphasises that families
are the best resource for children and aims to support them in
helping children meet their full potential. It lays out a range of
services and has been broadly welcomed for its vision, although
doubts remain over whether its aims can be met.

“Overall the green paper is moving in the right direction,” says
Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting
Institute. “But it’s not going to be cheap and it remains to
be seen if the resources, capacity and will can be found to fully
implement these proposals. While I have every confidence in what
can be achieved on the ground I’m not entirely hopeful it
will be funded.”

The green paper advocates three levels of support for parents.
Some services would be for every family; some would be targeted at
families with specific needs and some would be compulsory, such as
parenting orders. The government has already announced an extra
£1.5m to set up parenting programmes for parents whose
children are deemed at risk of committing antisocial behaviour. But
the more services are available to parents the more issues will be
raised and the more resources will be required to refer people for
help and support. “The government has some challenging decisions to
make between preventive work and child protection,” says

“Where the problems are very entrenched and parents either will
not or cannot accept there’s a problem there is a role for
the state to say that action must be taken. However, compulsory
parenting orders cannot be the stock answer to a problem and should
be used as a last resort.”

But for Dorit Braun, head of Parentlineplus, for compulsory
orders to be effective, it will be essential to provide
professionals with training on how to engage with parents. “Only
when trust is forthcoming will parents engage positively in the
processes laid out for them,” she says.

Universal services, by definition lack stigma. Health visitors
see every family and their advice is generally well received.
MacLeod advocates extending their routine developmental checks to
include children at pre-nursery, pre-school and pre-secondary
school stages, looking at social, emotional and physical
development. “A universal service at all these stages would be
non-stigmatising, appreciated by many parents and be an opportunity
to pick up issues at key transition points,” she says.

Kathy Peto is co-team leader of Oxfordshire’s Parent and
Family Learning, which works directly with parents and trains
people in communities to do the work themselves. “Lower key support
is essential,” she says. “We have found the most valuable resources
are the least stigmatising ones. We’ve been working with
groups of parents to help them offer local families support and
practical strategies for their problems. Peer support has proved
very effective and word has spread.”

Many resources are underused because people either don’t
know about them or they feel too intimidated to attend.
“Information must be put across in a way accessible to the most
isolated and vulnerable people. Well-presented information packs
are helpful,” says Peto, “but word of mouth is the most valuable.
We also have to listen to the kind of help people are asking

Sue Brown (not her real name) is a case in point. Her son, now
13, has had serious problems for the last three years including
obsessive compulsive behaviour, persistent shouting and
self-harming. Because he refused to co-operate, Brown says
professionals would not help, and even blamed his parents for not
bringing him to sessions. In July this year he was finally taken
into respite care for three months, which has shifted things enough
to enable him to begin to communicate with his parents and social
worker. “Did it really need to come to that?” asks Brown. “We just
wanted someone to listen to us and take our situation seriously. We
wanted advice, not criticism of our parenting. We tried everything
but there was no one who could or would help.”

“There’s a big gap for the over eights,” explains Peto.
“There’s more for younger children through schemes like Sure
Start and these parents tend to gain informal support from each
other, at the school gates for example.”

As children get older the parents tend to be more isolated and
the issues they face become riskier and harder to talk about.
Forty-five per cent of calls to Parentline are from parents of
teenagers. Their biggest concerns are about underage sex, lying,
smoking, alcohol or substance misuse and threats to leave home.

Resources for older children tend to be geared more towards
crisis intervention. “It’s a common lament that there’s
no help until a child is actually in trouble,” says Peto.

Trisha Stephens has been asking for help with her daughter for
three years. Seventeen-year-old Amy (not their real names) has mild
learning difficulties and was excluded from two schools because of
her behaviour. She is now refusing to attend college. She hangs
around with much older people who take hard drugs and Stephens is
worried that her daughter does not practice safe sex and is
vulnerable to abuse.

“You have to work really hard at accessing the available
resources and then there are massive waiting lists,” she explains.
“Now she’s finally at the top of the list for counselling and
we’ve been told that as she’ll be 18 in six
months’ time she’ll have to wait until she’s
eligible for adult services. She could be pregnant, HIV positive or
addicted to heroin before she gets any help.”

MacLeod holds policy fault lines responsible for such gaps in
provision. These can occur where services are separate, as in adult
services not being linked to those for children. It is crucial for
the success of the government’s green paper proposals that
resulting policies improve this situation.

“Many people’s first port of call is the school or GP,”
says Braun, “but they often don’t get the help they need.
School secretaries and GP receptionists are ideally placed if they
are trained and informed. Parents often don’t express their
difficulties clearly or coherently and it takes time and skill to
unpick the issues and knowledge to refer on appropriately.”

The green paper advocates centralising all children’s
services on school sites to make them convenient and accessible to
parents. “It’s a great idea if there are the resources to do
it properly,” says Peto. “But some schools fear there’s a
hidden agenda for them to take on the work of social services
departments. And there must be home-based workers as well, to
address the issues which are getting in the way of children
achieving at school.”

Braun warns that “when schools are communicating with parents
about the trouble their child is in, school will not be perceived
as a supportive place to turn to for advice.” Some of the most
isolated and vulnerable parents were alienated from education
themselves and will be reluctant to go back into schools to access
professional help for their children.

While universal services will help many children, care must be
taken to target the most isolated and vulnerable parents to prevent
them from slipping through the net. Meeting the aims of the green
paper to protect all children and to help them reach their full
potential will require the commitment of huge resources in terms of
money and training.

While the big question remains whether the government will put
its money where its mouth is, the green paper has nevertheless
raised the issues for open debate and its breadth and ambition are
an encouraging starting point for reform.

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