‘Some families need us 24/7’

A pioneering scheme in Scotland that helps families tackle poor behaviour is winning plaudits. Derren Hayes speaks to John Wallace about the work of the Dundee Families Project

It is a mark of the success of NCH Scotland’s Dundee Families Project that its manager has been seconded to the Home Office to tackle antisocial behaviour in England.

The Scottish executive has also recognised its potential. Last week, it announced a 2m grant to set up three similar projects in Scotland (Scots to roll out intensive support, 20 April).

John Wallace, deputy project manager at Dundee, explains that its starting point was to find a more permanent way of tackling problem behaviour by families by addressing its root causes.
He says: “In the 1990s, the response to antisocial behaviour was to evict people. But we’d find evicted families would take their bad behaviour to new communities.”

Under the project, established in 1997, social workers and other professionals work alongside NCH staff to support families identified as having a track record of problem behaviour.

Most of the work is done in the family’s own home to prevent them losing a tenancy, but the project also has six flats in a dedicated tenement block in an affluent, quiet part of town to help families that need around-the-clock support. Communal areas and classrooms enable them to take part in group activities too.

“There are some families you can’t deal with on a visiting basis and who need us to be there 24/7 so that we can help when things are kicking off. It enables us to work with families and help parents establish boundaries of behaviour,” Wallace explains.

He says the tenants have generally integrated into the community well with 12 out of 15 families successfully completing the programme.

“When we set the project up we wanted to give families something to aspire to rather than stick them in a sin bin in the worst part of town. It gives them a message they are worthy and they learn to live in close proximity to others.”

Wallace says it is important to understand what makes a family tick. Profiles of all the family members and an assessment of their relationships with each other are carried out so that problems are then easier to spot.

“We work with adults on issues such as parenting skills, tackle children’s issues and the family group as a whole,” he adds.

Overall, the project has helped 83 families. An independent evaluation last year found the council had saved 117,000 a year in legal bills from not having to evict tenants or take their children into care, besides the benefits to communities and individual families.

Wallace says people from a variety of backgrounds have taken part in the project but most are on state benefits.

“We have parents who are dependent on drugs and alcohol, those who have had poor experiences of being parented themselves, some who have become isolated while others have been
unable to cope with life and been knocked off course,” he says.

The project has offered an alternative to this group of people who may otherwise have been dealt with by the courts. Despite this, Wallace recognises there are limitations to what it can do.

“This is a voluntary arrangement: people have to acknowledge their behaviour has been a problem and be willing to change. But there will be others whose behaviour is wilful and not the product of circumstance and who we won’t or can’t work with,” he says. And while the project does not use antisocial behaviour orders, Wallace says there is a place for “measures of enforcement” for such people.

Projects like those in Dundee do not win many headlines or support from the public but both the Scottish and Westminster governments’ interest in it suggests it could play a major role in tackling and preventing antisocial behaviour in the future.

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