Leave the stigma out of early intervention

Labour’s civil war has generated many frustrations. A major one is that Tony Blair’s speech launching his campaign to tackle social exclusion has received little public scrutiny.

In his speech delivered at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week in York, Blair argued that evidence from around the world says you can detect the children and families “likely to go wrong”. Therefore, it is better to offer early intervention than have to foot a much more expensive bill later out of the public purse.

He explained that four key groups would be targeted: young people in care, pregnant teenagers, 7,500 families deemed to be
in most urgent need of intervention and mental health patients.

To be fair, Blair was as unflinching in his detailing of Labour’s failures with these groups (children in care more likely to go to prison than university) as he was lavish in his praise for the government’s achievements. Yet, reading Blair’s speech in full, his flaws are again revealed. Strong on analysis, powerful on rhetoric, while stigmatising a whole tranche of society. Also, what he calls his “new Labour vision” is weakened from the outset by the lack of any sustained investment.

Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, is spending £7m on pilot schemes – for instance, extending the help midwives and health visitors offer to fragile families. At the same time, Obi Amada of Amicus, the union representing health visitors, warns that many members are losing jobs because of recruitment freezes in debtladen primary care trusts.

Before delivering his speech, Blair spoke to several leading researchers. He appears to have come away with a selective and crudely distilled interpretation of what the research on intervention reveals.

In Childhood Risk Factors and Riskfocused Prevention, David Farrington, professor of psychological criminology at Cambridge University, points out the difficulties of trying to pinpoint cause and effect.(1) For instance, does a large family predict offending because of the poor supervision of each child, overcrowding and poverty? Or is it that antisocial people tend to have more children than others?

Farrington also emphasises the need to invest more research into protective factors that contribute to that life-changing
ingredient: a child’s resilience. A recent book from the US, Out of the Woods, looks at how nine highly disturbed young people
managed to turn around their lives.(2) What was discovered chimes with Farrington’s research, which found that many young
offenders believe what happens to them is a matter of fate or luck rather than the result of their own actions. As they have no
control over their lives, why persist in trying o improve their circumstances?

The nine young people in Out of the Woods, as with Farrington’s resilient children, had received the kind of support that
allowed them to write a different life script for themselves: one in which they did have control, did exercise choice and did believe they had infinite possibilities.

Farrington’s review paper, read by Blair, describes several effective international early intervention programmes. What he also emphasises is that such help should be offered to all families in specific areas, not individuals targeted at risk. “The programme presented positively as fostering safe and healthy communities… rather than as a crime prevention programme.”

Early intervention, well designed and funded, does change lives. The fear is that, instead, social care staff could risk becoming
natal police, picking out the new-born to become tomorrow’s failures restrained from doing what the profession, at its peak,
does well – encouraging individuals to make the best of themselves.

(1) From www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page10035.asp
(2) Stuart Hauser, Joseph Allen, Eve Golden, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, Harvard, May 2006

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