Family support services continue to struggle for funding and commitment

Amid concerns that children’s services money is being sucked into protection work, MPs have revived calls for greater investment in long-term family support, writes Josephine Hocking

A preoccupation with child protection is distracting children’s services departments from preventive family support work, according to a new report by MPs.

Family support services should be “universally available at agreed minimum levels”, says the children, schools and families select committee’s report, published last month. The MPs are worried about how councils with large care populationscan afford to commit resources to family support.

But, at a time of public sector cuts – not to mention heightened government and public concern over child protection since the Baby P case – how likely is a plea for more preventive work to be heard?

Jane Tunstill, visiting professor of social work at London’s King’s College, says the framing of legislation dictates how the care system operates and how councils set priorities. She told the select committee that, since the Children Act 1989, local authorities had placed more emphasis on safeguarding than promoting welfare.

In terms of family support, the figures for council spending reveal that the ratio of spending on family support services compared with spending on looked-after children ranges from 1:2 in some authorities to 1:10 in others.

Fewer children in care

Aworking group set up after the publication of the government’s Care Matters: Time for Change to investigate the care population found that councils with fewer children in care – including Merton, Kent, Kirklees, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets – tend to invest more in family support. The reverse also tends to be true: councils with lower family support spends often have higher care populations.

Hackney Council in London says it has made sustained investment in family support servicesin order to reduce its care population. There are now 330 children lookedafter by Hackney, compared with 470 three years ago. Steve Goodman, Hackney’s deputy director of children and young people’s services, says there is “much anxiety” about child protection in localand national government but says Hackney is holding its nerve. He emphasises senior managers must share risk with frontline social workers when making decisions.

“Children’s services work is a risky area and the state cannot guarantee that parents won’t harm their children, but we can reduce the risk,” Goodman says. He told the select committee that bad social work training and bureaucracy in children’s social care led to poor, risk-averse practice.

Long term commitment

The care population in the London borough of Merton isone of the lowest in England. Merton’s Phoenix project, run with charity Action for Children, provides intensive support for families and aims to prevent teenagers going into care.

Helen Lincoln, head of children’s social care at Merton Council, says: “We have a long-term commitment to strong family support, but there will always be children who need to be in the care system. We must be sure we make the right decisions on which children stay with their families.

“Our approach has been tested in the current climate of anxiety about child protection,” she says.

Despite this, Lincoln is confident that Merton’s family support work is robust. She believes its success is down to good multi-agency working, early intervention, evidence-based services, and a focused, tenacious approach to work with serviceusers.

No universal service

But despite being praised by the committee, the family support work provided by Merton’s Phoenix project is still a long way from the universal service the MPs want to see: a “national consensus on the rationale behind decision-making about entry to and exit from care”. Lincoln acknowledges that Phoenix works with teenagers on the “cusp of care”, and that the threshold for families to access service is “near crisis”.

Colin Green, safeguarding lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told the select committee more interventions were needed, with more services “in the bit in the middle between [universal services such as schools and children’s centres] and the very high-threshold services characterised primarily as social care”.

But Mary MacLeod, chief executive at the National Family and Parenting Institute, believes early intervention often remains an aspiration rather than a reality. “Many are struggling to keep services at current levels in the recession and are a long way from lowering thresholds for services,” she adds.

Accessing support

MacLeod’s views seem to chime with the experiences of parents, who argue that receiving the support they need is not always easy. Responding to a survey by the children’s rights director for England, 59 per cent of almost 200 parents of looked-after children across 58 councils said they received no support to help prevent their children going into care. Parents want more support earlier, and closer working relationships with councils, as well as more assessment before care decisions are made.

Before any universal service with agreed minimum levels can ever be delivered, we must first be sure what actually works in family support. The care population working groupcalled for more research into what works, and for a more planned approach to the delivery of family support services.

MacLeod says minimum levels are very difficult to set because the needs of families are so diverse. “Families go in and out of difficulties as circumstances change, so how would minimum levels work?” she asks.

Hard-to-reach families

She believes health visitors are part of the answer, particularly in terms of reaching hard-to-reach families. “It’s a universal service, so there’s no stigma,” she explains. “Health visitors are already linking with social care, referring cases of domestic violence and children at risk. This should be developed further.”

Tunstill agrees that it will be “very complicated” to define what minimum levels of family support would be. She is also concerned that such a scheme could lead to some councils only ever doing the minimum, claiming to have done their duty by sticking to basic levels.

The call by MPs for more family support services is not new. A social services select committee made exactly the same point in 1984 but the recommendation was not implemented – due to a social services preoccupation with child protection.

Will it ever be the right time for early intervention? Tunstill believes a public education campaign about the realities of children’s social work may help and is long overdue. “It is easy (and rightly so) for the public to get angry about Baby P,” she says. “But people in this country don’t get upset about poverty and inequality and the complexity of family problems.

“There is a lack of political will when allocating budgets to pledge money for family support. The work is long-term, it is not dramatic. It is unsexy, but it is crucial.”

Tunstill is right that attitudes must change if early intervention and more family support are to become the norm. Let’s hope a committee of MPs isn’t still calling for more family support services 25 years from now.

Further information

Select committee report on looked after children. (April 2009):

Report from Care Matters working group on care population:  (June 2007):

Hackney’s Reclaim Social Work initiative:

Care Matters working groups’ discussions:

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