Working with families living in poverty

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie) examines practice in the context of government guidance on working with families where there are children in need

The UK government is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020 but, with 2.9 million children still affected under the government’s definition, there is plenty of work to do.

In a policy document published earlier this year – Ending Child Poverty: Making It Happen – children’s secretary Ed Balls called on services to develop new approaches in “every community across the country”.

Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities are required to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need living in their area.

The Department of Health published the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families in 2000 to assist practitioners improve the consistency and quality of assessments of children and families. The framework is built on an ecological approach – that is, it assesses the parents’ capacity to meet their children’s developmental needs in the context of their economic and social circumstances.

If practitioners are to respond well to the families with whom they work, they will need to be sensitive to the different aspects and implications of poverty and social exclusion on their day-to-day lives. Importantly, they will also need to reflect on how they, as social workers, make judgements about people’s circumstances and behaviour.

The framework positions the dimensions of a family’s life along three domains in order to understand how these affect the children’s welfare. These are:

  • Child development

  • Parenting capacity

  • Family and environmental factors.

Case study

A typical case study highlights the inter-relation of different factors affecting families living in poverty. Sue*, 35, has five children, aged between three and 14. Her husband Geoff* left home two years ago and has had no contact with the family since. He provides no financial help and now has another child with his new partner.

Sue had to give up work and struggles to cope financially on state benefits. The family lives in a small, privately rented house, which is overcrowded and in poor repair. They moved in just before Geoff left and Sue has had little chance to make friends locally. She has a sister to whom she is close, but she lives 200 miles away. Sue feels isolated and misses Geoff. Her GP has treated her for depression.

The children also miss their father and Sue finds the behaviour of the three-year-old challenging. He now attends nursery part-time. All four of the older children have, like Sue, found the change in the family’s finances difficult to come to terms with.

After struggling for two years Sue feels she can no longer cope and approaches social care services for help.

Child development

The child development domain covers health, education, emotional and behavioural development, identity, family and social relationships, social presentation and self-care skills.

In Sue’s case, the stresses of their changed family circumstances could affect the children’s education, including the lack of quiet space for homework. The children’s distress may be reflected in their behaviour. The difficulties of the oldest child, who is being excluded from school, and the youngest are likely to stem from their changed family situation.

Sue’s children may also find their new, fatherless identity difficult to cope with, alongside the other major changes to the family’s identity resulting from the lack of money.

Parenting capacity

Parenting capacity assessments should address six areas: basic care, ensuring safety, emotional warmth, stimulation, guidance and boundaries, and stability.

Most parents on state benefits can provide basic care for their children. But claiming benefits can be complicated and anxiety-inducing. Sue lives in a poorly maintained property that may present safety hazards. The children are not well known in the neighbourhood, so other parents and neighbours may not be looking out for them.

The stress of living in poverty and the depression associated with this and the loss of her relationship may well affect Sue’s emotional availability to her children. Similarly, Sue’s capacity to reinforce consistent guidance and boundaries may be impaired by her low self-esteem and depression.

Stability will be a major issue in the family’s precarious position, living in cramped, unsuitable, privately rented property and at high risk of debt.

Family and environmental factors

Assessments should take into account the availability of community resources, social integration, income, employment, housing, wider family, and family history.

Community resources include services such as Sure Start, children’s centres and family centres. Sue may be frightened to use these resources lest a social worker or a health visitor notices that she and the children look shabby and considers taking them into care.

The family is isolated. The children have some friends at school but Sue has little money to pay for social activities for either herself or the children. That she no longer works and is now living on benefit may affect not just the family income but also Sue’s self-esteem.

How the framework helps

Many families living in poverty show tremendous resilience. Poor outcomes are often associated with the intolerable stresses that living in poverty can place on parents’ capacity to take good care of their children.

The government’s framework provides more than a mechanism for organising the information gathered when working with families. It is also a tool for analysis. It is important to understand the dynamic between the three domains of the triangle – that is, the inter-relationship between children’s development, parenting capacity and family and environmental factors.

Staff working with families need to pay attention to all three in order to understand a family’s full circumstances and thereby identify the support needs of the children and families with whom they work.

Support for mothers

There are support services that may be suitable for Sue. It is important to involve the family members as much as possible in obtaining the support they would like. Working over time with a consistent and reliable person who can engage with the family and offer expertise in getting the practical and emotional help they want should itself be a positive and supportive experience for Sue.

Support could include:

  • Welfare rights advice – because the family is struggling on a low income, practitioners should ensure they are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled.

  • Family support worker/social work support – Sue and her family would benefit from a supportive and consistent relationship with a worker who can respond to their needs. Sue may take time to develop a trusting relationship with the practitioner.

  • Mental health services – practitioners should encourage Sue to talk to her GP again about her depression and the kind of support available through the surgery or locally.

  • Local community services – Sue could be introduced to local community groups that may help her to develop new friendships.

  • Support through school – the schools that Sue’s children attend may offer breakfast clubs or after-school activities that will help them settle in and make friends. The schools may also work individually with the children to help them express their feelings and anxieties.

  • Charities – essentials in the home and toys for the children can be provided by some charities.

* Not their real names

Practitioners’ messages

  • Parents’ capacity to meet their children’s developmental needs is likely to be affected by their economic and social circumstances.

  • It is vital that workers record and also analyse the impact of these environmental factors on parenting capacity.

  • The framework for the assessment of children in need and their families assists practitioners to assess parents’ capacity to meet their children’s developmental needs in the context of environmental factors such as their economic and social circumstances.

  • The framework structures assessments into three key domains – child development, parenting capacity and family and environmental factors – in order to enable better understanding of the effects on the children’s welfare.

  • A worker needs to pay attention to all three domains and how they inter-relate if they are to fully understand the circumstances and identify the support needs of the children and families with whom they work.

  • Social work engagement with a family should expect to understand and offer practical help from the earliest stages and not simply “assess” the family’s circumstances. Early offers of help should be made while more complicated difficulties and their solutions are considered.

Further reading

Ending Poverty, Making it Happen, DCSF

Framework for the assessment of children in need and their families, DH –

Incorporating an understanding of poverty into assessments of children and their families is based on one of the learning objects in Scie’s e-learning on Poverty, Parenting and Social Exclusion

Research abstracts

Author GILL Owen; JACK Gordon

Title Poverty and the child’s world: assessing children’s needs

Reference Poverty, Issue 129, Winter 2008, pp.15-17

Abstract Poverty in a child’s life is the result of specific social and economic circumstances, which are always inter-related and complex. However, frontline workers are often unaware of the causes and consequences of poverty. The authors argue the case for exploring children’s living environments to articulate more holistic approaches to the fight against poverty.

Author TOMLINSON Mark; WALKER Robert

Title Coping with complexity: child and adult poverty

Publisher Child Poverty Action Group, 2009, 99p

Abstract This analysis considers the impact of poverty on children’s lives, asserting that, although lack of income is an important aspect of poverty, it is about much more: stress, poor housing, lack of facilities, inadequate infrastructure, fear of crime and problems associated with living in a deprived area.

This article is published in the 1 April 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Working With Families in Poverty

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