The right help, at the right time, in the right place, by the right people.
This simple principle is the cornerstone of Blackpool’s new early help strategy, which is designed to ensure that families get the support they need, when they need it, and aren’t escalated into receiving statutory provision unnecessarily.
“If we support families earlier, that’s what makes the biggest long-term difference to the family,” says Suzy Robertson, service manager, early help and support, at Blackpool Council.
Suzy has worked in Blackpool for 14 years and says that throughout that time there has been a focus on supporting families at the earliest opportunity, both from the council and the wider children’s services partnership.
What is different with the new strategy is its emphasis on empowering professionals from partner agencies to take the lead role in working directly with families, carrying out early help assessments and developing plans.
This is the “right people” aspect of the strategy: the idea that those who know the family well are best-placed to work with the family and co-ordinate support for them. Often, this will be a teacher, health visitor or early years practitioner or someone who is supporting the parent with their needs.
‘You know the children best’
“What we are doing is asking everyone to recognise that helping families at the earliest opportunity is everyone’s responsibility,” says Suzy. “It’s about saying ‘you know those children best, if we recognise this and direct the right targeted support to those families, we will get better outcomes and we will support you to do that’.”
She gives the example of a school identifying a child who is coming in late every day, affecting their attainment.
“They may want to explore that with the family,” she says. “We’d be asking them to use the early help assessment as a tool to help them understand the family. If that school is not so confident in applying that approach, we will work alongside them to do that work together and very practically handhold them through it.
“If something’s identified in the assessment, which highlights a parent with a mental health issue, or a parent struggling, we would want that school worker to develop a plan to help things get better. Some of that may be delivered by the school worker, some may need to be delivered in the family home or through a parenting programme. Then the school could potentially pull in our family support team to provide some extra support , or services from other partners agencies. Over time, the skills and the experience of those workers will increase and there’s less of a need for us to deliver at a more complex level.”
Support for partner agencies will primarily come from experienced early help practitioners within the council who are taking on three new ‘link worker’ posts in each of Blackpool’s localities. This is the “right place” aspect of the strategy; early help services will be built around family hubs – which provide a central point of access for a range of services – in each of the three areas so are easily be accessed by families.
The link worker role will involve getting to know the locality and the agencies within it, and providing coaching, mentoring and learning for partner professionals, supporting them to consider the trauma families have experienced and how this impacts upon how they parent their children
Suzy adds: “That’s perhaps the most exciting role in the new structure – it’s a job I’d have loved to have done as a practitioner. It’s the role that will really make a difference to families.”
Within the council’s early help service, staff feel similarly about the strategy, whose development has been led by Joanne Stewart, Blackpool’s head of early help and support services, who developed a similar approach in a neighbouring authority.
“Our own staff team are really excited about this change and the offer we are developing for our children, families and the partnership, says Suzy.
One of that staff team is Andrew Singleton, who, works within new structure, will be managing the intensive early help teams in two of the localities, as well as Blackpool’s early help hub. This is based within Blackpool’s request for support hub – its front door service – and makes sure families are offered the right support at the right time.
‘Staff want families to progress’
“Staff are really keen. “We’ve got a really good, dedicated workforce – quite a lot of them have been with us for a long time, know Blackpool and want our families to progress.”
Born and bred in Blackpool himself, Andrew, a qualified social worker, is all too aware of the levels of need facing Blackpool families due to poverty, inadequate housing, and the impact of trauma parents have experienced which has led them to have mental health needs, use substances and experience domestic abuse.
“You can really see the impact that early help can make in Blackpool,” he says. “Working with the community, not just going and doing to them, we can start to make some headway.”
This is in line with the Blackpool Families Rock practice model, co-produced with families and launched last year, which has informed the early help strategy.
Andrew is strongly supportive of engaging and empowering partners, particularly schools.
“They can play such an important role,” he says. “They are likely to have a much bigger impact at that early stage, rather than the family receiving no help, then things escalating. The schools I’ve been working have been really positive.”
Alongside the empowerment of partner agencies, the strategy also involves increasing provision of services including parenting support, both on a group and individual family basis.
Reducing statutory demand
While the primary focus is on ensuring families get the help they need when they need it, building their resilience, the impact should also be fewer children and families escalating to become a ‘child in need ‘or need to be supported via a child protection plan.
This means Blackpool’s children and families social workers can send time developing trusting relationships with families whose children are at risk of experiencing significant harm or are in our care.
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