We are likely to hear a lot more in the not too distant future about programmes such as Volunteers in Child Protection.
The Community Services Volunteers (CSV) programme, which pairs people who want to give something back with families whose children are known to social services, is attracting considerable attention.
For one thing, the new government’s action plan has pledged to “support the creation and expansion” of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and give them “much greater involvement in the running of public services”.
For another, new children and families junior minister Tim Loughton is well aware of the programme, and its successes were trumpeted in the recent Conservative paper Child Protection: Back to the Frontline.
Sue Gwaspari, CSV’s director for part-time volunteering, is cautiously optimistic.
“It’s good that Tim Loughton has been brought into the Department for Education - he’s keen on our work,” she said.
“The Big Society idea is positive news - provided it’s seen as volunteering in the community to achieve better outcomes, rather than as a cost-cutting agenda.”
But Ms Gwaspari is adamant that volunteers - who, so far, range from former teenage mothers in their early 20s to retired city executives - cannot replace child-protection professionals.
She argues their role is passing on skills based on their experiences and being a “critical friend” who can spend more time with parents and their children than social workers, and who - crucially - is seen as being independent.
That is one reason she believes councils should not set up complementary volunteering schemes in-house.
So far, CSV has launched projects at a handful of councils, ranging from a small scheme aimed at parents with drug and alcohol or mental health problems at Islington LBC, to larger-scale work at Southend-on-Sea BC.
How it works
The principle is that one co-ordinator placed at the authority recruits and runs a pool of 35 volunteers, about 25 of whom are assigned families at any one time. Each co-ordinator costs approximately £25,000 a year to fund.
CSV is keen to set up about a dozen individual programmes to build up a good evidence base for its success, and Anglia Ruskin University is engaged in a two-year evaluation of progress.
According to Ms Gwaspari, families assigned volunteers are less likely to see their children returned to child-protection plans once they have left them, and it is suggested that early intervention help can obviate such plans in the first place.
She also stresses that volunteers tend to offer longer-term support than statutory services, whose support often ends when a protection plan finishes.
Julie Daly, head of safeguarding and quality assurance at Bromley LBC - which has run a programme with CSV since 2004 - said the council recognised that social workers lacked the time to give parents the level of practical and emotional support they needed.
But she said the council had feared social workers would feel undermined by non-professionals having access to vulnerable families.
“Once social workers were reassured that the volunteers were properly vetted, well trained in child protection and well supported, they were happy to refer families to the project,” she said.
Ms Daly said that in councils with a high turnover of social workers, volunteer mentors offered additional stability to families with problems. She added that Bromley had also benefited when several volunteers had gone on to full social-work training.
After an era in which, it has been argued, no one was championing the cause of projects such as CSV, the prospect of potentially saving millions of pounds and fulfilling election manifesto pledges could well see the organisation take its place at the forefront of a revolution.
Bromley case study
Mother-of-six Kim was helped to keep her children by volunteer John Cliff (pictured above). John gave Kim assistance with parenting skills - including helping her get the children to school on time - and making sure the home was a safe environment. As well as helping Kim and her children access crucial health and council services, he has helped keep some of the children occupied to give her breaks. He has continued to support the family since Kim’s children came off the child protection register. Kim said it took about a month for her to begin to trust John.
“John started to give me practical help and the strength to start dealing with difficult situations for myself.”
She said he had helped her regain control of her life and given her the confidence to begin a classroom assistant course.
For more information, contact: Sue Gwaspari, 01223 728463; SGwaspari@csv.org.uk; www.csv.org.uk