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Targeting problem families pays dividends

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After decades opposing the “nanny state”, Conservative councils are now at the forefront of the kind of intensive-help programmes that would have provoked allergic reactions in years gone by.

But they say identifying the families with the most problems and working out how to turn them around with focused teams and cross-agency support gets results and saves money in the long term.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has fostered a range of ‘Think Family’ pilots, aimed at addressing problem parents, young offending and child poverty, and is spending more than £170m on early intervention over the next two years.

But Conservative authorities appear to be spearheading the work, and the grassroots initiatives are attracting the attention of senior party figures beyond the realm of Iain Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

Election manifesto commitments are expected.

Westminster City Council has been running its Family Recovery Programme (FRP) in one ward for the past year, pooling a cross-agency team of about 20 services - including police, health and social services - to work with a shortlist of the families seen as having the biggest problems.

Preliminary research suggests that the cost to the public purse of each family was about £93,000 a year, when benefits, housing, domestic violence and health issues were factored in.

Westminster estimates that the £15,000-£20,000 cost of taking a family through the programme can almost halve that amount in the first year alone, and provide net savings of more than £90,000 over three years.

A small team of experts is assigned to each family for six to eight months to help them change their lives and fulfil “contracts” made with the authority that, if broken, can lead to eviction, parenting orders, or other forms of court action.

The approach builds on joined-up work in social services over the past decade and is said to remove silo mentalities between partner agencies, reduce the potential for conflicting advice, and to speed up the time it takes to bring proceedings against families who won’t change their ways.

Strategic director for children and young people Michael O’Connor wants to extend the approach across the city and believes it could prevent a repeat Baby Peter tragedy.

“Social workers were working with Baby Peter, but they didn’t know there were two other adults in the house - they might have known that from the benefits agency,” he said.

Elsewhere, a University of Salford report on Blackpool BC’s whole-family Springboard programme found focused interventions with 60 families offered huge potential savings.

In particular, the number of children being taken into care among the families participating in the programme fell from 25 to only three in the course of a year.

One multi-streamed intervention costing £17,000 had averted potential costs of more than £160,000 for looked-after children in one family alone.

The survey also recorded a marked reduction in anti-social behaviour connected with the families and an 85% reduction in police call-outs.

Brighton & Hove City

Council’s family intervention project had driven an 86% decrease in antisocial behaviour by using “intensive support” to help families tackle the root causes of their behaviour - whether it be mental illness, bad parenting skills, or alcohol or drug abuse.

Funding challenge

Telford & Wrekin Council has Beacon Status awards for integrated children’s services and for early intervention, and was recently awarded DCSF Think Family funding to pilot an intervention project that brings together a mental health worker and substance-misuse specialists.

But head of commissioning, performance and participation Tina Wood said a question mark hung over resourcing.

“If it works, we’re going to have to mainstream it, because there’s no way we can afford to put in another layer into the system we already have with the existing funding,” she said.

Colin Green, who chairs the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ families, communities and young people policy committee, shares those concerns.

He believes that as budgets come under threat, there is a danger that early intervention projects will be discontinued, and that local government will have to lobby hard for the necessary resources.

Mr Green added that more traditional services will remain important: “You’re going to have to have double funding for those who still need care. The argument is still very much ‘will government double fund this?’.”

For those eyeing the resurgence of the nanny state nervously there is a crumb of comfort: most projects place enough focus on the merits of gainful employment to make even Norman Tebbit smile.

Is there a typical project?
Not yet. Generally they all involve pooling staff from different services to work intensively with problem families.

Where is the biggest impact?
DCSF research shows a near-halving of child protection issues, a threefold decrease in eviction proceedings, and a more than fivefold decrease in families with “multiple antisocial behaviours”.

What’s next?
DCSF says it will publish a document to “help local leaders make the case for sustained investment in early intervention and develop a more coherent set of programmes”. The Conservatives might include the approach in their manifesto.

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