The government has pledged to ‘turn around the lives’ of the UK’s 120,000 most troubled families. Gavriel Hollander investigates whether this can be done.
For Debbie Brown the low point came last year when her teenage daughter threw a glass at her. ‘I was living in fear,’ she says.
Meeting Debbie, 38, a single mother living in Tameside, Greater Manchester, and her daughter Kirsty, it is almost impossible to imagine that their relationship could ever have deteriorated to such an extent.
These days Kirsty is a bright, confident 16-year-old enjoying the first few weeks of college and ambitious to become a teaching assistant. The tattoo on her right forearm reads simply: ‘mum’. Debbie is rightly proud of the transformation.
But these dramatic changes did not happen overnight, or without help. The intervention of Cornerstone, a partnership between the Browns’ landlord New Charter Housing Trust, Tameside Council and children’s charity Action for Children, gave the mother and daughter the opportunity they needed to turn their relationship around.
Weekly visits and regular individual sessions with Sarah Pollitt, a family support worker at Action for Children, were instrumental in getting them back on track, at a cost of around £7,000 per year.
‘A big part of the turn around was the one-on-ones,’ recalls Kirsty. ‘It felt like I had someone I could talk to. I’d always talked to my mum but when we fell out there was no one.’
Investing in families
The Browns are just one of 100 families that Cornerstone’s family intervention programme, one of the most successful in the country, has helped. Action for Children calculates that this investment has saved the police, courts and social services a total of £3 million since Cornerstone’s FIP began in Tameside in 2008.
While Cornerstone operates on a limited scale, the problems it addresses exist nationwide, according to the government. After the riots that swept England in August this year, prime minister David Cameron announced he wanted to ‘turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country’.
The government acknowledges that FIPs work. Like Cornerstone’s project, they consist of intensive intervention programmes run by councils or third-party providers to stabilise problem families and eliminate anti-social behaviour. According to Department for Education figures published last month, FIPs have been ‘successful’ for 85 per cent of families that have taken part in them since the scheme was rolled out nationwide in 2006.
Given this, are FIPs now set to play an even bigger role? Or, despite the success rate, will landlords view their cost as prohibitive?
They are certainly expensive. In 2010/11 £49 million of the £94 million think family fund, the pot from which councils fund FIPs, was spread among 5,500 families at an average of £9,000 per family. But after last year’s comprehensive spending review, the government removed the ring fence for the think family grant.
This means that at a time when anti-social behaviour, and the role of parents in preventing it, has caught the public’s attention more than ever, organisations like those involved in the Cornerstone programme are being forced to spread their resources even more thinly.
In April, annual funding for Cornerstone’s projects was slashed by Tameside Council from £605,000 to £504,000. The partnership is increasing the number of families it is working with from 81 to 100, but the cuts to its budget inevitably mean it needs to do more with less. The number of families each case worker is involved with has gone up, and planning for the medium or long-term future has become virtually impossible.
Sue Hird, director of tenancy and support services at New Charter, says the problems created by the current cuts are being exacerbated by uncertainty about how much deeper they will go in the coming years.
‘We’re trying to secure our position for next year already,’ she explains. ‘If there’s more money available then we can do more good work. But we can’t rely on extra funding because we’re not sure where it’s going to be coming from.
‘We’ve been well supported [in Tameside] but there’s not been enough commitment nationally. This should be mainstreamed and we shouldn’t have to worry year-on-year where the money is.’
Source: Asadour Guzelian
Rina Dabhi, a service manager at Cornerstone who oversaw the partnership’s work with the Browns, agrees. ‘There’s a lot of uncertainty now and that’s a real consideration. We have a responsibility to the families we work with and if we have to reduce the service, we need to be in a position to prepare families for that.
‘It’s messing with people’s lives if you are promising a service and then, three months later, you’re not in a position to deliver it. You’ve spent all that time with a family, getting to know them and promising to turn things around, so it’s a worry.’
Action for Children’s Ms Pollitt, who worked with Debbie and her daughter most regularly, says it is consistency of support that makes the intervention work. ‘You need to invest, and it can’t just be a quick turnover,’ she explains. ‘We are pushed on to turn round families quickly, but you need to be with them for as long as they need.
‘You can’t just be with a family for a couple of weeks and expect to see changes. But if you make those changes you save a fortune.’
The Browns’ story
Getting the Browns back on their feet took time, patience and commitment. The trouble between the pair began in 2009 when Kirsty started to play truant after a series of run-ins with other pupils at her all-girls school. She fell in with a new group of friends, began drinking and experimenting with drugs, and would go out with older boys she had met after spending countless hours online.
Kirsty would arrive home at six in the morning and sleep through the day. But when she was awake, her behaviour was becoming more than her mother could handle alone.
‘She started on a downhill spiral,’ explains Debbie. ‘She was smashing the house up, kicking in doors. We didn’t have a door to the house at one stage.’
Kirsty’s violence was never directed at her mother, but when she threw that glass Debbie knew it was time to call the police. This, in turn, led to a referral to Cornerstone, and Ms Pollitt began visiting and setting weekly goals for both mother and daughter. The family support worker also made herself available round the clock and together they gradually managed to mend the relationship.
Money well spent
FIP projects can cost up to £30,000 per family, but money spent in the short term saves the cash that’s needed to pick up the pieces further down the line, says Gillian Hughes, head of community safety at Bolton Council. Bolton is another local authority in Greater Manchester which has embraced FIPs only to see funding for the projects cut by nearly 50 per cent in April.
With a budget of £750,000 in 2010/11 the council had the capacity to help around 60 families, but with only £400,000 to spend in 2011/12 it will now only be able to help between 35 and 40 families, she argues. This means the council has had to stop its work with a number of families.
‘[There will be] an impact on anti-social behaviour and crime figures, but the police are not going to say they will have three fewer police officers and give more money to the FIP programme,’ Ms Hughes states.
Eamon Lynch, managing director of the Social Landlords’ Crime and Nuisance Group, believes that by cutting funding for FIPs the government is missing an opportunity.
‘It seems to be universally acknowledged that the approach works,’ he says. He would like to see the funds ring-fenced again and guaranteed for a number of years. ‘These are long-term projects with the benefits paid back over a long period of time… We want to see the certainty of continuation.’
Back in Tameside, Ms Pollitt echoes these thoughts: ‘There’s a lot of talk going on about how much the riots are costing the taxpayers but we know that FIPs have been cut and we know that if services like that are used as part of the solution the outcomes for communities would be better.’
For Debbie, who has seen the impact FIPs can have first hand, the difference made by projects like Cornerstone cannot be overstated. ‘Without it, Kirsty wouldn’t be where she is now, and I wouldn’t either. I don’t think we’d be living together.
‘You look at the riots and think: “what are the parents doing?” but a year or two ago, that could have been Kirsty.’
Family intervention projects: the story so far
Until this year, family intervention projects were funded through the Department for Education’s think family fund and distributed to councils to either spend on services themselves or to contract providers, such as Cornerstone in Tameside.
Think family has now been folded into DfE’s £2.2 billion early intervention grant for 2011/12, which includes funding for sure start children’s centres, the youth crime action plan and youth advice service Connexions.
The total allocated to all the funds that made up the EIG last year was just under £2.5 billion, leaving a £300 million funding gap for this year across all the services it covers.
DfE figures show that the number of families involved in FIPs rose by 55 per cent between 2009/10 and 2010/11, with 3,423 new families taking the total number of households helped by the projects to 12,850 since 2006. The department spend £104 million on FIPs between 2007 and 2011.
The figure is still far short of the 120,000 ‘troubled families’ prime minister David Cameron promised to help in the immediate aftermath of August’s riots.
Mr Cameron’s ambition to turn these families’ lives around will be partly funded by a £200 million grant from the European Social Fund to the Department for Work and Pensions’ work programme, one of the aims of which is to tackle chronic worklessness within families.
Although the prime minister has not explicitly stated that the think family programme should be part of the solution, its purpose since its inception has been to tackle problem families. However, with £49 million of 2010/11’s £94 million think family fund being spread around only 5,500 FIP families, the numbers for the current year don’t seem to add up.
David Derbyshire, head of performance improvement at Action for Children, says that the DfE figures offer a ‘confusing picture’.
‘What’s happened in the course of the public sector cuts is that a local authority will have brought a number of services together,’ he explains.
‘It may or may not mean an increase in service provision. But what we know is that even taking into account the DfE figures, the total pot for supporting vulnerable families has decreased since May 2010.
‘What’s clear is that the [FIPs] service isn’t provided on the scale that’s going to meet the acute need’, Mr Derbyshire adds.