Thriving families need thriving communities

Words Jonny Mallinson

We believe that the Troubled Families programme failed to recognise and respond the important evidence of relationships within communities, as well as families.

 

To those working in children’s services the ‘Troubled Families Story’ is a familiar one: major government initiative inspired by new evidence about ‘what works’; celebrated as a panacea for the most vulnerable families in our society; delivered thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of committed professionals up and down the country; undermined by an evaluation that suggests this issue might have been a tougher nut to crack than the programme creators originally thought.

Sure Start, Family Nurse Partnerships… any more for any more?

But the feeling of a story oft-repeated shouldn’t obscure what is a big lesson to be drawn from this most recent experiment in social reform — a lesson that is backed up by our work with the most vulnerable families across the country.

We believe that the Troubled Families programme failed to recognise and respond the important evidence of relationships within communities, as well as families.

The relationship between family and community is critical: thriving families need thriving communities, and vice versa.

Let’s start with the research evidence.

Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child, is a leading expert in the science of early childhood development and its application in practice. In his most recent analysis of those interventions that have successfully transformed outcomes for children he draws a number of important conclusions.

1. The only sustainable way to improve outcomes for children is to build the capability of parents or caregivers. It will never be enough to work with a child when the adults they spend most time around are themselves ill equipped to flourish in the world, let alone insulate them from the debilitative impact of toxic stress (the cumulative burden placed on a child through prolonged exposure to physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or family economic hardship).

2. The single most important factor in the success of any intervention is the quality of the relationship between a professional and a family. In other words, if a family doesn’t trust and respect a professional, they will never listen to them nor change their behaviours in response to professional input.

The Troubled Families programme draws heavily upon both of these insights. By assigning a key worker to each family to work with parents intensively over a significant period of time, the programme seeks to build adult capability through developing trusted relationships. The value of this way of working becomes clear when you listen to the stories of individual families whose lives have been improved (if not yet ‘turned around’) by the dedication and commitment of practitioners all over the country.

3. The resilience of the community as a whole matters. Adult capability exists as part of a system, in which the quality of relationships within the wider community is absolutely essential. For the effects of an intervention to be genuinely sustainable, it must recognise that, in its absence, caregivers will rely upon each other, their extended family and community networks of support.

Our own work, especially the Thriving Communities programme with Derbyshire County Council over the past four years, has deepened our understanding of this point..

Through spending time and working alongside local families to understand their needs and aspirations, we know that just below the Troubled Families thresholds are a large number of families who are just about coping under huge pressure. These are families with extraordinary resilience and willpower, and clear aspirations for themselves and their children. The pressures exerted on them on a daily basis prevent them from thriving, but they have emotional and practical support networks that stop them falling into crisis.

These families are, as the Prime Minister puts it, “just managing”, because their supportive, extended relationships hold them together. But they are stuck — caught in stasis, unable to progress.

While the Troubled Families programme targets individuals and families, Thriving Communities aims to build the capacity of the whole community, strengthening networks where they exist and creating them where they don’t — over time building sustainable support structures that will enable all families to thrive, not merely survive.

The real risk over the next five years is that a deteriorating economy and continued austerity will lead to many more families falling into the ‘just coping’ category, and more of them tipping into the Troubled Families cohort. Families who currently act as points of support for many others will no longer be able to do so, putting more pressure on services and the wider system as a whole.

Family policy should do more than just act as a safety net to avoid crisis. It should work with families to identify their hopes, goals and aspirations, and help create the stability and security that will help them to get there. Our evidence points to the need for and potential impact of place-based and whole-systems approaches, which would replace the Troubled Families programme with a strategy to create thriving families and thriving communities.