According to the Prime Minister, one of the root causes of last week’s riots are 120,000 or so families with complex and multiple problems. In a speech yesterday he said his government should be judged on its success at transforming the lives of these families. What should we make of this focus—sensible strategy or reactive gimmick?

After a week of public anger at the young people involved, a focus on family background is certainly welcome. The relationship between parental disadvantages and children’s difficulties is clear: children with parents experiencing five or more problems (eg, mental health problems, poor housing, unemployment) are eight times as likely to be suspended or excluded from school and ten times as likely to be in trouble with the police.

But any government initiative needs careful consideration, and then commitment—changing the lives of the most troubled families is not straightforward and quick fixes won’t work. Parents are often resistant to the very services designed to help them, and the most vulnerable families are least likely to access and benefit from support—often because they think that their children might be taken away or because they have been turned away from services in the past.

Long-term support is effective

Experts say that the key to working with the most difficult families is having one assertive key worker that can get to the bottom of the problems and co-ordinate support from different services. Small caseloads and long-term, intensive support are essential. Although such support looks expensive—up to £20,000 per family on one programme—the average savings can be double this, and up to £130,000 for addressing the most chaotic families. Spending money in this area makes sense.

Charities play a vital role in working with these families. First, they are not seen as a statutory authority so it is often easier for them to gain the trust of resistant parents. Second, they are effective at drawing in volunteers from the local community to support families in trouble. This is particularly valuable both in providing essential practical help (e.g., with budgeting or mealtimes) and in providing ongoing support after a statutory intervention ends.

It’s good to see that government is pledging support for the most disadvantaged families. But it must recognise and expand effective projects that already exist, rather than re-inventing the wheel; long-term investment in projects that can demonstrate their outcomes will be money well spent.