Minding the gaps

By Matt van Poortvliet 1 May 2012

As the dust settled on last summer’s riots, attention shifted from the young people who had been rioting to the ‘troubled families’ they grew up in. David Cameron pledged that his government should be judged on its success at transforming the lives of 120,000 such families by 2015. But in an area where government has claimed it will fix the problem, what is the role for independent funders and charities? Where are the gaps?Troubled families, according to the UK government, are those where parents are out of work, children are not in school, and family members are involved in anti-social behaviour and crime. These problems are often long-standing and inter-generational—children whose parents have multiple problems are eight times more likely to be suspended or excluded from school than other children, and ten times more likely to be in trouble with the police. The 120,000 most troubled families in the UK cost society an estimated £9bn every year.

Troubled families are a UK government priority—last month it committed an extra £448m to target the most difficult families, and has pledged to expand early years services to try to prevent problems emerging. These efforts are encouraging, but they will not reach all families in trouble, and financial pressures threaten the success of work in this area.

Independent funders do have a role to play in supporting these troubled families, but it is not a straightforward one. However, there are gaps where more support is needed and where charitable funding could have  real impact.

  • Support for vulnerable families in the earliest years can prevent problems later in life. The government have talked a lot about early intervention, but there are still a lot of gaps to fill—for example the commitment to doubling the Family Nurse Partnerships programme by 2015 will still only cover 40% of estimated need.
  • Ensuring the quality of support for the most challenging families. With recent cuts in public funding, projects supporting troubled families face larger case loads, and are having to shorten their interventions and are provide fewer outreach services—which undermines their effectiveness.
  • Providing support for mental health problems. There is a need for staff who are trained to recognise mental health problems, make timely referrals and provide families with practical support.

This is a challenging and complex area, but that is not a reason for funders to shy away from it. Charities can make a crucial difference in this area—charities like Family Action, whose Building Bridges project helps families with multiple and complex problems. Helping these families to tackle problems early can prevent a generation of children growing up to face the same problems their parents have. The potential for a positive impact is huge.

A version of this blog first appeared on Latest from Alliance.