Funding families in a cold climate


Matt van Poortvliet


Matt van Poortvliet

As the dust settled on last summer’s riots in the UK, attention shifted from the young people who had been rioting to the ‘troubled families’ they grew up in. The prime minister 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, is there still a role for charitable funders?

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 £9 billion every year.

Troubled families are a UK government priority – last month it committed an extra £448 million 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 per cent of estimated need. Trusts and foundations can take a longer-term view than government, and help to build the evidence for early years support and strengthen the case for government involvement and funding further down the line.
  • Ensuring the quality of support for the most challenging families. With recent cuts in public funding, projects supporting troubled families face larger caseloads, and are having to shorten their interventions and are provide fewer outreach services – which undermines their effectiveness. Additional funding can help to ensure the quality of existing services and provide longer-term support.
  • 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. There is a strong case for philanthropic funding to fill this gap by providing additional mental health support for troubled families that do not meet the threshold for acute services.

Charities can make a real positive difference in this area – charities like Family Action, whose Building Bridges project helps families with multiple and complex problems. When Family Action first met the Barker family, the parents were out of work and in debt, struggling with mental health problems, and their daughter Amy was beginning to show problems with speech and behaviour. With support from their Building Bridges key worker, things started to change. The charity helped the family in practical ways – to establish a routine, eat more healthily, exercise more and spend time playing with Amy. Their key worker helped them to build confidence and support each other, and soon the family relationships grew stronger and Amy’s speech, behaviour and self-esteem improved considerably. Both parents started studying and volunteering, and reviewed their budget to reduce debt. With the support of a dedicated key worker from the charity, who they knew they could rely on, they could begin to see ways to manage the many difficulties they faced.

This is a challenging and complex area, but that is not a reason for funders to shy away from it. 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.

Matt van Poortvliet is a Senior Consultant at NPC, and author of NPC’s new report, Out of trouble, which provides a guide to working with families with complex problems for charitable funders, and is available to download free from NPC’s website.

NPC is holding an event called ‘Avoiding another summer of riots – the role of the third sector in helping troubled families’ in London on 31 May. Click here to find out more

Tagged in: Government Mental health Troubled families UK charities

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