In Stoke we fund the small charity Make Some Noise, which uses music to engage young parents in a city with historically high teenage pregnancy rates. On my visit I met the team and the programme development officer Cat, who told me the area is also locally known as "food bank city". The double whammy of austerity bites hard, in both the collapse of the local economy and the impact of local authority cuts on some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Cat described the impoverished lives these young parents and their babies lead. They are often living in poor quality social or private housing away from family and the communities they grew up in, because that’s where there are available homes. Many are socially isolated and dependent on benefits.
Having often been at the wrong end of social services, they have an instinctive reluctance to access any state services, fearful it might lead to judgement rather than support and cause them to lose their child. As many of these people were subject to "adverse childhood events" as children themselves, their children are statistically at similar risk.
Given their backgrounds and poor childhood experiences, many of the parents the charity supports have no concept of core parenting skills such as how to hold, bathe or soothe their new babies.
As a funder we rarely support music programmes because they tend to offer one-off support, which is helpful but not enough. Make Some Noise addresses this, providing a weekly support group centred on music to develop professional relationships and a network of peers, enabling effective emotional and practical support. This provides the framework of stability these young parents lack.
It’s risky work and the charity takes safeguarding seriously, acting where it believes either party is at risk. Where it perceives potential risks, it works with the young parents and refers to statutory "early help" services, although access is getting harder as eligibility has tightened along with local authority cuts.
Parents access the service voluntarily, with an active Facebook network managed by staff, who send reminders, help with transport for those who otherwise can’t afford to attend and promote a sense of community. Sessions start with fun music activities, respite for young mums and dads as their children play, and peer support.
Then they are coached vicariously in parenting skills and have one-to-ones with staff focused on agreed "personal action plans". These seek to transition them into "normal" services they are either unaware of or too frightened to access. And they resolve practical issues such as raising poor housing conditions with the council, arranging GP appointments and accessing food banks. Few have the confidence or language to do this without support.
Make Some Noise works with 40 young parents each year. It’s tough work, but the long-term results are remarkable. Staff talk enthusiastically about "Cathy", who was pregnant when she joined and struggling with her mental health medication. Her daughter had been on and off the at-risk register, but with Make Some Noise’s support over 18 months she is no longer at risk and is attending normal nursery provision. This significantly reduces risk. Cathy is now living independently, managing her medication better, has found work as a care assistant and aspires to become a paramedic. Make Some Noise has supported 10 more early intervention cases like this one.
For those of us accustomed to learning parenting skills, receiving support as young parents from family and friends and keen to access services, it’s hard to conceive what it must be like to be a teenage parent with access to none of this.
That’s all the more reason why we need small but vital charities like this to make some noise about what austerity means, when lived out in the lives of some of the most vulnerable and truly innocent in our society.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation