Family intervention was pioneered successfully by the voluntary sector, and the Government has now adopted it for its respect agenda. Mathew Little asks whether the transition will work and Rosie Cresswell visits two projects.
David Cameron may want to 'hug a hoodie', but Labour is preserving a stern-faced approach when it comes to cracking down on 'antisocial behaviour'.
Respect, not love, is the byword of ministers.
The Government's Respect Action Plan, published in January, promised to "bear down uncompromisingly" on those whose actions make life miserable for others. "Everyone can change," lectured Tony Blair. "If people who need help will not take it, we will make them."
The help on offer, particularly for those problem families dubbed 'neighbours from hell' by politicians and newspapers, comes mainly from the voluntary sector. Ministers have been won over by a system of intensive support pioneered by children's charity NCH. Known as 'family intervention', the model was established in Dundee in the mid-1990s and has since spread to nine cities in England. Families at risk of eviction are offered support from dedicated caseworkers, and those who have been made homeless are accommodated in specialised units with 24-hour supervision. The system is designed to deal with the causes of antisocial behaviour, such as debt or mental ill-health.
According to research, family intervention yields results. An assessment of the Dundee Families Project found that, without it, 10 families would have been evicted and 19 children might have been transferred to local authority care. Sheffield Hallam University researchers published interim data in February showing that in six projects, five of which are run by NCH, eight out of 10 families showed a reduction in antisocial behaviour.
"The majority of families were positive about the effects the projects had had on their lives," they concluded.
The Government sniffed success and Gill Strachan, former manager of the Dundee Families Project, was seconded to the Respect Task Force in the Home Office to work on a national roll-out of the programme. Ministers are proposing 14 pilots, which would then be adopted in another 50 areas by the end of this year.
Eventually, every local authority would be expected to provide family intervention. Although the Government has not specified the voluntary sector as its preferred partner, a national programme would almost certainly entail a major expansion of voluntary sector public service provision of the kind ministers have been indicating for some time.
Hugh Thornbery, director of children's services at NCH, is confident that a national network of family intervention schemes can yield similar results to those in Dundee. "There are now several years of evidence to show that it's an effective way of intervening," he says. "We can see no reason why it can't be replicated anywhere. We are running the service in different parts of England and we are seeing the same success rates everywhere." NCH is already in negotiation with several more local authorities about developing the service even before the Government's pilots have begun.
But family intervention has its critics. It has been dubbed 'sin bins for families' by the press, which has evoked images of Colditz-style camps surrounded by barbed wire and closed-circuit TV. Rehabilitation charity Nacro believes the Government's boot-camp mentality will overshadow NCH's philosophy. "The Government often takes a pilot project that the voluntary sector has introduced, waters it down and it doesn't work," warns Chris Stanley, head of policy at Nacro. "NCH's approach is far more supportive and not as condemning. But the message coming out of government is more punitive: 'We're going to sort these families out.' You can't sort families out."
Nacro is sceptical about the whole strategy of targeted intervention for specific families. "It should be done across the whole community," says Stanley.
Thornbery is convinced that what the Government plans to introduce is "true to our model". But there are disagreements. The Government is at least partly motivated by a need to appear to be cracking down on the 'neighbours from hell', whereas NCH is concerned about the welfare of the children involved.
The Respect Action Plan proposes sanctions for those who refuse 'intensive family support', such as the withdrawal of benefit. NCH recoils from this idea. "It's unhelpful," says Thornbery. "Most of these families are in debt and it's one of the contributory factors to the problems they experience."
But Thornbery says NCH has openly discussed its disagreements with government, which he sees as part of a mature relationship. "We understand that we will have different perspectives,' he says. "We're a charity and they are the Government."
CASE STUDY 1 - DUNDEE FAMILIES PROJEC
The Dundee Families Project was set up with EU Urban Programme funding in 1996, following Dundee City Council's decision to address the roots of antisocial behaviour rather than resort to solely punitive methods such as eviction. It was the first project of its kind in the UK and, 10 years on, both the Westminster and Scottish governments have endorsed it as a model of good practice. Former project manager Gill Strachan has been seconded to the Respect Task Force.
NCH Scotland, the Scottish arm of children's charity NCH, runs the project with the city council. The project operates at three levels: a residential unit, where families live in converted, self-contained council flats with 24-hour supervision; dispersed accom-modation, in which families receive slightly reduced care; and an outreach service that combines support in the home and the project base.
Initial assessment involves up to eight weeks of visits made by a key worker, and a family can be with the project for anything from four to 30 months. Although families receive intensive support, they must adhere to the rules and guidelines - when a window was broken by a tenant in the residential block, the police were called and he was charged.
In 2001, an evaluation by the University of Glasgow found the project had an 83 per cent success rate in terms of achieving its goals for the core residential block. John Wallace, deputy manager of the project, thinks locating it in a medium-demand area such as St Mary's housing estate is significant because "it gives people something they can aspire to". A mother who took part in the project said it helped her sort out a lot of 'loose ends' such as clearing rent arrears. Her children were also taken off the Child Protection Register. The approach seems to save money, too - an evaluation said the project reduced local authority costs by £117,000 a year.
Central to the scheme's success is having a voluntary organisation in charge, and not only because families view it as less of a threat. Wallace sums up the approach as a social care model within a housing context.
"If any local authority department were to try to run it, we would encounter the problem that social workers and housing officers don't talk the same language," he says. "We can sit astride those disciplines."
The key worker's role is split between supporting the family and co-ordinating support services. A review meeting for each family is held with all the agencies involved every six weeks to assess the care plan and make revisions if necessary. The principal partners are housing and social work departments, but a wider range of key agencies such as health and criminal justice services are participating more.
The Scottish Executive has released funding for a further three pilot projects this year, and Wallace reports that "resources are being proposed to assist families who are struggling to behave in an acceptable manner within the community". He particularly commends the relationship with Dundee City Council and its commitment to this approach.
CASE STUDY 2 - CHOICES FAMILY INTERVENTION PROJECT
Choices, Birmingham's first family intervention project, is run by Drug Concern in collaboration with Birmingham Youth Offending Team. The 12-month pilot scheme, which began in April 2005, was commissioned by Birmingham City Council with funding from the Home Office's Together programme. The city council approached Drug Concern following recommendations from the Youth Offending Team, which has worked with the non-statutory support agency helping parents with parenting orders for the past seven years.
Like any pilot scheme, it has needed adapting, but Philip Gayle, director of services at Drug Concern, says Choices has reduced incidents of antisocial behaviour and evictions among referrals. For the first four months, referrals were slow to come in. Initially, some housing officers felt Choices conflicted with their work. Gayle puts this down to poor communication. "The ethos of the project may not have been clearly conveyed to them," he says.
"You've got very difficult families who are causing huge amounts of problems on estates, and here comes this project that's working to keep them there." As confidence in the initiative grew, the relationship improved. The Youth Offending Team's long-term goal of reducing antisocial behaviour and evictions was clearly defined, but the criteria for doing so were initially vague. The brief was for families with children under 19, but housing officers were saying they knew other families that would benefit from the scheme. Drug Concern and the Youth Offending Team decided to widen the margins to encompass single and childless households. Since then, referrals have increased - 20 were made in the first six months of this year, compared with 11 in the first half of 2005.
At the start, a family's assessment was made during sessions at Drug Concern. Now project workers enter the home to measure factors that affect the household, such as mental health or truancy. They then highlight areas where support is required - for example, with money management or dealing with conflict. The fact that the project is led by a non-statutory organisation has deepened families' engagement with it. Although the workers make clear that they have a duty to report to the council, suspicions of ulterior motives are reduced once the message is understood that the intention is to prevent eviction.
Gayle is happy for the project to be monitored because it proves the impact of the service. He welcomes the recognition such services are getting and the introduction of the respect agenda, but waits to see what will come of it. He notes that currently "very few mainstream organisations are delivering family work".
Although the Choices trial ended in April, funding was secured for a further six months. Birmingham City Council is involved in talks with the Home Office to assess the project and discuss whether modifications are required. A decision is expected in September.