Families in Sunderland who are facing difficulties have been handed a fresh source of support after the City Council confirmed its commitment to a pioneering initiative that is helping keep children out of care.
Safe Families for Children (Safe Families), a charity established by Sir Peter Vardy, has been working with children’s services in the city for two years.
In that time it has attracted an army of volunteers who step in to help families that are struggling to cope, offering a safe haven for children while parents tackle a host of challenges.
So far 326 families and 752 children have been helped in the North East pilot.
The charity has proved so successful in its work and demonstrated the potential to save local authorities millions of pounds in care costs that it is now expanding across the UK.
Sunderland has followed Gateshead and Darlington in committing for the next three years by signing a Public Social Partnership service agreement with Safe Families for Children.
Sir Peter, who has invested £2m from the Vardy Foundation in the programme, said: “A well functioning society starts with the family, but often parents find themselves overwhelmed. We know what the challenges are and we know there are people out there who want to help, but don’t know how.
“Safe Families brings the two together. It is a first port of call, providing early intervention and simple acts of kindness that make all the difference in stopping problems escalating.
“Sunderland City Council have supported us from the outset, appreciating very early on the benefits to families, their own social work teams and taxpayers. We’re delighted to have formalised our agreement with them for the next three years.
“Clearly there is an awful lot of public money to be saved here, but the value to families and society at large is much greater. No one wants to see young children going into care if it can be avoided.”
Councillor Pat Smith, Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Sunderland City Council, said: “We know that many families are struggling to cope in these challenging times. It is important that they are able to access support in their community in an early stage.
“Interventions like that provided through Safe Families for Children can make a very real and positive difference to the lives of children. The early support they offer helps families to overcome the difficulties they face and enables them to remain together. We see Safe Families as a valuable and very welcome addition to the early intervention we already provide.”
Taking a child into care costs local authorities £42,000-£85,000 per child.
In Middlesbrough, which also took a leading role in the pilot, it has been estimated that investment in Safe Families could save taxpayers £1.4m in just one year by keeping children out of the care system.
The initiative has attracted interest from Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, who approved £2m from the Department for Education’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Fund to allow Safe Families to expand its service and its Public Social Partnerships.
It means local authorities in the North East, as well as Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands and East Midlands, will receive the service for free in the first year.
Safe Families believes it can reduce by five per cent, or £8m, the overall annual care costs of £160m across the North East and has appointed the respected Dartington Social Research Unit to monitor, measure and evaluate the programme’s success.
Michael Little, co-director of Dartington, said Safe Families for Children was identified as an initiative of great potential.
He explained: “Of all the things we get involved in, this one shows the greatest promise. A lot of programmes oversell themselves. What I particularly like about Safe Families is it’s a simple proposition.
“We are cautious in our estimates, but even then the evidence is extremely promising. The programme has the potential to produce a very good rate of return to local authorities.”
Pictured Signing: (Back row, L-R) Neil Revely, executive director of children’s services at Sunderland City Council, Safe Families North East Programme Director Fiona Standfield, Fiona Brown, chief operating officer for People’s Directorate, Sarah Reed, assistant chief executive of Sunderland City Council and Keith Danby, chief executive of Safe Families for Children; (front row) Councillor Pat Smith, Sunderland’s cabinet member for children, Sir Peter Vardy, chairman of Safe Families for Children, and Steve Walker, director of children’s services, Sunderland City Council sign the public social partnership agreement