Families in Middlesbrough who are facing difficulties have been handed a lifeline after the borough 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 town 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.
Middlesbrough took a leading role in the pilot, estimating that investment in Safe Families could save taxpayers £1.4m in just one year by keeping children out of the care system.
The council has now followed Gateshead and Darlington in the North East in committing for the next three years by signing a Public Social Partnership 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.
“Middlesbrough Council, and the former Mayor Ray Mallon, supported us from the outset, appreciating very early on the benefits to families, their own social work teams and taxpayers. In fact, St Barnabas Church was the first to offer volunteers to help troubled families, so we’re delighted to have formalised our agreement with Middlesbrough 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.”
A Middlesbrough Council spokesman said: “The protection and well-being of children is of paramount importance, and we do all we can to ensure our young people get the best possible start in life.
“The ability to make early interventions and tackle issues before they escalate can help families stay together and prevent long-term problems taking hold.
“Partnerships like this make a real difference and have the potential to benefit all involved for the rest of their lives.”
Taking a child into care costs local authorities £42,000 – £85,000 per child. Safe Families 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.
It 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 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: Sir Peter Vardy, chairman of Safe Families for Children, and Mike Robinson, chief executive of Middlesbrough Borough Council, sign the public social partnership, with Neil Pocklington, assistant director of safeguarding and children’s care for Middlesbrough (left), and Safe Families North East Programme Director Fiona Standfield and chief executive Keith Danby