Parliament Debate on Children in Care

houses-of-parliament-1055056_640Graham Allen MP participated in the debate on Children in Care during Parliament on Thursday, 7 January 2016. He discussed Safe Families for Children’s work in Nottingham at length and has given us permission to share his following speech:

I would like to declare interest as the unpaid founder and chair of the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Charity.

I fully support the Honourable Lady from Telford’s motion that “this House calls on the Government to take steps to help reduce the number of children entering the care system by bringing forward measures to support more children to remain safely at home with their family or extended family.”

I have taken previous Parliamentary opportunities to highlight the need to change from a late intervention to an Early Intervention philosophy, the need for evidence based policy making, and the need for a What Works organisation for the victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse but today I would like to speak on the nitty gritty of real people making a difference on the ground in places like my constituency Nottm North, and in so doing pay a well-deserved tribute to those connected with the Safe Families for Children programme  for the phenomenal work they are doing.

Safe Families for Children (Safe Families) first started in Chicago in 2003 working with Chicago Department for Children’s Services and in 12 years they have helped 20,000 families with 15,000 volunteers. It was brought to the UK and started with a North East of England pilot by the energy and personal commitment of Sir Peter Vardy.

When I spoke to Sir Peter about Safe Families in 2013 it was immediately obvious that volunteers could reach where public services cannot and make their direct contribution to keep families together. It was a great fit for our early intervention response to the chronic problem many families face in my own constituency of Nottm North – the 5th most deprived in the UK.

Sir Peter with typical generosity immediately put at our disposal his fantastic team led by the unstoppable Keith Danby and we began to work out how we could take things forward in Nottm North. We had several planning meetings involving the community convened under the auspices of the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Charity. Nottingham City Council also put its considerable weight behind the idea. Being immersed in our own 20 year Early Intervention programme, Nottingham understands more than most that Safe Families can pre-empt problems by  keeping families together. The programme works with the many other facets of Nottingham’s Early intervention City and the strategy of our far sighted and talented team led by Candida Brudenell, Katy Ball and Kevin Banfield.

Put simply the scheme works with three levels of volunteers:

*Family Friend volunteers who are trained to help the families to overcome their problems.

*Host Family volunteers who can look after the children after proper DBS checks [from a couple of days to a couple of weeks] giving the family the time they need.

*And Resource Friend volunteers who contribute time to help with supplying and delivering much needed household and other items.

Building the volunteer critical mass has been crucial. The wonderful Kat Osborn and the local Safe Families for Children Nottingham team have been brilliant, they have recruited, trained and approved 240 volunteers in Nottingham and throughout the East Midlands. [sadly far too many to name], starting with faith based communities and spreading to involve people of all faiths and none.

Starting just a few months ago from the base in Nottm North the City of Nottingham has now made 32 referrals and 49 children have been supported to date. These include 32 nights “hostings“ with more in the pipeline over the next few weeks.

The financial benefits are enormous too. A very small upfront investment of resource, time and effort avoids tens of thousands of pounds costs for every child who didn’t go into care. The average cost of a ‘looked after child’ is estimated to be £48,000 but this does not include legal costs or council staff costs. 

43% of children that have come through the foster care system end up in Young Offenders institutes at a huge cost to the public purse so everything must be done to keep the family together and reduce the flow of children entering the Care system. Safe Families is classic early intervention where a stitch in time saves nine.

 We are close to making our own Nottingham evidenced based savings prediction based as we grow beyond the  32 referrals we’ve made so far.

The Safe Families for Children extended pilot became a joint venture between Department for Education’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme and the Nottingham Council. The Council had the opportunity of a free period to prove the programme was safe and effective. For little more than the average cost of a ‘looked after child’ we  get an army of volunteers to help families in need. Great credit goes to the DfE who agreed to fund the first year expansion of Safe Families in West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the East Midlands – starting in Nottm North. Safe Families is on track to deliver a 10% reduction in the flow of children into care across the five pilot regions. As with all the ideas triggered by the Rebalancing Charity the idea was  to pioneer Safe Families in one place and then grow it. Now, using Nottingham as a hub all four of our East Midlands Phase 1 Safe Families for Children partners (Derby, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire) have  been up and running for over a month and are all making referrals. 

The DfE Innovation Programme and Safe Families for Children is expecting to work with over 20 Local Authorities in England. Safe Families for Children estimates it will save Local Authorities in excess of £30m a year. They project savings  will rise to £100m as Safe Families keeps supporting more children and families with their Host Families and Family Friends in the community and keeping them out of expensive care.

I will be writing to the minister to raise with the Treasury commissioning a serious assessment of the work being done in Nottm North and elsewhere and consider it a prime candidate for social investment where central and local government and private investors can see very high rates of return for small start-up funding for Safe Families and similar strongly evidence-based programme to keep families together and children out of care.


We’ve some really powerful case studies and stories too 

*1 In one case a Mum of two children (aged 9 years and 14 months) had hit crisis point threatening suicide, under the influence of alcohol and saying she could no longer care for her children. Had Safe Families not been able to provide an immediate hosting family for the 2 children they would both have been taken into care.

Quote from NCC Social Worker “this was the best working day of her career seeing two siblings being kept together and that they would end up with the family instead of going in through the system. She was so pleased that Safe Families had enabled that to happen”. The quote is from this video

Quote from the Aunt “….  we would love he could to keep in touch with the family as I’m so grateful for everything they did for him and I know he really enjoyed his stay there. They seem like a truly wonderful family…….” 

* 2 Mum who was living in a hotel room with her 2 children, pregnant with number 3. We put 4 volunteers around her including a Family Friend to provide emotional support to her, a Host Family to host the children in the run up to and during the birth and a volunteer to help her access to foodbank. She had gestational diabetes and was really struggling to manage appointments, diet and her two boisterous children who at that point were not yet in school.

The mum said “Safe Families  couldn’t have been any more helpful.  I knew they were always there for me in the midst of everything that was happening.  When I get through this I want to volunteer to help other people going through a similar crisis to me”


To conclude, Safe Families is a pioneering programme, it is still in its early stages and we are very excited in Nottingham to be at the forefront of trying it out. As an evidence based early intervention programme being piloted in the UK for the first time it is still early days and it will be essential to gather the data and evidence of its impact over time.


Government of any complexation would be wrong in thinking the important functions of safeguarding children can somehow be given to third sector and volunteers. Both central and local government continue to have vital and continuing roles in this field not least to take the highest cost and most complex children. However, what Safe Families demonstrates is that with a small amount of trigger funding  but with a lot of love and organisation, communities can pull together and volunteers can make significant contribution to meeting the sentiment of the motion before us today and  reduce the number of children entering the care system and remain safely at home with their family or extended family.