Why We Need More than Parenting Classes to Make David Cameron’s Family Agenda a Reality

Why we need more than parenting classes to make David Cameron’s family agenda a reality

Sir Peter Vardy, chair of trustees, Safe Families for Children

You only have to look at the statistics which show we have record numbers of children in care to realise that more than a sticking plaster solution is needed to fix our broken society.

There are more than 90,000 youngsters in care, and almost half will go on to face struggles which mean they will come into contact with the criminal justice system.

We read tale after harrowing tale about parents who have so lacked the skills and support needed to raise their children that their little ones have ended up living in the most appalling squalor, been left home-alone overnight while their parent heads off clubbing or, in the very worst cases, have ended up paying the ultimate price.

So, it’s only right that the Prime Minister has thrust parenting to the forefront of policy, recognising how much of a difference a supportive family network can make to the future not just of individual children but to our society as a whole.

David Cameron will today set out aims in his Life Chances Strategy to place the family at the heart of his political agenda, using the family unit as a bulwark against poverty.

His proposals have naturally led to a criticism that this is a further move towards a “nanny state”.

But this should not be about the Government telling us how to live our lives. The Government cannot do everything. There is a need for community-based solutions to community problems.

And this should not just be about parenting classes. In many cases, we are talking about people who have absolutely no-one in their lives to help and guide them. Many of them have been in foster care themselves and have never experienced a supportive family network. They need more than an hour-long parenting class. They need support in their own home for as long as is necessary.

Local authorities need to be working hand-in-hand with partners in the community to help troubled families to avoid the need for their children to be taken into care. This is not simply about providing a few parenting classes, or promising to revamp so called sink-estates.

My own experience has shown me just what can be achieved when authorities are forward-thinking enough to seize the opportunity for change.

I went to Chicago to look at a project called Safe Families for Children. It started almost a decade ago when a child psychologist saw the need to be a ‘family friend’ to people experiencing difficulties.

It was immediately clear that this was a project having a positive impact. It has thousands of volunteers and is the first port of call for families having hard times. The number of children in care has been reduced by 50%, 93% of families are kept together and Chicago has saved $30m.

It’s the most successful and cost effective social work I’ve ever seen. Ray Mallon, then Middlesbrough Mayor, encouraged me to launch the concept in Middlesbrough and we are now working in 30 local authorities, including Darlington.

The Prime Minister is right to encourage innovative thinking and the involvement of voluntary groups and charities in the delivery of services for troubled families. Local authorities that fail to pursue fresh ideas fail these children and should be held to account.

So far, the local authorities we have worked with have seen excellent results and are regarded as pioneers and leaders in this critically important aspect of social policy. Early adopters are seeing a reduction of 10% in the number of looked-after children.

Safe Families for Children is all about early intervention and accepts referrals from local authorities, responding quickly to family situations. The charity has now recruited and trained 2,500 volunteers of three different types:

  • 1)Host Families look after a child for a couple of days to a couple of weeks
  • 2)Family Friends who befriend and mentor parents through difficult times
  • 3)Resource Friends who supply goods and services the family needs

Parents requesting the support of a host family remain the primary carer for their children and are encouraged to maintain responsibilities, staying as involved as possible. Frequent communication and visits are encouraged throughout a stay. It means a family unit can be mended rather than irreversibly broken.

Local authorities can access the service free for the first year and then are asked to make a total annual contribution of £60,000 towards costs of the scheme in their area, compared to the annual cost of £50,000 per child taken into care.

No one, not the Government, not local authorities and not the third sector will ever be able to prevent all children going into care. Sometimes, the best solution is for a child to be removed from a dangerous situation and placed into a loving, secure and safe environment.

Media Contact: Lydia Dyer (0191) 374 4770

Editors’ notes

Safe Families for Children (Safe Families) is a volunteer organisation which gives support to families in crisis. The charity was established in the UK by philanthropist Sir Peter Vardy.

It accepts referrals from local authorities responding to difficult family situations. Safe Families’ aim is to provide early intervention to prevent children from having to go into care.

The charity recruits and trains three types of volunteer to help deliver support; 1) Host Families who look after a child overnight for a couple of days to a couple of weeks, 2) Family Friends who befriend, mentor and support parents through difficult times and 3) Resource who Friends supply a wide range of goods and services the family needs.

The objective is to reduce the flow of ‘looked-after’ children by at least 10 per cent per year.