Last month I visited the charity Save the Family, an organisation dedicated to helping families stay together, founded by the fearlessly compassionate Edna Speed MBE.
Rejecting the notion that it is enough to focus just on the children of vulnerable and chaotic parents, Save the Family effectively brings a whole family into care.
Around 25 families live in the barn-conversion houses at the centre. I met Annie, a young mum of two who, when she was first referred to Save the Family, was so fragile from drugs and abuse that Edna worried she wouldn’t survive the car journey to the centre.
Both of Annie’s children were taken into care. Her violent boyfriend wanted her back – and showed it by knocking her teeth out just before she left. But with the love and encouragement she found at Save the Family, Annie now has both her children living with her. She is learning to play with them again at the on-site children’s centre. She is learning to cook and clean. And she is getting qualifications; she now wants to be a nursery nurse.
I wonder what it would be like if local authorities and social services weren’t so overrun and constrained by budgets and bureaucracy. What if social workers were more able to focus on their cases? Would there still be a need for Save the Family? The answer is yes.
First, the very fact that Save the Family is not the government is a massive strength when working with vulnerable families. For these families, social workers have the power to take their children away and ruin their lives. This makes relationship building very difficult. Save the Family is different – no vested interests, no hidden agendas, no judgment.
Secondly, the staff at Save the Family are not afraid to see problems in the system and publicise them. Again, a difficult task for government since, according to Edna, ‘when you acknowledge this level of need, you acknowledge failure in government’. At Save the Family there is no hiding, no sweeping under the rug.
Too often the voluntary sector is seen only as supplementing the work of government- filling a gap. At the CSJ we say this is not so. There will always be a need for those organisations that offer loving relationships, encouragement and a determination not to give up.
There is a role for government, of course. But nothing will ever replicate the indomitable spirit of the charities dotted all over our country; quietly putting lives back together, mending our broken communities and making the most vulnerable people in our society realise that they have something amazing to offer.